Almost every story my three-year-old loves is decades, if not centuries, old. The reason is simple: the best stories stand the test of time.
Once upon a time last month, my son Emile, born in late 2009, marched through the Magic Kingdom’s castle, a replica of Cinderella’s royal abode from the 1950 Disney film based on a story first published in 1697, but with folkloric origins dating to the first century B.C. He then walked past Mickey Mouse, an adorable rodent originally animated in 1928, en route to meet Winnie the Pooh, whom he hugged before bouncing a bit with Tigger, both characters conceived in 1926. Then he rounded the corner, past the Mad Tea Party ride (based on the 1951 Alice in Wonderland film, based on the 1865 book) and over to Peter Pan’s Flight (based on the 1953 film based on the 1904 book).
Sure, there were some new Disney World attractions rooted in movies merely a couple decades old, but only 1995’s Toy Story could be considered contemporary (albeit filled with retro toys). It’s easy to overlook that 1991’s Beauty and the Beast is from a story first published in 1740, and 1989’s The Little Mermaid is from a Hans Christian Andersen story first published in 1837.
And it’s not just Disney. Our visit to nearby Universal Studios included E meeting Spider-Man, who recently turned 50 years old (making him about 30 years younger than DC’s stable of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman) and playing in a waterpark themed around Curious George, who first started tormenting that dude in the yellow hat back in 1939. Seuss Landing, meanwhile, brought to life the works of Dr. Seuss, most of which came out in the 1950s.
Culture critics tend to decry the dearth of new ideas and recycling of stories and characters, but as a parent I’ve grown to welcome it. Nostalgia gets a bad rap, but the best of the past’s creative works are what comprise our cultural baseline. Besides, nothing is old to little kids. Or rather, everything is new.
I’d earlier come to appreciate the generational connective tissue provided by superheroes, which have been culturally current throughout my father’s life, my own life and now my son’s. Emile also loves Peter Pan, and I understand because I loved Peter Pan—one of my strongest childhood memories is reading the J.M. Barrie book while perched in a tropical tree in Maui, a moment that meant a lot to my dad, who had the loved the book in his own youth.
And all three of us share an even stronger bond over the 1939 Wizard of Oz film (itself from a 1900 book) despite our vast age range. That’s the trick old stuff offers over new stuff. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that almost every story or character my three-year-old loves is decades, if not centuries, old. But not really—they’re timeless.
It’s important to have new cultural classics to increase the canon, of course. Pixar has added several, as has Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli and, of course, there’s The Simpsons and Harry Potter (both of which have areas at Universal Studios, where E got to hug Homer and wander around Hogwarts).
Yo Gabba Gabba is another contemporary kids’ favourite, though it’s infused with ‘80s culture ranging from 8-bit videogame graphics to beatbox instructor Biz Markie, an old-school rapper I loved back in elementary school. And My Little Pony is huge now, too, but that equestrian cartoon franchise is actually celebrating its 30th birthday this year. (Sorry.)
The thing about popular culture is that most of it is terrible and will fade away into nothingness. People may still be watching Back to the Future even as we approach the year in which its sequel promised we’d have hoverboards, but the lesser movies of 1985 have all been lost to the ether. Culture is Darwinian that way.
Adults may be happy to consume an endless supply of sub-par brand-new entertainment despite knowing most of it isn’t good enough to stand the test of time. But we only want the best for our kids, so the culture we tend to give them has largely already withstood that test.
And the reason it still works is that kids haven’t changed much. Their toys have evolved, sure, but their imaginations haven’t. Today’s children share the same supernatural belief system in magic, fairies, princesses, monsters, talking animals and super-powered people that little kids have believed in forever.
By passing this kiddie canon onto the next generation, we’re just following the old folkloric traditions that have always allowed such stories to outlive their own eras while tying them all together.
So whether you’re introducing your kids to E.T. (1982) and Where The Wild Things Are (1963) or Jungle Book (1894) and One Thousand and One Nights (8th Century AD), you might get nostalgic, but they won’t—at least not until that future day when they get to introduce the same classics to their own kids.