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"How could you?" the e-mail read. "We trusted you to help guide us to good, family movies, and then you steer us to this. The movie's very violent and all about death. How is it possible you would think this would be appropriate for children?" It may be the most scathing e-mail I've ever received while writing for Plugged In. Although I don't remember the exact verbiage, the tone was unforgettable. This parent was upset by my positive review of … Pixar's Up.

I still don't regret anything I wrote. Up, rated PG, is the kind of movie we've come to expect from Pixar—a beautiful and deeply resonant story that works on a number of levels. For the record, I did deal with all the e-mailer's concerns … though perhaps I didn't put a sufficient number of exclamation points on them for her tastes. But she also had a valid point: Along with its gorgeous artwork, buoyant wit, flying houses and talking dogs, Up wrestles with concepts including grief, pain and loneliness—tough stuff for a highly sensitive 5-year-old, and certainly a far cry from your typical Care Bears cartoon. Which is why the Movie Night curriculum we created for Up is for parents and teens, not for the juice box crowd.

Indeed, as Pixar and others have raised the bar for animated movies artistically, the films have become more daring thematically. For better and worse, cartoons aren't kid's stuff anymore.

Thufferin' Thuccotash!
When I was growing up in the 1970s and '80s, cartoons were the media currency of childhood. Animation was cheaply done and inanely scripted—only suitable, studio executives assumed, for the legions of us Yoo-hoo-drinking tots with nothing better to do on a Saturday morning. These were the days when Hanna-Barbera cranked out derivative shows by the score. An "educational" cartoon consisted of someone on G.I. Joe telling us that "knowing is half the battle." Stop-motion was too expensive. 3D was still decades away. Even Disney—the studio that brought us such masterpieces as Snow White and Fantasia—trotted out subpar works like Robin Hood, which essentially recycled scenes from the studio's earlier, better-made films.

And many parents (not mine, thankfully) used animated fare as a cheap babysitter. Adults didn't want to watch those cartoons themselves, mind you, but at least the flickering, hand-painted cels kept the kids quiet for a while. In stark contrast, animation is actually targeting grownups these days.

Drawn to Quality
From The Simpsons to Family Guy, television cartoons have grown ever more adult in their topical references and crass, lewd humor. Meanwhile, theatrical animation has taken a different tack. Many filmmakers now aspire to the level of art, causing cinemaphiles to suggest that we may be entering animation's new golden age.

In 2010, Up became only the second animated feature in history to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar (the other, Disney's Beauty and the Beast in 1992). So many full-length animated movies were released last year that the Academy of Motion Picture of Arts and Sciences increased its Oscar nominations for Best Animated Film from three to five. And all five, incidentally, scored higher on Rotten Tomatoes' online critics' aggregate than the award-winning blockbuster Avatar.

Time magazine film critic Richard Corliss topped his Best of 2009 list with not one, but three animated features: Up, The Princess and the Frog and Fantastic Mr. Fox. He wrote, "Animation is thought of as a cash cow for studios and a niche category for the Oscars. Yet a straight-faced argument could be made—and it is, here—that 2009 boasted a richer crop of animated features than of live-action movies."

It makes sense, really. While standard films are still somewhat bound by the physical realities (and hurdles) of filmmaking, animators are limited only by their imaginations. Sure, it's exceedingly hard work. But because the genre's craftsmen don't have to worry about some of the variables that live-action moviemakers do, it frees them up to concentrate on the core purpose of the film: Telling a powerful story. And more and more frequently, animators are doing just that with thoughtful, mature themes that can, unfortunately, create their own set of perils.

A Well of Dark Ink
Let's reflect on 2009. As beautiful and compelling as Hollywood's crop of animated films was, all of them dabbled, to some degree, in subjects and images that might make parents uncomfortable.

Take Coraline, for example. Though lauded with an Oscar nom, the film was based on a horror novella. It carried a great deal of creepy peril to the screen, along with lots of troubling instances of violence, bad behavior and even sexuality.

Then there's 9, a bleak, dystopian fable chronicling the lives and deaths of animated sock puppets as they battled hordes of evil machines. Fantastic Mr. Fox dealt with mid-life crises. Up explored grief following the loss of a spouse, while alluding to infertility in the process. Even the G-rated The Princess and the Frog contained a very scary voodoo priest with a hunger for souls.

In this changing environment, parents can take a few simple steps to determine age-appropriateness and make sure the movie-watching experience is a positive one for their children:

1) Before your kids watch a film, research it. See it yourself, if at all possible. Check out sites such as Plugged In to see what others have to say about it. We'll analyze the content and offer some thoughts, but it's really up to you, as a parent, to determine what's acceptable for your child.

2) During the film, watch with your kids. In addition to spending time together and knowing what your children are seeing, you'll be available in the event of questions or anxious moments. Movies should never be used as passive babysitters. Rather, treat them as opportunities to share experiences, discuss values and have fun (visit our Movie Nights page for ideas).

3) After the film, talk about the themes and how specific moments made you feel. Critique any problems together. If the story inspired your children or made them think, talking about it afterwards will cement those lessons into their psyche. Similarly, if the film troubled them, discussing why will help them process those feelings.

The quality of animated features is as high as ever. These films can entertain us, impress us and challenge us. Therefore, parents shouldn't take the genre lightly. We must approach "cartoons" with the same care we do all media—with caution, purpose and, whenever the content allows, a childlike sense of wonder.

Published February 2010