Too Cute for Their Own Good 

Little children in the movies

Wednesday, Oct 31 2007

My 9-year-old daughter’s interest in boys is largely confined to whether she can outrun them, and yet she has acquired a precise, if mercifully abstract, grasp of the contemporary arts of seduction. Repeated close study of the Disney Channel’s High School Musical and its identical sequel has taught her how to hike down a shoulder strap, flip back her hair, thrust her left hip forward and flutter her eyelids like Ashley Tisdale and the other interchangeable nymphs of that stupendously successful, unspeakably banal television movie. That is, when she isn’t scribbling moony ballads of her own that prominently feature the words “my lonely heart,” which she then performs for me with her customary cheery brio.

I like to think of myself as a reasonably protective parent, but unless you’re willing to banish all popular culture from your child’s life — and who wants to discourage schoolyard analysis of Homer Simpson’s latest flub or the newest crisis at Bikini Bottom? — there’s no escaping this stuff. Looking up from my book on a flight home from London earlier this year, I caught my kid practically taking notes on the final sequence of Little Miss Sunshine, in which plump little Abigail Breslin does a raunchy striptease taught her by her late, loving granddad the heroin addict, thus prompting a walkout by all the parental hypocrites who have just clapped themselves silly for their own hideously overdressed, hypersexualized JonBenet clonelets.

Like most kids her age, my daughter hasn’t yet mastered irony, parody or discrimination. To her, the anxious maternal question “What did you think of it?” is beside the point. It’s a movie; she loves it, just as she loved the delightful Finding Nemo, both terrific versions of Freaky Friday and (blech) Bratz. Like Breslin’s character, she has no idea, beyond the instinctive sensuality of all children, that what she’s doing is dirty dancing. But in the wee small hours, I fret about what she’s filing away for tomorrow.

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As for me, I’m all for that scene in Little Miss Sunshine, not just because it’s so damn funny, but because I can’t think of a moment in contemporary American cinema that catches more aptly the weirdly schizoid attitudes of parents (and those who market to them and their children) about what it means to be a child today. And lest you dismiss the scene as far-fetched, the main attraction at an event at my daughter’s Westside public elementary school last year was a writhing, simpering, come-hither go-go dance number by little girls in clingy leotards. I’m not sure which show was more pornographic — the one onstage or the one below, filled with wildly clapping, cheering, videotaping moms and dads. You know, the same parents who banish all sugar and high-fructose corn syrup from their offspring’s lunch boxes, who show up faithfully to school revues, only to twiddle their BlackBerrys throughout, and who zealously check the MPAA rating of every children’s movie in order to shield their precious charges from all possible sleaze or fright factors.

Looking at those movies, most of them soaked to the gills in cute, might actually make you long for a bit of raunch, or for the nastiness of a Todd Solondz supernerd, the creeped-out kids of an Atom Egoyan movie, or just a good old bad seed. (I draw the line at Larry Clark, child pornographer.) Hollywood prides itself on “knowing” what parents want, and the torrent of animated kids’ movies rushed out since those in the executive suites discovered they make more money than action pictures (even the hallowed BBC Films just announced that it’s going family) mostly pander to limo-liberal family values based on what one waggish sociologist calls “the horticultural view of the child” as a fragile plant whose self-esteem must be constantly fed and watered. Wherever you turn, a child comes thinly disguised as a fledgling furry friend — clown fish, piglet, rat, raccoon. Much as I enjoyed Happy Feet, if I never see another artistically inclined bloody penguin, it won’t be too soon. And in the ancient fairy-tale opening gambit now so overused in movies that kids casually accept it without noticeable grief, Mom is dead or gone, leaving the field open for wimpy “adventures” and unimpeachable life lessons in growing up honest, upright and green.

I don’t mean to be cynical: I regularly ferry squadrons of tweens to sweet, beautifully crafted kid pics — the first two Shreks, Over the Hedge, both Ice Age movies, Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, to name but a few — from which we all came home happy. But happy in itself is a poor excuse for art. The overwhelming majority of these smiley-faced products of CGI wizardry offer generically cute kids with generic problems creaking toward predictable solutions and programmatic self-actualization.

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