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It’s happened yet again: I found another movie presumably made for kids that easily beats many of this season’s predictable box-office yawners. The movie this time is The Pirates! Band of Misfits. It is the story of a socially complex group of failed pirates — people doing their best to make a life for themselves outside official channels — and their captain’s search for fame in the “Pirate of the Year” pageant.
This supposed kids movie is packed with subtleties, ironic humor, more struggles, and passing references to pop culture. It deals with big and important themes like friendship, betrayal, fame, and the love of money. It deftly handles politics, with an evil Queen Victoria and her loot.
It asks fundamental questions such as is it really stealing if you take it away from the government? It touches on hard questions of vocation and personality, and the difficulties of balancing the love for one’s work and the need for material provision.
The humor even deals with a some sophisticated understanding of probability theory, such as when the captain says concerning the pageant: “Every time I’ve entered, I’ve failed to win. So I must have a really good chance this time!”
Kids seem understand the captain’s fallacy. Do adults?
It’s hard to remember that last movie I saw that was made for adults that offered as much rich content. Feature films these days too often trod over well-packed earth: action, adventure, comedy, romance. Films are cranked out according to the plan and offer no surprises. Most bore me and I can’t wait for them to end. But Pirates was an absolute delight! I would say the same of Madagascar, Kung Fu Panda, Rango, Up, Tangled, and some others.
For the life of me, I don’t know why adults suffer through all the junk put out for their consumption when they could so easily be delighted by the movies supposedly made for kids.
Apparently, I’m not alone in this judgment. A Michigan nonprofit called the Dove Foundation has observed over many years that the average G-rated film in a five-year period was more than eight times more profitable than R-rated movies. Further, the average PG title was about five times more profitable.
The Dove Foundation speculates that family movies have a larger market because of the absence of sex and violence. Such films are more appealing to the largest swath of the bourgeoisie, they speculate. There might be something to that idea. But I’m thinking that there is a much simpler and less finger-wagging explanation that is not directly related to the moral content.
My explanation is this: Kids movies are better because the kids market is more demanding than the rest of the consumer market. And to put it plainly, kids are more clever than adults and they insist that the services they consume are top quality. Kids easily spot a fraud. The market is merely conforming to consumer demand. It’s that simple.
But can it really be true that kids have a keener sense in some areas than adults? Not in every area. Kids have ridiculously short time horizons, for example. But in other ways, they know things that we do not.
Here’s an example of where kids prove themselves much smarter than their parents. From an early age, and really from their first interactions with peers, kids become obsessed with their clothes. They have to have the right clothes made by the right makers and with the right insignias and logos.
Parents find this preposterous and maddening. One year, the kid will want a Hilfiger shirt and the next it must be Izod — but the exact same style and color! Surely, this is proof of the outrageous superficiality of the child’s mind, the way in which immaturity leads to mental fog, and the intense need for parents to constantly shape these dumbbells into people who can make sound judgments.
But there’s the problem: It turns out that the kids are more correct than their parents. Last year, Rob Nelissen and Marijn Meijers of Tilburg University in the Netherlands published a paper in Evolution and Human Behavior showing the result of empirical studies of designer labels. In every case, as a report in The Economist shows, it turns out that wearing the right label leads to more success in every area of life.
Volunteers were shown pictures of people with known designer labels and unknown labels but otherwise wearing the same clothes. People were asked which person enjoys a higher social and economic status. The designer label wearer won easily.
Silly? Not really. Researchers further tested by sending out people to do a survey. The survey workers who wore designer labels had 58% success in getting people to answer questions, but the same people with the same clothes and no label had only a 15% success rate. The implication: People wearing status logos have more credibility.
Then the researchers asked people to put themselves in the position of a boss and asked them to hire people from videos of job interviews. They overwhelming majority picked the people with fancy logos in view, and even rewarded them higher salaries.
Finally, people who collect for charity while wearing designer labels were able to collect more money than those who were wearing the same clothes without the labels. This is interesting because it challenges the first intuition that people just assume that the person wearing the label is richer. Actually, it is even deeper than that: People presume that the person is more trustworthy too. They further proved this point with a game that involved transferring money to people with and without labels.
Overall, then, people who wear designer labels are more successful, more trusted, paid more, and hired more and enjoy better lives. You can say that it ridiculous, and it probably is, but the kids are the objective ones here. They are intuiting the facts. And they are responding to the world around them in ways that are realistic and likely to get them where they want to be. Parents, completely oblivious to these important realities, try to stop this from happening, under the presumption that the kid is deluded.
My own theory is that the longer people live, the more they entrench themselves in their own biases. They get further and further from a central insight of microeconomics: All economic value is subjective. It is determined by no physical or aesthetic or seemingly rational facts. It is determined by the minds of individuals alone. Those valuations interact with the physical world with the output of objective prices. But what people love and loathe is ultimately their own decision.
Kids have fewer biases and hence are better able to discern emergent social norms rooted in subjective valuation that elude adults precisely because the longer we live, the more we are inclined to believe that we are right and the world around us is wrong. We become ever less willing to consider realities that are not our own. As a result, we miss and misunderstand economic trends.
So how can older people gain the special insight that kids have? I might suggest that we take that extra step of declining to watch movies that are dumb, even if they are made for us, and start watching movies that are smart, meaning that they are made for the kids. Here we will find the wit, the intelligence, the cleverness, the character development, the deeper moral issues, the real-life problems of love, friendship, betrayal, power, liberation, and individuality.
And there’s another thing one has to love about kids movies. They are fun. Blessed fun. Take your loved one and see the movie. Fun, if we seek it and embrace it, is something that no power on Earth should be permitted to take away from us.