Under Childhood is a monthly column on children’s cinema—movies about and for kids.
How many colors are there in a field of grass to the crawling baby unaware of 'Green'?
— Stan Brakhage, Metaphors On Vision (1960)
“Under childhood,” as borrowed from the title of Brakhage’s 1967-1970 Scenes From Under Childhood. “Under” as in to be under a spell, like that of a boy puppet who can think and feel, but remains limited to wooden limbs. “Childhood” is a mushier construct held together by malleable building blocks. What is a child? The easiest answers offered by the world are psychiatric or legal: A “child” has twenty baby teeth and a brain that will not fully develop until around age 25, cannot drive or vote until such-and-such age in whatever country. But what is the world to a child?
The answers lie in the realm of cognitive development, where we consider children’s psychological capacity to process information, make decisions and find solutions, and form thoughts and memories. The theory of cognitive development, as outlined by psychologist Jean Piaget, posits that children acquire mental images (schemas) of their surroundings, and over time, the images are organized into compartments of complex ideas that can be applied to everyday life. For the twenty-first century child, schemas frequently stem from onscreen representations of the real world, whether on an iPad or in a multiplex. In rudimentary terms, what kids watch is entwined with what kids learn. But what we forget is that media is not merely absorbed. What kids watch is also linked to what kids question (we might call this critical thinking).
The increased accessibility of mobile video content has shifted discussions about children’s entertainment to arguments for increased enforcement of what images are (or are not) “allowed” for kids. (Michael Rich refers to this framework as a “values-based approach.”) Concurrently, there is a narrower space for nuanced considerations of these works as art, though with an age-specific audience. Unlike a YouTube video of unboxing a toy, children’s movies possess a significant amount of formal contradictions and tonal changes throughout, which relate back to the specificity of cinema history. We cannot determine the appropriateness of a kid’s movie without considering the implications of cinema’s abstractions, and its usefulness to the child’s mind. The task of this column in particular is to dissect and decipher the intersection of art and cognition in children's cinema.
In Scenes From..., Brakhage imagines that children organically distort all that comes into their field of vision. Framed as the memories of the young Brakhage children, scenes of sloppy meals and lying on the living room floor are clouded in mahogany and teal. Objects and subjects are blurred and ballooned. The camera sharpens its focus at the pace of a baby forming a thought. An air of newness cocoons the shapeless appearance of the scene. Through the lens of the child’s mind, we may re-encounter what is familiar to us, guided through the children’s exercise of decoding never-before-seen phenomena.
An undefined world with ambiguous truths, paired with the vulnerability of (in Brakhage’s words) children’s “untutored eye,” terrifies many. Like the android David from Steven Spielberg’s A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, children find themselves swarmed by adults who wish to engineer them into “the perfect child,” all while hiding them from the dangers of the world. As a result, children’s cinema becomes conflated with curriculum, which presumably must teach correct facts rather than provide a safe space for amorphous responses—both right and wrong answers that can then be carved into knowledge. The much-derided The Emoji Movie (2017) was described as such by The Guardian:
Children should not be allowed to watch The Emoji Movie. Their impressionable brains simply aren’t set up to sift through the thick haze of corporate subterfuge clouding every scene of this sponsored-content post masquerading as a feature film.
Yes, The Emoji Movie is rife with logos and corporate marketing material, and depends upon an audience’s access to smartphones for its jokes to land. But it would be presumptuous to underestimate children’s capacity to “sift through” the movie and formulate ideas of their own. In her review of the film, 9-year-old Shayna Rudoren defends the film, explaining, “The 'be yourself' message that [The Emoji Movie] had was a good message.” Within the bounds of what some interpret as a work of bleak, neoliberal classism, the child recognizes herself in the Emoji that learns to smile only when he really is happy, and not just because his boss—or the code of the phone—demands that he do so. In other words, she discovers that authority can be challenged, whether it is that of a boss, a protective parent, or a movie critic.
Within the mythology of the Dragon Ball franchise, director Tatsuya Nagamine and writer Akira Toriyama's Dragon Ball Super: Broly resembles the shape of a braid with two strands: An interrogation of abuse, and a celebration of friendship. These are of equal significance, merged by deft cross-cutting and an abundance of saturated color. The film itself is a true joy, because it posits that children who survive the former cannot subsist without the healing properties of the latter.
Decades prior to the events of Broly, the Saiyan king exiles Broly (a "lower class" baby) to a barren island for possessing a higher power level than the prince, Vegeta. Broly's father Paragus follows after him in an act of valiance, but then becomes a tyrant himself. To train Broly into a child soldier of a one man army, Paragus fastens a shock collar on his neck and bans all fun. In the rigidity of Broly's scarred face (courtesy of animation director Naohiro Shintani), there is a slight resemblance to Star Wars's "chosen one" Anakin Skywalker, whose paternal bond with the evil Palpatine—a despot disguised as a diplomat, who sneakily becomes Anakin's father figure—only made the hurt sink deeper into his heart. When others tell Broly that his dad treats him poorly, Broly responds, "He's my dad." Never once does he grab at his collar. By the time Broly encounters Goku and Vegeta (Dragon Ball's central heroes), he cannot resist his father's orders to kill.
Between the binary of friends and foes, there is still such a thing as a "frenemy." So is it possible, then, that a fight between frenemies could be a valuable learning experience and a source of mutual empowerment? Dragon Ball Super: Broly certainly makes a case for the necessity of a trusty rival. Throughout Goku, Vegeta, and Broly's interactions, we witness three distinct energies: Goku's off-beat fluidity, Vegeta's razor-sharp precision, and Broly's brute aggression. Despite there being fewer words exchanged than punches, like a basketball game the intensity of combat sparks an invisible intimacy as the players learn about and adapt to one another's body language. The film magnifies the presence of these subtle transitions in seconds—Goku's flitting smile at the thought of finally meeting a worthy opponent—and in breathtaking sequences that mesh 2D and 3D animation, like an entry into another dimension decorated with magenta prisms, a smashing entrance into a pit of lava, and the "Super Saiyan" transformation, which sets bodies ablaze in hues of gold, teal, and red. "[Broly] learns as he fights!" Vegeta realizes. The peculiar bond shared between frenemies sharpens and strengthens through friction.
Between the beatings, Nagamine and Shintai cut to characters who gradually realize that Broly is fighting against his own will, like Goku ("We've had our fair share of enemies...I don't think that you're one of them!") and the alien girl Cheelai ("[Broly] isn't fighting because he wants to fight!"). Misunderstandings are unlearned: Broly is not an adversary but an adult stunted by abuse, manipulated out of choice into remaining a child forever. But in those around him, we see a community that sincerely wishes for him to reclaim ownership of his mind, so that he can finally grow up and into full independence. By a twist of fate, the big fight fizzles out into nothing more than sparring practice among acquaintances. In its aftermath, Goku visits Broly with gifts and lets him know that he'd like to show him a few techniques sometime. Broly smiles—an expression of a budding free will.
Of course, because the Dragon Ball franchise began in 1986, it is worth wondering if these films are even for kids anymore. The target audience is sliding further away from youth, and Dragon Ball Super: Broly, which continues the Dragon Ball Super series, begins with the Saiyans aged into adulthood (Vegeta is married with children). But because the series builds upon its characters' development since a childhood from decades ago, the older audience assigns an aspirational quality to these cherished faces: In an adult Goku or Vegeta, the now-adult sees how far they’ve come. The screening I attended was crowded with large groups of fans in matching Dragon Ball shirts, screaming together at the IMAX screen. Perhaps in watching Broly and his new friends, the audience traced a loose outline of themselves and their friends' shared desire to uplift one another across worlds and timelines, a lifelong commitment that might sometimes warrant a fight or two along the way.