I saw Shark Tale yesterday, belatedly, with my wife and six-year-old daughter. Kim and I liked it better than we had expected, but a lot of the humor went over Skylar's brilliant but still innocent head. She lacks reference points for the 70s nostalgia, much less the "hood" as a concept. I think it's telling that most movies today that are ostensibly aimed at children are targeted at people nostalgic for their own childhoods. Maybe the grown-ups and elementary school kids are destined to meet at some magical awkward age outside the stream of time. That's certainly what the astonishing success of the Harry Potter franchise suggests. Could Peter Pan have provided the blueprint for postmodern identity?
Speaking of Peter and the awkward age, it strikes me as highly significant that the generational convergence I've described seems to overlap with the time when children's voices change. Remember that episode of The Brady Bunch where the middle boy loses his power of speech? You wouldn't, if you were my daughter's age, which proves that the nostalgia that had Kim and I laughing during Shark Tale is hard to escape, even when you're analyzing it or at least when I'm analyzing it.
At any rate, the other Big Thought that struck me during Shark Tale is that animated films are at the leading edge of a change in the way we think about identity. Retinal scanning may be all the rage in the security industry, but out in the less rarified world of ordinary people it's the sound of the human voice that is becoming the dominant means of identifying someone we know. The face and body have become too malleable in this age of cosmetic surgery gone haywire to be of much help in authoritatively assigning identity to a person. Whole reality TV shows are devoted to practices that were once reserved for outlaws and terrorists. The voice, by contrast, remains a bearer of truth. From the way experts analyze Osama Bin Laden's voiceprint to the way we say, "That's Robert De Niro," when we watch a stylized shark on screen, the part of ourselves that seems hardest to transform is the sound of our speech. Perhaps this stage is merely a waystation on the path to a brave new world where everything about a person can be surgically altered beyond recognition, as some cyberpunk fiction implies. For now, though, the voice reigns supreme.
I think it's worth conducting a thought experiment in which my first point about the convergence of filmgoing generations on the awkward age is imbricated within my second point about the role the human voice is now playing as a primary bearer of identity. If our voice is the most practical means of authenticating that we are who we claim to be, what does it mean that more and more culture is targeted precisely at the demographic where the risk of having one's voice change is greatest?