Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Ernest, not Angry

On Sunday my son chose Ernest & Celestine over The Angry Birds Movie.

He didn't know he was choosing Ernest & Celestine, because he didn't know what it was, and we didn't end up seeing either movie anyway. But he knew enough about The Angry Birds Movie to reject it, which was the most interesting takeaway. Essentially, he preferred whatever was behind Door #2 to The Angry Birds Movie.

I'll explain.

Ernest & Celestine, a 2013 Academy award nominee for best animated feature, was supposed to be the third movie I watched for this year's Human Rights Arts & Film Festival (HRAFF), which I helped curate. It was part of the festival's children's program called Cineseeds, which is just two features -- one aimed at younger children, one at older -- on the festival's second Sunday.

I was going to take my five-year-old to see it, in part just for an activity on a Sunday afternoon, but in part also to show him the kinds of things that daddy has been up to. In fact, daddy had not seen Ernest & Celestine either, but oddly enough, was directly responsible for it being part of the festival.

The committee that approves selections for Cineseeds is notoriously selective, and there had been about 15 choices we'd vetted as a group that they had ultimately ruled out, despite enthusiastic recommendations on our part in some cases. Desperate, the festival coordinator contacted me and asked if I could provide another list of options, based on my wealth of general cinematic knowledge. They didn't have to be new releases, so that was supposed to make it easier. I did my best to come up with some on my own, but also asked my Flickcharters Facebook discussion group for recommendations of (loosely) human rights-themed choices that would be appropriate for kids. Ernest & Celestine was one of their recommendations, and I passed it on to the coordinator, having no idea if it was a useful suggestion or not, and even less assumption that it would actually be selected.

It was selected, so that gave me a little bit of extra pride that made me think I should take my son -- even though he's a lot more into Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Power Rangers these days than hand-drawn movies about a bear and a mouse. Just to be on the safe side, I didn't show him any images from it.

As he's been somewhat difficult to please at the movies, I expected he'd need more of a buy-in, but he was willing to go. In fact, he seemed cautiously excited about it.

Unfortunately, we've all been a bit sick the last few days, and the movie was starting at 2:45, kind of a problematic start time for a number of reasons. That meant we needed a full other activity to start the day, and ended up going to the home of one of my wife's friends, who has a son just a few months older than my oldest. Three hours over there took enough out of me that a nap seemed more appealing to me around 1 o'clock than being dropped off at the theater early and having to kill 90 minutes until the movie started.

Waking from my nap way too late at just before 2, I randomly decided to check the HRAFF website to make sure I'd gotten the start time right. I had -- but I also hadn't anticipated the demand. The movie was sold out. A ticket had already been reserved for me, so that wasn't a problem, but I'd never bothered to buy one for my son, not wanting to commit the money if we didn't end up going. I had been monitoring the website, though, and it hadn't even been listed as "selling fast" in the days leading up to it.

As my wife was sicker than I was and needed her own nap even more (while the younger one was having his), there was no doubt that my son and I were still going to try to make the movie. So I texted the festival coordinator, wondering if she might have some idea what to do. She wasn't actually there, but sent me the phone number of the festival director, who would be and might have an idea. I couldn't actually read the contact card she sent through, adding a further level of complication.

While this was all transpiring, though, we needed to actually be leaving. So we went and jumped in the car, which was probably the thing that ultimately sealed our fate. We'd been meaning to go by public transportation, since parking is hard near that theater, but the unexpected delays of the later nap and lack of available tickets made the car seem like a faster choice. When traffic was also bad, the writing was on the wall that we would miss Ernest & Celestine.

Before breaking the news to my son, I quickly came up with what I thought was an air-tight backup plan. Checking the Hoyts app on my phone for any child-appropriate new releases, I struck gold -- The Angry Birds Movie. I didn't expect it to be good, mind you, but I expected it to have a lot more natural interest for my son's current tastes than Ernest & Celestine.

What was so lucky about that particular choice was that my son was fresh off a moment of Angry Birds-related triumph on Mother's Day, just a week before. That morning I took my kids out for pancakes and some errands at the mall, one of which was going to the video game place my older son loves. There he played an Angry Birds game that involves shooting an actual "angry bird" with an actual sling shot at a video game screen of pigs balanced on precarious wooden towers. Wherever the ball hits the screen, some amount of corresponding damage occurs to the towers. If you can create a domino effect of destruction with a particularly well-placed shot, and knock off all four pigs with one bird, you can win the grand prize of 500 tickets.

I assumed that no one ever does this. But my son did it, probably without even trying to. As he watched the tickets getting digitally applied to our game card, and all the game's pomp and circumstance involved with the perfect shot, he had a silly grin of victory on his face. Since he can often get down on himself when he isn't immediately good at things, it was great for him to have a win like this. It also was a nice early financial lesson, as having all these tickets meant he could afford to buy something in the store -- something that was actually kind of cool, not just plastic hair clips or a little hard candy. With his winnings he bought a little gun that shoots potato pellets, and he was happy as pie.

Seizing on that experience, I promoted The Angry Birds Movie as a backup plan. He barely stopped to consider it. "Nah," he said. "Not interested."

I had almost no time to revel in his good taste before he hit me with a big dollop of emotional manipulation. The idea of missing Ernest & Celestine -- whose title he did not even know -- was now suddenly going to crush him. He kept asking if we could drive faster and whether we could honk the horn to make everyone get out of our way. Eventually I had to tell him that not only would we not get there on time, there would be no tickets waiting for us, and only if I could get in touch with the festival director would we even have any hope of getting in. I had the festival director's number by now, but closing the space in the amount of remaining time was quickly becoming a physical impossibility.

My second backup plan, one that was sure to satisfy him, still seemed only barely able to do so. My second backup was to take him back to that same video arcade where he'd won at Angry Birds. He reluctantly agreed that this was an acceptable plan. Though even after that, even after he knew we were no longer going to Ernest & Celestine, he asked how close we were to getting to the theater.

It's about a bear and a mouse, kid! It's got no guns or mutated reptiles! And it's not even drawn very well! 

An apple juice, a chocolate bar and a handful of video games later, he was fully happy and seemed to have forgotten the aborted plan. He played the Angry Birds game once again, did not win the 500 tickets, shrugged, and walked away.

I too was a little disappointed not to get to see Ernest & Celestine. Not only is it of presumably high quality, as a recent Oscar nominee, but it taught the important lesson of tolerance. My son's expressed some fears about people who are different from him, so this could have done the valuable work of helping assuage some of those fears. Theoretically.

Or he could have been bored to tears and made us leave after 20 minutes. There's that.

He didn't get that dose of tolerance, but at least he didn't replace it with a movie where enraged birds shoot themselves at pigs.

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