Aug 8, 2007

Your Taste or Your Customers? Children’s Edition

Ratatouille vs. Underdog

In my ongoing campaign to get advertisers (and agency creatives) to realize that there is more than one standard to judge work (e.g. not every product is marketed to upscale early 30something hipster males) I’d ask you to turn your attention to two children’s movies that Disney put out this summer: Ratatouille and Underdog.

The former was universally praised—nay, slavered over, by critics, while the latter was universally panned.

But from the POV of the children who sat through them, Ratatouille was an abject failure and Underdog a charming-if-not-totally-memorable tale.

Now why is this? Well I’m guessing it’s because Ratatouille is a wonderful movie for an adult film critic—and for the imaginary ideal child the adult film critic wishes he had—while Underdog is merely well done KidFlick 101 and thus reprehensible to serious artistes.

Let’s start with the basic premise: Ratatouille is about being true to one’s art. Now call me crazy, but this is a concept that is pretty much lost on anyone under the age of 14. It’s also set in the world of French haute cuisine. (Ditto.)

The most telling scene in the movie is one where the forces of good take back a 5-star gourmet restaurant from the forces of evil, who have put out a line of frozen burritos and frozen pizzas under the name of the famous chef who started the restauant (e.g. a little Wolfgang Puck joke for the more urbane adults in the audience.) And to celebrate, the forces of good make a bonfire of the frozen entrees. Now in the theater I was in, the kids were completely baffled as to why anyone would consider the destruction of frozen pizza to be a good and noble thing. I mean frozen pizza is one of the foods your average 10 year old lives on. Destroying it just seems… wrong.

I have yet to meet a kid who really liked Ratatouille. Older kids didn’t exactly hate it, but it was clear to them there was a lot in there they just didn’t get.

Underdog, on the other hand, every kid gets. First off, it’s about a boy with a dead mother. (And you know how psychologists and English professors love to come up with theories on why kids love stories about kids with dead parents. But they do. It’s a formula Disney warmly embraces, as just about every popular Disney movie to Bambi to Cinderella to Lion King features a kid with a dead parent. But I digress.) The plot in Underdog isn’t all that surprising… to an adult. To a kid who hasn’t seen several thousand movies, the fact that the boy at first rejects the dog and then comes to love him is actually a surprising and heartwarming plot twist. And it’s a dog. Kids love pet movies if the pet is at all loveable. And Underdog is pretty loveable. Critics have complained that the plot is hard to follow, that it’s not clear what Simon Bar-Sinister (Peter Dinklage) is actually plotting. But that’s not important to kids. It’s clear he was up to no good, Underdog and the boy stopped him and that’s all that matters.

One review I read actually complained that having Jason Lee do Underdog’s voice made him think of My Name Is Earl the entire time. Can we all agree that none of the 7 year olds in the audience were bothered by this? (For those of you unfamiliar with 7 year olds, it’s because none of them have ever seen My Name is Earl.)

Now critics aren’t ad agencies, but I think the analogy here is a pretty solid one. Giving your tastes greater importance than those of your audience is a recipe for disaster.

Even if your audience is only four feet tall.

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