Scaring Our Kids

Death. Starvation. Dismemberment. From Where the Wild Things Are to Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, children’s films are hardly suitable for the wee ones.

I was eight years old when a friend’s mother inadvertently terrified me by reading me a cartoon adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein at the local library. I can still vividly recall the image I found most disturbing: the monster was shaking his bride with such forceful anger that he shivered her into her constituent body parts.  Unrealistic though the image may have been, it gave me nightmares for years afterwards.  I didn’t get much from the book about the dangers of experimental science or the quest to perfect humanity, but I did conclude that I never wanted to come into contact with images of organs in jars ever again.

So when reports emerged last year that young audiences were terrified by early test showings of Spike Jonze’s adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s classic picture book Where the Wild Things Are (opening today), I was swept back to the memories of my own childhood fears.  The woman who read me that book clearly thought I was up to it.  So, too, Jonze has argued that Where the Wild Things Are’s intense, sometimes violent, action sequences and turbulent emotions are a true representation of the turmoil of childhood—no more disturbing than what children are dealing with anyway. And it’s certainly true that many movies for kids are gentler and more optimistic than the tough realities children actually face.

Of course, as we all learned this week, even the most seemingly improbable of fictional Hollywood scenarios can sometimes be borne out by real life. This summer, Americans swarmed to Up, Pixar’s movie about a boy accidentally swept away from his family on a house carried off by hot-air balloons.  And just yesterday, we panicked when it appeared that a real young boy had accidentally been swept into the air on a homemade aircraft.  So everyday life, too, is full of frightening possibilities.  But do we have to show children terrifying images on screen to prove that we respect them outside the theater?

Wild Things is in fact just one of three potentially unnerving movies based on classic children’s books arriving in theaters this fall. Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, which opened on September 18, conjures a surreal world (based on a picture book by Judi and Ron Barrett) where food rains dangerously from the sky.  And Fantastic Mr. Fox, Wes Anderson’s forthcoming update of a Roald Dahl novella, tells the story of three villainous farmers who set out to kill a fox and his family. All three movies feature beautiful and disturbing images, and raise difficult questions for children about what it means to be a good and successful person.

Maurice Sendak, Spike Jonze, and scriptwriter Dave Eggers have all been almost truculent in defense of their movie’s unabashed scariness.  Jonze told the Telegraph that "Wild Things has feelings that you recognize as being true to childhood. I think kids respond to things that don't condescend to them.”  And when Newsweek asked Sendak what he would tell parents who are concerned that the movie might be too frightening for children, he responded, “I would tell them to go to hell. That's a question I will not tolerate….If they can't handle it, go home.”  Their argument seemed to be that in terror lies integrity.

And there’s no question that Where the Wild Things Are is often quite frightening.  This is a world where ten-foot-tall monsters rip each other’s arms off in fits of pique, even if the injured party replaces his missing limb with a stick and carries on, and where a child has to crawl into a monster’s mouth to escape the wrath of his best friend, even if his friend is motivated by sadness rather than hatred.  Characters threaten to eat their own feet and each other, build forts designed to cut intruders’ brains out, bite their mothers, and use rocks to knock their friends over or make them fall out of the sky.  But it’s also a movie that children might find unsettling as much for the knotty questions the characters face, as for any of its special effects

“I just bit [my mother], that’s all…and I don’t like frozen corn,” Max tells the Wild Things when he meets them, explaining why he ran away from home.  “They act like I’m a bad person.”

“Well, are you?” asks KW, the Wild Thing voiced by Lauren Ambrose who becomes Max’s proxy big sister.

“I don’t know,” he responds.

Later, when Max’s efforts to unify the Wild Things have fallen apart, splintered by dirt fights that have gone too far, a fort that didn’t work the way it was supposed to, and the Wild Things’ fears that Max likes some of them better than others, Max is forced to confess to his closest friend Carol, the Wild Thing brought to life with surprising tenderness by James Gandolfini, that he is not actually a king.

“So, what are you?” Carol asks him.

“I’m Max,” he says.

“Well, that’s not very much, is it?” Carol flings back at him.  But at the end of the movie, as Max sails back to his human family, Carol races across the Wild Things’ world to try to say goodbye to him.  And as the water opens up between them, they howl at each other in recognition, in love, and in mourning for the self Max is leaving behind.  It’s a tremendously complicated, rich moment, one that requires no special effects or exaggerated fights to magnify or translate the emotions on naked display.

In Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, the main characters’ fears are a bit less primal.  Instead of worrying about whether they’re inherently good people, Flint Lockwood, an eccentric scientist, and Sam Stein, a perky weather girl, worry about whether they’ll be able to find places in their communities.  While Flint has been true to his passions, even as the failures of his inventions have distanced him from his father and his home town, Sam has obliterated her inner geek beneath a veneer of slick stylishness in order to look and sound like a generic television reporter.  Her first assignment is to Flint’s town, where he has figured out how to make it rain food.  But she keeps letting big scientific terms slip, and to his credit, Flint asks her why she hides her intelligence.

“When I was a little girl,” Sam confesses, “I had a pony-tail, glasses, and was totally obsessed with the science of weather.” In the movie’s bravest moment, Flint conjures a scrunchie made out of jello for her to tie her hair back with, and puts her glasses on before declaring, “You were okay before, but now you’re beautiful.”  For adult audiences, it’s a clever and sweet reversal of the sexy librarian discarding her glasses.  But to younger watchers, who are too young to know that in the movies every girl is pretty the moment she tries, but old enough to know what’s pretty and what’s not, that sweet, risky moment might seem like a revelation.

Sam keeps her hair up and her glasses on for the rest of the movie.  And where in a teen comedy, her made-over self might gain the strength to confront the cheerleading captain, putting on glasses unleashes Sam’s inner scientist.  She and Flint work together to stop his food-producing machine, which has gone into overdrive, covering an elementary school in giant flapjacks and sending enormous ears of corn crashing down on the Great Wall of China.  These images are uneasy rather than outright frightening, as befits a movie about what it’s like to have far too much of a familiar good thing.

Like Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, Fantastic Mr. Fox is also a story about food, though it focuses on the problem of having far too little to eat rather than too much.  In the original Dahl story, Mr. Fox is forced to protect his family when three cruel (and in classic Dahl form, disgusting—one never bathes, one eats donuts full of mashed liver, one is grossly fat) farmers decide to use high-powered tractors to dig his family out of the hill where they live.  Mr. Fox loses his tail.  Mrs. Fox almost starves to death.  And their children, who once counted on Mr. Fox to look after them and provide, must now be pressed into service to help Mr. Fox execute a daring scheme to tunnel into the farmers’ storehouses and create an underground utopia. Those sacrifices are upsetting, but they also justify Mr. Fox’s decision to set up a society based on theft, making him a noble outlaw rather than a simple rascal.

As Jonze and Eggers did with Where the Wild Things Are, Anderson puts his own spin on Dahl’s spare story, adding arch dialogue and dressing Mrs. Fox (voiced by Meryl Streep) in kicky retro outfits that include details like headbands.  But while the heroes and villains may be adorable stop-motion puppets, and the lead character may be shown scampering up electric fences unscathed, Anderson also retains some of Dahl’s sense of the grotesque and macabre.  At this year’s Comic-Con, for example, promoters handed out fox-tail neckties.

What’s more, while Anderson may be thought of as an auteur of hipness, Fantastic Mr. Fox in fact conveys a melancholy message (typical of several of his movies) that coolness is often a cover for great tragedy – whether an alienated family, an abandoned mentor, or, in this case, physical impairment and vulnerability. True, Mr. Fox is voiced by the epitome of smooth, George Clooney, but that doesn’t mean he'll make it through the movie entirely whole.

But then, nobody ever does.  Max leaves Carol, his soul mate, behind.  Sam sheds her carefully cultivated protective identity.  And, among many other things, Mr. Fox loses his very tail.

Growing up is a form of loss that always makes for a bumpy ride—whether you’re making that terrifying trip among monsters, fleeing your town on boats made of outsized sandwich bread, doing battle with construction machinery, or even just attending a perfectly ordinary school. What matters in the end isn’t so much the fears you face during the journey, but the person you become along the way.