You can occasionally find the grownup who admits it: “I like to watch cartoons.” I don’t mean the cartoons marketed for adults, like The Simpsons. I mean cartoons made for kids which many adults love anyway. It’s a little easier to get grownups to admit they like cartoon movies from Disney or Pixar (who didn’t love Wall-E?). But there is that secret enjoyment of TV cartoons for kids which few adults admit to but many have. Mine is the new Star Wars: Clone Wars cartoon (Friday nights on Cartoon Network). And I recommend it for family viewing for two reasons: it teaches lessons and characters die.
The Morality Tale
George Lucas grew up with stories of heroes doing great deeds and conquering evil. At the movies and on TV he saw Westerns with heroes and villains, and Flash Gordon serials with dashing space men saving whole planets from annihilation. As a film maker in the 1970’s, he looked around his culture and found that such inspirational stories had disappeared. Movies had become adult and sophisticated. Westerns had deconstructed the hero so that the only way to tell good from evil was that the good guys were better killers—faster with a gun. Movies and TV for children had become effeminate and dull. So Lucas created Star Wars to offer an exciting story for children (and the childlike in adults) which was specifically meant to be a morality tale—a story about good and evil.
The Bible is filled with morality tales, from the history the Jews taught to their children (Joshua 4:4-7), to the parables of Jesus (Matthew 13). Most of the fairy-tales older adults are familiar with were created to be morality tales. Lucas continued this tradition with Star Wars and continues it now with his Star Wars cartoon. Each episode of the Clone Wars begins with a proverbial statement which adults should write down to talk to their kids about after the show. Then the episode tells a story which shows the statement’s truth. What a great opportunity to talk to your kids or grandkids about goodness and to teach them to see how ideas are worked out in stories. Of course you have to be critical: the Star Wars universe is based more on Hindu-Buddhist ideas of good and evil than Christian ones, but I haven’t yet found any of the morals or stories to emphasize Eastern thinking. Nevertheless, if you do encounter bad ideas, that will provide an opportunity to teach your children to think carefully about what they watch. I know that not everyone is interested in Star Wars or science fiction. But those who find the show entertaining can also find it a good teaching opportunity.
My favorite cartoon in the sixties was Johnny Quest. Action packed, suspenseful, heroic—everything a little boy wants to see. When I watched reruns of the show in the late 70’s or 80’s, however, I noticed they had been cut up. I wasn’t sure why till I started watching G.I. Joe cartoons in the eighties. What I finally noticed was that no one ever died in cartoons anymore. They’d cut those scenes from old cartoons and the Joe cartoons were purposely made so that people shot at each other like crazy, but no one ever got hurt—at least not seriously—and no one EVER died. I especially remember the dog fights that resulted in airplanes blown up while every villain parachuted to safety at the last minute. It made me quit watching.
In the Clone Wars cartoons, people die, sometimes even major characters. Death is handled seriously, with the grave kind of sadness it deserves. But it is not hidden from the viewer. While I grant that very small children (perhaps six and younger) should not watch the cartoon for this reason, I nevertheless support the choice to treat death seriously in this story of epic battles. It teaches children that moral actions have real consequences. It shows them heroes who are indeed heroic in battle, but it also shows the consequences of war. And, within the safety net of parental explanations, it shows children the truth that evil exists.
I have never believed that violence in television and movies is a bad thing by itself. What’s bad is violence in stories without goodness, meaning, or heroic purpose. Equally bad are tales which pretend that everything is love and rainbows. Such stories lie to children about the world. The better tales are more honest. David killed Goliath and chopped off his head. I trust there aren’t any Christian parents who would advocate removing this story from the Bible?