In a recent post about “kid-friendly entertainment,” I pointed out that for a certain audience, “Christian art” and “family-friendly” automatically go together. You can also use the term “sentimental,” or “inspirational” to describe that kind of art, which dominates faith-based films and Christian Romance novels.
There are several reasons why “Christian” and “family-friendly” don’t always go together. The tail end of the Gospel story (Jesus’ death by crucifixion) isn’t very kid-friendly, and many stories that deal with the trials of faith aren’t very kid-friendly either. A larger point that we often miss is that when you get down to it, most “sentimental” artworks that age well are more complex than we notice at the time. I’ve discussed this a little bit in a post about how the best religious movies (Chariots of Fire, The Mission, etc.) have layers of ideas that require more than one viewing to unpack. Similarly, stories with sentimental ideas – family, romantic love, high-flying adventure – seem to work their magic best when they have more than just a positive message behind them.
For example, It’s A Wonderful Life is frequently cited as the perfect holiday movie with its entertaining characters and its happy ending where everyone turns out all right. However, the reason why this ending feels so powerful is because George Bailey has gone on a long dark trial before he returns home. Stop the movie right after Bailey discovers his business’ money has disappeared, and try skipping to the scene where he’s dancing through the streets wishing everyone “Merry Christmas.” Without the dark trial (George losing hope and contemplating suicide, seeing a world in which he didn’t exist) the final scenes feel very saccharine. The movie can get away with a very sweet ending because it has earned the right to do that.
It’s also interesting that the movie’s plot is all about someone who doesn’t “live their best life now” or realize their dreams. George Bailey gives up more and more and more to help his family, his neighbors and his town as a whole. While It’s A Wonderful Life is inspirational and about American identity, it’s not a promotion of the American dream as we usually see it. It’s a quietly subversive meditation on what the American dream really is and how what we want is not necessarily what we need.
You can make a similar point about Steven Spielberg films. Roy Anker notes in his book Chasing Light that Spielberg has a penchant for telling lost boy stories, from A.I. to E.T. to Hook to Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Even when he wasn’t making stories about literal lost boys, much of Spielberg’s 1980s output consisted of movies we could call “boys’ own adventure stores.” Raiders of the Lost Ark is basically a 1940s adventure cartoon/comic book (even ripping at least one scene out of Scrooge McDuck comic books).
However, Spielberg’s lighthearted films tend to have crinkles of complexity that subvert our expectations. Unlike the classic Charlton Heston/Sean Connery style adventurer, Indiana Jones has moments where he’s genuinely scared, and he actually gets punched and beaten up sometimes. Actress Karen Allen has commented on how unlike a classic action hero, there are no guarantees that everything will go well for Indy – he may punch out a Nazi to steal a uniform, only to find it doesn’t fit. As his occasionally thievery shows, Indy has a mercenary side – Belloq suggests that it wouldn’t take much for them to become the same. Lawrence Kasdan’s screenplay describes Indy reacting bitterly in this scene because “there’s a certain amount of truth to this…”
Not only does Raiders of the Lost Ark present a complex hero, it also ends with the realization that guns and machismo are not enough. Indy tries to save the Ark, but the ark ends up taking care of itself. This makes Raiders of the Lost Ark a great adventure movie, but one with a nuanced view of heroism. This goes a long way to explaining why, in a decade that produced lots of flashy, explosive adventure movies, Raiders of the Lost Ark was a cut above the rest and still holds up.
Similar points can be made about E.T., which has cute moment (E.T. getting drunk, etc.) but also deeply sad moments (E.T. almost dying, Elliott nearly dying with him). Various people have talked about how E.T. functions as a Christ figure in the story – according to Anker’s Of Pilgrims and Fire, while the movie was being filmed screenwriter Melissa Mathison realized that E.T.’s death and rebirth was inspired by her Catholic upbringing. However, if the scene of E.T. returning to life works, it’s because the movie earlier showed E.T. dying a slow death. The movie has the kind of resurrection scene that many faith-based movies aim for… which works because the movie also has a Golgotha moment. In storytelling terms, resurrection without crucifixion is boring.
Sentimental fiction of some sort will always be around, and when it’s made well it can be enriching. The difficulty that many evangelical artists face is there hasn’t been enough discussion about combining sentimentality with substance. It’s easy to get by on predictable tricks and miss the fact that the sentimental works that last longest (and therefore, get their message to the most people) are never as simple as they first appear.