Anybody with young siblings or relatives has experienced the oh-so-wonderful joy of little people that don’t act their age. You know, when your five year old brother is whining for food for the millionth time—two hours after breakfast. Or when a sixteen year old is acting like a ten year old.
Yeah. Those times.
It’s annoying, isn’t it? You think—and sometimes say—“Why can’t you just act your age? Please grow up!”
It’s not much fun in daily life, but while watching the movie Elf* several nights ago, it got me to thinking, why is it that real people who act childish are annoying, but in the movies and in books, they can sometimes be funny?
Dennis the Menace. Buddy in Elf. Russell in Up. Jerry Van Dyke in The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Andy Griffith Show. And of course, others that I either haven’t seen or who’s names and respective movies escape me.
Well, I have been thinking about it, mostly in the context of Elf and Up.
Buddy is a child in a man’s body. He pretty much embodies innocence, optimism, and naivety. In a world so populated with and influenced by pessimists and perjurers of innocence, it’s a change of pace to see an adult that still possesses the qualities of a little kid. Or a little kid who hasn’t been forced to grow up too fast.
Combine Buddy with the other characters in the movie, namely his birth-dad, Walter, you have an instant recipe for humor. Walter is a “man of the world”: prone to pessimism, easily frustrated, and quite the greedy workaholic. The contrast between Buddy and Walter and the way the two opposite personalities played off each other is hilarious.
Buddy is still stuck in his elf-mindset, thinking that anything can be cured by a smile, a hug, eating candy, or singing Christmas carols—very loudly. He has no idea how to act like a normal adult in the “normal” world.
And in Pixar’s Up, Russell is a cute Asian-American boy. He has his own hurts and needs, but has a zest for life and an endless curiosity. He isn’t a smart-aleck with zero respect for other people, but a little boy with big dreams, who, despite being from a broken home, isn’t jaded.
He’s still innocent and loveable.
His attempts at being helpful, along with his childish enthusiasm, provide a fun, comedic balance between him and the older main character of the film, Carl Fredrickson.
I think the factor here that makes it all work is the combination of naivety and innocence, with a little dash of childlike wonder.
I’ve seen several episodes of the Disney Channel sitcoms, Good Luck Charlie and Hannah Montana.
And you know what? I can’t stand those shows.
Yes, a lot of the characters act like children—petty, annoying children—but instead of thinking it’s cute and funny, I kept wanting to give the characters a good shake and tell them to grow up.
The childishness was there, but the innocence wasn't. There was some naivety, but it wasn’t combined with a childlike awe.
Instead you had teenagers and adults acting, well…not very funny. In the two sitcoms, from what I remember, most of the characters acted immature and very similar.
In my opinion, good humor based off child-like characters can’t be forced. It has to flow naturally. In Elf and Up it flowed as a result of character contrasts combined with situations. The characters in both of those movies were different enough that they inevitably clashed and created conflict, the pull-push of opposites.
And conflict always leads to a story.
*Elf is a hilarious movie that, despite being kind of stupid, I enjoy. However it does involve rather heavy language in two places, I believe, and one scene where my younger brothers are instructed to turn their heads. Best watched with TV Guardian/ClearPlay.
Good Luck Charlie: http://www.wired.com/geekdad/2011/03/good-luck-charlie-finally-a-disney-sitcom-you-might-actually-want-to-watch/
Tug-of-war: http://www.publicdomainpictures.net/view-image.php?image=18760&picture=tug-of-war-2 ]