You ever go back and check out a story you liked as a kid? Sometimes this means realizing how insufferable some cartoons were, but other times you end up rereading Prisoner of Azkaban and realize that holy crap that’s a special book.
Which brings up an important thing about children’s stories. Namely, what is a story for kids? Is Star Wars a children’s story? It was one of my favorite stories as a kid and that seems like a decent barometer for what counts as a kid’s movie. My favorite kid’s show now is Phineas and Ferb, but in many ways that show’s more about playing with the idea of story than telling stories themselves. So let’s find a better example.
More specifically, Justice League. I did watch The Animated Series too, but I remember Justice League better. Regardless, both shows are very much Saturday morning cartoons, superheroes fighting bad guys, cool stuff happening. Straightforward enough, you get the idea.
Some friends of mine and I recently revisited Justice League, owing to some severe disappointment with a certain recent movie with Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman. Now, I remember this show being awesome, but a lot of things you think are awesome as a kid doesn’t always hold up when you’re an adult (see: [example]).
But Justice League holds up.
Yes, the superhero action is certainly still a big (and cool) draw, but, thematically, it’s still interesting to watch as an adult. Take the Justice League Unlimited episode “Epilogue,” which serves as a, fittingly, epilogue to the Batman Beyond series. Anyway, the episode centers around Terry McGuinnes (new Batman) finding out the truth about his relation to Bruce Wayne (original Batman), namely that by some form of Future Science, Terry is genetically Bruce’s son. What follows is a fascinating question of identity: Is Terry a good Batman because of his genes? Or is there something more? It’s a big nature-versus-nurture question that’s wrapped up in an identity crisis for Terry.
What’s so cool about this is that the episode (and by extension, the show) doesn’t talk down to its audience. It’s easy for a kid’s story to treat its audience as if they’re idiots, but Justice League is willing to treat its audience with respect. Which also means willing to go dark; not only does Terry find out he’s the subject of some genetic manipulation, but there was also a plan to kill his parents. By people who weren’t the bad guys, for the record. Not sugarcoating gives a younger audience the feeling of being involved in something grownup, especially since the show doesn’t make light of it either.
I don’t think stories have to be dark to be good (see that severely disappointing movie I mentioned earlier); but I don’t think that kids’ stories should shy away from it. ‘cuz there’s a message inherent to stories like these that no matter how crappy things get, good ends up winning. The climax of “Epilogue” is that it was Batman’s compassion that made him such a good hero, and that’s what Bruce sees in Terry. After some really intense revelations, Terry recommits to the greater good. It’s a hefty story, but one that rings true nonetheless.
There’s a wonderful CS Lewis quote about how a children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children really isn’t any good at all. Looking back on the stuff I liked as a kid and the stuff I like now, yeah, that’s true. I liked being frightened, I liked stories making references to some of the harder books I’d read in school, I liked it when stories treated me as a competent audience. Stories like these; think Justice League and Harry Potter, are the sort of ones that stick with ya. And that you can enjoy as a grownup, which, hey, what’s being an adult if not being able to watch superhero cartoons at 1am on a Sunday night with a glass of wine and bowl of ice cream?