Tuesday, December 3, 2013

When Are Cartoons Too Dark?

What do the following two quotes have in common? “Lucky for him [his body isn’t in the wreckage], otherwise I was going to slap his corpse.” AND “Ralph probably fell sleep in the washroom of Tapper’s again.” Tapper’s is a bar. Give up? Well, both quotes are pretty dark. And that’s my question for today: how do we decide what is too “dark” for kid’s cartoons?

In the 1980's, parents complained about cartoons being “too dark.” This resulted, for a brief time, in cartoons becoming sterile and “safe.” The goal of all cartoons was to get a clean G rating, which meant they could include nothing that would interest anyone. And you ended up with crap like The Care Bears, My Little Pony, and The Smurfs. Gag me with a spoon. All of that changed in the 1990s. Suddenly, the studios stopped pursuing G ratings and instead wanted PG ratings because that little bit of an edge became a selling point to the adults who bought the tickets. This also coincided with comic books becoming illustrated porn, but that’s another issue.

So little by little, cartoons started adding things that were previously verboten: death, violence, innuendo galore and all sorts of taboos. Toy Story included characters who were blown apart, dismembered and reassembled into hideous creatures. The Lion King has the main character snuggle with the corpse of his freshly killed father. The villain in The Hunchback of Notre Dame sings about killing or bedding the female lead. A character is hung (no... not in that way) in Tarzan. And so on. Were those too dark? I don't know. The old Disney’s like Bambi and Snow White and Pinocchio were crawling in death, but they don’t seem to have been too much for kids. In fact, those films were much darker than anything shown to kids today, both visually and thematically. Yet, outside of a few nuts, no one thinks those are too dark for kids. So if the issue isn't theme or visual, what is it?

Perhaps the answer can be found attitude rather than action. Said differently, when the dark matter is treated in a way that helps children, then it's not really something we consider dark? Bambi showed us that while death be cruel, life goes on and happiness can be found. Snow White showed us that villains perish and good prevails. The Lion King treated Simba's father's death as a means to reinforce the bond with parents and to remind kids that they can always find comfort in their parents even after they are gone. Those are good things for kids to learn before they have to deal with it in real life. By comparison, a cartoon like Heavy Metal revels in killing, as does most anime. There's no positive message there. The Black Cauldron, which seems to have scared Disney back to G at the time, was seen as too scary because of the imagery, but I wonder if the lack of a positive lesson to neuter the scary images wasn't the real problem.

Maybe that's the lesson? Something is too dark when its positive message meant to reassure kids that no one wants something evil and that good will ultimately prevail, doesn't outweigh the negative being presented. That explains why the above aren't considered too dark. The one outlier above to me is Toy Story. The idea of dismembered and reassembled creatures living in fear for years as prisoners in the room of their psychotic abuser is truly grim. And while Woody learns that an ugly exterior does not mean there is an ugly interior, and the creatures eventually get a small measure of revenge against their tormentor, it feels too little compared to the horror presented.

So if that's the test, then what about the quotes that started the article? Are they too dark? Those come from Wreck-It Ralph (which tryanmax reviewed here => LINK). Personally, I’ve come to think the movie is pretty brilliant and I don’t see the overall movie as at all dark. To the contrary, the film sheds whatever darkness it creates almost immediately to keep a lighthearted tone. But what about the quotes themselves? On the surface, they appear pretty dark. The second quote suggests that Ralph has gotten so drunk that he passed out in the mensroom of a bar. That's not something I would want to explain to a ten year old... but I don't have to, and that's the key. See, we never see Ralph passed out. In fact, to the contrary, this quote is kind of evidence of the contrary, i.e. while people think poorly of Ralph, he's better than people think. Moreover, the quote itself uses enough ambiguity that it requires a good deal of adult knowledge before the grim meaning becomes apparent. For example, kids are unlikely to know why Ralph fell asleep, except that he's tired. They aren't going to realize this means he's drunk. Even using the word "washroom" will likely throw kids for a loop and let parents, should they wish, describe something other than a public restroom: "Oh, he was tired and he fell asleep in the tub."

The other quote conjures images of twisted bodies in the wreckage and it suggests a rather callous attitude toward Ralph’s life. That's pretty dark. But again, there is no body, so no one is staring at a corpse. Further, using the word "corpse" instead of "body" likely makes this quote much harder for kids to get the nuance that the quote-giver is talking about Ralph being dead. Consequently, most kids are likely to hear this as wanting to slap Ralph, who was expected to be waiting lazily in the spaceship, but isn't there. Again, darkness is averted.

So ultimately, I think the test for darkness must be (1) will the kids understand that something negative is being implied, (2) is that negative strong enough to generate a fear/depression response within the kids, and (3) is the attitude of the film as expressed in what is glorified and what isn't and how the characters respond such that the negative serves the purpose of explaining a positive... or does it just revel in being negative.



tryanmax said...

My only thought is that "Tapper's" is a reference to the game "Root Beer Tapper." The gameplay is exactly as is shown in the movie, with the bartender sliding drinks to the patrons. But if the house beverage is root beer, Ralph doesn't stand a chance of getting drunk. Root beer is usually non-caffeinated, though, so he could still pass out from exhaustion.

Kit said...

Pinocchio would've caused an outcry if it was released today.

Kit said...

In Avatar: The Last Airbender* there is a scene where one of the main adult characters is in a city and, after having some silly and light-hearted fun with some local kids, goes to the place where his son died in battle and, well, this happens:

*The Nickelodeon cartoon, not the blue James Cameron movie.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, LOL! Nice. You must be a parent!

I have to say that this film and others I've seen lately are packed with lines like this. Things that are really dark, dark humor if you have the ability to fill in the pieces, but which are sufficiently understandable for kids that they will never question what they are missing. I'm starting to think that's the "art" behind delivering jokes to parents -- hide something dirty in something not so dirty by requiring outside knowledge for it to become dirty.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, What happens? Explain... don't leave a link.

And I don't think Pinocchio would create the outcry you think. Some people would, but not the public at large. The public doesn't generally go in for the whining.

Kit said...

He goes to the tree where his son dies and starts to sing a song called "Little Soldier Boy" before breaking into tears.

Rustbelt said...

Kit, they're being turned (literally) into Democrats! In this day and age, that would only earn the film even more praise!

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, That's kind of dark. I take it there's more to the story though that makes this less dark?

AndrewPrice said...

Rustbelt, LOL! Bravo!

For anyone who doesn't get that, Rustbelt is talking about the boys turning into donkeys in Pinocchio.

Kit said...

Not finished with the show (on Season 3), so we'll see.

AndrewPrice said...

So what do you think makes something "too dark" for kids?

Kit said...

If its just grim. It needs a balance.

I'll give a better answer in the morning.

AndrewPrice said...

Ok. :)

tryanmax said...

Andrew, I have to agree with what you posited in the article, that a thing is too dark when it isn't more than countered by something positive. I think this has to do both with the dark things being pushed back and also with simple screen time. For example, I've always thought The Secret of NIMH was really dark--and it certainly touches on some dark themes--but mostly, it just takes place underground in dimly lit caverns.

tryanmax said...

P.S. It's amazing how dark you can go in children's fare. Consider Coraline which is intensely dark, both in mood and content, yet I've never heard it denounced as such.

AndrewPrice said...

LOL! Nice. Everyone's a comedian now!

In all seriousness, I know there are limits. You wouldn't show kids Saw no matter how much it was pushed back by good things. But for most things, I think really it's just a question of balancing how much evil they will compared to how much good.

AndrewPrice said...

On your PS, I've noticed that too. I've seen some INCREDIBLY dark children's stories that never were considered too dark. At times, the Harry Potter stuff gets really dark. The awful Lemony Snickets stuff was really dark. I'm not sure if the film 9 was meant for kids or not, but it's super dark -- a post apocalypse cartoon.

Backthrow said...

For specifically kiddie/general audiences, I think the Dark should definitely be balanced with the Positive, though there usually should be, depending on the story being told, a decent enough amount of Dark featured. Most of the best children's/family films have had a fair degree of darkness and scariness in them-- the Disney films mentioned, as well as live-action fare, like WIZARD OF OZ, THIEF OF BAGDAD, DARBY O'GILL & THE LITTLE PEOPLE, WILLY WONKA, even THE BLACK STALLION. It's a big part of what makes them memorable to us throughout our lives, and holds an adult's interest when watching them again (or for the first time) with children. One of the many great things about THE INCREDIBLES (rated PG) was the nice balance of some pretty Dark elements with some extremely Positive ones.

That said, I wouldn't throw HEAVY METAL in the mix with the others discussed in the article. Yes, it's animated... yes, it's very dark (chock full of titillating sex, graphic violence and glamorized drug use), with almost no positive message conveyed (other than some generalized 'Good vs. Evil' bits here and there)... but it was made for and marketed to older teens and twentysomethings (and, in particular, stoners), not little kids (unlike the other films mentioned), just like SAW, DIE HARD, 48 HOURS and CREEPSHOW. Anime is more of on a case-by-case basis, since there are so many genres, aimed at various different demographics across the spectrum.

Anthony said...

I thought the scene in Brave (where a massive bear chases the terrified princess through stacks of human bones in an old castle) was too dark and too intense. My eight year old had nightmares for a week and was reluctant to watch anything that might be dark for a while.

I think the trick is not combining darkness with intensity. The Corpse Bride and The Nightmare Before Christmas have dark elements, but they never combined the darkness with intensity (here is a savage monster that wants to eat your flesh and add your bones to the pile!). One could say the same of older films like Pinocchio. Bambi was kind of an exception to the rule, but the target was a deer so while it probably turned off some people on hunting, it wasn't exactly nightmare fuel.

Last but not least its worth keeping in mind that not everything animated is for kids.

KRS said...

I remember my folks having some very old (1800s) books on fairy tales and reading them when I was young. Some of the stories were familiar but more scary - I don't remember if they were Aesop's or Grimm's.

I read a lot of dark stuff as a kid. I think the stories often showed children behaving foolishly and getting punished by causing a tragedy, but then the tragedy was usually relieved by some incredible chance - cautionary tales. I suppose this may be the source of the trope we see in so many modern stories where a hero gives his/her life and is quickly resurrected.

The difficulty in translating a cautionary tale to sceen is the imagery can intensify the experience to a level where it really is too much. I read the Hunger Games because my daughter wanted to (I also read Lemony Snickets with her) and it was a while before I felt able to read the second book. The book series was a decent read, but when I saw the first movie, I had a lot more trouble with it, despite the efforts of the director to diminsh the visual portrayal of the children's violent deaths. The movie, in that regard, still hit harder than the books and I think it was because of the medium.

That said, a lot depends on where you and your kids come from. If you're sheltered, certain imagery and actions will be far darker than if you're experienced - particularly if you're raised in violent circumstances.

This is similar to an observation I offered about Saving Private Ryan. I found the opening scenes horrific to the point of viloence porn, but my Dad was impressed (only to be let down by the rest of the movie). Dad had fought through four invasions, so the opening beach scene did not convey the same horror, nor did it make him relive it - he was simply satisfied with the technical accuracy, which was typically lacking in a war movie.

AndrewPrice said...

Backthrow, I'm not saying that Heavy Metal is for kids, I'm using it as an example of something that is obviously too dark for kids. By the same token, as I mention in the comments, I don't think Saw could ever be shown to kids no matter how much good you try to offset it with because it's crossed that magical line of being "too much."

What I'm curious about is where that line is.

And I definitely agree that it is the darkness which makes kids cartoons memorable because therein lies both the lesson and also our first look into the world beyond the safe family environment in which we live as kids. It's like our first big glimpse that there is an ugly side out there.

AndrewPrice said...

Anthony, This: I think the trick is not combining darkness with intensity. is an excellent addition to the formula!

I think you're absolutely right on this. If something is dark then you can't make it too intense. For example, if Mickey is an archeologist and he uncovers bones and then Pluto eats one, that's probably funny and kids won't see it as dark, even though it kind of is. But if a monster rips open a coffin and devours a human bone, that would probably be too dark. And really the only difference is intensity... one is lighthearted and meant to make kids laugh, the other is intense and meant to scare kids.

And, yep, not everything is meant for kids. But that line gets blurred all the time, especially with most kids movies now getting PG ratings rather than G, which happens to be the same rating a lot of "not meant for kids" stuff gets.

Jrggrop said...

AndrewPrice, about Avatar - I'll try to explain. It's a bit complex.

The older man in that scene, Iroh, has been closely mentoring and aiding his nephew for the series so far. This particular episode is a bit of a filler one - each character from the show has a short story section of around two or three minutes in length. In his segment, we see Iroh going to market to buy some goods, avoid getting mugged, entertaining a small child with a song, "Brave Soldier Boy". As the day closes, Iroh heads out of town to a large tree, taking out what he bought in the market, and setting up a small shrine for his dead son. A soldier, he had died five years before while under his uncles command. Iroh begins to cry and laments his past failure. It's a stark contract for the normally very optimistic and laid back Iroh.

It does play a greater role in the story - it helps emphasize why he's willing to go to such great lengths for his nephew. He feels guilt over failing to save his son, and hopes to prevent another senseless death.

I'd say that it does balance out - but not in that episode. It's an episodic series, and that particular story arc is one of the darker ones.

KRS said...

Btw, I realize the examples I gave were not cartoons - I was just trying to illustrate the point.

Also, as a I kid I cried out loud when Sheer Kahn took down Baloo.

AndrewPrice said...

KRS, I think that's the nature of the human condition: we all have different levels of what we find to be "too much." I think the best you can do as a filmmaker is identify your audience and try to aim for what that audience would consider reasonable. Some will claim it's too much, others will claim it's not enough, but the vast bulk of the audience will be fine with it.

On fairy tales, some of them (especially anything out of Germany) are very, very grim. I read a lot of those as a kid and they are full of kids getting their thumbs cut off, people dying, people being eaten, children being stolen, etc. But each does have a point. So they end up feeling dark, but valuable because the child is taught how to avoid bad things. On your point about films, I totally agree. The fairy tales I read were scary, but within a child's imagination, the fear is limited because you just don't have a lot of images of things like dismemberment to conjure up inside your head. But when you see it on the big screen, then suddenly you do have the images and that makes it a much more powerful and more intense/scary medium to use.

Interesting point about the resurrection of heroes.

AndrewPrice said...

KRS, That was a bad moment indeed. Sheer Khan was the ultimate evil for me in those days!

AndrewPrice said...

Jrggrop, That makes sense. I haven't seen it, but I would say that sounds like it's not meant to scare kids or be too dark for them, and it definitely sounds like it balances out, if for no other reason than it tells kids that their parents will continue to love them forever, even if they die.

Individualist said...

I think there is another element regarding cartoons that needs to addressed and that is sheer grossness. These cartoons are usually late night and not really intended for children however being cartoons children will want to see them.

These usually involve some kind of gross behavior or sickening things happening that relate best to a Wayans movie,. Sometimes they are accompanied by blue humor laced with sexual references, swearing or violence and sometimes they are not.

Examples are Robot Chicken, Futurama, Ren and Stimpi, there is one with a Shake, Fries and a Meatball that I forget.

Some of this element leaks into the children's content on Nickalodeon in Saturday morning faire but the impact is somewhat lessened.

AndrewPrice said...

Indi, I would say that I think those are things that wouldn't be shown to kids, except I know that Futurama and Ren and Stimpi both ended up in many kids' lineup.

I'm not really talking solutions today, more just curious about what is "dark", but it would seem to make sense to label cartoons as "For Kids" and "For Adults."

Loyal Goatherd said...

Wile E. Coyote and The Road Runner were dark cartoons. The Road Runner was a smug @$$hole, and that poor Coyote, at best, was a crazy clown. Who didn't sympathize with Wile E. (super-genius) being ever motivated to catch the Road Runner despite momentous failure after catastrophic failure. The Road Runner many times, reveled in the coyote's failure and often would toy with his hunter. What a jerk!

Was this too dark for children? Our parents didn't think so and I don't remember any balancing. The coyote always lost, miserably. These used to show before motion pictures in the theatre (1949), only later did they make their Saturday morning debut. And talk about violence! Perhaps being exposed to these, too young, I am warped, but I swear I hate that %#&ing Road Runner to this day!

Spelling errors in first post, oops!

AndrewPrice said...

LG, LOL!!! The Road Runner was a smug *sshole indeed! What's more, the poor Coyote should have sued ACME for all the defective goods they sold him!

Loyal Goatherd said...

AP said: "I'm not really talking solutions today, more just curious about what is "dark", but it would seem to make sense to label cartoons as "For Kids" and "For Adults.""

All joking aside, it seems to me, there should not be children under age 7 watching anything, go play kids! At least at age 7 and up children have the language skills to voice their fears and concerns about what has viewed. And parents should be familiar with what is being watched or watching it with the kids until age 10-12.

Darkness is in the eye of the beholder, one man's senseless death is another man's brave sacrifice. Only an adult can raise a child, the TV is a pi$$ poor substitute regardless of its content.

AndrewPrice said...

LG, I agree. Young kids shouldn't be put anywhere near a television. And parents should definitely be familiar with what kids are watching. I'm more interested in the question itself. If you wanted to write a kid's show, where do you draw the line sort of thing.

Individualist said...


I guess I got carried away I was really trying to classify the types of cartoons that I am talking about. some of these are not really "dark" in the sense that they involve mature themes. Rather they just come off as really gross bathroom humor. This type of humor was not employed in the 30's which relied more on slapstick, This came about when the blue censoring restrictions were lifted.

Some of these are by nature Dark because they deal with drugs, sex swearing etc. but not all the humor is actually dealing with themes that are too risqué or violent. The kind of bathroom humor jokes that kids get into when they are say 11 or 12.

There is nothing disturbing about say seeing someone fall into horse manure but the way it would be graphically portrayed might be disturbing enough that it becomes "Dark" out of the sheer gross factor.

Post a Comment