Monday, January 12, 2015

And the award for Father of the Year goes to ...

On New Year's Eve Eve, I heeded my son's request to leave early from Paddington because he was too scared to continue with the movie.

Yeah, I wasn't letting that happen twice in the space of two weeks.

And so it was that I squelched not one, not two, not three, but four separate requests yesterday to leave our screening of Big Hero 6.

Father of the year, indeed.

I knew Big Hero 6 might have some intense moments in it, but I ultimately thought my four-year-old would ride it out better than he had Paddington. On the surface, Paddington seems like the safer bet, but the sadistic taxidermist played by Nicole Kidman was understandably pretty scary. It was also only the second live-action movie I'd ever asked my son to sit through, the first being the Easter bunny movie Hop, which we watched at home and which he gave up on, long before the ending. (Not because it was scary, but because it was a "grown-up movie.")

Featuring robots, superheroes, and a protagonist who was basically a young boy (early teenager, it turns out), Big Hero 6 seemed perfectly timed to catch my son at the ascendancy of slightly older tastes. He's big into superheroes now, and has been into robots a bit longer than that.

But I could tell this one was going to be pretty heavy. Like most Disney protagonists, Hiro Hamada has lost his parents, and the actual D-word is used in referring to what happened to them. Then pretty soon, two prominent characters also die. My son has been asking questions about death recently, saying things like "I don't want to be dead," so this worried me. When one of these characters died during the story, and my son asked what happened to him, I was silent for a moment before finally saying "He got caught in the fire." "But what happened to him?" Gulp. "He died," I admitted.

This did not faze my son, or at least not in any way where he seemed to be dwelling on it. But abstractly scary things are no match for physically incarnate scary things, and unfortunately, this is what the Big Hero 6 villain looks like:

Perhaps a tad scarier even than a sadistic taxidermist.

The first time he made his appearance, my son started to squirm up into a squatting position, as if he were trying to retract himself into the corner of his seat as much as he could. At first he seemed like he was going to weather the storm, but pretty soon he started moaning "Daddy, I want to go home now."


This was a much different situation than Paddington. While that movie was in its home stretch and I can say that I pretty much saw the whole thing, Big Hero 6 was probably not even 40 minutes in when my son made his first request to leave. If we were to leave now, this would not just be "leaving early." This would be "not seeing the movie."

I had to think quickly. I knew the right thing was to immediately grant the wish. But two factors weighed heavily into my decision to stay, listed in order of their importance to me -- but I'd reverse that order of importance if ever cross-examined in a court of law: 1) If I left now, I couldn't add this to my 2014 movie rankings; 2) It would be a sad waste of $37.40.

That's right, a ticket for an adult and a child to a movie, plus the service fee of ordering online, comes out to $37.40. Highway robbery. But to be honest, it was the first reason listed above that was bothering me more.

"Shh shh shh," I told him. "You're okay. Just don't look at the screen."

Other things I tried at other times: having him sit in my lap, telling him it was all make believe, telling him it was just a man wearing a costume, telling him it was like his Bane action figure from his Gotham City Jail playset (the character does actually bear a striking resemblance to his toy). Each of these worked in calming him down, though the eventual unmasking of the villain -- which I had been praying for from the first outburst -- did not mean there were no subsequent episodes.

In fact, it was only because he was so easily calmed that I could carry out such a self-serving and blatantly inhumane strategy on my own son. He was spooked by this guy on each of his appearances, but never spooked enough that he started to have a real meltdown. He moaned the words in a voice that sounded on the edge of tears, but whatever I said as a follow-up truly worked. He always calmed down and continued watching the movie with great interest.

After the fact, my actions proved themselves justified. He told me he loved the movie, and when we got home, he excitedly explained as much of the plot to his mother as he could babble out. When I asked him if it had been too scary, he said "Nah. Well, it was a little bit scary. But not too scary."

I don't want my son to grow up too fast, and I don't want him to start being blase about people trying to kill each other on screen. But I do want him to confront his fears, and I think yesterday we took a step in that direction.

And if I got to see my movie all the way through to the end in the process ... well then bully for me.


Jandy Hardesty said...

I'm really intrigued by stories of kids in the 4-5 year old range being afraid of stuff in movies. When did he start fearing things he saw in movies? Does he get more afraid of things in theatres than at home?

Karina's not shown fear of anything yet, and while I haven't shown her really scary stuff, she's seen a half dozen Disney movies with pretty scary-looking villains (Snow White, Little Mermaid, etc), the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and the opening of Monsters Inc where you think the monster's really scaring the kid, and they don't phase her. But she's not quite two yet, so maybe the fear mechanism hasn't quick kicked in yet?

Derek Armstrong said...


That would be it I'm sure. There would be a certain logic to the idea that the older a child is, the less scared they are of things, but in truth, they need to be able to fully process what they're seeing in order to be scared by it. My son wasn't scared of the ice monster in Frozen a year ago, but he might be today. Just as how when he turned 3 years old, he went on a big slide at a park near his grandmother's house, but a year-and-a-half later it was too scary for him. I'm guessing that developing more sophisticated concepts of death and bodily harm contributes to this.

Ultimately, Big Hero 6 is probably a little too old for him. But the problem is that most studios are not making movies anymore that are REALLY appropriate for young kids. I suppose something like Penguins of Madagascar or the upcoming Minions would qualify, but anything made by Disney or Pixar is going to have a scary element in it, in order to entice the older audiences.

Jandy Hardesty said...

So he just doesn't remember that he went on that slide before and it didn't hurt him? Interesting. I keep envisioning this as if one day I'll show Karina The Little Mermaid and she'll be fine, and then the next day she'll suddenly be terrified of Ursula. It probably isn't that sudden, but it does beg the question of if a kid is exposed consistently to a specific "scary" thing, would familiarity negate fear once the ability to process fear kicks in?

Starting next year, I'll have to start doing some controlled experiments on this. :)

Derek Armstrong said...

He claims not to remember anything older than a year ago. He claimed not to even remember the women in the U.S. who took care of him until he was nearly three. As for Ursula, I think the familiarity of seeing her throughout should prevent her from ever morphing into a threat.