8 posts categorized "Film"

TV Study: SpongeBob's Bad

September 19, 2011

There was a study several years ago that made the rounds when my oldest was in prime Nick Jr.-watching age; it was the basis for the AAP recommendation that kids two and under watch no TV, or, failing that, very very little. The study basically found that all TV was bad for little kids' brains, and it didn't matter what it was; Sesame Street, SpongeBob, and Law & Order were all equally brain-rotting, in this study's opinion. This was the inspiration for lots of mama guilt (both personal and universal), and some grumbling about the poor study design; it was, for instance, based entirely on parental report of both quantity and content of TV, as well as the children's resultant behavior and school performance. Were the kids with difficult behavior and poor school performance really watching PBS for two hours a day -- or WWE for six hours a day? And were the guilt-ridden mamas whose kids watched PBS over-reporting the behavior out of some kind of morose ethical code? Causation, too, was an issue; maybe the kids with poor school performance all lived closer to high-traffic streets, or were all suffering from imperfect nutrition. The study, while striking, was hardly clear evidence.

Enter better (if not exactly clear) evidence. A new study from the University of Virginia [pdf link] published in the September 12 issue of the Pediatrics journal showed that it does make a difference what the young children watch, and specifically, preschool-aged children were shown episodes of Caillou (the almost moronically peaceful, sweet show about a little boy shown on PBS) and SpongeBob SquarePants (I think you know). The control group drew pictures independently. There was only nine minutes of the TV, but the fast-paced SpongeBob immediately impacted childrens' "executive function" -- self-regulation and working memory.

The problem wasn't the slapstick content and the ridiculous jokes (honestly, I've grown to appreciate SpongeBob's unusual humor). It was the part that makes me crazy when I'm listening from the other room -- the frequent changes in scene, about every 11 seconds, compared to 34 seconds for Caillou. Researchers theorized that this fast pace impaired children's brain function. It's worth noting that defenders have sprung up to compare this study to one 1970s comparison of fast- and slow-paced episodes of Sesame Street (the control group was read to by parents), which held that pace had no impact on children's attention spans. "...there’s no telling which characteristics of the programs might have affected the children’s thinking," wrote editors on a Bloomberg editorial. "Could it be that the children were slow to settle down and get to work because SpongeBob is funny and they were energized by laughter? As much as we respect all forms of expression, it’s safe to say that Caillou is not particularly funny, and it’s easy to see how kids could turn from watching it to performing serious tasks without needing a moment to recover." And another critical article noted that the survey was statistically flawed; "Compared to drawing, kids in the SpongeBob group did worse when the researchers measured these executive function areas — attention, working memory, and problem solving. But compared to the kids who watched the other cartoon, there was no statistical difference between the two groups of kids. When a researcher says something 'approached significance,' that’s a squishy research term to say, 'Well, it's not significant, but it's darned close.'"

Given the usual skepticism about making generalizations about small groups of children watching two very different programs, this is still something I've long been concerned about, though not with such clarity. My kids had some unexpected response to a zoomy, fast-paced movie made for 3D when we saw it in the theatre (How to Train Your Dragon). I was boggled by how often the scene changed; sometimes the pace was so fast I found myself ducking, or squeezing my eyes shut. It overwhelmed me. On the way home, we endured some of the worst meltdowns I'd seen from my kids -- simultaneously, at least -- in months.

I'm not banning SpongeBob, but it's useful to observe the reactions of my kids to various intensities of TV. Johnny Test, for instance, is hilarious -- but the sound of it destroys my own brain function. If it's on, there's no way I can write anything intelligent. Same goes for lots of Cartoon Network shows (and, let's be honest, Sid the Science Kid, which I've never cared for). I'll keep this sort of content to a minimum for my kids; it's not going to rot their brains permanently, probably, but it's certainly not going to give their brains a rich and nurturing environment for creating positive change in the world.

Friday Family Movie Night: Tangled

September 02, 2011

When Tangled was coming out into movie theatres, I was reading (in a late-night rush) the sassy, beautifully-drawn graphic novel Rapunzel's Revenge. In a fit of hopefulness, I decided the Disney movie must be based on the graphic novel -- it, set in the old West, gave Rapunzel a whole different mien. No naive and helpless girl wasting away in a tower, Shannon Hale's Rapunzel is fantastic with rope work (using her hair, naturally) and as handy as MacGyver. She's a cowgirl, and Jack, the male "lead," is an amalgam of the Jacks of fairy tale lore -- and not nearly so fearless and skilled as the heroine.


While there are similarities in the two -- Disney's Rapunzel also uses her hair like a lasso, and both handsome rescuing types are thieves seeking to get enormous chips off their shoulders -- this is no competent, fearless, feminist heroine. Nope: this is classic Disney, with the Grimm storyline shook up a lot so that we can make her a princess. Most of the Rapunzel origin stories have the girl's parents cast as poor, ordinary folk (although her savior is typically a prince), and her father, not a king, but a thief, forced by his wife's terrible cravings for greens (variously, rapunzel, rampion radishes, and lamb's lettuce, which grows wild in my garden, mama!) to climb Mother Gothel's wall and steal them. He is found out and the baby, surrendered as punishment.

This Mother Gothel is more foraging naturalist than enchantress, and the mom's pregnant craving is not for spinach-like leaves, but for healing from a terrible illness. The only substance that can heal her is a magic flower, one Gothel has been keeping under wraps in order to remain forever young. (Young-ish -- the transformed Gothel reminds me of Cher in her late fifties.) When the flower is accidentally left uncovered, the good people of Rapunzel's nation find it, healing her mother and embuing the child with the flower's magical powers.

Gothel, learning that Rapunzel's hair is her power as long as it remains uncut, steals her and secrets her away in the fairy tale tower. In order to maintain her evil aura despite depriving her of magic powers, Disney makes Mother Gothel passive-aggressive, controlling and emotionally manipulative. She is the ultimate bad mom. (And, honestly, this makes her much creepier than some simple cackling, potions and curses might.)

Rapunzel is Disney Princess through-and-through. She's got it all: progenic, creative talent (painting and star-charting); enormous oft-blinking eyes; bouncy pastel wardrobe; cute, supportive and intelligent small animal sidekick (Pascal, a chameleon who sounds like a squeaky toy); uncannily winning ways; clever, spunky dialogue.

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Friday Family Movie Night: Toy Story 3

August 26, 2011

As I was graduating from high school when the first Toy Story zoomed out into the world with its trademark gleeful spirit of everyday magical realism, I haven't watched any of this series as a new release. But I first thought of the series as something to appreciate as more than a kids' blockbuster when my then-co-writer for the Wharton Follies (a kind of Saturday Night Live / parody musical for business school students) took her little brother to Toy Story II. Liz couldn't stop talking about how clever it was: when Mrs. Potato Head told her husband, "I packed your angry eyes!" Liz rolled with laughter.

Still, it would be many years later, until I myself had children, before I first watched the original and sequel to the Toy Story franchise. I was charmed, of course, and dressed Everett in a homemade Buzz Lightyear costume at age four. We began to "collect" Woody and Josie dolls from the Goodwill Bins. When Toy Story 3 came out, I watched Twitter reports from friends across the country, who universally said "I cried." Oh no. I didn't need a tearjerking magical talking toy movie.

I'm still not quite sure why I was so reluctant, but I finally agreed to see it when my boys begged me for a Friday family movie night this spring. Toy Story 3 begins in a very different place than the other movies, reflecting the time that's passed in the real world; Andy, now out of high school, is headed toward college, and his toys have (up until the movie's opening) become accustomed to life as toys rarely played with. Even his kid sister is barely interested in Barbies any more; and, his mother tells him, it's time to give it up. He needs to pack, store, or throw away his toys.

The next few scenes could have been written by anyone who's seen 20 minutes of Toy Story; Andy, after some consideration, becomes nostalgic, puts Woody in his box to head to college and the rest of his beloved toys in a bag to take to the attic. But, he's distracted, and the bag is taken away by his mother -- Woody, fearing for his friends, bravely abandons his cushy retirement to a shelf in the dorm and dives in to save them. In a hurtling, flying, impossible few scenes, he manages to keep everyone from the actual trash (this will become a nailbiting and recurring theme that could look like so many tussles between family members -- save the toys from the garbage!), and instead, the toys end up in a day care.

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Friday Family Movie Night: My Neighbor Totoro

August 12, 2011

The second step of my love affair with Hayao Miyazaki is what many describe as his best work, the 1993 My Neighbor Totoro. As with Ponyo, the movie explores -- no, celebrates -- what it is to believe in magic. And yet this is not Disney magic, with wands and tiaras and beautiful flowing-haired-but-nubile teen stars. This is a delightful, screaming, four-year-old magic, the incantation only gratitude and respect, the fairy dust soot and dirt and acorns.

My Neighbor Totoro
is the story of a family. Father, the eight- or nine-year-old Satsuke, and the three-year-old Mei move to the country, and slowly we discover that they have done so because their mother is very ill, and her hospital is nearby. From the opening scenes we discover that none of these people are made-for-TV; the moving truck is so overloaded that the girls must stay in the back, and their delight about everything is tempered, of course, by the idea that a policeman might see them and give their father a ticket. In an American movie, this would be a judgment; in Miyazaki, it is a celebration. The girls and their father exuberantly tumble and caper into their new home, which would in another context be a dump; here, it is a source of unending joy.

Everything about the father's relationship with the girls is so tender and reverent. When they say they have seen "little black things! Like bugs, but bigger!" he does not assume they were actually bugs. "Soot gremlins?" he asks. The next door neighbor, "Granny," tells the girls that she, too, saw soot sprites when she was a little girl -- enjoying the little Mei, whose hands and feet are somehow covered in soot and who runs right into her, screams and runs away. Everything that the adults suggest comes true, and only the girls can see it; the soot sprites move away when they see that the family is taking good care of the house.

In another scene, the father is bathing with the children, and this becomes natural and masculine; in still another, Father puts Mei on his towel-wrapped bike bar, with Satsuke standing behind him, as they ride to the hospital to visit mother.

The totoros are not encountered until later, and it is Mei who discovers them -- first a baby, then a small one, and chasing these two leads to the enormous totoro -- the titular neighbor. Totoro helps fearless Mei express her powerlessness over her mother's illness, and helps Satsuke believe that her contributions do make a difference -- and gives her someone to care for her when she is putting the weight of her little family on her own shoulders.

It is a beautiful movie, luminous and filled with heart and beauty. Everything is examined with a quiet, soft light; nothing is found wanting. Even when Satsuke lashes out in anger, it is not the sudden flame-and-apology that most children's movies do so pat, it is the complex simultaneous helpless rage and compassion that more true characters feel.

We got this movie on a Monday, and watched it that night, as we had missed Friday movie night the weekend prior. By Thursday, we had watched it five times; each time, it only got better. I love this movie; and so do we all.

Friday Family Movie Night: Ramona and Beezus

July 29, 2011

When Portland learned that Ramona Quimby would be modernized and done up all High School Musical-style (with a Beezus, Selena Gomez, straight from a starring role on the Disney Channel), there was excitement at first -- Klickitat Street, on the big screen! -- and then disappointment. Other than a few establishing shots, the movie was filmed entirely in Vancouver, B.C., where they have all the movie fun. (But at least we get to be Boston in Leverage, so there.) And there was the usual concern about reflecting the book. Would it be faithful? Would it be good?

Well, it definitely wasn't faithful to the book series, at least not in a way that any Ramona fan would deem acceptable. Charming and fun and faithful to the mood and episodic style of the books, though, sure. Though the movie is titled "Ramona and Beezus," it's nothing like the first book of the Ramona series which shares its title. Instead, the book is set roughly in the time of both Ramona and Her Father and Ramona Forever, mashed up, with a Beezus from Ramona's World (15 and spouting French to annoy her sister) and the family makeup from Ramona and Her Mother.

20th Century Fox

It's this mashup that gives the movie its inner life, and also its contradictions. Ramona is, as in the book series, always screwing up situations because of her active imagination, impatience, and earnest belief in the magnitude of her own actions. She gets angry at her family and squirts an entire toothpaste tube into the sink. She is made fun of at school and exacerbates the problem by trying to crack a boiled egg on her head -- and having it turn out to have been raw. (Oops. And it's picture day.) She hears that the situation with the family's home is precarious, so she starts a lemonade stand to earn money to "save" it.

The central story line from Ramona and Her Father -- that her father has lost his job and is trying without much luck to find a new one -- is here, and is so modern it might as well have been written, well, today. This week even. The romance between Aunt Bea and Ramona's friend Howie's uncle Hobart is darling, if a little obvious (in both versions), but the real sweetness is between Aunt Bea and Ramona; a sweetness the viewer is meant to believe, Ramona needs desperately. Can she afford to live without it? She's odd girl out in her house. Beezus is the responsible older sister -- who, as in the first book in the series, has no patience for Ramona's pestiness, and tortures her. Baby sister Willa Jean is just adorable, even when she's putting applesauce on her head. Dad is achey-breaky-unemployed and mom is working overtime. How's she going to survive without Aunt Bea?

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Friday Family Movie Night: 3 Ninjas

April 22, 2011

It's Friday again, and another recent movie my family watched and loved was 3 Ninjas. A number of the free movies 'On Demand' have been from my own childhood; this was one that was released, instead, while I was working 12-hour days as a young investment banker whose very last priority would have been watching children's films (especially those targeted at little boys). Now that I'm a mother of three boys who love samurais, knights, and most especially, ninjas? I jumped when I saw the title.

My favorite part was that the three boys very much mirrored my own boys' relationships, except that the youngest in the movie was most like our middle child -- different coloring than the other two and the once often excluded from the other brothers' games. (We got to talk a lot about how important it is for brothers to stick together and be a team, even if one is frustrating or has a different personality than the others.)


© Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. All Rights Reserved.

3 Ninjas is the far-fetched but sweet story of brothers whose maternal grandfather is a real ninja; a retired one, of course, who now loves nothing more than to care for his three grandsons all summer long at his country little-boy paradise. The movie opens at the end of a summer of ninja training; their parents are about to pick them up, with dark overtones of the possibility dad (an FBI agent who works all the time) will not indulge them to train with grandpa again. While I mourn the absence in my life of a ninja father who had the energy and desire to fill my own boys' summer with discipline and karate and alarms that light up Japanese masks, dad is having a hard time with his latest bad guy: a ninja wanna-be named Hugo Snyder.

Oops! As it turns out, Snyder is an old student of grandpa's. He visits the country homestead where grandpa is getting ready to say goodbye to the boys, first begging and then threatening with an offer to come teach his army of bad guys ninjitsu... but not before the boys get a chance to try out their summer of education on Snyder and his militia.

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Friday Family Movie Night: Inkheart

April 15, 2011

It was almost a year ago that we started having regular Friday family movie nights, and for months I've been meaning to start providing some of my feedback on the movies we watch. It's hard to find reviews for movies from a whole-family perspective (i.e. is this movie going to simultaneously enchant my children, keep my interest, and not freak out my three-year-old?) -- so providing that will, I hope, be a service for other parents and at the same time inspire you to give some great recommendations for future movie nights. Most of the movies I watch are available On Demand either free or for the lesser rental fees (I try to avoid the $4.99 new releases), and often on Netflix streaming as well.

One of my recent favorites was Inkheart, one of the large number of movies produced in recent years based on relatively new YA books. Inkheart, by Cornelia Funke, is now on my shelf (a violation of my usual rule: read the book first so the movie doesn't give you spoilers) and I'm eager to read what I understand is a substantially different story than the movie.

Inkheart, the story of a man whose mysterious ability to pull characters out of the stories he reads aloud into the "real world" threatens to destroy his family, starts magically in a deeply terrifying way for a mother. You know what's about to happen as the father in the story -- Brendan Fraser (I know, but he's good) as Mo "Silvertongue" Folchart -- begins to read Red Riding Hood to his daughter, Meggie, as a baby. His wife (Sienna Guillory) looks lovingly on. And then, through the dark clouds, floats a red cape...

By the next scene, Meggy is a tween and her father is in search of a mysterious book. She believes her mother left them when she was a baby; her father has never told her the truth, although she knows he is looking for something important as he travels the world in search of old books. We slowly learn how the "silvertongue" gift works -- when a character is pulled out of a book a character from the real world must go in his place -- and the only way to get back is to read them back (somehow, I was unclear how that would work although it's set up as a solution early in the movie).

The fictional Inkheart, the book Mo was reading when his wife disappeared, is out of print and written by an eccentric old Italian man. It's a dark medieval fantasy, with an evil lord who summons a monster called the Shadow to help control his subjects. Two villains from the book, and Dustfinger (Paul Bettany, the best character in my opinion), a fire-eater from the evil lord's court, are sent by the evil Capricorn to retrieve the silvertongue. They have their own silvertongue, but he has a lisp and brings people into the real world with flaws (enchantingly, with black words tatooed across their bodies) -- Capricorn wants Mo to read the Shadow into existence and give him dominion over the modern world into which he's been brought.

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Is the 'Where the Wild Things Are' movie a good thing?

October 01, 2009

In many ways I'm the exact sort of person who would most love the movie adaptation of Maurice Sendak's classic book of disobedient boys and their fantasy lives. I adore Where the Wild Things Are, and often demand to read it to my own wild boys when they'd rather read Thomas or the Berenstain Bears. As the parent of a boy (or two. or three) who could most definitely be classified as rambunctious and rebellious -- the movie synopsis adds "misunderstood," which probably fits too -- and seeks to both celebrate and ease these character traits, I love the wild-boy-as-hero concept. In point of fact, I started a Max-inspired wolf suit for Monroe last year for Halloween (it was never finished, and I'm currently undecided as to whether I'll try to finish it for this year; it certainly still suits his personality).

And yet, the trailer troubles me. Yes: it seems to be a luminous work of director Spike Jonze and screenwriter Dave Eggers. The art is gorgeous, though very different from the book. But the boy is clearly quite a bit older than the way I envision Max (I see him as a five- or six-year-old; certainly no older than eight) and, of course, a 48-page picture book isn't enough material for a whole film. So there are additions, context, timeline juggling. Max is given the family troubles necessary for a boy who could tell his mom "I'll eat you up" (a single mom who's started dating, it seems, and difficulty at school), and a far more complex relationship with the monsters. Evidently, he's developed into a king, not simply given the crown because he stares into all their yellow eyes without blinking once.

It's rated PG; I'd hoped for "G"; probably due to the adult relationships depicted (I'm guessing here as I haven't yet found a more detailed synopsis of the movie's script). Spike Jonze has said the movie's plot came to him when he was despairing over the breakup of his own marriage. I worry that the pure, musical story of a boy escaping into a dark-but-empowering fantasy to deal with his anger will be saddled with context that doesn't work for every child. Instead of honoring the way Max relates to my own children -- Everett's certainly said many things much like "I'll eat you up," and Monroe has done them wordlessly -- I'll be obsessing over how different Max's mother is from me. In other words: this is all about Jonze's world view, and I need it to be far more malleable. This is a book I really honor, and I fear it will become too fraught with a specific and, while relatable, rigid family story.

My boys have seen the trailer and are eager to see the movie; I'd promised in a moment of rashness I'd take them to the theater (something we've never done). Now I wonder if I'd rather leave my knowledge of the movie to my usual: read reviews, watch it 10 years later when it comes out on network TV. What do you think? Will you see the movie? Will you bring your kids to see it? Are you, like me, terrified of having a movie ruin the book? Or do you think the new soul of Jonze's Wild Things is worth whatever the book loses?