An Underrated Joy of Parenting: Media Criticism

Nothing will sharpen your ability to hate a cartoon like having to watch it a thousand times

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 18: The Gruffalo characters pose during Brand Licensing Europe at ExCel o...
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Tom Whyman

Maybe you're never going to care about this quite as much as I do, but James Corden's voice performance in The Gruffalo (2009) is one of the worst things I have ever experienced in my life.

And boy have I experienced it. The Gruffalo has been one of my two-and-a-half year-old son's favorite books since he was around a year old. It's become the sort of book you don't even really have to read to him, because he knows all the words off by heart. When he gets distracted by something else, you just have to point to the right line so he can pick up where he left off (I don't know how he recognizes the words — I am 98 percent certain he can't read). The animated adaptation is free to watch on the BBC iPlayer, which is the usual way we watch children's TV, living as we do in the UK. Since my son discovered it a few weeks ago it has been on pretty much constant repeat, as he mouths along with the words and tries to get his baby sister to pay attention to what's going on, and uses his stuffed toys to act out what the animals are doing in it, with himself in the starring role as the mouse, who on TV is being played by James Corden, and who is terrible in it.

James Corden's performance in The Gruffalo is in fact so bad, that it has helped clarify for me what badness, in voice acting, consists in. The Gruffalo is only a short film — just under thirty minutes long. But it is adapted from a book that is only 24 pages, around half of which are just pictures. To reach the full run-time, which was presumably mandated by the studio, the creators have not only had to pad out the material with an irrelevant framing narrative and some unnecessary tangents, which slow down the pace of what is, truly, a perfectly measured book — they have also gotten all of the voice actors (a celebrity-dominated cast including the likes of Helena Bonham Carter and John Hurt) to deliver their lines r e a l l y s l o w l y.

Most of the time this is fine — it's for little kids after all, it can help them if you speak slowly, who cares, but Corden delivers all of his lines with such a try-hard theatre kid flourish, as if what was originally written in this classic children's book were somehow lacking and not quite good enough without that patented Corden magic, that it accentuates, and makes obvious, the failings of his cast-mates. In the central role, Corden's badness infects the whole production — his fundamental lack of respect for, and affinity with, the material making the entire thing feel like that improv class Michael Scott attends in one episode of The Office where he keeps insisting on ruining every scene by pulling out an imaginary gun. The mouse cannot just trick the fox by insisting he's meeting up with a Gruffalo, Corden has to act out every inch of the mental strain he imagines the mouse going through as he comes up with the bit. The mouse cannot just be a little bit frightened when he realises the Gruffalo is real, Corden has to ham him into the throes of total, gibbering despair.

I have read the book The Gruffalo more than any of the philosophical texts to which I have dedicated my academic life.

There are people who are really bothered by James Corden generally, and could go on about how awful he is till the cows come home. I can sympathize, after all I currently have to listen to him being woefully miscast in The Gruffalo almost every single day. But in truth, I'm kind of glad he sucks so hard in it.

This sort of thing — nurturing a strong antipathy toward some show or book your child is lately obsessed with — is one of the great joys of parenthood, in fact. Having small children is a lot of things: hopeful and horrible and thrilling and tiring and exhausting and fatiguing and whatever other synonyms there might be for “tiring” that I can't think of at the moment because I have two small children and I'm tired all the time. But it is also really, really repetitive. For small children to function, they need to be in a very set routine, and so you find yourself doing the same things over and over, as well as the same things at the same time every day. This can be annoying, but it is also a fantastic opportunity. Having small children, in fact, gives you an opportunity to engage in media in a very specific way, in a way that very few other parts of your life as an adult ever will.

By this point, I have watched The Gruffalo (2009) more than any individual episode of any of my favorite shows; I have read the book The Gruffalo more than any of the philosophical texts to which I have dedicated my academic life (the same goes for other favorites like We’re Going On A Bear Hunt, the Thomas the Tank Engine story where Percy meets Harold the Helicopter, or ‘Three Little Frogs’ - the title my son has decided, despite all the evidence of how many characters there are in the stories, to bestow on Frog and Toad). I could never, from an actor delivering a normal bad performance in a normal film for grown-ups, have learned about what it is to act badly in the way that I have learned about badness in acting from James Corden as the mouse in The Gruffalo. Normally, if I watch something that's bad or mediocre, I will never revisit it — unless it is especially offensive in some way, I will never think about it again. But as a parent, by contrast, you will be forced to re-engage with whatever media your child happens to enjoy, over and over again. Yes, you're the one who's able to reliably use the remote, and who can actually read, but you have no real, ultimate control over this. Your face will be rubbed in the vomit regardless of whether you like it or not. And so, in idle moments spent with one's child, reading the same book or watching the same film or TV show for the millionth time that day, one finds oneself playing at being a critic.

Your child keeps demanding to watch a show called Postman Pat: Special Delivery Service, which is about a delivery driver in rural England who has access to a helicopter, and who keeps on getting into disastrous scrapes (think malfunctioning robots, escaped bees) which are almost always resolved with recourse to the helicopter, and you decide that this animated children's show from 2008 is a perfect satire on British politics in 2022. Your dad keeps giving your son old Thomas the Tank Engine books, and you start to object to the idea that the Railways Series secretly contains “pro-capitalist” and other assorted right-wing messages, because the haters never seem to reckon with how much they're about the movement to preserve steam railways, which capitalism has long since had done with, after all. You start to think things like, “The Clangers [a family of mice who live on a moon-like planet where they survive by eating soup rationed out by a dragon] have the same family dynamic as The Simpsons,” and consider places you might pitch this as an article.

And beyond this, you talk about these things with your partner, and your friends, who almost all have kids now because you're only really able to make and sustain friendships with other people who also have kids, because you exist on a sort of parent-time where you can only go out and do things before whenever bedtime is, and you have something to talk about that isn't “what are we doing him for tea” or “Jesus I'm really tired” or “that’s a really good place to take them on the weekend, actually,” or “how come we never think or talk about anything that aren't the kids any more.” And it's fun.

When we think of what great joys there are in the world, “criticism” probably isn't one. When Marx said that Communist society would leave everyone free to “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, and be a ‘critical critic’ after dinner,” he was joking — maybe he thought criticism was important, but I doubt he honestly anticipated the great mass of liberated mankind engaging in it. But Marx, when he wrote this line, had only just become a father, and so must have had yet to appreciate the full weight of having to read The Swiss Family Robinson or whatever old-timey children's books they had back then over and over again. To have the leisure to sit through something, to put yourself in the shoes of its creators — to pick it apart, to toy with it — to be able to do this not only in your own head but with others, to play with books or TV or music with other people, ideally with nothing in particular riding on the results... what else is this, if not some of the most fun one might have sober and covered in peanut butter toast?

Like all fun, it is an activity that is both liberated, and idle — you're free to do whatever you like with it, and it doesn't really matter. Still better: it fills up all those spare moments with your kid when you would otherwise be on autopilot.

Without this form of criticism, my life would at times be almost unbearably boring. With it, I am able to approach every re-watch of James Corden's horrendous turn in The Gruffalo with something other than sheer dread. Something even like love, and joy.

Tom Whyman is a philosopher and writer who lives in the North East of England. His first book, Infinitely Full of Hope: Fatherhood and the Future in an Age of Crisis and Disaster was published earlier this year.