I recently got into an argument with my mom over her refusal to watch Toy Story 3—she claims it’s “just a cartoon,” and is therefore only enjoyable for kids. It got me thinking, what are some of your favorite children’s entertainments that can also be enjoyed by adults? I’m not talking about classic shows/movies/books you enjoyed as children and still enjoy today. I’m talking about relatively current children’s entertainment that you were introduced to as adults and that you found to be just as enjoyable, ambitious, or compelling as entertainment for adults. —Allison Nada
I’m just going to kick this off by taking Pixar movies off the table, since they could so easily dominate this entire AVQ&A; The A.V. Club’s love for the studio’s sophisticated, intelligent, touching output is well-documented at this point, so there’s no point in repeating ourselves too much. That said, anyone who reads the film reviews regularly is probably aware by now that I’m a big fan of animation, I get put on the kid-movie beat a lot, and I’m always fine with it, because there’s always the chance that a given kids’ film will turn out to be a highly entertaining, well-crafted piece of entertainment like Despicable Me, or better yet, How To Train Your Dragon, or even better yet, The Secret Of Kells. Each of the three has its flaws, but so do adult movies, and adult movies rarely let themselves be as irrepressibly uninhibited as the former two films. Kells, by contrast, is simply a gorgeous, lush piece of work, and I’m looking forward to its scheduled DVD release in October. Going back a bit further, but sticking with animation, I was completely drawn into the world of Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino’s Avatar: The Last Airbender, a three-season animated series that’s pretty much the epitome of “designed for kids but ambitious enough for adults.” I don’t care how bad M. Night Shyamalan’s live-action adaptation was; it seems to have exposed more people to the animated series, and that’s reason enough for it to exist as far as I’m concerned. Finally, I grew up on Diana Wynne Jones’ books, so I’m no doubt biased by a deep-rooted old love of her screwball-comedy fantasies like Howl’s Moving Castle and The Lives Of Christopher Chant. But she still puts out a book every year or so—one aimed at readers in the 9-to-12 range, according to Amazon—and I still pick up every one and love it. No one else writes dotty, dizzy complicated plots the way she does, but she was also doing excellent (and frequently funny as well as exciting) books about young wizards battling dark evils before Harry Potter was a gleam in J.K. Rowling’s eye. And hey, she has a new one out I didn’t know about! Sweet.
I will take your obvious bait, Tasha, and once again expose myself as a Harry Potter fangirl. I don’t read much YA fiction, just the big crossover titles, like the recently surging Hunger Games series, so I won’t be so presumptuous as to claim it’s the best or most original series out there. And yes, I see the obvious Narnia parallels in later books, and I concede that His Dark Materials is better written. Yet I don’t re-read those series once a year the way I do the Harry Potter books (volumes three through seven, anyway). It might just be a matter of timing: I was introduced to the series when I was 15, just as I was transitioning into semi-adulthood, which coincided with the release of The Prisoner Of Azkaban, in which the series took a similar leap in maturity. For me, Azkaban hit just the right ratio of adult themes and childhood fantasy, and I could feel okay about indulging the side of me that still wanted to escape into a colorful fantasy world without feeling like an immature baby. Conveniently, the series continued to grow along with me, getting progressively darker and more complex (and yes, slightly indulgent) as my tastes matured.
But what really keeps me coming back to Harry Potter is the world that J.K. Rowling created. I love digging into the tiny, imagined details and eccentricities of fictional universes, right down to imagined sporting events and made-up foodstuffs, and the world of Harry Potter is so sprawling and colorful and whimsical that it always draws me in. And even though the final three books take place in the midst of an all-out war, the series never loses its sense of wonder and descends into grim hopelessness the way the Hunger Games series does—or, to take a slightly more adult example of a meticulously imagined fantasy world, the Lord Of The Rings trilogy. In spite of the myriad dangers present in the HP universe—Voldemort, dragons, splinching—it’s still a place I’d want to live in, which makes it a much more appealing fantasy destination than Middle Earth or Phillip Pullman’s alternate universes. There’s a reason the Harry Potter books can support their own theme park, after all: No matter how old you are, you can’t deny that a little part of you secretly wants to play Quidditch and drink butterbeer.
Earlier this summer, my husband and I were cooling our heels at the Country Inn & Suites in Champaign, Illinois when we happened to turn on the new incarnation of The Electric Company. While I was a major Sesame Street addict when I was a youngster, I was a little young for The Electric Company when it first aired, so the show was new to me. Since I don’t spend a lot of time around kids, hence don’t really have a reason to keep up with children’s programming, this was my first time turning on a kids’ show and keeping it on because we were legitimately entertained. This particular episode featured an ongoing story about a fierce campaign between two young ladies who wanted to be president of the book club, and Samantha Bee guest-starred. It was truly well-written, clever, and funny, with some catchy-ass songs that had me dancing only partially ironically around the room. It reminded me of what my mom always said she liked about Sesame Street when I was a kid: it was meant for children but the writing was snappy enough for adults to enjoy too. Also, I hear that there are a lot of good books for young adults out these days… cough.
As is always the case with questions like this, it falls to me to be the designated spoilsport. To be completely honest, there really isn’t any kid-culture that I really like, for the simple reason that I’m not a kid anymore. Occasionally, something in art intended for children will appeal to me, but it’s usually something that the creators have sneaked in deliberately for adults, like in the old Rocky And Bullwinkle cartoons. I’ve tried almost everything my colleagues have cited; for instance, I could only get through the first couple of Harry Potter books, not because there was nothing there for grown-ups, but because it was outweighed by the stuff for kids. Even with the one honest answer I could give—superhero comics—if I’m honest, while I know it was a genre originally aimed at children, the more mature work is what always appealed to me. I’ve even lamented the modern dearth of comics for kids, but it’s not because I want to read them myself. I can appreciate the skill and craft that go into a well-made kids’ movie, but it’ll never have the same impact on me as it would have if I’d watched it when I was a kid. I don’t mean to sound superior or dismissive; it’s just that I don’t have the same values or aesthetics as I did as a kid, and it would be a pretense to say otherwise.
Before I worked for The A.V. Club, I spent a very short amount of time as a stay-at-home dad with my daughter. Since she wasn’t interested in anything a foot or less away from her at the time, I could watch anything I wanted to, though I stopped short of watching Antichrist with her, because that seemed just too weird and gross. But now she’s getting older and starting to display a preference in regards to entertainment. Thankfully, she doesn’t respond to the overly precious, semi-operatic Wonder Pets on Nick Jr., but she does seem to love Yo Gabba Gabba!, a quasi-psychedelic kids’ show featuring brightly colored costumed characters singing simple songs about sharing and caring. Her eyes light up when the whiny-voiced Muno or floppy Brobee turn up onscreen and I love the magic drawing sessions with Mark Mothersbaugh, Biz Markie’s beat of the day, and countless Super Music Friends, like Mates Of State singing “No One Likes To Be Left Out.” It’s obvious the show owes a great deal to predecessors like Sesame Street, but the ’80s aesthetic in animated clips modeled after the videogame Root Beer Tapper, and the crazy dancing montages, along with musical nods to hip-hop, punk, and new wave, fall more on show co-creator, Aquabats lead singer, and Renaissance man Christian Jacobs. It’s perfect for someone as nostalgic about that decade as me, and my daughter is starting to understand that listening to music—and dancing to it—is awesome.
I’m not sure how I happened upon the episode of SpongeBob SquarePants called “No Weenies Allowed” years ago, and I’m not sure why I started watching it, but I did. And I was surprised by how much I laughed as SpongeBob tried to prove he was tough enough to get into a roughneck bar. (“I’ll have you know I stubbed my toe while watering my spice garden, and I only cried for 20 minutes!”) Creator Stephen Hillenburg and the writers don’t try to slip in adult jokes; the world around SpongeBob is funny and silly enough without them. If there is an element of that, it’s in the cynical Bikini Bottom townspeople, who generally suffer SpongeBob’s naïveté with sarcasm. That said, the show never feels mean, though it avoids stultifying moralizing. At its core, it’s just a silly cartoon with many layers of ludicrousness—there’s enough to please kids and adults. Or at least me. I’ve hoped for years that my nieces and nephews would get into SpongeBob SquarePants so I could watch with them, to no avail. Maybe they’ll discover it in adulthood like I did.
Since I’ve got a brother who isn’t yet 10, I have plenty of opportunities to get unwittingly exposed to new kids’ entertainment. Last Christmas, I was visiting my parents and little brother, and spent a few nights catching up on Dexter’s fourth season, which John Lithgow brazenly stole and elevated to greatness in his performance as the Trinity Killer. One morning, my mom had some youngster-oriented satellite radio station on in the car, when what should come on but one of John Lithgow’s songs for children, “The Laughing Policeman,” from his album Sunny Side Of The Street. Just the night before, I’d watched Lithgow start a fight with a stranger by repeatedly yelling “CUNT!” at him from a dark alley, and now I was hearing him foppishly guffaw and squeal in a manner at least as menacing to the integrity of the human skull as Arthur Mitchell’s hammer. Last weekend, I happened across Lithgow’s CD Singin’ In The Bathtub (featuring such smash hits as “At The Codfish Ball” and “From The Indies To The Andes In His Undies”) in a Goodwill bargain bin, and you can bet your ass I bought it. I’m not saying I can get all the way through it, but it’s the only kid-adult-entertainment contrast I can think of that’s more disturbing than George Carlin’s role on Shining Time Station. The appreciation isn’t entirely ironic, either: I’ll never accuse Lithgow of holding anything back, that’s for damn sure. Some nice person on YouTube combined Lithgow’s bathtub-singing and bathtub-murdering in one convenient clip:
My niece and nephew have both recently reached double-digits in age, and are at that remarkable epoch between growing out of grade school and the pseudo-maturity that comes with the angsty teen years. That is, they’re still fun. And even better (especially for this timely AVQ&A), they still watch cartoons. I spent the better part of an afternoon just a few weeks ago doing just that with them—and since then, have become totally infatuated with Cartoon Network’s newish series Adventure Time, a Japanese-pop-style animation about a rubbery, sort-of evil-fighting 12-year-old and his adoptive older brother/best friend/talking dog. The two go on surreal, fantastical adventures, encountering all sorts of silly characters—why-wolves, candied zombies, frog wizards, treasure chests that vomit gold—and even occasionally awe at a double rainicorn. It’s a bit absurdist, to say the least. There isn’t always a moral where there should be, and it seems to revel in a sly, dark humor that both surprises me and makes me laugh out loud.
I’ll confess that I was absolutely obsessed with Nickelodeon’s live-action programming when I was growing up, from Roundhouse to Clarissa Explains It All. The Adventures Of Pete & Pete featured heavily into that equation at the time, but I’ve become increasingly obsessed with it as an adult. With guest stars like songstress Syd Straw as married-to-math Miss Fingerwood, David Johansen from the New York Dolls as a pissy park ranger, Iggy Pop as curmudgeonly loving “Pop” Mecklenberg, and musical contributions from Luscious Jackson, Mark Mulcahy, and basically all of Stephin Merritt’s bands, the show is a musical powerhouse. Above and beyond all that music, though, I’m absolutely transfixed over the show’s extreme absurdity. Oddly enough, I have a masters’ degree in youth and teen media, so I speak with extreme academic authority when I say that a ton of kids’ TV is based in an off-kilter world where adults are idiot assholes and kids live unsupervised in hotels. Wellsville, home of the family Wrigley, is on a whole other plane, operating in an endless autumn of low-key absurdity. Bullies are named Papercut, Open-Face, Endless Mike, and Pit Stain. Little Pete’s own personal superhero exists, wrestles a bowling ball for his affection, and travels by land-canoe. Opening-credit slots and major plotlines are given to little Pete’s inexplicable tattoo Petunia, and the metal plate in Mrs. Wrigley’s head. Combined with the dreamy nerdiness of Big Pete and the inherent relatability of best friend/girlfriend Ellen Hickle, the show works like a grown-up ex-nerd’s dream of the perfect low-key life, and isn’t that what the best kids’ entertainment is?
I have a big soft spot for what some might sneer at as “family entertainment”—I’m an unapologetic Muppet geek, and I believe with complete sincerity that The Adventures Of Pete & Pete was one of the 1990s’ finest television achievements. So when I ended up in the thick of the madness and mayhem of Austin’s Fantastic Fest last year, I had no qualms spending back-to-back mornings catching the 3-D Toy Story double-feature and the feature-length adaptation of the Belgian puppetoon series A Town Called Panic. Looking back on the experience, I realize how bizarrely complementary Toy Story and Panic are: the former is about a child’s playthings looking out into the real world, while the toys of the latter build their own insular world, unencumbered by their static forms and limited range of movement. (Just because Horse is a horse doesn’t mean he can’t take piano lessons.) While I’ve seen Toy Story multiple times since as a kid and an adult, my first viewing of A Town Called Panic benefited from an aged awareness that the film’s manic action is told in the same way a 5-year-old might breathlessly recount his most recent action-figure clashes. And as an adult, that makes it way more fun to watch.
I’ve always loved newspaper comic strips. When I was a kid, I was elated to find out that I could follow the adventures of Snoopy, Calvin, and, yes, Garfield in the daily newspaper, as well as the Sunday newspaper. A long-faded copy of Garfield Hits It Big is a permanent fixture on my end table near my bed in my childhood home. But after high school—and particularly after the end of Calvin And Hobbes—my interest in the form faded, particularly as I got more interested in comics obviously aimed at adults, focused more on wordplay and moody drawings (See: Get Fuzzy and Pearls Before Swine) than simple gags and goofy characters. And I also came to love any number of web comics my mother would have washed my eyes out with soap for reading 20 years ago. But in recent years, there’s been a small boom of new strips that have bountiful appeal for both kids and adults. The first I discovered was Cow And Boy, perhaps an obvious Calvin homage, but one with plenty of wit and verve to spare, as well as a very proper cow character who can make kids laugh with her antics and make adults laugh with her surprisingly large vocabulary. Then came the wonderful Lio, a wordless strip about the adventures of a young girl, with simple punchlines and funny drawings for kids to enjoy, and a consistently warped worldview and gorgeous art for adults. Finally, there’s the wonderful Cul-de-Sac, which I like to imagine would have deeply appealed to 8-year-old me for how it so completely gets what it’s like to be a kid in a big, wild world, but which appeals to the current me because of its strong joke writing and great character work. Maybe I should re-subscribe to my local paper after all.
When I was a teenager, I was always suspicious of Young Adult Fiction, because it seemed like the worst movies and books and shows all seemed to be the ones that were “aimed” at my “age group.” Now that I’m a grown-up (ha!), though, I don’t worry so much about labels. If I hear enough good things about a novel, I’ll try and snag it, regardless of where it belongs, because great story is great story, whatever the marketing context. Such is the case with Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy, which I’m currently working my way through, and that’s also how I got into Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. It’s a heady, exciting trilogy about a world where people keep monsters as pets, polar bears wear armor, and airships are viable modes of transportation. There’s all kinds of philosophical commentary about our relationship with a possible God and our responsibilities to the world around us, and there’s even a little Paradise Lost thrown in for good measure. All three books (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass) also read like the wind. I think I made it through all of them in under a week, and even though I had some problems with the ending, I was still exhilarated by the experience. Forget the boring-ass movie based on Compass. This series is what Harry Potter would be if Rowling had the experience to avoid plot cul-de-sacs—the world here isn’t as inviting as Hogwarts, but it’s a terrific mélange of science fiction and the supernatural, and even writing about it here makes me wish I had the time to revisit it. I’d also like to give a shout-out to Lemony Snicket’s A Series Of Unfortunate Events; it’s fascinating how those books start off formulaic, then slowly expand into a kind of surrealist nightmare that manages to be hilarious and deeply creepy without missing a beat. I would’ve talked more about them here, but I haven’t had a chance to read the last entry in the series yet.