CHICAGO — As someone who does not have kids, I can attest to the fact that parents of small children love being told what they are doing wrong by the childless.
Whenever I offer advice, parents smile so broadly! And listen so closely! Occasionally, blinded by my insights into their inadequacies, they will remove their glasses and rub their eyes. In fact, usually they are so busy making mental notes they simply say nothing at all!
Now that I’ve established my credentials with parents, here is some fresh — and sincere — advice:
Let your children watch creepy movies.
Let them experience the harrowing, the uncomfortable.
I don’t mean the brutal, stupid or soul-crushing; that should be obvious (though I presume for certain parents the “Remove Child Before Folding” sticker on their stroller will always be a necessary reminder too).
I mean, when Disney and Pixar rerelease “Finding Nemo” in 3-D next month, let them sit through the scene where Nemo’s mom gets eaten. When Tim Burton’s animated “Frankenweenie” opens in October, let them see it, even if it is about the death of a family pooch and a boy who discovers how to revive it.
This week, definitely let them see “ParaNorman,” the new stop-motion animated movie opening Friday. It’s from the folks behind “Coraline,” a 2009 Neil Gaiman adaptation somewhat infamous among parents, so nightmarish at times that even empty nesters like myself thought, “Wow, would I bring a kid to this?”
I asked myself the same question during “ParaNorman,” which, though much funnier, is similarly creepy, disquieting and upfront about the precariousness of things. It tells the story of a young boy who can see dead people. Centuries worth of lost souls float in the streets of his middle-class New England village. During his school’s autumn pageant, Norman has a premonition that zombies will soon rise from the town cemetery, and blurts:
“The dead are coming!”
Yes, it is a horror movie for children.
Albeit, a horror movie for children that is not harsh and does not shield them from heebie-jeebies or human behavior. It also does not avoid uncomfortable questions with copious amounts of knee-jerk irony and easy cynicism. Rarer still, it is a movie for children that dares to strike discordant notes: Norman is an unabashed underage horror fan, keeps a room full of gruesome toys and has a phone that plays the theme to “Halloween.” Should an 11-year old be a John Carpenter fan? Probably not. (Though I was.)
Norman also gets bullied, lives in a neighborhood with an occasional piece of stray trash fluttering in the wind and walks by rusted chain-link fences on his way home. His life looks a lot like life. In fact, if you’ve ever felt children’s films have become too willing to smooth past unease and anxiety, you get a distinct impression from “ParaNorman” that its British filmmakers, Chris Butler and Sam Fell, are pointedly offering a corrective.
“Oh, and we are!” said Butler, with whom I met, along with Fell, recently in Chicago. “That’s all absolutely intentional. The tone is very much inspired by the kids movies and TV shows I grew up watching (in the 1970s and ‘80s). It’s all the stuff that gets cut out of children’s movies nowadays. When I wrote the script, I noted that the white picket fences should have some paint peeling, and the pies warming on neighborhood windowsills probably come from Happy Meals. When a character falls down, I want them to grind their knee. I want it to count.”
Said Fell: “Of course, this puts us up against that age-old battle of parents worrying for their children and trying to build bubbles around them. But I have a boy, and I also want him to grow up and stand on his feet.”
Said Butler (who has no children): “Think ‘Goonies.’ Or think ‘Gremlins,’ which got dark — that story about finding the father dead in a chimney, dressed as Santa! Families in ‘E.T.’ and ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ were incredibly dysfunctional. Until recently I thought experiencing that stuff was part of an upbringing. It’s how we grew up! Now, when it comes to film for children, we hear parents saying, ‘It’s no good.’”
Said Fell, “The thing is, kids know painting with bright colors doesn’t mean the world is cheerful.”
When I called John Ardizzone, clinical psychologist and director of assessment at the Family Institute at Northwestern University, and asked about the ramifications of parents who complain of uneasy moments in children’s films, he was reminded of a 10-year-old boy he recently treated. His parents, who were divorced, felt the split was amicable and didn’t discuss it much with the child; the boy seemed to be dealing with it. But when Ardizzone asked the child to draw his home, the boy drew a normal house and a line beneath it. Ardizzone asked the child about the line; he presumed it was a sidewalk. No, the boy said, that’s a cliff.
“Children have to learn resilience, to deal with unpleasant things,” Ardizzone said. “Parents naturally want to protect them. But the way to do it is prepare them to meet that world and explain to them they don’t have to be so afraid because the parent is there for them, not because there aren’t tsunamis or deranged shooters in Wisconsin.
“I’m not saying have an intense conversation about these things. But when I ask parents how they deal with scary pictures, they often say, ‘I don’t show it to them.’ And that is a serious mistake.”
Said Hara Estroff Marano, editor-at-large of Psychology Today and author of “A Nation of Wimps: The High Cost of Invasive Parenting”: “Not addressing scary images at all? It conveys to kids that some subjects aren’t appropriate for discussion. The unspoken message is you, the child, are a fragile thing.”
In fact, there’s an unofficial nickname among teachers and psychologists for kids like this:
When Katherine Sarafian, a producer at Pixar and co-director of “Brave,” was in Chicago this summer, a parent stood up after a screening and asked, “How can you live with yourself?” The woman’s daughter was scared by a few (admittedly loud and intense) scenes in “Brave.” Sarafian told me that because the film was PG (as is “ParaNorman”) and because the story was rooted in fairy tales that threatened actual consequences to a character’s actions, she felt justified and wasn’t overly concerned.
But then she and Mark Andrews, her co-director, think that kids are coddled, she said. “Some of these parents, you want to show them, like, the scary forest scenes in those old Disney movies they grew up on. The first movie I ever saw was ‘101 Dalmatians,’ and I was petrified by Cruella de Vil. That woman wanted to make a coat of puppies. Which we kind of take for granted, but just think about that a moment.”
On the other hand, though it’s easy to imagine the timidity of, say, the “Ice Age” and “Madagascar” franchises as a natural progression from preschool-obsessed parents and jungle gym bans, that protectiveness has a longer history.
Said Jack Zipes, a professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota and an expert on fairy tales, “the Grimms made major changes to their tales throughout their lives, throughout the 19th century, softening them to suit Victorian or Puritan sensibilities. It led eventually to a children’s literature that concealed for the sake of middle-class children. Disney, their movies, were the worst about concealing.”
The irony is that Disney, which is synonymous with watering down, delivered some of the most intense childhood memories of the past century. After all, who killed Bambi’s mother? Disney killed her. That paradox has been so pronounced over the years that Tim Burton, in the early ‘80s, partly left the embrace of Disney’s animation department because Disney didn’t embrace his eerie “Frankenweenie” short.
Of course, parents have a legitimate concern about unsettling images affecting their children. Jonathan Pochyly, a pediatric psychologist specializing in anxiety at Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, told me children with anxious dispositions aren’t generally helped much by scary films: “But any serious lingering stress (because of a film) is very uncommon.”
Pochyly said the mother’s death in “Finding Nemo,” for instance — which (ironically) justifies the father’s anxiety about his young Nemo, Sarafian pointed out — might even be an opportunity to talk to a child about death. Same with “Frankenweenie” and the touchy issue of dead pets.
Still, Fell and Butler told me they caught a lot of criticism from parents because of “Coraline.” It’s a dark story about a girl who finds an alternative universe that’s a distorted reflection of her own world and full of ominous compromises. It’s a premise as central to children’s culture as “The Wizard of Oz” and “Through the Looking Glass.” They were surprised.
“Every day we got asked, ‘How dark is too dark?’ ‘Is this appropriate for a 5-year old?’” Fell said. “In the end, every parent knows their own child.”
His own son? “He comes home from kids movies remembering only moments. Like this happened, this happened. Not much more.”
“Which is sad,” Butler said. “It’s why the ‘feeling’ in these movies feels so fake: chase, joke, chase, joke, then feeling. There are no stakes. As a child, I remembered more than bright colors and mediocre jokes.”
Yes, helicopter parents, you’ve given birth to helicopter movies. Trust me, I know.