Give Mass Taste Some Credit

I hadn’t seen the Muppet’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” until I read this article in the New York Times about it. I wasn’t disappointed. I especially appreciated the meta-humor of the (now) vintage characters, some of which are references to just-past-their-sell-by-date popular culture trends (Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem referencing psychedelic rock), performing a song that is almost exactly contemporaneous with the original run of the show (The Muppet Show premiered 1976, “Bohemian Rhapsody” 1975); not to mention the sly wink at the end to contemporary technology.
I was even more pleased, however, to see another confirmation of one of my closest held beliefs: quality is not dependent on audience, medium or style. Since everybody’s in the mood for sweeping generalizations about this decade, I’ll throw one out there: this decade has been terrible for children’s movies. I understand that Pixar has put out a run of films this decade that stand up with the greatest family films of all time, but they are the exceptions that prove the rule.
Children’s entertainment is subject to the same economic forces as all other facets of the industry, but they also have to live with executives’ belief that children will like anything (and they’re not entirely wrong). That’s why cheap production values, bad writing, and alternative distribution schemes are so much more prevalent in this sector. Another idea that studio executives can’t seem to let go of is that children are more attracted to media over content. The commercial success of the Pixar films, as well as the surprising popularity of Shrek in 2001, ensured that any project that wasn’t computer animated got axed or had its budget cut. When you consider how new computer animation was to the Disney machine (Toy Story opened in 1995), their 2004 decision to close their traditional animation department is astounding.
So it’s nice to see 30 year old characters being put to good use with high quality production value. I don’t know if there was any commercial purpose to that video, but I imagine its place as the most watched video of the week with over 7 million views in its first week has to send some kind of message to the suits. Another good example is the Goofy short How to Hook Up Your Home Theater, released in theaters with National Treasure: Book of Secrets. It’s a conscious effort (check out Steamboat Willie in the logo) to tie current entertainment with the institutional legacy of Disney Studios, and it’s a form and medium that’s been a part of the company since the 1920’s. Popular culture has moved on from the days when Disney theatrical shorts were the only mass form of children’s cinema, but if you execute the formula well enough, children will choose it anyway.

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