Because fans should be critical, too

“For Kids” or “With Kids in Mind?”: Thoughts on Writing for Children

A few days, my initial angry reaction to the first episode of Book Three of The Legend of Korra was posted on The Last Airbender reddit page. While the exposure briefly raised my viewing ship (for the first time ever, I reached and surpassed the 1,000 views mark in a single day!), it predictably didn’t win me any new supporters. I only wish they could have seen my follow-up post, in which I re-evaluated that initial reaction with a more reasonable one regarding the entire three-episode premiere of Book Three. Even reading a few more entries from the entire blog (which at least a few of the newcomers might have done) would give them a better idea of where I’m coming from when it comes to Korra and Avatar: the Last Airbender.

Not that it should change any of their own feelings regarding the shows: it’s safe to assume that, if much of your Internet time is devoted to a sub-reddit of any kind, your mind is pretty much made up. Additionally, Internet havens like this generally delve a lot deeper into the mythos and infrastructure of their respective series’ universe than I personally am willing to devote time to. My concerns have always been a little closer to the surface and how Avatar and Korra function as pieces of storytelling. This is how the average viewer will see them (after getting over the initial “is this anime” phase, of course), which is why I find the execution of the stories just as important as–if not more than–the actual content. Intellectual ideas must always be presented within appropriate and imaginative storytelling if they hope to have any chance of reaching the audience.

Which brings me to this fascinating comment from the reddit page that has set my mind ablaze with contemplation for a few days now:

redditor on dialogueInterestingly, the comment does nothing to refute the second-half of my accusation, which was that the dialogue also lacked personality and invention, two qualities that can go a long way in making even the dumbest dialogue a joy to behold. Just look at Star Wars.

But moving onto the broader point: I agree that writing dialogue (and stories in general) with a younger audience in mind requires a heavier leaning towards directness and simplicity than it would be required if written strictly for adults. But “direct” does not automatically equal “obvious,” nor does “simple” automatically equal “stupid.” If anything, simpler writing requires more care and effort because the writer has to be able to suggest complexity and ambiguity in other ways, often times specific to their medium. And these complexities can be suggested within, around, and between the simplicities themselves.

It’s not the complex ideas that I’m opposed to in Korra. If anything, I’m happy that such notions about change and perspective are being given some light in a children’s show. No, I’m opposed to the way those ideas are so blatantly and insipidly presented. It would be one thing if the overarching ideas gradually took shape based on the amusing and natural interactions of the characters, but because the idea has taken precedence over the dialogue, it feels like a lecture rather than a story. Thus, potentially heartwarming scenes–such as the one where Tenzin talks his kids about what the new emergence of Airbenders means to him and to the world–are ruined by the writing’s failure to make the characters and their emotions seem real to us. Sure, I like the ideas, but as a casual viewer, I don’t want to be lectured. I’m want it to be entertained.*

Stories must resonate emotionally before they can stimulate us intellectually. What children lack in intellectual, they make up for in feelings and in imagination, and that’s precisely what anyone producing children’s entertainment should be catering to. As a kid, I distinctly remember being captivated by The Iron Giant long before I could even begin to ponder its underlying themes of death, the Cold War and its effects on America, the threat of nuclear annihilation, what makes us human, etc. No, what kept my attention was the endlessly entertaining, and eventually touching, story of the protagonist Hogarth and his friendship with the titular iron giant from space. I may not have understood the forces that shaped the story, but I understood enough for it to resonate as a kid. So upon re-watching the film as an adult, I was shocked by how mature and complex the context of this charming story between boy and machine really was. And it made the main story that much better.

This is what should be obligated of works designed for children and adults. The stories we tell kids should resonate more powerfully as they grow up and experience more of life, not fade in significance. The key is to find a balance between entertainment values and intellectual values so that the story intrigues you in the beginning and sticks with you when it’s over. The Iron Giant achieved that balance. Frozen did not, and neither does Korra. And isn’t it ironic that a show whose main conceit is bringing balance to the world doesn’t bring that kind of balance to its own story?

*Martin Scorsese once said, “For better or worse, the American filmmaker is first and foremost an entertainer.” Perhaps DiMartino and Konietzko consider themselves above such American notions, having taken their influential cues and mindsets from anime. If this is true, then the writing of Korra is as much a victim of snobbery as it is a lack of imagination.

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12 responses

  1. rosemon

    Interesting post once again, that bit about a work being able to still resonate emotionally with you reminded me of this quote by Walt Disney: “I do not make films primarily for children. I make them for the child in all of us, whether we be six or sixty.” I wonder how this may or may not apply to Frozen: on the one hand, it feels like it’s constrained to a childish formula, but this tired formula is what seems to appeal now to the kid in young adults (particularly women) who grew up on the Disney Renaissance (hence, that nostalgia bias you mentioned earlier).

    August 4, 2014 at 11:07 am

    • This generation’s obsession with their own past is ruining everyone else’s future prospects for a good present. And the Internet with all its subcultures and subgenres and tumblrs makes it so damn easy to validate, too!

      Anyway, in regards to Frozen and nostalgia bias, you’ve just reminded me of this quote by Carl Jung:

      In contradiction to the saying of Christ, the faithful try to remain children instead of becoming as children. They cling to the world of childhood.

      I think that’s happening now, and the epitome is the success of Frozen. I fear for this generation sometimes.

      August 5, 2014 at 5:02 pm

      • The Jung quote intrigues me, as one who is interested in the sayings of Christ. Would you mind explaining further? I think I get what you’re saying but I wanna make sure.

        August 6, 2014 at 4:29 pm

      • That quote comes from an essay by Jung entitled “The Difference between Eastern and Western Thinking.” It’s a fascinating read, and that quote stood out to me the most. To give it context (I’ll try to be as concise as possible), Jung was detailing how in the West, the mind has no metaphysical presence, and thus cannot assert anything beyond itself. Thus, there is no oneness, and any feelings of such where merely projections created by our primitive state of mind. So in order to evolve beyond childhood, the person would have to question their mind–and their faith in God, a figure that exists in “a world where mind-created figures populated a metaphysical heaven and hell.” Therefore, retention of faith caused unintentional infantilization in regards to their perception of reality.

        I don’t feel I’ve done justice to Jung’s ideas. I’d suggest you read the article once yourself. It’s quite intricate, but strangely intriguing.

        August 6, 2014 at 6:33 pm

  2. JMR

    Children’s entertainment today is sort of a bizarre paradox. On the one hand, you have loads of (often quite arbitrary) rules and regulations about what is and isn’t appropriate for kids to see (Won’t somebody please think of the children?!). On the other hand though, expectations of what children’s entertainment (particularly animation) is capable of are so low that by and large they’re allowed to get away with just about anything (It’s just dumb garbage for kids, why do you care?), so long as they adhere to that particular set of rules.

    It produces obvious contradictions where it’s perfectly fine for kids to see mind rotting nonsense that gets all its humor out of farts and doesn’t have two brain cells to rub together through its entire run, but swearing is right out. It also produces less obvious contradictions like the one above where people praise Korra for pushing against the boundaries of what’s “proper” for a kids show, but as soon as they encounter any sort of criticism of it, fall back on “Come on, man, it’s a kid’s show. Kids are dumb and don’t care!”

    It’s annoying because, as you note, truly great artists in this medium take the restrictions as a challenge, pushing them to get across thoughtful and interesting ideas while keeping them in a simpler package. Hacks, on the other hand, use the above excuse to be lazy and hammer in more poop jokes.

    I’m not really sure Bryke and their writing team fit comfortably in either category (as, truth be told, is probably true of most creators). As you’ve noted, they have moments of brilliance that are often almost immediately overshadowed by their impulsiveness and sometimes obnoxious love of self-referential humor.

    In this case, as much as I’ve enjoyed season three so far, I can admit that the dialogue (Tim Hedrick’s in particular) is often expository and stiff. The fact that Legend of Korra is technically a kid’s show means diddly though, because a great writer should be capable of conveying the necessary information in a way that’s accessible for children while also not being terrible.

    August 4, 2014 at 10:20 pm

    • 100% spot on.

      And let’s not forget the repercussions that this laziness and carelessness has. Kids grow up with this stuff, and as adults they either: 1) remember it all fondly, and if they go into the kids’ show industry, their nostalgia can often lead them to produce the same mediocre results that they were brought up on as kids without even realizing it; or 2) they look back on it all with embarrassment, and thus see all kids’ stuff as mediocre trash, which means they see no point in joining that sort of industry that they could possibly make better with their critical judgment (or even better: they look at kids’ stuff today and wonder why it’s not as good as the stuff they watched as kids).

      Nostalgia is a dangerous motivator when it comes to art, and it’s as much a factor in the creation of so many bad kids’ show as lazy carelessness is. In those cases, the artists don’t want to push the boundaries of the medium; they just want to recreate the same magic that captured them as children. In the most abstract sense, this is not a bad thing, but often times, these artists don’t inject those old forms that inspired them with anything new that would revitalize and justify the continued existence of those old forms. Whatever differences there are from the old forms are usually superficial. (This is definitely a major problem I have with most anime.)

      I appreciate DiMartino and Konietzko’s attempts to bring something new to an American animated children’s program, but their success-to-failure ratio is more than a little disconcerting, especially after the disastrous ending of Book One of Korra. Is it possible that they’re well aware of the dismal state of the American animated children’s program, and believe they deserve more credit for the mere act of trying to do something different, even if they themselves are privy to falling into the same traps of carelessness?

      Oi. You just can’t win sometimes.

      August 6, 2014 at 2:30 pm

  3. That was me, I posted the blog post on Reddit.

    http://www.reddit.com/r/TheLastAirbender/comments/2ch3vl/this_man_hates_korra_with_such_passion/

    Hope it helped your blog out, I actually love reading your reactions to the episodes.

    August 5, 2014 at 11:59 am

    • It certainly did! Thank you so kindly, friend! While I’m curious as to how much you agree with some of my reactions, I’ll glad you enjoy reading them. I’ll be posting about the next few episodes of Korra pretty soon.

      August 6, 2014 at 1:37 pm

      • Alright waiting for them.

        August 6, 2014 at 2:57 pm

  4. I think you hit the nail on the head in your review of the desert – “show don’t tell”. In book three, that’s why elements of the (SPOILER) Lin/Suyin conflict are so compelling, because we can see the angst in their eyes, whereas (ANOTHER SPOILER) Zaheer and Korra’s conversation in the most recent episode felt like just a dry exposition. To paraphrase in a style similar to yours – don’t tell me that Zaheer and Unalaq joined the Red Lotus as teenagers, show me a flashback of them learning about it. Show me a reason to believe that Combustion Woman, No-Arms girl, and Lava Man have more depth than my comedic MLP Pinkie Pie recolor OC Mel Flank! (kudos if you get the reference)

    To borrow another example from Attack on Titan (one of those wretched animes lol), the moments that grip me and draw the viewer in are not the characters waxing philosophical on what it means to be human or less than human, or proposing battle strategies. It’s when the Titans come in and cause emotional anguish – when Eren sees his mother helpless and about to devoured right before his very eyes and realizes as much as he wants to save her there is nothing he can do – that’s when it’s truly great.

    Maybe I just needed an excuse to reference Avatar/Korra, Attack on Titan, and My Little Pony all in the same post (check out my crossover fanfic :D), but I hope I could grasp what you are saying and maybe even chime in with insight. Your thoughts?

    August 5, 2014 at 12:13 pm

    • Yes, there is way too much talking in Book Two and Three of Korra (oddly enough, I don’t remember the dialogue being very problematic in Book One), and much of it is so exposition heavy that the visuals and the animation, which could potentially add another dimension to the nonstop chatter, stop dead and simply give an unexciting face to the dialogue. To take yet another cue from the immortal Harry S. Plinkett, there’s a very clear discrepancy between the dialogue scenes and the action scenes. It’s exhilarating to watch Brother Zaheer fight out multiple enemies with frightening ease. And yet, the moment he starts talking, I immediately find myself checking out.

      And please do not even get me started on Attack on Titan, precisely for the reasons you mentioned (the only other thing I’ll say is that I had never previously hated a character as quickly and venomously as I did the main protagonist of Attack on Titan).

      Also, the reference is gotten and appreciated. I was actually just talking with a friend of mine about My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. I’ve only seen the first season, but it’s a delightful little program, and if I had kids, I’d have no problem at all letting them watch it.

      August 6, 2014 at 2:50 pm

  5. Clander

    It absolutely blows my mind that there are still people out there today that have the gull to make a statement like “you’re being too harsh, after all it’s for kids” as if kids entertainment can’t be good or great or revolutionary.

    August 22, 2014 at 6:29 pm

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