Thursday, December 24, 2015

The gateway drug to grown-up movies

Twenty fifteen has been a year of transition -- or at least, hoped-for transition -- for my five-year-old son, when it comes to the movies.

As he's gingerly taken the first few steps into live action, he's also recoiled in horror. Pan was obviously a mistake, but even the dog and penguin movie Oddball presented difficulties for him -- first in terms of boredom, then actual fear. Meanwhile, Inside Out and Hotel Transylvania 2 continued to prove his love for movies ... the right movies, that is. Taken in total, the year provided ample evidence that he wasn't ready for Star Wars: The Force Awakens -- superfluous evidence, as we had pretty much ruled it out even before any of the live-action mishaps of September.

Those were all theatrical screenings. Maybe we needed to try something at home instead. And maybe it needed to be a Christmas movie about a hilarious, oversized elf.

I got the inspiration to try Jon Favreau's Elf, which I consider to be in the holy triumvirate of Christmas movies (along with A Christmas Story and It's a Wonderful Life), maybe a month ago, though it could have been as long as a year ago. In fact, I remember people talking on Facebook last Christmas about showing Elf to their kids, and even asking them if age four was too young for it. At the time they told me probably not. I couldn't remember myself, because even though it's in my top 100 films of all time and I own it, it has shockingly been more than a decade since I've seen it. (I've probably seen parts since then, but not the whole thing.)

About a month ago I convinced my wife that "our son" (to use the phrase overused by Han and Leia) was ready for Elf, and that December 23rd would be the perfect time to do it. It'd be exciting for him because he could stay up past his bedtime to watch it out on the couch with Mummy and Daddy, he could eat that candy cane he'd been asking about all week, and if he didn't like it, all he had to do was go to bed. There would be no leaving the theater, no crying, no wasted money. Plus, staying up later on the 23rd would probably make him fall asleep earlier on the 24th, or so the thinking went. (We'll find out tonight for sure.)

Well, I'm pleased to say it was a total hit. Helped along by his father's encouraging laughter -- genuine laughter, but probably a tad more than I would have otherwise provided -- he instantly got how funny and endearing Will Ferrell was as the title character. And the rest pretty much went smoothly, with only a few hiccups that I'll get to in a minute.

Simply put, I was astonished by how well this movie is constructed to cater to the interests and attention spans of children. Even live-action movies that are more directly aimed at children -- such as Stuart Little and The Smurfs 2, which we've tried and sort of half-finished at home -- have a lot more dead spots, where a child's attention might wander. Not Elf. It is action-packed from the start, and never releases you from the grasp of its charm.

I did worry at the very start. The movie begins with the soft, folksy, almost intentionally boring rhythms of a Bob Newhart narration, and for a moment I thought a) the whole narrative structure they were going for might be over my son's head, and b) Newhart himself might turn him off. But he made it through that, which really is only about a minute of screen time before the action proper begins.

It certainly helps lay the groundwork that the entire first 20 minutes (or so) take place at the North Pole. This goes a long way toward telling a child "this movie is for you, and it exists in a world you love and are familiar with." So even when the action shifts (permanently, my son was sort of disappointed to eventually learn) to New York City, the memory of this being a North Pole adventure is still intact. Certain movies would have hurried to get us to New York, but Elf knows that showing us the world Buddy knows is key to us appreciating the world Buddy doesn't know, and seeing that world through his eyes.

Then of course there are the great touches of Buddy talking to the Rankin-Bass characters, the woodland creatures and the debonair snowman. My son hasn't seen Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer -- the next oversight I must work to correct -- but he obviously knew that kind of thing was aimed at someone his age. When the narwhal surfaces to wish goodbye to Buddy, I leaped at the opportunity, knowing that there's a narwhal in one of my son's favorite shows, Octonauts. He didn't instantly remember the name of that mammal, but a smile crept across his face when I reminded him of it.

He laughed at Buddy's long walk south -- "That's a long way to walk!" -- and joined us in the laughter over Buddy obliviously getting hit by a taxi, trying the revolving doors for the first time and taking his first steps onto an escalator, which turn into that long lunge forward that makes the best use of Ferrell's elongated body. I couldn't help but think of my son in that scene, both literally, when he tried his first escalator (something my two-year-old is currently grappling with), and figuratively, as the whole movie of Elf was kind of like a metaphorical escalator for him.

No, I'm not entirely sure all the laughter he produced was involuntary, or if some of it was social laughter to show us that he got the same jokes we did. But it kept him engaged, and that was the important part.

I had a worry early on when there was talk of whether Santa was real or not. Even the possibility that Santa was not real was not something I wanted him to think about. Fortunately, this movie's position is that Santa is absolutely, 100% real, so the lack of belief in him is a characteristic ascribed only to those on the naughty list. There's also that part where Artie Lange plays the department store Santa, and his beard is pulled off, revealing an imposter. My son did have a few comments about that, but they did not lead to the conclusion that all the Santas he's seen in various shopping malls have been imposters. (Not one that he voiced, anyway.)

He did get bored at exactly one point, and it's funny how easy it would have been to predict. It's that scene when James Caan's boss, played by Michael Lerner, visits him in his office and makes threats about the security of his job if he doesn't meet a certain deadline. A totally necessary scene for advancing the plot that probably lasts about 90 seconds. Yet this was enough time for my son to ask how much time was remaining in the movie, and my wife to get irritated and tell him that if he wasn't enjoying it he could just go to sleep. This was the only time that I feared we wouldn't complete Elf, and the fear proved short-lived as Buddy returned front and center in the next scene.

This is an astonishingly tight script. At about the 50-minute mark, my wife told my son that there was an hour left, and I worried that if that were really true, we certainly might lose him. But not long after that the movie starts moving in high gear toward its conclusion and wraps up in a neat and tidy 90 minutes, bringing a tear to my eye in several spots, as it always does. The fact that there is zero fat in this script makes it even funnier that my son's primary complaint about the movie was that it was "a bit long."

And being up until 9:15 meant that there were no bedtime shenanigans. No sooner had the movie ended than he disappeared to the bedroom and was not heard from again. Leaving his parents free to provide ample evidence of there being no Santa, by building the "pirate fortress" that Santa is going to bring him later on tonight.

So my hope is that Elf is what was needed to get my son over the hump, to make the next movie with no animated characters just that much easier for him to swallow. With a distant eye on the long-term goal -- being absolutely sure he's ready to go to the movies with me for Star Wars: Episode VIII in May of 2017.

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