Thursday, June 20, 2013

All the little beasts

The thing about Disney, or at least the part of that corporate behemoth which is essentially synonymous with the production of fairy-tale adaptations, is that they take these classic stories and invest them with authentic emotion. People like to talk about how cruel and bloody the original source material is, but I think that’s only half right. Bloody, no question, but not particularly cruel, not particularly anything on the emotional spectrum. What’s been handed down to us is primarily the plots and the lessons they were intended to impart on children, and anything that truly fleshes out how the characters feel is an adaptation. Disney happens to be particularly good at this.

I was thinking about this recently because the little guy finally saw Beauty and the Beast, the “finally” part referring to the fact that a couple weeks ago my wife and I tried to make it his Saturday Night Movie and only got about as far as the part where Belle’s father starts to get lost in the dark scary woods before the little guy was on the verge of tears, telling us he didn’t like how scary it was and could we please watch Toy Story instead? We acquiesced, of course, but we told him if he wanted to give it another try some other time, he could. (This is not so much due to my desire to give my children as broad a base of pop culture knowledge as possible, although I won’t deny the thought has occurred to me. But more importantly, if the only two movies the little guy ever wants to watch are Toy Story and Cars, we’re going to go a bit mental.)

So, of his own volition, the little guy came back later and said he wanted to try Beauty and the Beast again. I asked him if he was sure, and he informed me that now that he knew that the Beast turns into a nice guy at the end (we had had several conversations about the movie in the interim, and spoilers be damned, I was really trying to hip him to the whole concept of happy endings in Disney movies) he wouldn’t be scared. And I took him at his word.

But Beast starting out mean and ending up nice is, again, merely plot. There are a fair number of scary elements in Beauty and the Beast which are not Beast-centric (the wolves! the creepy spider-y horseless carriage! the cadaverous director of the insane asylum!) but those aren’t even the things which cause the little guy mental distress. It’s the emotional button-pushing, as it turns out. When we got to the sequence where Belle, against Beast’s explicit instructions, enters the west wing of the castle, the mounting tension proved absolutely excruciating for the little guy. I don’t know if he was processing the fact of Belle’s transgression, or just responding to all the aesthetic effects of the score and the sound effects and the color palette, but he freaked out and ran out of the room. So I skipped ahead to the next scene (bypassing Beast discovering Belle, frightening her, her attempted escape only to run into the aforementioned wolves, and Beast’s rescue of her) where Belle is tending to Beast’s wounds and thanking him. And somehow I got the little guy back onto the couch, and then all was well because we were into the whole falling-in-love second act of things.

We almost didn’t make it to the end because the little guy also was not a big fan of Gaston rousing the mob to storm Beast’s castle. Just the escalating threat of violence (and/or murder, let’s not sugarcoat it here) was again enough to bury the emotional needle in the red. I’ll remind you that the scene in question is actually a musical number, which you might think would therefore inherently defuse things with its silliness, but that doesn’t necessarily follow when you’re four. If anything, the minor key and the dun-dun-DUN, dun-dun-DUN beat just tap right into your tiny little amygdalae. So there were some tears, but I urged him to hang in there because we were almost at the end and everything was going to be all right. And bless his little heart, he did.

So I feel like we’ve crossed a certain threshold, in terms of entertainments that the little guy can tolerate. Cars and Toy Story don’t really have archetypal villains; Chick Hicks is the nominal antagonist, but he’s mostly just a selfish jerk, and you could say the same thing about Andy’s toy-destroying neighbor Sid, too. Pixar movies are a little more nuanced and a little more grounded and that makes them a bit gentler, too. Gaston’s pretty straight-up evil, though, and he gets the standard comeuppance of falling to his death. If a child can wrap their head around the fact that evil is out there but that good can triumph over it, then (I think?) that opens the floodgates for pretty much all the fairy-tale derived stories out there, which are the ones I tend to gravitate towards. Not saying the little guy’s quite ready for a full-on Star Wars marathon quite yet, but we could try The Little Mermaid or Aladdin or something. Though of course the next Saturday Night Movie request he’s made is a re-watch of Toy Story 2. So, fair enough.

For what it’s worth, I don’t know if I’ll wind up going through this same process of acclimation with the little girl. I tend to think not. Temperamentally, she comes across as a little more fierce and a little less sensitive than her big brother, although that’s a real chicken-and-egg question, since he may have been the one who’s been toughening her up all along as her number one playmate and role model, and he may simply have unleashed something far beyond his intentions. In any case, the other day she and I were sitting across the table from each other after dinner, and some minor annoyance caused her to say “Shoot.” (My wife and I are not perfect parents, but give us credit for this: we love profanity but we have tried mightily to curb our use of it in front of our children, whom we love more. We say “shoot” a lot in place of more colorful expletives of frustration. Or “shhhhhhhhhhoot” which gives you a sense of how first one word starts to come out of our mouths and we manage to steer it someplace else.) I hadn’t noticed whatever had set the little girl off, so I asked her, “Shoot what?” And she gave me her most devilish little smile and answered, “Bad guys.” It actually took me a second to realize what she was saying, but I recovered and said, “Oh, right, shoot bad guys!” I’m not entirely sure if I should be encouraging the violence-is-the-hero’s-solution paradigm at such a young age, but let’s leave that be for the moment. It’s still cute to hear her say it.

And in the baby’s case, obviously I don’t have quite as good a read on things. So far all that my wife and I have agreed to be hopeful about is that the baby might be more laid back than either of his siblings. The little guy is intense yet fragile, and the little girl is intense and indestructible, so we’re just kind of crossing our fingers for not-so-intense. Intensity of course is not always a bad thing, as one can be intensely happy or intensely focused or intensely earnest or whatever, and certainly our kids have demonstrated all of those states at one time or another. But it’s exhausting, so we’d really truly be fine with less of that all around. The baby is a happy little dude, especially now that he’s got three full months (and counting) of outside-the-womb experience under his diaper flaps. He smiles a lot, and laughs and babbles and coos, which already sets him apart from his brother and sister, who both tended to range from crying to quietly observing and that was about it. Again, there are chickens and eggs to account for here, since a house with a four (nearly five) year old and a two year old in it is always on the noisy side and an infant might understandably want to take a stab, early and often, at his own vocalizations to alert the world to his own existence. Presumably he wants to make sure no one fails to hear him and his opinions someday when it’s his turn to pick the feature for the Saturday Night Movie.

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