Do Kids' Movies Need More Quality Control?

Happy Feet is just one of a string of successful feature films aimed at children. Why are so many movies being made for young audiences? Is quality declining as a result?

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.

MIKE PESCA, host:

And I'm Mike Pesca with a question for you, Madeleine.

BRAND: A question for me.

PESCA: Have you been to any of the animated films out this year?

BRAND: None. Not a one. Although I know - I know that "Happy Feet" is, what, number one at the box office?

PESCA: Three weeks straight. And that got me to wondering, what's the effect of so many children's films? Not the affect on the box office. We know why they're out there. They make money.

I've been thinking about the sheer number of films and how they kind of take a cherished childhood ritual and turn it into just another commodity. This year there'll be a dozen theatrically released animated children's movies.

BRAND: One a month, on average. Well, doesn't it seem like when you and I were wee ones that there was only one a year being released?

PESCA: Yes. In fact, I have a statistic. Disney released "Snow White," its first animated film, in 1937, and didn't hit number 12, "Cinderella," until 1950. And back then, they were the only game in town. The scarcity of those films was one reason they almost all became essential parts of American childhood, and that's according to historian and film critic Charles Solomon.

Mr. CHARLES SOLOMON (Historian, Film Critic): A Disney film in particular was a really special event that was good for two weeks of good behavior, you know, before you could get taken to it. And then you'd spend the next two weeks whining to go again, because you probably wouldn't see that again for seven years.

PESCA: These days, when a child sees an animated film, like this one, "The Wild," he can be excused for a certain lack of wonderment.

(Soundbite of movie "The Wild")

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) Everybody - stay calm.

PESCA: Or more accurately, maybe the child is wondering, didn't I see this already.

(Soundbite of movie "Madagascar")

Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (As character) Yo! Boo!

(Soundbite of screaming)

PESCA: And wasn't it called "Madagascar"? Same plot, a lion, a giraffe, their friends escape Central Park Zoo. Same tired gags. Here are the crocodiles with Brooklyn accents.

(Soundbite of movie "The Wild")

Unidentified Man #3 (Actor): (As character) ...Broadway culvert.

Unidentified Man #4 (Actor): (As character) Whoa, you sent them down the Broadway culvert?

Unidentified Man #3: Yeah, what's wrong with that?

Unidentified Man #4: They get lost at the sewage treatment plant.

Unidentified Man #3: Get outta here.

PESCA: It's sort of like the pigeons in "Good Feathers" from the "Animaniacs" TV show, or the shark that Robert De Niro voiced in "Shark Tale." And with so many movies, today's parents are now in a position their parents never were in. They have to choose.

I caught up with Lori Paulson(ph) as she chased her three-year-old around a Culver City, California playground.

Ms. LORI PAULSON (Parent): I think there's just so much out there that as a parent you can really overload them if you, you know, take them to every movie that they hear about and everything that they want to see.

PESCA: And what if they choose incorrectly? Well, Nell Minnow, who's a consumer advocate but also a movie reviewer called the Movie Mom, says a bad movie can be a learning experience.

Ms. NELL MINNOW (Movie Mom): It's never too early to sort of hone their critical faculties, and I love that moment, that little light bulb with kids, where they start to learn the difference between good and bad and why "Doogal" is not as good as, say, "Chicken Little" or "Flushed Away." What is it about them? And to get them talking about it turns them into film critics.

PESCA: Oh great, an eight-year-old Ebert on your hands. Vegetables, thumbs down. Minnow is advocating finding the silver lining by teaching your kids to discern the good from the bad. It's true, this couldn't be done by most of today's parents when they were kids, but that's only because Disney almost never made a bad animated film.

And while we're complaining, how about caveat emptor creep, the idea that even when there's a film you love for your child - like Jacqueline Stewart(ph), who loved "Cars" - you'll eventually disappoint your child when you draw the line at the 40th piece of licensed merchandise.

Ms. JACQUELINE STEWART (Parent): "Cars" underwear and "Cars" cups, and it's just like, you know, let's break and do something else, shall we? Or have some individuality, you know. You don't even know which kid's shoes are yours because each kid has the "Cars" shoes.

PESCA: The latest phenomenon in the cinema and therefore on the store shelves is "Happy Feet." The film's director, George Miller, puts "Pinocchio" in his top 10 of all time favorite movies, and says "Dumbo"'s not far behind. He says he only hoped he could channel just a bit of the depth and passion of the great Disney films.

Mr. GEORGE MILLER (Director, "Happy Feet"): A lot of the moviemaking today, perhaps people don't reach for the levels that I think Disney did, and I think it's like all other forms of storytelling or moviemaking; the good ones will endure and the bad ones will become invisible.

PESCA: Or maybe the opposite of invisible. So omnipresent, like those inoffensive seascapes they hang on the walls of every Holiday Inn, that we lose the ability to even notice them. One mother who had the misfortune of being suckered into a movie called "Barnyard," told me she was struck by the thought, this isn't just a bad movie, this is an abject lesson in the brevity of childhood.

Here she was watching male cows with udders drink milk and act drunk. Ugh. And maybe there's something about "Barnyard"'s subtitle, "Barnyard: The Original Party Animals"; it seems strangely familiar.

(Soundbite of TV commercial)

Mr. ROBIN LEECH: He's Spuds Mackenzie. Bud Light's original party animal.

Unidentified Woman: That Spuds, he is the party.

PESCA: Kids, shut off the TV, turn off the DVD. Have I ever read you the story of the three bears?

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