“Cruella” is part of a larger trend: the repurposing of stories and worlds created for children and grittied-up for adults. From the PG-13 films based on 1980s toys, such as ”Transformers” and “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra,” to the rise of the Marvel superhero movies as a world-conquering phenomenon, to “Joker,” an R-rated film about a supervillain who used to be obsessed with making fish laugh, kids have conquered pop culture — only to find it’s not really for them anymore.
The result has been some wonderful experiments — but also the loss of something vital. We bonded with these stories, in part, because of the very flights of fancy and colorful storytelling that are often the first casualties of aging them up. And our pop-culture well can only be replenished with truly new children’s entertainment that can fire the imaginations of a new generation.
While most generations eventually set aside childish things, something different happened with pop culture in the 1980s: The kids who loved it grew up and didn’t want to stop.
Industries took note. Comic books started being sold in specialty stores aimed mostly at adult fans, instead of on spinner racks at drugstores and convenience stores. Fan conventions went from niche affairs to huge extravaganzas featuring A-list stars. Home video allowed fans to re-watch their favorite media to the point of memorization. And the movie industry veered toward the “four quadrant” blockbuster, aimed at both older teens and adults.
There was always something dark and gothic at the core of many children's stories, as anyone who's read the unalloyed Grimm Brothers tales and the earliest superhero comics will attest. But there was also a glorious silliness and sweetness to these stories, that allowed us to skip over gaping holes in story logic.
We never wondered why Peter Parker, in addition to his radioactive spider-bite, was capable of inventing miraculous technology like his web-shooters. Or why Batman chooses to throw bat-shaped boomerangs called “batarangs.” We didn’t ask how, exactly, a group of mutated turtles managed to learn martial arts from a sewer rat.
These stories never worried about being taken seriously, or about being “realistic.” That freedom allowed them to take truly beautiful detours, and to defy expectations. To read Golden Age and Silver Age comics, or to watch the original “Star Wars,” is to be intoxicated by a draught of pure imagination, and to feel as though wonders are possible.
Good can defeat evil (and we can cleanly separate one from the other), miracles are commonplace, and lessons are everywhere. A great children’s story has a set of rules that you have to follow — and a sense of gleeful anarchy. Weapons don’t draw blood. Friends and family always come back together.
When adults claim dominion over these stories, they get darker, at the expense some of their innocent fun. Primary colors dim to crepuscular shades, and sexual assault, mutilation and torture become commonplace tropes. Superman once had a pet super-monkey named Beppo who’d stowed away aboard Kal-El’s rocket when he was a baby. In 2016’s “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice,” Kal-El was beaten to death in a gory fistfight with a bone-knuckled zombie alien.
Worst of all, the need to be “taken seriously” so as not to embarrass older fans meant that stories could no longer take such wild leaps into the improbable. To justify clinging to these stories as adults, grown-ups pushed aside the qualities that made us fall in love with them in the first place.
It’s true that the original spirit of these stories live on in animation. “Batman” and “Star Wars” have been revitalized by animated series that catered mostly to kids and originated vibrant characters such as Harley Quinn and Ashoka Tano. But for pop culture to remain fresh and vital, we need new stories, characters and settings to inspire new audiences.
The kids who grow up with a new Golden Age of children’s programming will do the same thing we did: insist that their beloved stories grow up along with them. That’s okay — as long as their children have new stories of their own to fall in love with.