Thursday, July 05, 2012

kiddie catharsis?

I have been wondering recently if kids need catharsis moments and why that seems to be so common in children's films. My eight year old daughter loves animals, so we have been watching a lot of animal films recently, ether on cable or from the library. She loves all of the goofy "talking" animal films like Space Buddies and the like, but I thought I might try to also steer her towards some classic children's films too — ones I missed when they originally came out because I was either too old for them, or because my family just simply didn't go to the movies as much as we seem to do nowadays. What surprised us, and at times frankly horrified us, were not only scenes of danger, but violence to the animals in the films. I am not a helicopter-y parent (I don't think), and I don't like to sugar coat (at least not too much), but I was pretty surprised when I found myself having to comfort the kid while she cried and worried if certain of the animals would survive.

The first film we saw, Ring of Bright Water, was in all ways, at first, a delightful movie. It featured Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna, of Born Free fame, in a story about a London man who meets and adopts an adorable mischievous otter he names Mij. Once Mij enters his life nothing is the same. He decides to leave London and move to Scotland where they can live a more peaceful life. It's a great depiction of the strong bond between a person and a pet that they truly love and that loves them back, and the scenery and acting is top-notch. And then, inexplicably, tragedy strikes, and leaves the man and the audience bereft. I'm not sure I could bear to watch it again, despite the fact that 80% of the movie is wonderful. The film is loosely based on a book by Gavin Maxwell, who adopted an otter in Iraq and took it home to Scotland. It does depict the intense grief at losing a pet, and ends on a hopeful note, but there is a violent, unexpected scene in the film that sent the kid reeling.

Another film we watched recently was Benji, which featured the lovable, scruffy dog who wandered through a Texas town. A sort of town mascot, everyone has a different name for him and provides different food or affection. The movie has a strange villains/kidnapping subplot, and what scared the daylights out of the kid was a scene where one of the kidnappers kicks and seems to kill a pretty little white stray dog that Benji has befriended. Luckliy, it all comes out OK in the end, but the kid was sobbing until she was sure the dog was all right. Forget about the two young kids that were being held for ransom in the silly subplot — she was more worried about the dog.

Milo and Otis meet a hedgehog
The third film we saw was The Adventures of Milo and Otis, which is a beautifully photographed Japanese film that features a tabby cat and a pug dog who grow up together, get lost, and go on many adventures together. This film didn't have too many moments that were too scary for her, but I later read that it has a bad reputation for its treatment of the animals used in the film. There are so many conflicting reports about how many kittens were used to make the film and some of the dangerous stunts they were exposed to, such as a kitten flying off a cliff and the little pug trying to fight off a bear. But it was entertaining and my daughter liked it.

So many children's movies feature an unhappy moment or death scene. From Snow White to The Wizard of Oz a character is in peril and children must worry and sometimes cry. But the fear and accompanying tears seems to be more intense with animal films geared towards children, maybe because watching real animals on screen seems more real. Even the youngest child watching Dorothy and The Wicked Witch of the West has some inkling that it's a fantasy and that Toto and friends will eventually save the day. I'm pretty sure the kid will want to watch Benji and Milo and Otis take their adventures again — especially because now she knows how the story comes out. As for Ring of Bright Water, I highly doubt it. She still feels pretty betrayed by that one.
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