Thursday, May 9, 2013

Toy stories

I forget if I've mentioned this or not, but my wife and I recently instituted Saturday Night Movie Night in our house, an event which is 100% centered upon the little guy. It's yet another incentive program for him, but with a slight twist from the usual bribery for good behavior. When we're trying very specifically to teach him a good habit or break a bad one, we tend to get pretty granular about how he goes about earning a reward, what with the chart that holds stickers and each sticker having to be earned day by day, which means there can be (and most def have been) some days where he doesn't actually get a sticker because he hasn't earned it. So clearly there's a certain amount of threatening to withhold the stickers as a form of coercion and so on. Movie Night is different, as the understanding is that it will happen pretty much every Saturday unless there is some egregious transgression on the little guy's part. But the underlying idea is that he's the only one out of the three kids who gets Movie Night, which involves not only watching a DVD with mommy and daddy but also staying up late. We're trying to impress upon him that there are some benefits to being the oldest sibling, to offset the disadvantages of always being told to set a good example and not being carried around and coddled and catered to the way the infant and the two-year-old are. It's ... kinda working? The little guy still gets jealous sometimes and occasionally that escalates into full-blown fit-pitching, but the Movie Night seems to help. A little.

Anyway, the inaugural movie about three Saturdays ago was Toy Story, which the little guy had never seen. He liked it, although he did tense up a bit during some of the more pulse-pounding parts. Mostly he thought Buzz and Woody were cool and the rest of the toys were funny. My wife and I informed him that there were two more movies in the series and we moved on to those for subsequent Movie Nights, which was nice for me since I had not yet seen Toy Story 3. But backing up a second to Toy Story 2, I continue to find the musical interlude with Jessie's backstory (and abandonment) to be quietly devastating, and I was curious how the little guy would react to it. He was silent through the whole song and then at the very end, he asked in a tiny voice "Why are they driving away without her?" which of course put me in a very precarious come-on-man-hold-it-together position, but I managed to croak out something about how the little girl outgrew her toys, and luckily the movie picks up speed again from there.

Toy Story 3, then, I pretty much bawled through the last half hour of. Fortunately the little guy was leaning forward intently so I just kind of leaned back so as not to let him see the extent to which I was losing it. I was actually thinking that it was verging on ridiculous how the movie was just shamelessly punching every conceivable emotional manipulation button, but intellectually acknowledging that did nothing to lessen the impact. Ah, well, everyone needs a good cry now and then. Obviously the little guy did not find the themes of fleeting innocence as affecting as I did, but the movie was still an emotional roller coaster for him, especially the big action set piece at the city dump. I have to admit the little guy has come a long way from when a relatively benign chase scene in The Lorax made him burst into tears and wail that he wanted to go home, to where a genuinely terrifying sequence in which it seems that the toys are facing certain and inevitable destruction was freaking him out but he didn't ask for it to be turned off or even look away. I put my arms around him anyway, and I could feel his heart hammering away in his chest hard enough that I pondered how guilty I would feel if my own child had a heart attack while watching a Disney movie. (He didn't. Whew.)

So, good times and no lasting trauma, and the little guy is now a big Toy Story fan, so much so that he's already talking about dressing up as Woody this Halloween. I have no objections to this, although watching the entire trilogy in rapid succession really illuminated something I hadn't been especially aware of before: Woody is kind of a big jerk.

I mean, he's this brightly colored happy-looking toy voiced by Tom Hanks so the audience is pretty well inclined to like him. But he has a serious nasty streak. In the first movie he's contemptuous of and cruel to Buzz and tries to trap Buzz between the desk and the wall, out of pure jealousy. Buzz ends up falling out the window and the bulk of the plot proceeds from there, but essentially the plot problems are all Woody's fault. In the second movie Woody spends a big chunk of it indulging in his own vanity and stops trying to get back to Andy, only coming around after being reminded of what his priorities should be by an external voice of reason. And in the third movie, when the rest of the toys decide they want to stay at Sunnyside, he just gets angry at them all and washes his hands of them to look out for himself. If the daycare center didn't have an outright villain to spur Woody into action, who knows if he ever would have gone back for his so-called friends.

I'm not saying that all this is bad, or makes me retroactively dislike the Toy Story movies. On the contrary, I think it's interesting that Woody is so flawed and that gives the whole trilogy a lot more flavor. For a handful of cloth and plastic, Woody has a fair amount of depth and inner conflict.

And on that, I can pivot neatly to Free Comic Book Day, which was this past Saturday. I took both the little guy and the little girl to a local(ish) shop and let them pick out basically whatever they wanted. The little girl didn't quite get what was going on, but she saw a Sesame Street comic with a big picture of Elmo on the cover and shouted his name, so I grabbed that one for her. The story inside was a cute one about Super Grover and Super Elmo and what it really means to be a hero, so that was pretty groovy. And as it happened, the comic was a flipbook with a completely different set of stories in the other half, these featuring Strawberry Shortcake and friends. My daughter has no idea who Strawberry Shortcake is, so she's been focused on having us read the Elmo story to her, but I was curious enough to check it out. Here comes the compare and contrast! Strawberry Shortcake began as a line of toys, thus keeping in line with today's theme, but the stories in the FBCD comic not only have less depth than any given Toy Story installment, they have basically no depth at all. The main story went like this: Strawberry comes down with a case of blueberry flu, and her friends (Plum and Orange, I think?) tell her to go to bed and let them run her cafe for her. And they successfully do so. And then Strawberry gets better and thanks them. The End. No problems, no obstacles, no hamfisted moralistic life lessons about the grass always being greener or everybody needing help sometimes, NOTHING. That's not really a story at all. I mean, I know it was just a sampler in a giveaway comic, and I know some people think that there's a (perceived) void in children's entertainment for wholesome positive-message content, and I KNOW this is the kind of stuff I'm always overthinking, but man. I read comics for the stories, and I find myself dissatisfied when sequential art fails to tell one.

The little guy, for his part, picked out five comics: NFL Rush Zone, Chakra the Invincible, a Top Shelf anthology, Smurfs and Ugly Dolls. The first two are probably geared towards kids slightly older than him, while the Top Shelf book has a color cover but "boring" (his word) black and white interiors, so it's the last two he's been re-reading over and over. And they both happen to be based on toys! Ugly Dolls are something I always assumed appealed mostly to adults with a warped inner child, but the little guy found them appealing and was especially amused by the dialogue delivery his mom supplied when they read some of the stories together. (One story involves an Ugly Doll flying to the moon because he thinks it's made of blueberry pie, only to discover when he takes a bite that it actually tastes like raspberries. So for days now the little guy has been running around randomly yelling "RASPBERRIES!" in a posh accent and then giggling like mad.) The Smurfs comic contains a bonus story about Annoying Orange, which is apparently an interwebs thing that the kids are into and which I did not know existed. Annoying Orange is now the little guy's favorite thing in the entire world, to the point where he takes that comic to bed with him every night. Which is not a behavior that my wife and I feel a pressing need to correct, I guess. Innocent or obnoxious, the little pleasures of childhood are fleeting, after all.

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