What makes a great kids’ film? A step-by-step guide to the art of cinema for little people

"Wreck-It Ralph" brought in the adults with a healthy dose of nostalgia.

Trying to come up with a set of rules for what makes a good kids movie isn’t actually possible. If it was, there would be a lot more scripts in Hollywood with my name attached. Having two kids of my own at least gives me a different perspective on kids films. If it’s animated, and is coming out in the theatre, chances are that I’ll be there. Whether I like it or not. I can still remember having to take my daughter to see Justin Bieber: Never Say Never . That’s not exactly the kind of kids movies I’m looking at today though. There isn’t much I could say that would change the outcome of a Justin Bieber movie.

Step 1 – What Not To Do

Capturing the magic that makes up a great kids movie needs to start here. After watching what seems like thousands of kids movies, these would be the first things I would avoid if you want your film to truly be successful. First of all, never end your film with a song and dance number. If a theatre would just let me watch the last 30 seconds before the credits, I would know if I should leave or not. It doesn’t matter if the film is fully animated, or a combination of live action and animation, a dance number at the end is the final nail in the coffin.

Even if the final dance number is avoided, music will still play a large part of the film. Kids seem to love pop music, even if Dad would rather listen to classic rock. Song choice plays an important role in the film, but it’s always done wrong. Attention spans are shorter these days, and a song that is popular while you’re creating your film, may not be by the time it is released. Also, if your movie involves dogs in some way, please resist the urge to put “Who Let The Dogs Out ” in there.

Finally, and on a slightly serious note, I tend to have a personal problem with the way characters are created in animated films. Too often, characters seem to be racially stereotyped in some way. Kids may not notice, but adults will surely see this happening. There are times when it can actually be offensive. Remember some of the characters in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen ? It’s really not cute, and it probably won’t help draw in the older crowd.

Step 2 – Writing

Now that we’ve avoided some of the more obvious pitfalls of kids’ movie-making, it’s time to get that script in. This is a slippery slope. You want to make sure that kids get the jokes, but some attention should be paid to the adults in the audience. There’s a reason why people still watch The Simpsons , and that’s because the humour appeals to all ages. Every so often there’s a joke that the kids don’t get, but has the adults doubling over with laughter.

simpsons

It can be hard to get this just right. A little too far and parents are put off by the adult humour, not far enough and you leave the adults groaning. There aren’t many ways to get this done perfectly, but making an attempt is better than nothing.

Step 3 – Actors

You’re going to need people to fill the roles that have been created, and this has a big impact on getting adults into the theatre. Big name talent helps, but there’s no reason to give Eddie Murphy every role in animated films. Thankfully, it seems like actors are realizing there’s plenty to gain from taking on voice acting roles. Jude Law was the best part of Rise of the Guardians as the villain Pitch. Sarah Silverman and John C. Reilly also did a fantastic job in Wreck-It Ralph . They may not get the same recognition that they would by starring in a live-action film, but their names still draw an audience.

Jude Law in Rise of the Guardians

Jude Law in Rise of the Guardians

Step 4 – Marketing

This is the most important part of a film. Word of mouth doesn’t help these days. I remember when I was a kid, I watched Back to the Future in the theatre a year after it had been released. If your movie isn’t on DVD and Blu-ray within a year now, somebody is doing something wrong. It’s unfortunate, but that’s the way things work. A movie is typically deemed a failure if it doesn’t get enough box office in the first weekend. That means you have to market it just right.

Aiming directly at the kids helps. Trust me, I know. If my kids want to see a movie enough, chances are I’ll take them. If you can make a film appeal to all generations, you’ll have a bigger hit. Wreck-It Ralph is a good example. The nostalgia factor was high here. Almost every trailer contained the scene where Ralph interacts with old video game characters. Geeky parents everywhere squealed with delight. How could we resist taking our kids to see the movie?! It worked, and I know a lot of people who couldn’t wait to take their kids to see this one, even if their kids could care less.

Marketing works pretty much the same way for every style of film, not just kids’ movies. Reveal just enough to get the audience interested, throw a few jokes in, showcase some of the more exciting moments and you should have a winner. Things can really fall apart at this step. There are times when a movie is sold the wrong way – making you believe it’s one genre when it’s really another is a good example of the wrong way. The best you can do is avoid giving away too much of the movie, or using every good joke in the 45-second trailer. Of course, if you can get every good joke into a 45-second trailer, there may be no helping your film.

It’s not easy to make a successful film. I’m pretty sure that I couldn’t pull it off, but following some of these rules may put you closer to a hit. It will at least be enough to get me into the theatre, and I’ll be bringing both my kids with me, whether they like it or not!

 


Raised on a healthy diet of Star Wars and every horror film on a video store shelf, Will has been watching movies since before he was able to talk. Inspired by an ever growing passion for film, and the occasional mind control experiment, Will began writing film review on his personal blog, The Film Reel. When the mind control experiments actually worked, he was able to secure a position with Toronto Film Scene. He now waits patiently in the TFS basement for October to come every year, when his love for horror films finally pays off.

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