Sunday, December 28, 2008

Where is this generation's E.T.?

I babysat tonight (for a five year old who had the remarkable ability of transforming into a lunatic at precisely the stroke of bedtime), and other than the hour plus bedtime shenanigans, I had a lovely time. The reason? We watched the movie, E.T. When the parents first put it on before they left, I had my doubts. I had never watched E.T. with a younger child. Would it be too scary, too weird, too sad, too profanity laden (you'd be surprised). I kept expecting to have to dive across the room for the remote, slow-mo style, to stop the movie the second things got dicey. But then something remarkable happened. E.T. was indeed scary and weird and sad and a little profanity laden. But it was perfectly okay for the five year old I was with, because you know what, kids can handle a lot more than we think they can. They can handle scary and weird and sad and a little profanity laden if these things are done the right way.

Yet somehow children's movies have become these sanitized, squeaky clean, capital M message, cartoon cheerful things. When's the last time you watched a kid's flick and actually recognized a human trait in any of the characters? When's the last time you watched a movie aimed at younger viewers that was genuinely scary? Bet your reaction to that last question was, "harumph, well of course not, children's movies shouldn't be scary." Because that would have been mine. But you know what, kids like scary. They don't like slasher flick, zombie scary (and neither do I for that matter), but they like scientists storming Elliot's suburban house in spaceman looking suits scary. I understand wanting to protect kids, but it's one thing to shield your kid from the evening news and it's another to keep them in a bubble. It's like kids today are living in a styrofoam world. Sure there are no sharp edges that way and maybe they won't ever have nightmares or weird, irrational phobias, but aren't those things so much better than bland, boring styrofoam?

If making the choice for my future kids, I would take scary, weird E.T. any day over those shiny happy pod people Disney movies (and I say that despite my love for all things High School Musical, but really as much as I love Zac Efron, I would hate for my kids to grow up thinking these movies were classics). And you want to know why? Because kids act like real kids in E.T. They cuss on occasion and are mean to their siblings and lie to their parents. And if you're worried that the presence of these things in a movie means your kids will turn into hoodlums and eventually felons then you are weighing the importance of movies way to heavily in comparison to the importance of parenting. You want to know what else happens in E.T. other than some harmless childhood bad behavior? Big, wonderful, magical things happen, and these things are made even cooler and more magical because they happen in the context of an identifiable world where moms yell and dads are in Mexico with new girlfriends and teachers drone on and on about killing frogs. And the look on the kid's face tonight confirmed to me how meaningful it is for a kid, especially a young one, to watch a movie like that, a movie that challenges rather than coddles, that instigates imagination rather than suppressing it with heavy handed morality tales and messages. From what I saw, this boy did not suffer severe trauma from the few seconds where the adorable alien appeared to be dead or from any of the other myriad things that would shock a lot of parents. Instead he connected with what was happening on screen, which made that moment where all the kids take off on their bikes above the policemen all the more rewarding.

Which leaves me wondering why people seemed to have stopped making these kinds of movies. When I was a kid I had E.T., The Goonies, The Princess Bride, The Neverending Story, Labyrinth, The Witches all of these wonderfully twisted and dark movies that were nevertheless filled with optimism and kindness and magic. I seem to have made it to adulthood without severe mental scarring despite watching Inigo Montoya kill a man. I don't recall any post traumatic stress associated with multiple viewings of David Bowie as an evil, singing and dancing Goblin king. When I was little I regularly watched movies where terrifying things happened and people died or did bad things. And maybe this is a stretch, but in some ways I credit movies like that for the big, messy imagination I have. Books and stories make an imagination, but movies can sure help prod it along, as long as they're not mindless and vapid and stupid.

So at the moment I'm feeling a little distressed, because what do kids today have? Pixar movies are awesome. I'm not lumping them in here. But animation can only take a kid so far. Children need those live action movies that will stay with them forever, the way E.T. and The Princess Bride have stayed with me. Sure you can find these movies as an adult, but they'll always sort of be an empty shell that way. To watch a movie like E.T. as a child means that even as an adult some part of you will always remember it the way it was the first time you saw it, when you honestly believed that those scary adults would do harm to a poor, defenseless space creature, when you thought that given the right circumstance bikes could fly and friendships with aliens could be formed with just a little help from Reeses Pieces. Kids need those childhood movies, the ones that make them keep the lights on for a little while, the ones that make them peer out their blinds at night, wondering if maybe, just maybe, it could be real. Kids need to gasp in terror at rodents of unusual size and evil witches who congregate in hotels and turn children into mice. Even if it scares them, they're remarkably resilient.

I guess at the end of the day I feel lucky to have come of age in what seems to be a prime period for weird and crazy but remarkably true to life (at least in terms of the kids portrayed on screen) children's movies. But I am still bothered that not all kids growing up today have parents who will seek these kinds of films out. So maybe, all of us 80s kids can make a pact. While other families trek to the theater and pay 15 dollars a ticket to see mindless, candy coated, soul less, drivel, we can stay home, pull out the DVDs and introduce our children to the quirky, expansive worlds we grew up with. Maybe we'll have to spend a little extra time tucking them in or install a new night light, but our reward will be children with imaginations every bit as strange and beautiful as the movies that inspire them.

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