Monday, August 15, 2011

Parental Guidance

On Friday, my wife borrowed a DVD copy of Finding Nemo from one of her co-workers, the idea being that we might let the little guy watch it at some point over the weekend; since mommy had to work Saturday and Sunday, it was pretty highly likely that daddy might need an hour and a half of the little guy being self-sufficiently blissed out by brand-new (to him) Pixar animation sooner or later. We made it until about 9:30 Saturday morning before that time did in fact arrive.

As I think I’ve mentioned before, my son had prior to this past weekend seen exactly two full-length feature films in his entire life: Cars and Cars 2. Other than that he’s watched a few DVD compilations of children’s tv shows, but aside from running time the difference between those episodes of Bob the Builder or Thomas the Tank Engine or even the Friz Freleng Dr. Seuss cartoons and a full-length movie is that the latter is more narratively complex and brings in real issues of conflict along with a heavier emotional palette. The little guy and I have had long conversations many a time about the ending of Cars where (spoilers) Chick Hicks wins the Big Race, but he does it in an unacceptably mean way, while Lightning could have won but chooses instead to help someone who needs help. And Cars is one of the least complex of the Pixar movies.

Finding Nemo, on the other hand, is dark as Hades. Not visually, of course, it’s arguably the most gorgeous story Pixar’s ever told. But happy ending notwithstanding they go to some awful, despair-filled nightmarish places in that flick. As a matter of fact they start out squarely in that territory almost from the get-go.

Now here’s the thing: my wife and I realized a while ago that if you roughly divide children’s entertainment into two categories you get the insipid on one side and the subversive on the other. Either there are no stakes and everyone cooperates and sings songs of support while teaching some platitude or other (again, hey there Bob the Builder and Thomas the Tank Engine!) or there are actual consequences and dangers and genuinely scary or at least unsettling stuff (like most Disney and other fairy-tale type stuff). (Granted there is also a third kind of stuff which is really just trash with consequence-free violence and no morals at all, but that’s pretty easy to avoid at this point.) The little guy is drawn to some of the insipid stuff and we really don’t have a problem with that, but we’re not going to shield him from the more problematic stuff, either.

Well, except maybe the extremely problematic. My wife and I of course both saw Finding Nemo years ago and so we both thought the little guy would like it but we also both knew that the movie opens with Marlin and Coral looking over their clutch of eggs and then HOLY CRAP BARRACUDA ATTACK AND CORAL AND ALMOST ALL THE BABIES DIE. Now on the one hand this is a bog-standard fairy-tale trope, having the main character be down at least one if not both parents. It’s just that usually we meet, say, Aladdin the orphan and motherless Princess Jasmine a bit farther along in their stories. And of course, Finding Nemo isn’t really motherless Nemo’s story entirely, anyway, it’s mostly Marlin’s, and we have to see what Marlin had and how he lost 99.9% of it to understand how traumatized he is and what his quest signifies, yeah, yeah, I get all that. But that Barracuda attack scene – man, I can’t get behind showing that to a three-year-old. So my wife and I agreed, when/if the little guy saw Finding Nemo for the first time, we would cue it up for him, skip the first scene, and let him watch the rest from there. The sharks, the jellyfish, the whale, Darla the Fishkiller – all of that I figured he could handle but, sweet Poseidon, not the clownfish massacre at the beginning.

So did I execute the plan as such when I sat the little guy down on Saturday morning to watch the movie? I did. Here’s the interesting thing about the way they broke the scene/chapters on the DVD though. Movie starts, I hit Next, and we cut to scene two, which is not really a traditional scene break with a change in location or fade from black or anything like that. Scene two is the immediate aftermath of the barracuda attack. The first moment of the scene is Marlin saying “Oh no” and – all admiration in the world to Albert Brooks because he sells it – it is the sound of grief and shock and horror. But of course that is immediately followed by Marlin realizing there is one egg left, one tiny egg with a crack in its membrane and a teeny-tiny adorable embryonic fish inside and Marlin scoops it up and says “it’s ok, daddy’s got you, daddy’s here and I promise I will never let anything happen to you” which is about the point where I had to set down the remote and walk away before the little guy could see that I was on the verge of losing it. In other words I made it about ten seconds in before I was almost bawling. Dammit, Pixar. The little guy, of course, was already totally sucked in and oblivious to my emotional contortions and to Pixar’s credit they don’t linger on Marlin’s devastation any longer than that, there’s a quick dissolve to the title card and then another quick fade in on the anemone years later as Nemo is waking up his dad on the first day of school, and it’s very high energy and engaging and silly and funny. Bumpy start, though.

But the important thing is the little guy loved it. And, I should note, he found it thought-provoking as well. Later that night we were discussing why the divers took Nemo away in the first place, and I explained that they wanted a clownfish in their aquarium but they didn’t give any thought to what the clownfish might want or how the clownfish might feel being taken away from his home in the ocean, and the little guy seemed to process that pretty well. (I think there is actually a throwaway line in the movie about how the diver/dentist actually thinks he’s “rescuing” Nemo because Nemo has that one undersized fin, and wouldn’t have survived long on the reef, but I didn’t get into that.) I didn’t really predict my first attempts at teaching empathy to my children would intersect so closely with anthropomorphized cartoon sealife, but I’ll take it.


  1. Oh honey thinking of you tearing up is making me tear up! You are the best dad ever.

  2. We used to skip over the first "chapter" of Nemo for the same reason. Now that Girl #1 is old enough (and asked a lot of questions about the story that the intro scene could answer), we let the opening roll too. She wasn't freaked out by it, but it does leave her quiet for a while. Of course, she's also lost interest in that movie in favor of others. "Wallace and Gromit" shorts and The Wizard of Oz are current faves.

    Her current favorite teevee show was a total surprise. We have a gadget that allows Netflix streaming movies to play on our TV, so she can watch all sorts of godawful crap (okay, and some good stuff) whenever she wants. The big new favorite? Yo Gabba Gabba? Kipper? The Backyardigans? SpongeBob Squarepants? Hardly.

    HEY HEY HEY! She's a huge Fat Albert fan. She can't get enough.

    Like all kids, she absorbs fiction as preparation for life. She learns about the world around her, including emotions she can't process yet and challenges she doesn't yet understand. Fat Albert was nakedly didactic, but it did it well, and it also handled subjects that the saccharine didactic cartoon muck wouldn't touch. The key, I think, is that the characters were all flawed but decent. Rather than have "the guy who is always right" and "the butt-monkey who is always wrong," Albert has everyone screw up from time to time, and everybody step up and do the right thing too.

    The world it shows is totally alien to her (a cartoon version of 1970s Philadelphia with an all-black cast -- not quite her everyday reality) but understandable, friendly, and a window into parts of life she knows exist but can't figure out. The show expands her knowledge of the world in a fun, non-obnoxious manner.

    And, as an added bonus, I can now use the nickname "Weird Harold" and she'll know what I mean.