Like many other people in the scorching summer of 1988, I went to see the movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Indeed, again like many others, I went to see it twice. The first time through, watching the dazzling interplay of animated and human action, I had the typical response: how do they do that? The second time, I could concentrate more on how well the ambitious interweaving of genres (what director Robert Zemeckis called "cartoon noir") worked.
Indeed, the filmmakers seem to have tried very hard to make a movie that was simultaneously for adults and children, and I'm not so sure they completely succeeded at that. Little kids in particular might not understand the adult jokes, but they can understand the menacing violence to cute cartoon characters. Yet I have a feeling that it is adults who will be made more uncomfortable by the movie than kids.
Throughout the film, the animated characters are referred to as "toons" and where they live as "Toon Town." Toons not only rhymes with an ugly racial slur, but toons are attributed some of the behavior patterns that many people always want to believe about minorities—infantile emotionalism, rampant sexuality, and irresponsible playfulness. A clear social message of Roger Rabbit concerns the nature of prejudice.
Perhaps Roger Rabbit hits an even more subtle note. It is adults, after all, who would be prejudiced against toons and what they represent. Children, on the other hand, are very much on the side of the toons. It is the lure of Peter Pan. Toons of whatever form represent for children the anarchic freedom from social rules and even the constraints of nature that they yearn for.
Toon Town is a child's idea of Utopia—eternal fun without fear of actually being hurt, suspension of the laws of physics, cheerful violence, a ludenic state of pure play. Further, it is a world where nature is alive, where animals and even inanimate objects have human childlike (very rarely adult-like) characteristics. If you watch children at play and overhear the powerful shared fantasies they conjure up, you gain some understanding of the power of cartoons for them. In the toon world they can all do the things that here at play we can only "pretend like."
There is an old theory in anthropology, most identified with the great Edward Tylor, called "animism." Tylor and other early anthropologists had a bit of a patronizing view of "primitive man," believing that tribal myths were essentially "child-like" explanations of the world that attributed anthropomorphic characteristics to nature. Trees and lightning and animals and "spirit beings" all had some soul guiding or occupying them. All of nature was alive, and deserved respect and even worship.
We may snicker at primitive beliefs in soulful animate nature, but children understand it instinctively. They believe that the world is enchanted, that nature is alive, that magic works, and they do so in part because from the earliest age we adults tell them stories about all that. We tell them about wonderlands and wizards, talking animals and trees, witches and trolls, magicians and sorcerers, devils and demons, angels and friendly ghosts, flying carpets and singing swords, bewitched princesses and pumpkins that turn into coaches, little engines that could and magic slippers that transport you home.
We tell them about the boogey-man that lurks in the dark to hurt them if they do something bad, about the jolly Santa who rewards them for being good at Christmastime, about tooth fairies and Easter bunnies, guardian angels and haunted woods, gypsies that steal children, and the little man who turns out the light in the refrigerator. Clearly children get familiar with lots of toons.
Not everybody likes it that kids are told about all those extrahuman beings. Many of the fairy tales and suchlike that we tell to children very likely do have their roots in "the old religion" that predates Christianity, and has its eventual roots in primitive animism. (The Arthurian legend, after all, has both Druid priests and witches and a quest for the Holy Grail.) The boogeyman probably goes back a long way in human consciousness, and that monster from the Id has likely been used by a thousand generations to control the behavior of children. The source of a good bit of the folklore we pass on to our kids has thoroughly pagan origins. Indeed, a glance at children's books and toys produced by contemporary industries reveals that they have much in common with the long tradition of fairy tales and folk figures of yore. (Yoda of Star Wars is a latter-day combination of the frog-prince, warrior-mentor, and Merlin; the disappointing Lucas production Willow is a virtual compendium of both ancient and modern toons, everything from "the little people" of medieval legend to Tinker Bell.)
Some folks of fundamentalist persuasion have objected to these stories, and even to the Christmas use of Santa Claus. Awhile back some families in Tennessee objected to the local school board about the use of The Wizard of Oz in class, maintaining that the story contained witchcraft and magic, and taught children that courage, intelligence, and compassion (as exemplified by the Cowardly Lion, the Straw Man, and the Tin Man) could be developed by individuals rather than being simply God-given. They also objected to The Diary of Anne Frank because it taught sympathy for all religions. (Since they apparently believe that only the moral stories of the Bible should be taught in public school, one assumes they would include the story from the book of Numbers wherein, after a bloody victory, Moses says to the soldiers, "Have you let the women live? . . . Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man, lying with him. But all the young girls who have not known man by lying with him, keep alive for yourself.")
But it is not just fundamentalists who try to keep their kids away from the pernicious influence of unseemly toons. Parents of various stripes worry about bad influences on their kids from popular culture. Oftentimes they overestimate the influence of popular culture, and sometimes they don't understand the function of popular culture for kids. Tipper Gore thinks heavy metal rock music dangerous because it is outrageous and rebellious; the kids like it precisely because it is outrageous and rebellious, an outlet for some, perhaps most, that they find more amusing than compelling. (It might help if we think of rock singers and groups as teenage toons.)
But for the movie and TV fare communicated for smaller kids, there seems to be a psychiatrist or parents' group that objects to almost everything. A glance at my files reveals objections to the Care Bears, the Smurfs, Sesame Street, and virtually every program on Saturday morning TV, even the all-time classic (made ostensibly for kids but watched faithfully by adults), the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show.
But I suspect this is nothing new. I wonder if there were parents' groups or moral censors of centuries past that took exception to the fairy tales current in that day? Did someone point to the horrible effects on children of reading them stories about giants who liked to make bread out of the bones of Englishmen, or wandering kids who push witches into ovens, or the dangers to little girls lured by wolves?
More recently, just ask Walt Disney. When Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs first came out in 1937, there was earnest debate all over the country about whether children should see it—the wicked witch, it was said, was too scary, the magic too powerful, the threat too great. (No one, apparently, objected to the fact that the story involved a young and beautiful single girl living with seven adult men; the potential sexual inference was handled by making the dwarfs into toons, and, therefore, not adults.) Indeed, when Disney classics are re-released, the same handwringing occurs. Pinocchio (which, speaking of animism, transforms a puppet into a human) punishes youthful transgression harshly, disfigures boys for lying, and isolates people in the cavernous belly of a whale.
The chorus of objections has arisen most recently with the re-release of Bambi, perhaps the most moving, and didactically helpful, of all the Disney animations. The forest fire, the antler fight, and most of all, the hunters killing Bambi's mother—it is all pretty emotional stuff. (I myself was never able to shoot a deer after it. Disney's animism, making animals into cute and very human families, probably is much disliked by subscribers to Field and Stream. The scene where Bambi's mother is killed probably has done more for animal rights and anti-hunting sentiment than all the appeals of animal rights groups.)
Bambi does upset some children, but I would think the more common response is enrichment. To deny kids the opportunity of seeing things like Bambi is to rob them of one of the joyous experiences of childhood. The children crying in the dark at the end have learned something rather profound about some important human emotions. The kids that weren't allowed to attend on the basis of silly adult fears should have been more careful in the selection of their parents.
For slightly older pre-teens (9-12 or so), parents also worry about them seeing horror movies. Kids that age love them; the bloodier the better. This is an age group becoming very much aware of changes in their bodies and of social repression, so they seem drawn as a group to the horror genre. (They love to read a fanzine called Fangora, which celebrates the special-effects artists of the splatter movies, with gory color pictures of their artistry—the old ax in the skull scene is ho-hum stuff to these aficionados. When you see groups of these kids enjoying the latest Friday the 13th movie, you get little sense that seeing all that gore is going to turn them all into sociopathic ax murderers, satanic cultists, or political scientists.
These are kids at the age when they pride themselves on telling the difference between fantasy and reality, and being mature enough to make it through chainsaw massacres and hauntings and transformations into monsters without getting sick or scared proves it, especially in front of the other guys. Horror films for them are a scary amusement, a fascinating exercise in the technology of fright and death. They are horrified only by badly done special effects, and they make aesthetic judgments on the basis of how delicious the frights were. The only kind of film that rivals the horror movie is the war movie, and they went to see the Vietnam films in droves. For them both are better than the stuff that adults go to see, dumb movies about a child emperor who sits around an empty palace for hours or the boring goings-on among people in network news or Italian families.
Parents have a legitimate right to a say in what their children participate in and consume, but I have a counter-worry of my own. I worry that overblown fears about Bambi and Saturday morning TV and so forth are symptomatic of a larger process that some experts see happening now: not letting children be children and enjoy their childhood. Think of the horror stories during the Eighties about highly motivated Yuppie parents trying to create "designer babies" who are sent to spartan pre-school programs, endless rounds of classes (music, language, dance, etc.) before and after school, summer camps where they study investment and stockbroking—all preparatory to being enrolled in the freshman class at Harvard in the year 2005.
If kids are made into miniature adults, and denied the fun and fantasy of childhood, then we will have robbed them of something truly precious and unrecoverable. The combination of national educational demands for high degrees of rational skills and productivity and parental ambitions for their children to be "competitive" might eliminate more and more of the discretionary play of childhood at its best.
Long ago Max Weber wrote about "the disenchantment of the world," arguing that modernity was eliminating the magic and mystery of life. The scientific attitude, organizational rationality, the expectation of conformist habits—all these processes eliminate more and more the "enchanted" aspects of life. Secularization, for instance, has made the enchanted claims of religion more difficult, and indeed some churches have made liturgical and theological changes that remove much of the magic and mystery formerly associated with them. (When was the last time you heard a defense of the rite of exorcism?)
Weber saw this great historical process as an inevitable result of modernity, but not necessarily as a good thing. The disenchantment of the world is disenchanting to people who lose faith in an enchanted world. I suspect that religious revivalism stems from this vague feeling of progressive disenchantment, as does the desire to read tabloids about UFOs, Bigfoot, miracle cures, healings, and Elvis sightings. The power of scientific rationality has created the organizational and technological world in which we live, but at the price of robbing much of the world of settled belief in the enchanted.
Which returns us to the toons. Childhood should be a time of total enchantment, as free as possible from the encroachments of the adult world kids will have to join all too quickly. I often observe adults who watch children at play with great envy, since they will often remember childhood as the happiest time of their lives, something now lost in the mundane world of work and responsibility.
We don't need to idealize childhood as a romantic world of innocence subsequently lost, since it isn't really. But we should understand that the toon fantasies of childhood are more beneficial than harmful, and let children enjoy them while they can. For kids, toons are projections of all sorts of things, the dramatis personae of their enchanted world. They talk to the toons, learn from them, and make them a part of the treasure trove of images they will later remember with fondness. They can then someday take their kids to see Bambi, and cry along with them.
How else can you explain why adults cry at the end of Roger Rabbit? In the last scene, virtually every toon of our movie memory crowds in, reminding us of the richness and joy of an enchanted world that was, and is, ours. As adults, we can feel nostalgic about our toon experience as part of a time when we could unequivocally believe in an enchanted world.
Perhaps we also have a sense of loss. Now we can't act like toons, and are afraid to visit Toon Town. We have left the enchanted world, and don't know how to re-enter it. We live in the noir and not the cartoon. Maybe if we could act more like toons, and visit Toon Town more, we would be happier and freer. But that would mean stepping over some lines, and allowing ourselves to believe once again in objects and lands of enchantment. As Porky Pig said, "That's all, folks."