Contemporary children’s films attract adult audiences

A nagging paranoia sometimes gnaws at the back of my mind when I’m seated in the most public of confessionals: the movie theater.

I briefly felt this subconscious anxiety during a recent showing of Hayao Miyazaki’s new animated film, Ponyo. The Japanese master’s latest — a story of an innocent friendship between an imaginative young boy and a talking fish — ranks alongside his famous My Neighbor Totoro as one of his most beautiful and child-friendly works.

Watching Miyazaki’s grand watercolor ode to the magic of the sea, a little childlike smile stuck itself on my face and, for less than two hours, I was trapped by the emotions of the three-year-old who would subject his mother to countless viewings of The Little Mermaid.

As I expressed this involuntary joy, I felt the eyes of judging adults moving over my smile and registering my laughs — an awkwardness that made me self-conscious of my appreciation of Ponyo.

Miyazaki’s latest innocent film stands as an anomaly among American releases, which have matured greatly in the wake of Pixar Animation Studio’s rise to prominence. Critics refer to this trend as a renaissance in animated filmmaking, a development that allows adults to enjoy animation for children on both levels.

Certainly Pixar’s recent masterpiece Up is among the most adult-friendly kids’ movies ever; its strange moments force kids to — among other things — differentiate between the complexities of reality and fantasy, such as in a seamlessly edited sequence where protagonist Carl Fredricksen imagines accidentally dropping his young ward Russell to his death. The tears I shed — another embarrassing admission to strangers around me — during the magnificent montage that opens Up came out for a far more cerebral reason than the strong, unsophisticated emotions I felt during Ponyo.

Pixar is actively raising the bar for its fans, and other studios are following suit. Even the sequel-happy, imagination-challenged drones at DreamWorks Animation assume a heavy knowledge of pop culture in their audiences for each Shrek film they churn out.

The blurring between adulthood and childhood is also on display in Square-Enix’s magnificent Kingdom Hearts video games: the blockbuster series which blends the realms of Disney and Final Fantasy into a strange brew of dark, long-winded Japanese RPG storylines populated by the likes of Donald Duck and Goofy. Replaying Kingdom Hearts II this summer — itself an emotional experience to be sure — sent me to YouTube in a nostalgic frenzy to review all the Disney classics the game references.

Beyond the decidedly adult moments found in children’s works across multiple mediums, all this forward progress in storytelling might be causing us to regress just a little bit. This relatively new attribute of children’s movies is drawing more adults to theaters and, consequently, putting us in touch with the children we once were. Even now, in my 20s, I feel inexorably drawn to Pixar and Miyazaki — who himself has effortlessly blended the world of children with adult themes in past films like Spirited Away.

The best children’s movies will always appeal to something deep in the mind of a child, past the synapses that control fart-joke laughter. It is to the credit of the filmmakers behind Up that the movie touches the same childlike center of the brain as Miyazaki’s films, particularly in its breathtaking scenes of both flight through the air and flight from danger that are common between the two.

Children’s movies are wonderful for this regression; there is great joy and great sorrow in reverting to the world of a child, even if only for a short two hours at 24 frames per second. Up and Ponyo induced a truly strong emotional reaction within me, with each reaction stemming from a different source. It seems that absorbing films like Up and Ratatouille on both an adult and childlike level allows one to enjoy My Neighbor Totoro and Ponyo on their own terms.

My old man, who is one of the great and forceful arbiters of a film’s quality for me, was excited to take our family out to every Disney or Pixar masterwork over the past 20 years. So, maybe it’s genetic.

Remembering his emotions and reactions, I know that when I sit my kids down to watch Ponyo, Up or, best of all, Beauty and the Beast for the first time — an event I will undoubtedly obnoxiously broadcast as momentous to whomever will listen — what unfolds on the screen will carry a similar emotional significance for me as it will for them.

The inevitable embarrassment of being an adult in an audience of kids cannot supersede the joy of watching a film like Ponyo or Up, no matter what age level of the psyche that joy springs from.

These films force us to smile with the child within, and they are priceless for it.

John Wheeler is a senior majoring in cinema-telvision critical studies. His column, “The Multiplex,” runs Fridays.