Why are kids' movies sadder?
Watching Wall-E for the first time the other night, I found myself emotionally involved in an unusual way. Not that "grown-up" films can't move me, or bond me to a character, or give me the blues. But somehow it's a different feeling. Viewing the movie, even knowing that it was probably destined for a happy ending, I feared for the hero's well-being, sympathized with his vulnerability, sensed the real possibility of failure and disappointment, in ways I usually don't watching even the most violent, despairing drama. Why, I wonder?
For a few reasons. Adult movies (no, no, not those types of adult movies) rarely work on the same primal level that a powerful children's story can. Adult art and entertainment usually contains a stronger intellectual element than family entertainment - a factor which can strenthen appreciation but also work to distance the viewer from the situation in some respects. Ultimately, though, I think the issue is primarily one of psychology rather than aesthetics.
A children's classic - think Wizard of Oz, E.T., and now Wall-E - engages emotions that a movie focused on adult concerns and perceptions, by definition, cannot. A certain base level of innocence, vulnerability, fear, goodwill are established. These traits recall in many of us a childhood state in which we were far more trusting than we've become - and the better the movie, the deeper we come into touch with this state. The saddest "grown-up" films tend to be tragedies, but there's an aspect of stoicism and grandeur inherent in that very term - "tragedy" in part suggests a certain inevitablity. Even the most despairing, fearful, wounded screen grown-ups contain an element of resignation - watching these films, we feel that we share a conspiratorial understanding with the protagonists: the universe is not made to our liking, we will have to struggle to achieve what we want, and ultimately we're all gonna die. Grim, perhaps, but in the acceptance there's also a kind of existential comfort: we're facing up to the unhappy truth cold and sober.
Children's stories - movies, books, etc. - evade this truth, and in doing so perhaps they remind us that our existential acceptance is vaguely abstract. At heart, we're still those scared children: the possibilities of failure and disappointment are not merely sad potentialities in Wall-E, they are terrifying, deal-breaking prospects. If Wall-E can't win Eve's love, if he can be physically destroyed, then the universe is not merely indifferent but malevolent, and all is lost. There are no compromises or fleeting happinesses in children's movies - it's all or nothing, the happy ending or the blackest pit of despair. This is the type of awareness found more often in dreams than in waking day-to-day reality; it's a sensibility that could potentially lead to madness if indulged as a living ethos.
But for two hours, in the guise of a fairy tale or a myth we can partake in this purity - in a vulnerability which can only thrive if it isn't crushed. We tip our hats to the fatalist heroes and stoic warriors and comic failures of the grown-up cinema but we wring our hands at the prospect of one little robot's heartbreak or annihilation which, in this context, may even be one and the same.