Once Upon a Time
After the release of Kingdom Hearts 3, the internet was inundated with fans and newcomers streaming and experiencing the game. One such streamer was a newcomer to the series, aided with the help of revolving commentators who had prior experience with the games. The conversation eventually came to an interesting place. After one of the many cut scenes displayed a scene of the ridiculous, a commentator made the comment that Kingdom Hearts is for children, as if this is why it is ridiculous. This came after the chat was making jokes about the keyblade being a phallic symbol and analyzing what was happening on screen, as if the series being for children was a justification for not thinking deeply about a story and the symbols within the story. When the chat became noticeably annoyed, the commentator tried to clarify their position by arguing that calling something “for children” is simply a reality.
It should be said that Kingdom Hearts has routinely struggled with who its target audience is. While the characters resonate with younger audiences, especially the Disney characters, the story is clearly aimed for a young adult audience. After all, the series shares similar themes such as identity, platonic relationships, and more to other popular YA media. Despite this, Kingdom Hearts may have the potential for an older audience but with its lack of graphic violence, its use of family friend language, and its bright color scheme, it automatically contrasts games that claim the opposite aesthetics. These games are regarded as “adult.”
Celebrated author and children’s literature defender C.S. Lewis writes in his essay, On Three Ways of Writing for Children, “I never met The Wind in the Willows or the Bastable books till I was in my late twenties, and I do not think I have enjoyed them any the less on that account. I am almost inclined to set it up as a canon that a children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story. The good ones last. A waltz which you can like only when you are waltzing is a bad waltz.” 2 What Lewis is getting at is that simply because a story is branded for children should not mean it can’t be enjoyed by adults. It should be enjoyed by adults. Of course Lewis is speaking toward literature but this sentiment is universal. All children’s media faces a bias that because it is made for children, it is not worth the watch for an adult. Though there is a plethora of children’s media that pushes itself out for easy cash (Angry Birds anybody?), it isn’t genre that is at fault but the lazy trend itself. Since children do not have the capability to think critically about what they watch, bad movies are simply easier to feed them. Though if we are being honest, I’m not so sure the same can’t be said of “adult” films…but that is a conversation for another time.
One of the largest children’s media conglomerates happens to be the central property in the Kingdom Hearts games, Disney. Though Disney has an inconsistent track record when it comes to its animated films, it is popularly regarded as the best in the business. The 1990s saw Disney release its most critical and commercially successful films, and this era known as the Disney Renaissance is still highly regarded to this very day. Modern Disney animation has also seen great success and in some ways has surpassed the Renaissance era. But despite all of these accolades, Disney is rightly criticized for watering down its source material. Disney presents re-imagined fairy tales that equate more to family friendly sentiments, removing anything that isn’t deemed suitable for young ages. Yet this very idea challenges the very ideas of the children’s stories Disney bases itself on.
If one were to visit the original versions of stories such as Peter Pan, The Little Mermaid, or Pinocchio, chances are they will be horrified by the result. The happy endings that they have come to associate with these types of stories are all but gone, replaced with dark and sometimes grotesque circumstances. For example, Pinocchio kills Jiminy Cricket in the original story. In the original Snow White fairy tale, the evil queen dances to her death in molten hot shoes. Ariel does not live in her original story. The very notion that dark ideas can exist in children’s stories is often met with harsh criticism. Think pieces regard these revelations as “childhood ruining” and “inappropriate.” Society has shielded children from these harsh realities, instead opting for a more sanitized version of events. This is not inherently a bad thing. I can attest to being a Disney defender while still recognizing that there is something lost by removing the original source material. But it is worth pointing out that sanitized interpretations, once stripped down, have now been stripped down again for the purposes of Kingdom Hearts 1.
Kingdom Hearts 1 retells classic Disney fairy tales through the lens of Sora. Almost all of the Disney properties came originally from a book such as Alice in Wonderland, Winnie the Pooh, The Little Mermaid, Peter Pan, Pinocchio, Bambi, 101 Dalmatians, Tarzan, and Greek mythology. It is no wonder that Kingdom Hearts 1 seeks to copy the universal appeal of its source material. Of course, Disney would not have allowed the game to be released had it been any other way. They want to protect their brand from being tainted.
Though Kingdom Hearts 1 primarily pulls from Disney, it still leans heavily on the storytelling tropes from Final Fantasy. Somewhat similar to Disney, Final Fantasy leans heavily on the epic and somewhat over dramatized art of storytelling. Both are interested in the fantastical, yet another genre that begs to be taken seriously.
Labeling media as simply “for kids” can often appear as a disservice to the media and the association that comes with said label. Perhaps one of the biggest mistakes a person can make is confusing child like with childish. For example, animation as a medium may appear child like, but Game of Thrones co-creator David Benioff’s belief that “themes are for eighth grade book reports” is childish. 3 It is the difference between thoughtful media versus the shallow. The medium to which it is presented is only the shell. If a work that is aimed toward a younger audience presents complex characters, interesting plot, and complicated themes, isn’t it more than simply a story for children? Can’t it move beyond that? That answer is, yes. Avatar: the Last Airbender is a TV series that can attest to this. Saying something is for kids due to bad writing is two different points entirely. It effectively misses the point.
While Kingdom Hearts 1 can not claim to be the most well told story, it does present itself with complex ideas and is smart about how it tackles familiar tropes. Yes it uses a traditionally child like approach to the narrative but there is a lot of meat on its bones.
“Maybe it’s a little on the nose, but it is a game designed for children to enjoy with themes that are applicable to all audiences.” – King K
- Square Enix. Kingdom Hearts Final Mix. Square Enix. PS2/PS3/PS4/XBox One/Windows/Nintendo Switch. 2002.
- Lewis, C S. 2001. “On Three Ways of Writing for Children.” In Children’s Literature, 43–55. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press.
- Greenwald, Andy. 2013. “Winter Is Here.” Grantland. March 27, 2013. http://grantland.com/features/the-return-hbo-game-thrones/.