Monday, April 4, 2011

Lukie, Honey — I’m Your Father

Star Wars and 5 Other Latter-Day Children’s Pictures: In case you hadn’t noticed, the original Star Wars, or rather, Star Wars IV – A New Hope, is a children’s picture. It hasn’t been re-rated from PG to G by the MPAA, but it does seem to have been re-rated by our culture. Children, even pre-schoolers are consuming this movie with gusto and have created a new army of super-fans, junior division. The MPAA-described “sci-fi violence and brief, mild language” doesn’t form a serious barrier for a significant number of parents.

Consider the “controversial” content of the film: characters that are shot by lasers fall to the ground as in old-fashioned westerns; and it’s easy to tell the good guys from the bad; and young fans won’t make any disturbing connection between the final scene where Luke and Han get their medals and Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will. And they don’t seem to be bothered by the fact that Yoda is obviously a muppet. In fact, these fans likely count resemblance to Elmo as a plus. And the original Star Wars has a real princess in Leia, not the elected queen Amidala as in the last (first?) three installments.

Lucasfilms, in the kids section of their website, presents the world of Star Wars as a playful world inhabited by their branded Lego figures. I don’t need to point out that there’s a universe of Star Wars branded swag out there; always has been. Or that Lucas himself linked his profits from the original film not to box office but to the film’s merchandise. It’s simply that now when we acknowledge the film’s young audience, we mean five-year-olds, not ten-year-olds. My daughter dressed as Princess Leia this past Halloween and she wasn’t the only baby Leia in the local parade—not by a long shot.

It’s a fitting second life for what’s an enjoyable but not terribly complicated story. The wee people have spoken. And it’s part of a grand Hollywood tradition, the latter-day children’s picture. By this I mean films originally envisioned for a young adult to adult audience, but over the years have found a natural audience in the over-seven, under eleven set. This happens for any number of reasons: the years may have revealed a lack of subtlety in the story telling; or perhaps performances are mannered by today’s standards; or more likely the film’s controversial material is no longer culturally contentious. But none of these minuses seem to matter very much to kids if the story is well told. And parents may welcome the opportunity to share issue-driven films with their kids to teach simple, unequivocal lessons of character.

Here are five other latter-day children’s films:

Shane (1953, dir. George Stevens)
This film features Star Wars-level violence: people are shot; they fall to the ground. And there are a few bloody noses in punch-up scenes. Alan Ladd’s Shane takes an anti-violence stand, but don’t threaten his friends if you know what’s good for you. Jack Palance as gunfighter Jack Wilson is a none-too-subtle baddie who uses the techniques of a schoolyard bully to goad hapless farmers into fights they cannot win. The film leaves little unexplained, as characters constantly voice their motivations, agendas, and sub-texts. There’s even a scene where Shane and an evil cattle baron agree that the days of the gunfighter are over. When Shane stands up to Wilson, their fight functions as the last act of violence before peace can reign. And child actor Brandon De Wilde as Joey anchors the film in a child’s world.

The Magnificent Seven (1960, dir. John Sturges)
While we’re on the subject of Westerns, this film has always been the simpler, junior version of the longer, more thematically complex The Seven Samurai, the film upon which it was based. The Magnificent Seven opens as main characters take a stand against racial prejudice and follows the seven as they stand up for helpless farmers against bullying bandits. There’s no actual blood in the fight scenes, but things do get a bit raw when farmers and bandits mix it up with clubs and machetes. Seven’s Charles Bronson has a few memorable scenes with adoring local farm children. Bronson sets them straight: their devoted, hard-working dads (I’d say parents) are the real heroes.

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962, dir. Robert Mulligan)
The original poster for this film featured the warning, “Not suitable for children,” and the topic of sexual violence in Mockingbird demands parental guidance. But with that guidance, this film offers a very clear message against racial prejudice. The film depicts characters that are prejudiced as ugly, mean, ignorant, and violent; and characters that are free from prejudice are friendly, calm, likable, and kind. Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) clearly explains why the haters are wrong. And young viewers will naturally latch onto the interesting child actors Mary Badham (Scout) and Philip Alford (Jem).

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939, dir. Frank Capra)
This film was originally marketed as a “film for the whole family,” and today, younger family members can easily fly this plane solo. This film stands as a primer on how our system of government works: how bills are introduced; how protocols and rules of order are used to further or shut down arguments; and how self-serving and downright dishonest politicians can hide behind the public face of their political parties. Throw in lessons on mass-media manipulation, squelching the voice of the opposition, and the crafting of public consent. An army of young boys tries to help James Stewart’s Jefferson Smith get the truth to the people. It wouldn’t hurt today’s kids to understand how a filibuster works. Enough said.

The Grapes of Wrath (1940, dir. John Ford)
This movie is a gentle adaptation of Steinbeck’s book about Depression-era, dust-bowl sharecroppers, and ends on a note of hope. This bleak but dignified portrayal of the lives of poor migrant workers sends the simple message that the disadvantaged have a tougher time in life in every way imaginable. The deck is stacked against the Joad family, yet their honesty and humanity never fail them as they manage to help people even less well off than themselves. The extended family includes a young son and daughter who get discounted candy in a touching scene set at a diner. We see a community with a heart. We’re all in this together.

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