Childless Kids’ Movies: A Proposal

Enough with the lovable nuclear families already

Last month, my fiancé, Alejandro, and I sat down to watch The Mitchells vs. the Machines, a Netflix animated flick by the makers of the Lego movies and Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse that had critics swooning. On paper, this movie was a winner for me: giddy, unscary, and emotionally intelligent, with the added bonus of SNL buds Fred Armisen and Beck Bennett playing hapless robots. But as Ale and I watched, I felt something stab at me repeatedly, like a sharp rock in my shoe. And once the credits rolled, it hit me: I wish there were more kids’ cartoons about childless couples.

Mitchells Vs. Machines
The Mitchells Vs. The Machines: Oh, look, another wacky nuclear family in a cartoon.

At its heart, The Mitchells vs. the Machines is about ambivalence, the uneasy relationships we all negotiate with family members and technology. As a childless couple at 40 (our birthdays are three days apart), Alejandro and I are dealing with our own ambivalence: whether or not to try to get pregnant, this late in the game. Watching an animated family bumble their way to global salvation, I felt reminded by Hollywood, yet again, that I should see the lovable nuclear family as my only salvation. And while I loved the film’s tender exploration of father-daughter tensions, it struck me that everything I watched as a child—Home Alone, Calvin and Hobbes, even Alvin and the Chipmunks—reinforced not only family togetherness, but having a family in the first place. (Except for Garfield, which mostly just prized laziness and lasagna.)

Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.

You can point to plenty of smart shows for grownups, especially for female audiences, with childless couples and characters, from Sex and the City to Insecure to Call My Agent, but I think it’s crucial that little girls see childlessness as an optimistic possibility, too. Instead, they get franchises like The Incredibles, whose PG rating should stand for pretty generic, when it comes to the *yawn* suburban family dynamics: let’s see, a cleft chin for a father; a mom whose shocking fierceness when her children are threatened is hardly shocking, given that the ‘mama bear’ trope is a tired one, including in the Mitchells movie.

How about a childless female who’s fierce to begin with? You could nominate Bo, from Toy Story 4, a self-proclaimed lost toy, who has decided against “belonging” to another child, but her literal porcelain skin, corsetted waist, and well of forgiveness for Woody could use an update.

Uncoupled, childless characters, meanwhile, tend to be sort of nuts (Mary Poppins and Willy Wonka), depressive (Joe in Pixar’s Soul) or downright evil (Voldemort).

Look, I get it: taking the kids out of kids’ movies sounds counterintuitive and unmarketable. Would the nine-year-old me want to watch a movie about the 40-year-old me? But then again, why did I like Garfield so much? He did what he wanted, screw what Jon Arbuckle thought was proper feline behavior. He punted Odie off tables, mailed Nermal to Abu Dhabi, and napped.

Kids love stuff about orphans. Anne of Green Gables, Harry Potter, Oliver, Lemony Snicket’s Baudelaire orphans. It’s delicious to imagine no parents there to order you around. Likewise, animated narratives that portray the freedom of a couple without kids could be a huge, untapped, G-rated genre. I’m happy to spitball further on this if anyone from Disney+ wants to pay me millions.

Please, sir, may I have some more childless kids’ movies?

“No matter what we decide about kids, or what happens once we decide, we’re still going to be a family,” Alejandro said last night, holding me in bed, alongside Penny, our basset hound mix, and Logan, our marmalade-striped cat, who’s even fatter than Garfield.

Hours later, at 2.a.m., Penny started barking like a maniac. I came down to let her outside, only to step in a puddle of Logan’s puke. This morning, Ale and I fought about who should walk Penny, and, in the middle of our argument, Logan ran in with a baby bird in his mouth. Ale darted over to save the bird, as I hauled Penny and Logan away.

“The bird’s still alive,” called Ale, from the bathroom. “I’m going to try and take it to a wildlife rescue center.” He drove an hour north to the only place open on Sunday, and the caretaker there said he thought the bird (it turned out to be a baby dove) would make it, since the injuries weren’t on its wings.

Love! Terror! Tension! Fury! A helpless creature snatched from the jaws of death! Sounds like a great kids’ movie. (Seriously, Disney+ DM me.)

Meanwhile, I’m trying to imagine my own happy ending without a child, married to a man who rescues baby birds and brings home breakfast tacos, even if that sort of satisfaction hasn’t occurred to Hollywood yet. Maybe we’ll see it in The Mitchells vs. the Machines II, set in 2040, in which Katie and Jade are a filmmaker couple battling new robots, and the only reproduction they’re concerned about is copyright infringement.

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Brittani Sonnenberg

Brittani Sonnenberg's creative nonfiction has been featured in Texas Monthly, Lit Hub, Racquet Magazine, and NPR. Her novel, Home Leave, was a New York Times Editor’s Choice, and her short fiction has appeared in Ploughshares, The O’Henry Prize Stories Series and elsewhere. She is based in Austin, Texas, and serves as a visiting lecturer for the MFA program at the University of Hong Kong.

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