cloying moppets

November 24, 2020

I’ve been thinking about cloying moppets recently. This is my label for the child characters that frequently show up in action-adventure/genre films, usually as an overly-sentimental way to force the audience’s sympathy or make our hard-bitten heroes learn the True Meaning of Family or whatever. The presence of a cloying moppet doesn’t automatically mean the story will become saccharine and intolerable, but often it does. If not handled well, the trope is manipulative — it’s there for the reaction it hopes to evoke in the audience, not because it makes sense for the story.

Two of the most egregious examples I’ve reviewed here are in Elysium and Terminator: Salvation. In those, the moppets possess hilariously unrealistic levels of cuteness and feel shoe-horned in. It’s as if the makers didn’t trust their stories enough and felt there needed to be an extra emotional string to tug on. Newt in Aliens may be the ur-model of cloying moppet, but I think that one works because she’s frequently the smartest one in the room, and Ripley’s bond with her isn’t forced — Ripley immediately goes into mama bear mode with her, which is realistic and understandable, versus the stories where some wide-eyed waif has to win over a muscle-bound brute. I loved what Iron Man 3 did with the trope, which was have the characters deconstruct the trope even as they’re playing it out (and also age up the kid, Harley, so he’s barely a moppet at all). Laura in Logan is definitely a cloying moppet, but there’s a lot of interesting story around her and she isn’t the reason I dislike that film, which I think is two hours of missed opportunities.

Which brings me to this awkward realization: Baby Groot and Baby Yoda are cloying moppets.

They’re designed to be adorable, with their gigantic shiny black eyes. A merchandiser’s dream, really. Part of the adorableness is how incongruous they are against the back drops of their dangerous worlds, alongside characters who in normal circumstances no one would ever trust with a small child. Gah, cloying moppet is one of my least favorite tropes, how can these two versions of it be so amazing! Is it just because they’re not human, so I’m able to think of them more as like, puppies, not actually in need of more developed characterization? Except I don’t think that’s it.

There’s something they have, that Newt has, that the good versions of this trope have and the bad versions don’t, and that’s agency. They make decisions. They impact the story their own actions, and not simply by forcing character development on the protagonist.

That’s what it all keeps coming back to, isn’t it? Make good characters, and then make sure those characters have an impact on the story they’re in.

 

2 Responses to “cloying moppets”

  1. AKK Says:

    For me, it’s also that the cloying moppet is frequently paired with the unbelievably incompetent adult for laughs. I mean, there are things I would expect the muscle-bound brute to not know about children – but come on. Although, I have a problem with characters being unbelievably stupid in general so maybe the cloying moppet is just the last straw.

  2. Jared Moloshok Says:

    Ah, the cloying moppets. Or, as kaiju eiga fans call them, the Kennys. I can understand the urge to include them in some types of movies where one of the potential demographics in the intended all-ages audience are kids, but yeah, they need as much care put into their writing as any other character.

    On that note, for all the shortcomings of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, the requisite child character surprised me by being very sympathetic and actually somewhat plot/theme-relevant.


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