I love taking my four-year-old son to the movies. I love the ritual of buying popcorn and choosing our seats. I love the surprising moments that make him jump, and the weird things that crack him up.
I just wish I loved more children’s movies. So when Spider-man: Into the Spider-Verse won best animated feature at the Oscars on Sunday night [Feb. 24], it gave me hope that there may be a better, more ambitious future for the family film.
Yes, every so often something magical like Fantastic Mr. Fox or My Friend Totoro comes along and reminds me how spellbinding children’s storytelling can be. Usually the best you can expect from something rated PG is The Incredibles or Zootopia—fun stories with sufficient plot twists and winking references to keep the adults entertained. At worst, you end up suffering though Peter Rabbit.
Into the Spider-Verse is a whole different, wildly thrilling world. Every frame explodes with saturated colors and it moves at a breakneck pace. The story features a handful of different Spider-People—not all of whom are men, or even necessarily human—who come from parallel universes and team up to assist the blossoming young hero, Miles Morales, who’s just been bitten by a radioactive spider himself. Watching the Brooklyn that Miles lives in is like walking down the street wearing a pair of sunglasses that make everything a little brighter, more colorful, and punchier. If you’ve ever lived in New York and left it, you know that’s the way it feels to come back after more than a few months; the city changes fast. The animation will make you miss the place with the same yearning one might experience while looking at old pictures after a break up.
When he’s not busy learning how to use his new skills, soaring above the city and dimension-hopping, Miles struggles to figure out how to fit into his working-class, black, and Puerto Rican family, and into the fancy magnet school where he just started. He loves his dad, who is a cop, but is drawn to his smooth-talking, street artist uncle. The movie offers a nuanced depiction of how complicated it is to navigate a world full of people who see different things in you while also trying to understand yourself. Into the Spider-Verse might be the best movie I saw last year. I don’t think my son understood much of it, but he loved every intense minute.
Modern parenting is all about meeting children where they are: Getting down on the floor to play blocks, reading the same picture books over and over again, and picking age-appropriate activities that they can navigate with confidence. My neighborhood park in Brooklyn had two separate playground areas for kids of slightly different ages so everyone could play safely. It goes against everything we’re told as parents to throw your child in the deep end and let them puzzle it out. The media we allow them to watch is supposed to be accessible and serve a purpose, to teach them letters, or numbers, or a neat moral about being kind.
For both adults and kids, ambitious art can be puzzling. Yet exposing kids to art that dazzles, even if much of it sails over their heads, can help them learn to be comfortable, and take joy in, wallowing around in something that is difficult to understand. That’s a wonderful, and increasingly rare, skill.
Last year, my colleague Adam Epstein wrote about how Christopher Nolan, the director of Inception and the most recent round of Batman movies, showed his very young children 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick’s trippy cipher of a film. “There’s an unsuspecting innocence—almost a gullibility—in the way children watch films, and it allows them to be immersed in the world of a movie without having to think too much about what it means,” Epstein wrote. “A child just watches and feels things. A child experiences.”
Most family films coat a few key moral lessons in candy shell of talking animals and one liners. There’s a message, one specific takeaway. Into the Spider-Verse is about hard stops and second chances, about family, disappointment, about the many selves we each inhabit. It’s bright and chaotic and impossible to comprehend in one viewing. It’s ambitious—it’s an experience. It’s a perfect movie for a child. Please, Hollywood, make some more.