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Why must kids’ films be so unremittingly bleak?

Why must kids’ films be so unremittingly bleak?

“My Little Pony: The Movie” clings to the idea that you can’t entertain a pre-teen without emotionally scarring them

“My Little Pony: The Movie” clings to the idea that you can’t entertain a pre-teen without emotionally scarring them

Nicholas Barber | November 10th 2017

I can’t say I was looking forward to seeing “My Little Pony: The Movie” last weekend – I’m not insane, after all – but it didn’t seem too bad a prospect, either. My four-year-old daughter was so excited that she brought her cuddly Rainbow Dash toy to the cinema, and she’d even changed into a vaguely rainbow-ish dress to help us get into the “My Little Pony” spirit. I knew I wasn’t about to see an Oscar contender, but at least I’d see my daughter smiling for 90 minutes. And, if I was lucky, I could fit in a nap. 

Reader, it was not to be. The cartoon was OK at first. Obviously, it was also a grating, garish, nonsensical extended commercial for a loathsomely twee Hasbro toy range, but I could hardly complain about that. As Princess Twilight Sparkle and her saucer-eyed pony pals trotted around the magical kingdom of Equestria, I had to admit that we were getting what I’d paid for. The trouble started when a toxic storm cloud gathered in the sky above Equestria. Some kind of alien mothership disgorged a hate-filled unicorn with a broken horn. A horde of hulking gorilla-zombie enforcers followed. The Little Ponies whinnied in terror. My daughter had much the same reaction. Not to worry, I reassured her. Things would look up for Twilight Sparkle at any moment. Let’s face it, a film called “My Little Pony: The Movie” couldn’t maintain this level of doom and gloom for long, could it? Apparently it could.

Here – spoiler alert – is what happens next. The Princess and her best friends escape from Equestria by plummeting down a waterfall. Then they traipse through a desert, past a wind-scoured skull, until they’re ready to drop dead from dehydration. Then they come to a shadowy shanty town thronging with thieves and unicorn horn-traders. Then they are held at cutlass-point on a flying pirate ship. Then they plunge into the ocean and almost drown. Then they stagger out of the grey sea onto a grey beach fringed by jagged grey mountains, where their Little pony hearts break in despair. Oh, and then Princess Twilight Sparkle is captured and locked in a cage.

My daughter had spent much of the preceding hour squealing, “I can’t watch any more!” But it was at this juncture that she turned to me and said, “I thought this was going to be a happy film, but it’s mostly a sad film.” I had to agree. And as proud as I was of her precocious critical acumen, I was also boiling with rage at whichever monstrous sicko was hired to make a cartoon about pastel-coloured talking ponies named Pinkie Pie and Fluttershy, and decided that what was really required was relentless fear and jeopardy in a dystopian wasteland straight out of “Mad Max: Fury Road”. 

I’d had similar feelings before. A few years ago, my older daughter was a fan of Michael Bond’s Paddington Bear books, so I was planning to take her to the big-budget “Paddington” film. What a lovely, cosy afternoon we’d have. But then I learnt that Nicole Kidman’s character was conspiring with Mr Curry to murder Paddington and display his stuffed hide in the Natural History Museum. Considering that the most fearsome villains in Bond’s books are grumpy bus conductors, you can understand my disappointment. Here was yet another film that my daughter and I wouldn’t be watching together.

Back then, I grumbled that the introduction of Kidman’s homicidal maniac was the rule rather than the exception. Adults had all sorts of films aimed at them. True, some of those films were dripping with blood and guts. But there were also plenty of comedies in which the worst fate facing the characters was being late for a wedding, or making a hash of a crucial business deal. So-called children’s films, on the other hand, had been fixated on mortal danger ever since Bambi’s mother was shot by a hunter. And Pixar, I suspected, had made matters worse. “Finding Nemo” revelled in the ordeal of a child and a parent being separated. The bereavement in “Up” was devastating. And “Toy Story 3”, we can all agree, was one of the most traumatic films ever made. Well, fair enough. Pixar was entitled to be as grim as it wanted to be. But because it was regarded as America’s greatest animation studio, its competitors kept trying to reduce their young viewers to tear-drenched wrecks, too. 

Since “Paddington” came out in 2014, though, the tide has started to turn, and my two daughters have amassed a good stock of films to watch – and endlessly rewatch – without ruining their weekends. In the likes of “Minions” and “Captain Underpants”, the mood is so light and bright that even when things get hairy, children are more likely to laugh than to scream. And I’m delighted to report that the makers of “Paddington” have come around to my way of thinking: in “Paddington 2”, the villain, played by Hugh Grant, is far less menacing than Kidman’s spine-chilling Cruella de Vil wannabe.

Still, today’s children’s films aren’t all sunshine and flowers. Clinging to the idea that you can’t entertain a pre-teen without emotionally scarring them, Hollywood has brought us the gargantuan one-fanged Viper in “The Secret Life of Pets”, the death of Tadashi in “Big Hero 6”, and the feature-length nervous breakdown of an 11-year-old girl in Pixar’s “Inside Out”. But no film in the last couple of years has had a more cavernous gap between its cutesy title and its depressing content than “My Little Pony: The Movie”. So what exactly was going through its director and writers’ heads? Are they anti-capitalist saboteurs, intent on toppling the Hasbro empire from the inside? Or do they just despise small children? I still can’t work it out. But I’ve checked with my four-year-old and I know one thing for sure. I won’t be ponying up to see the sequel.

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