I saw the 50th feature-length fully-animated film from Disney Studios, Tangled, yesterday, and nobody was more surprised than I when I found myself enjoying it quite a bit. I've seen a lot of films made for children in my life, and maybe it's the prematurely crotchety old person in me, but it seems as though they've been getting steadily worse over the years. Tangled was by no means a perfect movie, but it had something that I've found to be missing from virtually every other children's film made in the last fifteen or so years: sincerity.
This is something of a nebulous concept; I've been wracking my brains to determine how best to describe what I'm looking for in kids' films for some time now, and "sincerity" is only the best that I can do. What I mean by it is, first, that the filmmakers are actually crafting a story, not just putting together a sequence of "hilarious" moments and songs. Their first priority should not making characters suitable for action figures and putting on lunchboxes, but making characters that live and breathe. But really, this applies to any film, not just kids' films.
The other thing I mean by "sincerity" is specific to kids' films, though: the understanding that the intended audience for these films, by definition, has less experience with stories, with genre formulae, with media in general. Children simply haven't been around as long as adults; they haven't seen as many movies or seen as much television or read as many books. Producers of media for children need to keep in mind that their viewers won't understand many allusions to older stories, or established character archetypes, or, really, most things from before they were born. Pop culture references are going to go right over their heads; even homages to other classic stories will probably not be understood.
This isn't to say that children's media needs to be dumb, just cognizant of the limitations of its audience. Think about it this way: if you're making a movie based on, say, Aladdin or Rapunzel or Beauty and the Beast, for at least some members of your audience, this is going to be their first exposure to the story of Aladdin or Rapunzel or Beauty and the Beast. They won't know about any other versions, any literary analyses of these stories, any ways in which these stories have been modified or retold in modern forms. For them, this will be the definitive version of that story, regardless of where it originated; kids reading The Thousand and One Nights or Grimm's fairy tales will wonder why these stories are so different from the ones they "know." As such, it's crucial that the filmmakers (or writers, whatever) should be trying to tell the Story, not something Based On The Story.
All of this is a roundabout way of saying that Tangled is pretty dang good at fulfilling both of these criteria. The filmmakers genuinely wanted to tell the story of Rapunzel—with some modifications, yes, with some additions and small twists, but still the Story. There were few jokes or references that required genre-savviness—not zero, but fewer than most films ostensibly for children these days. I was a bit disappointed at their use of slang and modern idioms ("For the record" and "Know what I mean?"), and one of the songs was a bit forced for my tastes, but like I said, the ratio is better than average.
Overall, it wasn't Pixar, which is the standard for Good Kids' Movies these days (and rightly so). But it was better than other Disney films in recent memory, and far, far better than a lot of other crap these days. (I still have to do a post on Bee Movie and how it's the worst movie ever made, largely for the reasons I've outlined here.)