Ah, Summer! That time of job applications, broken air-conditioners, and popcorn movie releases. And what a summer we’ve had, eh?! Antman and Jurassic World and…that other movie, and…other…films. Ahem. OK, so maybe this summer has not been the summer to end all summers when it comes to film releases. The only adult-themed film I recall with any love is Mad Max: Fury Road, but certain the fare at the cineplex has been remarkably varied, with box offices bombs and successes coming in all shapes and sizes. One of the things I noticed in going to the movies this summer was a suspicious preponderance of excellent movies that were not, strictly, for grown-ups.
This was by no means a conscious thing, but every time I picked my ass up off the sofa and drove to the local movie theater, I did so with the firm intention of seeing a film that was really directed at children. Inside Out, Minions, and Shaun the Sheep were among the major recommendations from friends and family. I didn’t notice this trend in my film watching until I found myself sitting in Shaun the Sheep, surrounded by five year olds. Was I weird? Was there something going on in my psyche that kids’ films were the only films that appealed to me? I’d womanfully controlled my crying in Inside Out, and very adultly attempted not to giggle at the fart jokes in Minions. But I did wonder why these films were the only ones that actually appealed to me, while the supposed films for grown-ups simply produced at best a shrug, and at worst a rage spiral (looking at you, Jurassic World).
Some of this has to do with the demographics of summer releases. Many are solidly in the comedic or, rather, “not serious” categories: superhero films like Antman, adult comedies like Trainwreck, action movies like Mission: Impossible 5 and Fury Road, and so on: these are not the Oscar contenders or festival films that will soon arrive to remind us that life is pain; these are the popcorn films. The adult fare this summer has been quite solidly in the nostalgic category, an ostensible attempt not to return to childhood but to avoid growing up. Trainwreck features a woman who does not want to commit to an adult relationship; Antman is a throwback to comic book world; Jurassic World tries, and fails, to bring us back to the awe we felt in Jurassic Park; and Mission: Impossible 5 is another in a long line of impossible films. Even Mad Max: Fury Road, certainly the most unique film, bases itself in 70s and 80s nostalgia. There is a distinct choice: the ponderous comedies and nostalgia of adulthood or the emotional investment of childhood. Kids’ films are for people who are beginning to grow up, rather than those who want, all too desperately, to stay young.
The current kids’ films harken back to a time when comedies were made to appeal to a wide range of ages. Of the three major animated films released this year, each roughly correlate to older classical comedic tropes. Inside Out borrows much of its humanism from Charlie Chaplin, Minions is full of little yellow Three Stooges, Shaun the Sheep borrows heavily from the visual puns of Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. During the classical and silent periods, comedies were made to appeal to a large audience; there were no real “adult” comedies, but comedies that were meant to entertain adults and children alike. That demographic has shifted; the comedies of the 1920s are now animated and marketed as kids’ films. Much like those films from the 1920s and 30s, there’s recently been a move to create kids’ films that appeal to a wide-range of ages,. The difference here is that animation of this sort is still widely regarded as being made for children, with a few nods to parents and guardians. The same appeal that was once the province of live-action comedies has shifted to animation.
Animated films oddly appeal more to the nostalgia of adults than do many of the deliberately nostalgic live-action films. Inside Out was praised not just because it was an intelligent and emotionally affecting film, but because, I think, many of us cynical grown-ups saw the truth about being young, about learning to manage your emotions, about the simplest and most heart-breaking moments of childhood and of growing up. Inside Out appealed to those feelings that never quite go away. Minions and Shaun the Sheep rely far more on visual jokes and puns than on emotional resonance, but they are a chance to escape from the seriousness and “edginess” of adult films and laugh at something that is neither unkind nor uncomfortable. It’s a simple appeal that seems to be largely missing from adult-oriented features right now: few comedies rely on gentle, universal humor. Yet I think that the success of animated films reminds us that those themes, simplistic in themselves, are still an important and fundamental part of filmmaking. Every once in awhile, we need to be reminded of the humor and pathos of the human condition; sometimes it just takes a little animated sheep to do it.