When a twist in a kids movie is obvious and someone points it out the inevitable response they get is “Well it’s a kids movie. What did you expect?”. Now that sounds like condescending bullshit and from most people it is. A lot of people use the “kids won’t get it” defense when you ask for a more complicated twist and that’s pretty shitty. Kids are smart and can handle a lot if you let them. Or more importantly if you challenge them. But you have to do it in the right ways. That’s what this article is for. Finding and discussing the right ways to create twists in kids films. I’m going to restrict myself to talking about films that came out in the last five years or so as I think there is a higher chance all of you will have seen them and there is a plentiful pile of examples to choose from. Warning: This article presumes that the reader has seen and has a reasonably high level of familiarity with Big Hero 6, How to Train Your Dragon 2, Frozen, ParaNorman and The Lego Movie. There will be major spoilers for all of the films mentioned above throughout the article. With that out of the way, let’s get going.
I sort of railed against people who say simplistic twists are okay in kids films in the opening However, there is the thing that a lot of twists are only predictable because we’ve seen it somewhere else before. Big Hero 6’s build up to the twist is just a massive bait-and-switch where they present the slimy, rich industrialist character as the obvious choice for the villain’s secret identity while claiming that the really friendly scientist from the start of the movie, who didn’t really get a final scene, died and definitely isn’t up to any mischief. Now I only knew they were pulling that because I’ve seen Scooby Doo. But a child, who’s never seen Scooby Doo, has two options. Option one, he/she can engage the film critically and ask why that seemingly important super friendly scientist character isn’t involved in the rest of the plot, in which case he/she is developing his/her critical thinking. Option two, he/she completely buys that the slimy industrialist is the bad guy and gets the shock of his/her life and learns from it and takes the first step on their film education as I did growing up and as you did. It does mean that adults watching Big Hero 6 can grow a little bored watching it. That’s no good.
So simplistic plot twists in kids films can serve an educational purpose and develop a child’s understanding of films and tools they use, thus allowing to read films better. This does bring up the idea of intertextuality so let’s talk about a film that’s twist is only a twist if you are aware of the tropes of the genre it’s operating in. The perfect example of this is How to Train Your Dragon 2. I’m not talking about the mother twist I am talking about Hiccup’s idealism. He wants to reason with Drago while everyone else tries to tell him that he can’t be reasoned with. Normally in kids films, the people saying that there is no reasoning with the villain are proved to be wrong. Indeed, that was the story in the first How to Train Your Dragon when Hicuup was trying to tell his father that the dragons weren’t evil. Really then this is more of a twist for the adult viewer than the child viewer. A child would watch this film and would tell Hiccup that he can’t talk to Drago while an adult would roll their eyes, expecting a cop-out. So when Drago stays evil in spite of Hiccups unyielding idealism, the adults were shocked and the kids just shouted “Duh!” at the screen. It’s a strange breed of twist that is actually only a twist if you know the tropes which means it probably didn’t affect kids in the same way it affected adults. Meaning that in some way, it sort of excluded children from getting the full impact of it. So while the twist is clever and delivers an interesting message, it’s not the best designed for a kids film. That’s no good either.
But now let’s look at a film that presumes that the audience has a pre-existing knowledge of the genre but does not exclude those who don’t. I am of course talking about Frozen and the Hans plot. The Hans plot deconstructed the true-love-at-first-sight story that had been a staple of Disney fairy tales without leaving kids who may not have been familiar with that story in the dark. Even better, they probably made most kids watching it feel incredibly smart while the adults were legitimately wondering where it was going. That’s an incredible balancing act, how in the name of God did they pull that off. Firstly, extraordinary character design that created a real sense of synergy among the cast. The naive Anna, the too-perfect Hans, the rational Elsa was a perfect trio of characters in terms of how they bounced off each other and fed into each other’s meanings and roles in the story. Kids and adults all sided with Elsa when she said that love-at-first-sight was stupid. You also have the Duke of Weselton to act as a smokescreen for Hans’ true villainous nature, filling much the same role as the slimy industrialist in Big Hero 6. The difference being that in Frozen the bait-and-switch was only one small part of the deception. Secondly, the song ‘Love is an Open Door’ is so wonderfully cringe-inducing that both adult and child alike can get behind the idea that ‘love-at-first-sight’ is the most idiotic thing imaginable. Thirdly, small clues littered throughout the film in dialogue and in the developing situations. Example of this is Hans telling Anna about his 12 older brothers that are in line ahead of him. Those factors coming together create a legitimately shocking twist with a deep thematic meaning that for adults is a breath of fresh air all the while making kids feel smart but still managing to shock both groups. It is easily one of the best constructed twists in any kids film and is to be admired. That’s pretty good
But ParaNorman then, does everything that Frozen does and then some. It crosses lines and emotionally challenges everyone who watches it through a subversion of the zombie movie where the monster-victim dynamic is turned on its head in order to examine the psychological cause and impact of bullying. They do this with the zombies and character of the witch. Everyone can get on board with zombies and a witch being the bad guys. Anytime someone talks about the witch in the film talks about her ugly appearance and terrible powers. There’s a statue of a stereotypical witch in the town square as well. And then we are told that the terrifying witch was just a frightened, misunderstood little girl. Her name was Aggie and she was hung by the neck until she was dead by people who feared what they did not understand. In revenge she cursed those who killed her to return from the dead as zombies and feel what it was like to be feared and hated. Aggie is now the bully. Aggie is the monster. That twist demonstrate perfectly how bullying is almost a perpetual motion machine of resentment and cruelty, which is a lesson you are never too old or indeed too young to learn, but it acts as a massive emotional blow to the audience because neither child nor adult would expect a kids film to go so dark. In terms of design and aesthetic beauty, ParaNorman‘s twist rivals any twist you would see in a film targeted at adults. This film respected the children enough to emotionally challenge them in ways almost unheard of since the hey day of Don Bluth and in the process challenged the adults as well. That’s great.
Okay so we just talked about emotionally challenging children with twists, but what about challenging them intellectually? After all, that’s what I initially complained about in the introduction. People who think kids are too stupid to get complex twists. So for those people, let’s talk about The Lego Movie. A film who’s twists crosses between two dimensions of reality and draws parallels between how people approach playing with Lego and how they live their lives and the Hero’s journey and instruction manuals. And honestly, I don’t think I’ll even talk about this one. I think you should just watch The Lego Movie with a child, preferably one you know, and just ask them what they learned from watching it. They’ll probably tell you that life’s a lot like playing with Lego and that’s way more profound than it sounds. That’s awesome.
So it turns out that children aren’t too stupid to get complex twists. It seems that all you have to do to create a complex twist for kids and adults to both enjoy is find a common ground between the two and place your twist smack dab in the middle of it or just write a really good twist like you would for an adult film. Who’d have thought, eh? Kids… they’re almost like real people. But if a kid doesn’t get the movie by his or her self that’s great news. Now you can talk to them about it. Get them asking questions. They need to be armed with the tools to understand films and art in general and only you can do that. If you go see a film with a child, again preferably one you know, talk to them about it. Engage with them. Ask them questions. Let them ask you questions because I truly believe that the way forward is to instill in the new generation a greater appreciation and understanding of art. To do that, we need to challenge them and also let them be challenged by the media they consume. So the next time someone excuses a half-assed twist in a kids film point them towards this article. I need the views.
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