The Lorax didn’t exactly get spectacular reviews. The original environmental message of Dr. Seuss’s book was tarnished by the heavy use of the title character in cross-promotions, including to try to sell SUVs. And yet, the movie made an absolute fortune at the box office this weekend, hauling in $70.7 million in the biggest opening this year.
There are a lot of ways to interpret that number, but I think the most important one is this: people are just desperate for entertainment they can genuinely share with their children, rather than sitting through something that only works for their kids. The opening weekend figures don’t lie. The Incredibles opened with $70.5 million. Up? $68.1 million. Wall-E? $63.1 million. Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, which wasn’t from Pixar, and was based on an obscure children’s book? $30.3 million. Shrek, which is an utter bastardization of William Steig, but pretty fun none the less? $42.3 million.
The Pixar movies on that list may count as high art. But even though the rest of them may not—or don’t even remotely—clear that bar, they’re all fine, fun, mid-level movies with fresh plots and interesting character beats. They’re all movies that took as a baseline requirement that they needed to be non-offensive and age-appropriate, and then started thinking about what would be fun for viewers of all ages. The Incredibles tweaks the superhero tropes that are familiar to adults and adds plausible marriage drama, while giving the kids in the audience feisty character hooks and cool fights. Up bridges the generation gap and does absolutely hilarious things with animal humor. Wall-E combines cuteness with abject terror at what we’re doing to ourselves as a society. Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs mashes up global warming awareness with mad science (there’s a lot of light environmentalism in these movies that doesn’t particularly challenge the way we live our lives now). And Shrek, however much I wish they’d had the guts to go all the way with the original story, is a wonderful jab at the corporatization of fairy tales.
These things aren’t totally easy to do well—I’m not sure many movies could do the cross-dressing jokes in Mulan, for example—but they’re far from impossible, either. A lot of the movies that are aimed just at adults or just at kids don’t treat those age groups with much in the way of respect. But movies like these successes illustrate that no matter how old you are, being approached you as if you’re intelligent enough to catch jokes and emotionally open enough to be engaged is a pretty appealing prospect.