I just returned from seeing "The Spiderwick Chronicles." There will be a review forthcoming, but suffice to say that it was an absolute delight. It was dark, it was smart, and it was perfect fare on which my inner-child could gnaw until the next Harry Potter movie. Of course, I noted the PG rating going in, and on the way out I remarked to myself that the MPAA might have been more accurate had they put a PG-13 brand on it instead. I mentioned this to a friend of mine and he said: "Have you noticed a trend of late where we are trying really hard to scare little children?"
I thought about this and my reply:
"Yeah, I have noticed that trend, but I think it's great. Let your kids get scared a little bit."
Of course, I needed to put this remark into proper context. I am not an advocate of children watching strictly adult fare. Taking your six year old to see "No Country for Old Men" or "The Descent" is a decidedly bad idea, in my opinion. There is a difference between delivering startles and traumatizing them. But in the right environment, and with the right material, I am a firm believer in testing a kid's limits. I still have very vivid memories of cowering in terror next to my mom at the sight of the Wicked Witch of the West. And we won't even get into the flying monkeys, which still speak to that trembling first grader in me. I have a feeling it will always be that way, no matter how many times I watch stupid teenagers get hacked to death with machetes. That movie delivered a cool whisper in my ear and this cynical adult can still hear it sometimes.
When my children grew old enough to watch movies, I started very carefully observing their inherent fears. It turned out that their slates were pretty clean. No learned irrationalities. Natalie was a little sensitive to loud noises. Elias... well, he was a little more hardy, probably made so by the fact that his exposure to frightening stimuli started at an earlier age thanks to his big sister. That and the kid was a bit of a brute and spent most of his early years scaring his parents.
The first movie I took Natalie to see was "Finding Nemo." She was 2 1/2 and spent most of the film with her face buried in my shoulder. No amount of reassurance would sway her to look at the screen after that baracuda ate Nemo's mother early on. Of course, the movie theater itself is a scary deal. The screen is as big as life, and coupled with state-of-the-art audio has the capacity to turn them into Jonah inside the whale's belly. I waited awhile and decided to take her to "The Polar Express." That was so much for her that we had to leave about 1/3 of the way through. I admitted to myself that maybe I was pushing her too hard and we stayed away from the theater for awhile. It was too loud. Too big. And frankly, a movie habit is expensive enough. Having to leave partway through is akin to throwing money in the trash.
DVDs, however, were a different story. Their little eyes soaked up "Finding Nemo" and "The Polar Express" on the small screen, and with every year we moved onto bigger and better things. The greatest discovery for them were the Harry Potter movies. Initially, we had the first two in the series in the rotation, as they are more friendly for small viewers. The third film, "The Prisoner of Azkaban," was a major departure, however. Anyone who knows the stories will know why, and I only need to mention one word: Dementor. Then, on a whim one day when the kids were home on winter break, I decided to pull the third one off the shelf and give it a spin, and they were enrapt. Sure, they were scared, but I could see fireworks going off behind those wide eyes, and I was infinitely pleased. A whole new world had enfolded them, and it took me back to my first viewings of "The Wizard of Oz," where I was terrified out of my wits, but enchanted in such a way that I was determined to face it down. And when I found that I could watch that movie (remember when it used to air on TV once a year?) without being afraid, I felt I had conquered something. It was an empowering feeling, and I will always look fondly on that moment and on that movie for challenging my young little brain.
I feel that Hollywood has failed children in this regard repeatedly for the last decade and a half. Instead it has delivered redundant and unfunny toilet humor and insubstantial fluff lacking in imagination, deeper emotion, and humanity. At some point we became convinced that in order to provide future generations with good and decent human beings we had to, as parents, coddle and shield them from any sort of "negative" emotion, such as fear, forgetting that there is magic in that cold little trickle on the back of the neck and beauty in a child's imagination grasping something bigger than itself and wrestling control of it. Movies like "Monster House," "Zathura," "Spirited Away," and yes "The Spiderwick Chronicles," have gone a long way in attempting to restore this feeling in the family movie genre, and I find it refreshing. Yes, there will always be room for strictly "feel-good" fare, but that is not synonymous with "stupid" and anyone who thinks it is should consult any Pixar film.
I'm quite sure my children will see Spiderwick and be scared to death in certain parts. Hell, even I was a little bit. It's not an "easy" children's film by any stretch, but I welcome that. I look forward to seeing them cover their little eyes, finding it in themselves the courage to face something that touches the shadowy corners of their subconscious minds. If they walk out of that movie feeling even a little bit like I did, reminded of the magic in this world and in the human imagination, and feeling shed of their comparitively small burdens, then I will feel like it was worth talking them through a couple of nightmares about goblins. That's what parents are for, after all--opening doors, and helping to cushion the blows that might come from whatever is behind them.