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Children’s cinema is conservative – and brilliant

14 February 2018

10:58 AM

14 February 2018

10:58 AM

The Oscars promise to be truly unbearable this year, with vomit-inducing levels of sanctimony followed by the usual gibberish from the commentariat. The results and speeches and even clothes will be subject to endless politicised scrutiny, and whatever the film industry does to stay Woke, the Buzzfeed headline will inevitably be ‘and people aren’t happy about it’.

I’m not sure actors really appreciate how their moralising, once simply tedious, is now grotesque; how there’s something almost darkly funny about members of the film industry presenting themselves as an ethical authority on anything, now they’ve been exposed as modern-day Borgias. But even before the Weinstein scandal broke there was something quite sad about how the entertainment industry tried to present itself as a sort of Confessing Church against the Trump presidency, the moral conscience of America, with Robert De Niro, Lady Gaga, Madonna and Miley Cyrus as modern-day Martin Niemöllers.

The thing about the Borgias is that, whatever their shortcomings as people – and admittedly they weren’t perfect – they did at least help produce great art. Hollywood might be forgiven the hypocritical moralising if the quality of filmmaking hadn’t declined sharply since the high point of the 1990s, while in contrast television has entered a Florentine golden age that began with the Sopranos and reached maturity with The Wire and Breaking Bad.

I accept the possibility that my cultural tastes may have frozen in time along with my politics and haircut – apparently this happens around 24 – but 2017 was indeed a terrible year for film, so clearly someone agrees with me. And as the film industry has become less successful at selling cinema tickets, so it has become ever more overtly political, desperately trying to keep up with the Great Awokening, the spiralling competition to appear more in favour of diversity, feminism and other progressive causes.

The one exception to this artistic decline, however, is children’s cinema, with the major studios continuing to produce gem after gem, so much so that I’m rather sad that my own offspring will, in the not too distant future, be too old to take to the flicks. Maybe I’ll just have to start accompanying random kids to my local Picturehouse – society will be okay with that, right?

By far the best film of 2016, much more clever, funny and informative than the Oscar frontrunners Moonlight or La La Land, was Moana. The story borrows from Polynesian folklore and tells of a chief’s daughter in an island community that has developed a taboo about voyaging, which, Moana learns, was once their way of life. The young girl must travel across the sea to restore a relic to a goddess, with the help of the demigod Maui, who is rather like a Greek god in his behaviour, shallow and selfish (he also has something of the Mercenary Archetype, of which Hans Solo or Rhett Butler are the most famous examples).

Much as I love Moana, though, nothing I’ve seen in the past couple of years surpasses this year’s Oscar Best Animated Feature favourite Coco, about a Mexican boy who, on the eve of the Día de Muertos, has to go into the land of the dead to meet his great-great-grandfather in order to fulfil his dreams of becoming a musician.

The animation is spectacular, the script funny and sharp, but like Moana it also has powerful and timeless themes. Both are about familial love and loyalty to community and tradition; Moana is centred on devotion to the tribe and the nobility’s obligation to serve it – as the Polynesians head through the seas under the stars there comes the thundering chorus ‘We know where we are, we know who we are’. Coco is a playful but respectful look at that most spectacular of Latin American customs, the day of the dead, and the idea that we can achieve immortality if others remember us – chiefly our family.

While Hollywood sometimes looks like it has run out of ideas, children’s films have an almost endless supply of cultural myths and ideas from around the world to play off. This is indeed ‘cultural appropriation’ but it’s almost always done sensitively and respectfully, since US studios are keen to have the approval of audiences in the subject country. Cultural appropriation, rather than being an insulting or demeaning trend, is teaching children all over the world about different traditions that even my fairly globalised generation would have been ignorant of. Without sounding too much like a cliché irritating north London parent, my four-year-old can speak two lines of Maori thanks to watching the film dozens of times.

What’s obvious, though, is that American film makers feel far more comfortable making wholesome stories celebrating family, tradition and community when it is transplanted onto a foreign (and non-white) culture. Coco is outright ancestor-worship, Moana about saving the tribe, but a similar tale set around European folklore would make executives uncomfortable and inevitably lead to one of those dreary articles on ‘why Disney’s X is now the favourite film of the Alt-Right’. Fairy tales that borrow from western traditions – Frozen for example – have to celebrate more progressive ideas such as the sisterhood fighting devious men, lest they be seen as problematic.

But while progressive politics now run through Hollywood films with all the subtlety of socialist realism, the growing ticket-buying strength of the developing world’s expanding middle class ensure that this section at least extols values my great-great-grandfather in Valhalla would approve of.


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