March 24, 2008

Horton Hears Who, Freaks Out Kid, Gets Dad Thinking


So the kid went to a theater for her first, actual movie over the weekend: Horton Hears A Who. It totally freaked her out.

Technically, her first movie ever was John Cassavetes' Shadows, which she watched with me when she was three weeks old. And her first in-theater movie was Spiderman 2, which she slept through. She did totally fine at her first play, even though it was horrible [Twice Upon A Time, a senseless mashup of the Lorax and the Emperor's New Clothes, by the people who created the awful Seussical]. And the only problem she had with her first live ballet was when the Washington Ballet's Nutcracker varied from the Ballanchine version she has memorized.

So we figured, now she's four; her Grams is in town; it's a story she knows; it's time. Whether it was the dark or the noise or the sensory overload of the commercials--or the fact that she sensed there was a far superior TV version directed by Chuck Jones in 1970 that she wasn't seeing--she was apparently undone before the trailers even ended. Loud trailers for movies aimed at 10-year-olds. She spent the whole movie on my wife's lap, freaked out by the vulture and the mean kangaroo and the evil monkeys. And that left her a bit of a basket case for the rest of the day.

[I didn't go, but stayed home with the other kid, K2, to work. My wife relayed the details in periodic text messages.] When they came back after a long day out playing and shopping, the kid didn't mention being scared or cringing or crying at all. She just told me she liked the big field of pink flowers the best.

What's the deal? Are we sheltering our kid to such an extreme degree that she can't handle even the most kid-focused elements of pop culture? Is four still too young to see a movie in a theater? Are Movies These Days just over-amped sensory rollercoasters that see over-stimulation as the entertainment end in itself? [The wife and I finally watched Spiderman 3 the night before on cable; what a relentlessly plastic piece of crap. It makes Joel Schumacher's Batman and Robin look like Syriana by comparison. There's no way I'd show that movie to my kid. And yet, when I ran the facepainting booth at the kid's preschool Halloween party, literally 2/3 of them wanted Spiderman. What kind of freak am I?]

Should I take the kid at her word and assume that getting overwhelmed and scared in a movie really no big deal? I remember being terrified of the dragon in Sleeping Beauty--wow, the re-release was in 1970? I was barely three years old. That makes it one of my earliest memories. What the hell were my parents thinking? [I guess I could ask when they get back from the Easter Egg Roll.] If the takeaway here that it's really alright, then why do I still feel the need to happy up the kid's world and shield her from so much stuff?

Previously: Wait, say again? Parents take kids to slasher movies??
Movie Recs for 2-3yo's run the freakyscary gamut
C is for Cassavetes

Related: The Horn Book's negative review makes me want to see it just to hear the line, "In my world, everyone’s a pony, and they eat rainbows and poop butterflies!” []


I think it really depends on the kid. I took my soon-to-be-three year old to Horton, and he loved it. But while we were there, a girl that looked to me to be about 6 or so started crying as soon as the lights went out and the volume was turned up.

My daughter's first words when the movie ended were, "This movie was awful!" She said it was too scary and too sad at the same time. Although she asks to se movies in the theater, she never enjoys them. Better to wait I think.

Only movies featuring Paul Giamatti have freaked out my 11 month old. We've seen everything together, from Shrek 3 to In Bruges.

She did get bored in "Horton" though, after the vulture showed up. Then she just wanted to climb stairs.

My kids (age 3 and 5) have been going to G-rated movies since they were about 2.5 and have always done fine. I do think some kids are just freaked out by the loud noise and darkness. Those previews can go on forever though, so I learned to go a little later that the advertised time.

As far as boys and their Spiderman obsession, were you not aware that it is a gene they are born with? It must be because my 5-year-old has never seen a Spiderman movie, cartoon or comic book and yet he requests Spiderman toys and clothing at any opportunity. When we were at an event with face-painters last fall he wanted no part of it until he saw another boy painted like Spiderman. Perhaps this knowledge is passed down from big brothers to little brothers and then spreads throughout playgrounds and school hallways.

One of my closest friend is a gentleman in his 70s; he has confessed that the flying monkeys of "The Wizard of Oz" still haunt his dreams. Behold, the power of film!

I doubt you are sheltering K1 too terribly much, but, yeah, I think the pop-cultural stream has become a cesspool, so I'm not too sure that "too much" is possible. Harkening back to the Mr. Rogers thread; what do you see out there cinematically that is marketed for kids that has the kind of gentler qualities of the films with which we grew up? For our Toddler Queen, at 3.5, we go old school (a la Sesame Street), or to chick flick comedies. I would rather deal with an exposed breast, or some foul language, than the sensory bombardment of what is supposedly "age appropriate."

Don't feel bad Greg... I think that kid's movies have gotten a bit out of hand. Other than Miyazaki films, and maybe (the surprisingly not horrible) "Curious George", I can't think of anything feature-length created in the past decade or so that I'd let the kid watch, big screen, TV, or otherwise.

My daughter and I watched a bit of the first Spider-Man when it was on TV during Christmas holidays and I kept trying to turn away when the Goblin was on screen... she insisted it wasn't scary, so I let it go a little longer... she seemed totally fine with it.

The next day, though, she freaked out on me on the swing... I figured it was because the rainy weather had kept her off it for a while, but still, this was a kid who used to want to be pushed so high she'd almost wrap around the bar. I asked her what was wrong and she said "I don't want to fall like Spider-man..."

Oops. No more superhero movies for the kid until she's in elementary school, at least.

There is something to be said for kids learning to deal effectively with their fear.

I remember being absolutely terrified by The Great Mouse Detective, and I was almost 6. Conversely, I saw Indiana Jones and the Lost Ark about a year later, and while my dad tried to cover my eyes, I peeked anyway and the face melting scene didn't keep me up that night.

Who can say why the G rated movie freaked me out enough that I remember lying awake in bed that night surrounded by stuffed animals, and the R movie didn't? Maybe the experience of watching a movie and being scared of it teaches us how to deal with watching other scary things that we know aren't real.

Then again, I insisted on sleeping with the bedroom door closed for two weeks after watching the Dr. Who episode Blink. So I'm not the best person to ask.

[I just asked my mom, and she had no recollection at all of taking me to see Sleeping Beauty at age three. But she said she had to walk out of ROTLA at the snake pit scene, and she didn't go back in. The more I think about it, the more I agree that there is something important about learning to manage and deal with fear and other emotions that films an stories can evoke. I hope i'm not just trying to help the kid dodge all fear and uncertainty in life; that can't end well -ed.]

I don't think kids are more sheltered, but the extra-sensory overload is definitely there. I saw ET 4 times when I was 3 years old. While it now both freightens and depresses me, at the time I was cool with it. But it also has the pacing of a Merchant Ivory picture compared with kids movies today. Think about Benji. Those movies were 3/4 nature still-lifes. Even Indy was fairly slow paced when you compare it with kids movies today. Heck many of them have knocked off the more fast paced scenes from those movies.

That said, I don't think you can really shelter kids. There's no way to know what they'll find scary. Just part of being a parent I think.

"Are Movies These Days just over-amped sensory rollercoasters that see over-stimulation as the entertainment end in itself?"

I think that sums it up pretty well. I haven't taken my 4yo to a theater, because he can't even handle how fast-moving and scary the images are on our TV screen - even of relatively gentle movies like Cars! Add in the ear-splitting volume of a commercial theater, it's just cruel to ask him to try to "manage" his fears in that environment.

This may or may not matter, but he didn't see even one moment of TV/moving image until after his second birthday. And even today he's not a big fan of it. Maybe his brain isn't wired to enjoy how quickly televised/animated images move. But he loves watching the space shuttle take off and outer space footage!

Honestly I think we've done a really good job of putting our children in this perfect little bubble so they're not "overloaded". The problem is if we take them out of the house for too long or take them to do something new and different they don't know how to handle it.

When I was a kid I went to the movies, I saw Star Wars in the theater when I was three, sure it sucked but it didn't scar me for life. I started taking my kids to the movies early, they learned to sit still and not talk through a movie before they were two. Very little freaks them out now. They loved Horton! Even the three year old.

It seems like you've answered your own question. Your kid was "undone" before the trailers ended. Who can blame her for tweaking after being on the receiving end of a ten minute adrenaline barf?

As far as looking for genuine entertainment value in a new children's film, forget it. Your kids are a precious shortcut to your disposable income, and the committees responsible for creating brands need tools like theatrical product to get the seeds planted in their captive little minds.

Even the stuff I like has the marketing juggernaut behind it. Craft and nuance is incidental at this point. It's cheaper to not have any.

I heard Susan Gregory Thomas use a phrase like "cognition disorientation loop" to describe Baby Einstein Videos. I think maybe this is the best we can hope for anymore.

I see kids playing in the park all the time. They appear to be pretty happy.

i still remember my first movie. i was 4. mom had just taken me to get my ears pierced for pre-school and to celebrate how good a girl i was and not crying and all, we went to see disney's "snow white." i remember that i spent a good part of the movie in my mom's lap facing away from the screen i was so freaked out.

(i also remember that i was wearing a navy blue one piece sailor suit that i had to unbutton all the way down and practically take off to use the bathroom at the movie theatre.)

In fairness, Donna, I didn't say that kids should be expected to manage their fears like an adult. I said that I think it's important for them to learn how manage them. And this, unfortunately, requires that they occasionally get scared, and receive support in dealing with being scared.

Movies are a whole different beast today than 20 years ago, though. There are rarely slow parts to a movie, and movies are panned for having them. The volume is louder. The plots just get worse. If your boy can't handle them, I don't blame him, I hate going to the movies myself.

We still haven't taken Teufelskind to a movie. He's sat through Nemo (although I skipped the shark scene) and most of Cars.

I remember seeing all the disney re-releases in the 70's, but far and away Star Wars was, for me, the BEST. I was 5 when it came out, and I must have seen it 3-4 times in the theater (and dozens of times after). I remember being a bit troubled by Luke's family getting killed, but not so much so that I didn't love the film.

As for movies today, there is precious little that I want to sit through, apart from a few pixar films, there's nothing I'm dying for my son to see.

I think there is no "one size fits all" rule for kids and movies except for this one: skip the previews. We've been to two movies with previews and both times they were at a much higher volume than the movie and the content was WAY age inappropriate. By the time the previews were over our kids were freaked out too. On the other hand, we had big success going to the summer 10 a.m. movie that cost $2 and had no previews.

My second recommendation is to go to a site like "Kids In Mind" and read the review closely and compare it to things that freak your kid out. So far (in the total of 4 movies we've seen) I've learned that if "Kids in Mind" gives a movie a "3" for violence it is potentially too violent for my kids (this was after the "Ratatouille" viewing mistake). The details make a difference too. The scene that freaked my daughter out most in "Enchanted" wasn't the one with the dragon, it was the one where a homeless man ran off with the princess's crown. I'd prepped her for the dragon, but not that. Predicting reactions is hard!

Ultimately, though, I like my kids to learn that media is something they can control, and if they prefer to watch the movie at home and fast-forward through the parts that freak them out, that's fine with me.

We just took our son (a little over 3) to see Horton for his first movie, too! I share many of your mixed feelings, Greg, about why there seems to be so much sensory overload directed at these kids, and yet wanting to not overly shelter my son from the wonders of the cinema. We happened to have a pretty good experience with our son: We coaxed him into the theater (getting him his own popcorn, and seeing all the other toddlers there helped ease his anxiety), he sat on my lap, managed to barely hold it together during the over-the-top previews, was warily engaged and seemed to somewhat enjoy the first half hour, and by then he had had enough, and we spent the next 20 minutes shuttling him in and out of the theater as he took one potty break after another. Fortunately for us (the two parents, two grandparents and my sister who were in town), a fire alarm went off a few minutes later, the theater emptied, and we got our $60 back! Half an hour of first-cinema exposure, and our son still talks about wanting to go back to see the rest - mission accomplished!

A slight aside - my favorite thing about seeing Star Wars in the theater at age five was how excited my dad seemed to be to see it himself. I was WAY more freaked out by the descent into hell at the end of Disney's The Black Hole several years later, and the only movie that left a lasting scar was when I was inexplicably taken to see The World According To Garp as a fourth grader. WTF responsible adults??

Sensory overload directed at kids?
YOU TOOK your kids to see this.
Anything your kid sees or hears is your doing.
Yeah bus ads, blah blah. It's up to you.

[fair point, and the reason I'm angsting on it, I guess, because for the most par we HAVEN'T taken our kid to see movies. Which is probably why we were caught off guard by the intensity of the trailers, even for a rated G movie at 10AM. As for kid movies generally, I don't know if they really *are* more intense or bombastic than they used to be. Dumbo and Sleeping Beauty had some pretty intense moments. Maybe the difference *is* the moments in between, not the peaks. -ed.]

So your wifes one of those people who lights up today's movie theaters like a Christmas tree by text-messaging during movies? Great. Moviegoing at mainstream cinemas is as horrible as it's ever been these days with all the cell phone users.

[way to harsh on a guy's wife, but actually, she texted me and then called after the movie; they were out all day. -ed.]

"If you don't watch the violence, you'll never get desensitized to it."
-- Bart Simpson

[I should've known the answer would be found in The Simpsons. -ed.]

Took my 4.5 year old and 21 month old to see Horton over the weekend as well. We cam prepared with apple slices, cheddar bunnies, and juice. Both really enjoyed the movie. No freak outs at all. They were both very into the movie. Our youngest kept saying the names of all the animals she could recognize as they came on the screen.

Not the same case when we went to the Bee movie several months ago:
1. The sound was a too loud.
2. The first trailer was freaky, I don't remember what it was for, but our 4 yr. old lost it and we had to wait outside the theater until the previews were over.
3. The DLP projector re-booted 5 times. This made a 90 minute movie into an almost 120 minute movie. Juice and Snacks ran out....Not Good.

My son is 7, and he's only starting to be okay with going to a movie. My husband took him to Happy Feet last year, and they had to leave halfway. He turned down going to his friend's birthday party last year because they were going to watch a movie. I don't think he's sat through a movie in the theater yet.

When he was 3 or 4, he was scared by some little kid shows, too - like when the bag of flour falls on Thomas's friend, and everybody thinks he's a ghost - too scary. Or when Clifford's friend pretends to be "whiffy the skunk ghost," even though they make it clear that it's all pretend, my son said he was afraid to sleep because he kept thinking of whiffy.

Meanwhile, my 2.5yo daughter happily watches the Little Mermaid and calls it her "favorite scary movie." She'll watch anything. Works out well for me - they're at the same level of viewing tolerance, so they'll watch the same shows/movies together. I'm enjoying it while it lasts.

So I guess my point is, they're ready for it at their own pace. And they'll let you know whether they are or not.

I believe that many adults are so de-sensitised themselves to the violence-physical and emotional- in films, that they have a hard time guaging what a childs reaction might be. I recall saying no to "Lilo & Stitch" when China was 4 because I was tipped off about the death of the parents...and it was a good call. We have had an entire cinema turn to gawk at our daughter then 6, because she was sobbing so loudly during "Racing Stripes". She's now 8 1/2 and saw Horton on the weekend. It seems that the pooping butterflies line tickles the funny bones of 8 year olds in a big way. Seeing as she has a T shirt with a unicorn pooping marshmallows I think she already thought that notion funny.

Yes 4 might be too young to see a movie in a theatre.... but it is a major sensory event - that is the point of a movie after all! Don't hesitate to try again- prep her and be prepared to leave -no big deal.You are agood parent fpor even thinking so hard about this stuff. My 2 year olds see far more on TV than China ever did...I think they will have much higher thresholds for film and TV themes,plots and special effects. However woodpeckers seem to be extremely horrifying to one of them at the moment.

Freak outs aside - my 3yr old seems to have pretty good taste. She started at the $3 cheap seats with Shrek 3 last summer, and although the dark and the noise made her a bit anxious and shy on the way in, she was so excited about the movie n(from the tv commercials) that with a little patience, coaxing, popcorn and Smarties, she got over her fears. We saw Shrek 5 weeks in a row with no problems, but when it switched to Surf's Up, she was done. Tried Ratatouille 3 times, and never got through it, either. Horton was a hit though, and the noise and previews are no longer an issue. If the movie is good enough, she'll sit through it, otherwise, we're out of there. Not a bad way to go.

How come the kid was forced to sit through the whole movie? Why not leave and get a refund or go to a different, less intimidating movie. When Tarzan scared me and my friend at the age of 5, his mom took us around the corner to Splash. Kinda harsh making her cower for an hour and a half.

My son is 3.5 and hasn't been to a movie yet. He watches Cars and parts of Nemo and even Sea Biscuit at home (we skip the first part of the movie and the injury scenes at the end). I know he is not ready to sit in a big, dark room and be assaulted by deafening sound and scary images.

I would say yes, most movies are over-amped sensory rollercoasters. And no, you're not sheltering your kid too much by not taking her to them.

What aspect of pop culture is really kid-focused aside from Sesame Street? Kid-targeted, I would say, to better sell plastic crap and gender stereotypes. I'm in no rush to take my kid to the movies before he is ready AND there is something worth seeing.

I'm really hoping Hollywood comes out with a non-freaky version of a Dr. Seuss.

In any case, I dugg this as it's pretty cute, and the world needs more life observations that get us new Dad's thinking. :)

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