Lot of talk lately around here about the contamination of kiddie lit (actually, kiddie movies and television) by metafiction. It’s a concern rooted in, I think, a misdiagnosis of a real problem.
Does metafictionality undermine the reality of a fiction? Does it make it less magical, less likely to inspire wonder? Well, consider that Hamlet, Don Quixote, and Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland (as well as Through the Lookinglass) are all metafictions to a very substantial degree, and they are not usually counted as lacking in magic or wonder-inspiring qualities. Nor are they usually considered to be peopled with characters who lack a three-dimensional emotional reality. Indeed, that criticism – characters that are not fully persuasive as real people – is more often leveled against arch-realists like Balzac.
Moreover, probing the boundary between reality and fantasy is a very age-appropriate subject for young children. Not for two- and three-year olds, no, but that’s not the audience for movies. Speaking as the father of a five-year-old, I can tell you that by that age children are well-aware of the difference between reality and a work of fiction, and a work of fiction that plays with that understanding in a way that is comprehensible at their age level is an inspiration to delight, not an impediment.
What’s destructive is not knowledge but knowingness, which is first-cousin to cynicism. The fons et origo of that trend in contemporary cinema for children is, of course, “Shrek.” Among the many levels on which “Shrek” is pernicious is the metafictional – that it is an allegory of the conflict between Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg, a subject naturally dear to and extremely relevant to children of all ages. As such, it is self-refuting, since “Shrek” is more responsible than any other movie for driving out true fairy creatures. But that it is not the fact of its metafictionality, but rather the fact of its knowingness, that is to blame is proven by the fact that (begging Freddie’s pardon in advance) the best exemplar of all that has gone right in kids’ movies is also a metafiction, namely: “Toy Story.”
“Bolt” may still turn out to be an awful, cynical movie. The trailer (which I just saw this afternoon) is not promising, and the fact that it is not about fiction but about the making of movies does not bode well at all. But I don’t think the blame can be laid at the fact that its theme is the difference between fantasy and reality (or, I rather suspect, how believing hard enough in a fantasy makes it a reality, which is more Man of La Mancha than Don Quixote, but what can you do?).