Perhaps one of the most dissected, analyzed and talked about films in film history, there’s no question that the 1968 Franklin J. Schaffner-directed Planet of the Apes is essential viewing for anyone who cares about the medium, regardless of what one thinks of the actual quality of the film. But, a point of conversation that I don’t really see being brought up is the value of Planet of the Apes as a film for kids — or a younger audience in general — as a vehicle to promote critical thinking and to introduce themes more complex and intelligent than what they usually consume.
For an adult audience today, Planet of the Apes isn’t a profoundly written epic with subtle themes or intricate subtext to read through as much as it is a historical piece. It’s a very on-the-nose reflection of what was going on in late 60s, deviating heavily from its source material, and its concepts are more than often delivered straight-on. However, the strength of Planet of the Apes is apparent in how it communicates themes of self-reliance, self-preservation, individuality, and rational thought in an easy-to-grasp fashion.
While “kids movies” (as they’ve come to be known) shy away from these topics, choosing instead to focus on mostly emotional turmoil often resolved with unrealistic solutions that don’t lead to all that much personal growth (like movies made by Pixar), Planet of the Apes is a stark look at how the world is most likely going to turn out. Themes are portrayed in such a way to be entertaining to a child without being overtly preachy — like most of their media that touches on these topics. The film challenges basic everyday wrongs such as racism, classism, and the dangers of an oppressive government controlled by a religious ideology without checks and balances, and touts the importance of scientific discovery, all without having a character all but literally say “Racism is bad, I’m sad about it,” cuing weepy music.
It also does so without taking any definitive stances on real-life instances of these issues, making it relatively apolitical, despite covering some complicated topics. With the popularity and push for STEM and otherwise “intelligent” toys and such for kids in what appears to be an attempt at enriching and molding their minds for the better, it’s bizarre to not see a push for rational thought and logic in the media consumed by kids. There’s a strange disconnect between teaching kids problem solving and critical thinking when it comes to tangible issues yet stopping short of societal issues and interpersonal relationships.
As stated before, movies in the style of Pixar (such as Wall-E, Up, and Inside Out) are often touted as great promoters of emotional intelligence. Whether this is true or not is another subject for another time (I don’t entirely believe that, if at all), but even if it were correct, this knowledge is only a small part of what makes a mature audience at the end of the day. Empathy, altruism, and introspection are great, but an intelligent human also needs to understand that not all conflicts can end cleanly, and right and wrong are not always clear-cut and precise.
Planet of the Apes touches on the complications of thinking in absolutes, the importance of making compromises, and understanding that actions — no matter how good or bad their intentions — have consequences, notions that would serve many children well. The idea that despite working hard and following rules, sometimes things just don’t work out and will never work out, is relatively profound in the context of kids’ media.
Of course, I’m not advocating scaring the living crap out of your children by focusing on such grim realities alone; it’s all a matter of balance. But it’s a bigger disservice to trap children in feel-good bubbles than it is to expose them to films that reveal some of the more subtle let-downs of everyday life. Also, if something comes packaged with talking animals, gun fights, space travel, and epic music, it’ll likely be a little easier to swallow.
As a result of its apolitical delivery, Planet of the Apes is not a narrowly preachy movie. It’s the kind of film that, while obvious to an adult, may be profound to an advanced child or young adult entering the realm of film outside of the clean-cut worlds of Disney, Pixar, and Marvel. It’s important to break the norm of hero-defeats-villain in everything kids consume, all the while promoting the idea of healthily questioning everything while discovering one’s self.
Instead of instilling premade views on morality and right and wrong, we should be encouraging kids to challenge themselves and everything else around them. All of this and more can be found in a piece like Planet of the Apes.