Did you see what we’ve got down there???
If there’s a movie with an animal in it, I’ll watch it. In addition to being funny and/or heartwarming, most kids films contain a message, about learning to love yourself, being courageous, or that you can achieve whatever you set your mind to. But do they have a responsibility to teach? Normally I’d say no, but two recent releases, Barnyard: The Original Party Animals and How to Eat Fried Worms, venture into some murky territory.
After reading this article, I was excited to see Barnyard. I mean, when was the last time animals, or even people, discussed the difference between vegetarians and vegans on film? Well, lesson-wise, this movie’s a roller coaster. There is the usual poetic license: The animals walk on two legs when the farmer isn’t looking. And flat-out inaccuracies: The male cows have udders.
Then again, it’s just a fun animated film, right? Maybe not. Barnyard raises some AR issues, which made me think the filmmakers were interested in getting some real information out there—otherwise why bring them up, right? On the positive side, there’s a dartboard with Colonel Sanders’ face on it, the tables are turned when the cows go “boy tipping,” and none of the animals is caged (though that could just be pro-farming propaganda, reinforcing the fairy tale that all cows and chickens roam freely and that they happily provide us with milk, cheese, and eggs).
As for the discussion about whether the farmer is vegan—does he eat “nothing with a face”? No eggs or dairy?—it’s so fast, there’s no way a kid unfamiliar with veg*nism could follow it, never mind learn anything. And in any case, the animals drink at a milk and honey bar and order pizza, so the vegan agenda obviously wasn’t foremost in the filmmakers’ minds. And then there’s the fact that Ben the Cow—the dad of Otis, the film’s protagonist—is voiced by Sam Elliott, a spokesman for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association….
The wincing doesn’t stop there. Freddie the Ferret sees chicken legs where there are hens. Pip the Mouse jumps back and forth on the bellies of Pig the Pig and Otis the Cow, naming the cuts of meat the animals represent as he goes: hamburger, chorizo, rump roast, pork chop. And comedian Root the Rooster verbally jabs at the turkeys in his audience with jokes about cranberry sauce, dead turkeys walking, and the fact that while we all know we’re going to die someday, not everyone knows when, at which point he turns to one turkey and says, “Thanksgiving!” Yeesh.
And let’s not forget the coyotes. Billed as ruthless and dangerous, they are skinny, scary creatures that resemble horror movie werewolves. The farm animals live in fear of them, and the fence surrounding the farm is supposed to keep them safe. But when the coyotes manage to make off with some hens and a chick, and Dag the Coyote tells Otis that a few missing animals here and there is the natural order of things—which, while not pretty, is the truth—the coyotes are painted as monsters to be fended off with bats (and of course, when the inevitable confrontations do arise, there’s not even a drop of blood).
So what about the mommies and daddies of the kids who go to see Barnyard? Is it okay for them to take Maddy the Chick home and cook her for dinner? Should they be fended off with bats? While kids may leave the theater thinking coyotes are bad, I don’t think any of them would refuse a trip to McDonald’s for some Chicken McNuggets based on what they saw or heard.
And then there’s How to Eat Fried Worms. Based on the popular book by Thomas Rockwell, HTEFW is the story of one boy’s attempt to face down a bully by accepting his dare to eat worms. I guess the intended lesson is about being brave. But what about not being cruel? Do we really want to teach kids that the way to deal with being pushed around is to take out your hurt on an even littler guy?
According to the author of this review, HTEFW is “an easygoing entertainment in which a sensible message about growing up also rationalizes the abuse of power. However lightly played, this is, after all, a film in which children learn to stand up for themselves, and for one another, by killing animals. Yeah, yeah, we’re talking worms, sure. But the lesson remains the same, whether it’s an invertebrate squirming on the grill or a puppy. On the page, Mr. Rockwell’s humor produces hoots. (‘Tomorrow I’ll roll the crawler in cornmeal and fry it. Like a trout.’) But transposed to the big screen, yuck! No worms may have been harmed in the making of this film, but it’s unlikely the under-age audience will care.”
And that’s what scares me. Not every book, play, or movie should have to be Babe, a hugely funny, sometimes sad, and ultimately uplifting film that managed to teach kids about the animal-food connection and inspired a lot of them to stop eating bacon, at least for a while. But I wish more of them were. Because until people—and kids—know enough to make humane choices, I hate seeing them encouraged to make harmful ones.
At one point in Barnyard, Ben tells Otis, “A strong man stands up for himself; a stronger man stands up for others.” I agree. And “others” should include all creatures, no matter how slimy or small.