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07/05/2013

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I am a 20-something male who has no children, and I watch animated movies.

I would normally preface such a statement by outwardly saying that this is something I’m not ashamed to admit it, but I felt no need to blanket it with any kind of qualifier because I know I’m not alone. Animated/family films are great for all ages, and I bet you love them too.

Some of the best movies being made today come from Pixar, Disney, DreamWorks and others. They are visually arresting, exciting, hilarious and can even move you to tears (I get weepy just thinking of the Carl and Ellie flashback montage in Up—and let’s not even go into WALL*E). Other genres’ track records as far as critical praise and audience approval simply don’t compare.

We’re in animated/family film prime time this holiday weekend. We got Pixar’s Monsters University a couple weeks back; this weekend we have the sequel to the 2010 smash hit Despicable Me (which has come out swinging at the box office so far), and in two weeks’ time, DreamWorks presents its super-snail racing flick Turbo. There’s plenty for families (and everyone!) to see right now.

Yet the likelihood is I won’t be seeing any of these films until they’re available for home viewing in four or five months. Caveat to my second paragraph: as brazen as I am in my love for this genre, the practice and observance of this is another story. Going to the movies is not unlike amusement park rides: you either need to be tall enough (read: old enough) to ride this ride, or you have to be accompanied by someone under so many inches.

Seeing a kid-flick on a date can be cute, or if you go with friends you take solace in each other’s child-like excitement, but by yourself—you can’t paint it any other way but awkward. I’ve only done this when I’ve needed to review a family movie for a website—but even though I know that’s why I’m there, I’m still a grown man sitting by himself in a theater with small children.

Let’s pretend we live in a non-profiling society where no one bats an eyelash at that. It’s still cruddy to be an adult seeing a family film in a theater. Unless you can go at 9 p.m. or later, you’re in for 90 minutes of tiny voices blurting at the screen or worse—tiny feet kicking the back of your seat.

So, I much prefer to watch kid movies in private, which, now that I’ve typed that, doesn’t sound any better. But regardless, I think there’s more to watching animated movies on my couch than simply avoiding the unpleasantness or social taboo of seeing them at the theater. If you’re a Millennial, or if you were born after the invention of the VCR, you might know what I’m talking about.

Kids born in the ‘80s were the first wave to be entertained by instant home entertainment. Our parents could pop in a VHS tape and we would sit silently for an hour and a half, riveted at the animated journey unfolding before us. We all can name the movies we watched over and over again as kids; it was not possible for the generations before us to form that kind of attachment to animated films.

Earlier this year, Disney and Netflix struck a deal that put a number of Mouse House titles into Netflix’s Instant catalogue. I was excited to experience some of these films again as an adult, and took 64 minutes of my day to watch Dumbo, which I hadn’t seen since I was probably four at the oldest.

My first revelation in watching it as an adult was that parts of the film are intensely scary for a small child, like when Dumbo’s water pail gets spiked and he has drunken hallucinations (yup, go back and watch it). The second was that I was blown away by the rushes of emotion as I encountered parts of the film that I had forgotten. Watching Mrs. Jumbo unwrap her adorable baby elephant as delivered by Mr. Stork and the way she snuggles him, even when the other nasty elephant ladies laugh at his ears, felt especially poignant. Something about this scene moved me as a child, and in journeying back to Dumbo, I rediscovered it. Reflecting on this, I realized nostalgia is not just remembering something fondly—it’s when a potent dose of sensory memory triggers a past emotional state of being that is, in a word, overcoming.

Disney in general was really the only studio aiming films at young kids in the ‘80s, and as such they’ve cornered the market on our childhood nostalgia. Disney World and Disneyland are paragons of providing family entertainment, but the way parents enjoy these attractions will change shape in the next 5-10 years. We will take a lot of pleasure in sharing what we loved as kids with our children. We will understand their affection for the animated films of their generation and their unconditional love of the characters.

It also helps that the movies kids are watching today are good at entertaining parents as well. They’re insanely clever, involve insanely talented animation artists and they focus on universal family values that never lose their significance. Most of all, they put a premium on good storytelling in a way other genres don’t.

A lot of the family films we see today are no different than those of previous generations boiled down to their essence (stories of fitting in, finding one’s purpose, etc.) and repacked with breathtaking CGI. The same heart and value-based ideals that guided the golden age of Disney is being infused into movies as commercial as Kung Fu Panda and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. In essence, these common threads make animated films timeless no matter the obvious signs of time period or age.

So minus some facial hair and a college degree, there’s not much difference in four-year-old me sitting five feet from the television watching Lady & The Tramp, staring up at the tiny box TV in awe, and 20-something me curled up on the couch streaming Brave on Netflix. We both want the comfort of a story where good triumphs over evil, and to be transported somewhere we can only find in our imagination.

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