Where have all the orphans gone? In the grand tradition of children’s literature (and therefore, children’s films – now more than ever, it is inconceivable that there could be one without the other), the first obstacle any writer needs to vault over, sidestep or obliterate is the matter of the parents.
By its very nature, the child – our hero, our guide – needs to be alone, at least to begin with. Take The Wizard of Oz’s Dorothy Gale for example: she lives on the flat expanses of Kansas with her Aunt and Uncle who no doubt love her, care for her…but Dorothy’s loneliness is palpable. She’s a child, and at the mercy of forces as indiscriminate as the ‘twister’ that plucks her and the house from its foundations, tosses her over the rainbow. In Alice in Wonderland, a little girl tumbles down the rabbit-hole on a sultry, dull day by the river – again, alone – arrives in a world unknown, ripe with danger, always without help (and frequently full of confusion).
However, things are changing; Hollywood has forever altered the children’s story. How can you have an orphan as protagonist when there is a wealth of parental dysfunction clichés to be picked over? Thanks to Harry Potter, Disney-Pixar, the Twilightsaga et al, film producers have woken up to the value (monetary, in most cases) of telling stories to a broad demographic, potentially encompassing everyone from grandchildren to grandparents.
DreamWorks are perhaps the most obvious example of a studio broadening the appeal of its children’s stories to draw the adult market. Their latest release is How to Train Your Dragon (2010), based on an eloquent, delicate series of children’s books by Cressida Cowell. But any originality or wit in Cowell’s source material has been jettisoned, this film merely another iteration of the Shrek (2001) or Kung Fu Panda (2008) story…the love interest, the misfit winning the day and so on…
There seems to be a universal set of rules that all of DreamWorks’ present and future output must conform to in order to succeed in their aim to reach (and appease) the largest possible demographic.
1. Your main character must be a misfit (i.e. they operate outside of “normal” society) and initially appear at odds with their position within the given community – be it storybook land, ancient China, Central Park Zoo etc. This will appeal to a huge majority of the audience, as everyone likes to feel (or believe) they are different, that they don’t belong. There is the desire to escape, to alter things and to transform the world around them e.g. Jake Sully (Avatar ), Po (Kung Fu Panda ).
2. Your protagonist will have a dysfunctional relationship with their father e.g. every Tim Allen/Disney movie ever made.
3. Main character (usually male, pubescent) bonds with another being, usually alien or ‘Other’ e.g. The Iron Giant (1999), ET (1982).
4. The protagonist’s ‘other-worldly’ companion is redeemed and revealed as misunderstood. Widespread acceptance follows e.g. The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), the Shrek cycle, Beauty and the Beast (1991).
5. ‘Happily Ever After’ e.g. just about everything…
There is of course nothing wrong with a ‘Happily Ever After’ scenario. It takes just as much courage to end on a happy note as one more serious – especially with the current tendency towards darker children’s cinema (‘dark’ seemingly equalling “serious” in Hollywood). However, does the happy ending have to be – as in the case of How to Train Your Dragon – reached via such predictable stepping stones?
The film’s central character is a young Viking boy named Hiccup, an individual alienated in his own skin, who is deemed too weak to play a part in the aggressive, male-centric Nordic village where he lives (his father at one point claiming, “You are not my son”’. We are then introduced to the ‘Other’; a misunderstood dragon, falsely perceived as a highly dangerous beast that can vaporise anything with a blast of purple flame (though in truth, that’s exactly what he can do), who mirrors the sense of alienation felt by poor Hiccup. Ultimately, all these tropes are familiar.
That’s not to say that the ‘familiar’ necessarily negative. James Cameron’s Avatar attempted to prove that you can stitch something new from ‘familiar’ material; something fresh, exhilarating, surprising…even transporting. Yet I wasn’t transported by How to Train Your Dragon. For a start, the 3D element is a distraction, inhibiting the very sense of ‘immersion’ it was brought in to heighten, paradoxically making me feel more distant from the film (alienated, if anything).
As a character, Hiccup – like previous DreamWorks creations Shrek, Donkey, Kung Fu Panda’s Po – is a composite rather than a truly memorable children’s character. Hiccup is neurotic, philosophical and (importantly) all too aware of his obvious position as a potential revolutionary. In short – Hiccup is an ‘adult in children’s clothing’; yet another victim of the ‘DreamWorks disease’ that embodies its film’s role models with an un-natural, hyper-maturity. Am I being too cynical? Potentially – but only because these films are also themselves profoundly cynical and deeply patronising of children and their desire to change the world.