My doctoral research is focused on children between 17 and 42 months of age, for which I undertook a longitudinal, ethnographically styled study of my twin grandchildren, "Dora" and "Sam", gathering data in the home on their TV- and film-viewing practices. That stage is long over, and after a year's interruption I am resuming work and starting to organise my thesis. But inevitably I go on noticing - and pondering on - what the children (now aged four and three-quarters) like to watch. We went on holiday with them and six other family members this year; the twins' favourite retreat from everything else that was going on was to watch a DVD of Rango: during the fortnight they watched it right through around seven times (see illustration).
Now that they stay at our house every Friday night, I get to hear their current preferences and interests. Prominent amongst these is the Power Rangers "Samurai" series, which they can only see at ours because we have Netflix, which they don't have at home.
Neither of these is what I would expect them to watch and commit to. Rango is a very interesting film, I've decided. For me, its appeal lies in its parody of the Western, its dry, ironic humour, its extraordinary creature characterisation, sharply detailed animation and subdued colour palette. There are several huge action sequences, but there is also a lot of talk, and the plot is pretty complex. Power Rangers also includes a lot of talk, but it's banal teenage backchat, interspersed with shouted instructions and encouragement, as the five live-action protagonists battle endlessly with enormous, grotesque, but comically stupid monsters. There's a lot of merchandising display: various bits of magical equipment and, especially, swords. However, there's no blood or death: sword contact is signalled by flashes of sparkling light and victory by huge explosions, after which the baddies vanish and the power rangers congratulate each other. To me, it's pointless, repetitive, unbelievable and badly acted.
However, Dora and Sam have paid rapt attention to both. The illustration above shows them eating their dinner: this was perhaps their fourth viewing of Rango and they were relaxed but vigilant: Dora's fork is finding its own way to her mouth and Sam's is poised in mid-air. At our house, we don't allow meals in front of the TV: we will agree on a viewing of Power Rangers, they'll select the episode from the Netflix menu while I wield the remote, and then they will sit motionless together on the sofa, frowning slightly and concentrating hard as they follow every leap and slash.
Like most children, they started watching TV in their first year of life, propped up in their bouncy chairs. But I would argue that their serious viewing began in their second year, once they could crawl towards the TV and express preferences about what they did and did not want to watch. So now that they are 45 months old, I regard this as their third year of intensive moving-image study: they make very clear choices about their viewing, much of which is re-viewing of what informal parental discourse would label as material that "they really like", or "love" or "is their favorite"; or perhaps "are addicted to" or "are mesmerized by". My studies so far suggest that none of these terms is appropriate: the children's postures and expressions suggest that they are hard at work, both on Rango and on Power Rangers. Sam frequently asserts that he IS a Power Ranger, and leaps about to prove it, but neither has picked up even fragments of narrative from either text and they can say little about them when asked. They are experienced viewers who can comfortably refer back to other stories such as Finding Nemo or The Gruffalo's Child. Their extended interest in Rango and Power Rangers suggests to me that they are engaged in an ongoing task of figuring out what's going on, in each of them. But what motivates this commitment?
My hypothesis so far is that the main attraction of both of these texts is that the characters and stories are presented as serious. They completely lack the major characteristics of the children's television and family films that they have been watching for the last three years: cheerfulness, humour, and carefully-signalled narratives. In both Rango and Power Rangers, bizarrely different though they seem to you and me, characters speak grimly to each other; threats are extreme and hard to understand; jeopardy is never far away. It seems that Dora and Sam feel ready for this; that both texts offer the right mixture of situational clues and satisfying action, and that their increasing linguistic competence enables them to listen attentively to arguments and disquisitions that they can as yet only barely understand, but very much want to. Indeed, as David Bordwell observes (Narration in the Fiction Film, 1985), "every film trains its spectator".