Monday, July 26, 2010

What kind of movie to take preschoolers to: Toy Story 3 or Mamma Mia!


We've had the opportunity recently to take our three-year-old to two movies, after a long hiatus once we'd outgrown the crybaby movie showings when Mikko's mobility (scooting over those oh-so-clean theater floors) meant we couldn't pay attention to the screen anymore.

Our first choice was ostensibly a children's flick: Toy Story 3. It was in a real theater, and we talked it up big to heighten his anticipation and clue him in to our expectations of his behavior — explaining that a theater has a big screen that's like a TV only much, much bigger. We told him the lights would go off and we would have to use our quiet voices or (preferably) not talk at all. We got popcorn to make it even more of an experience. Sam had found figurines of Woody and Bullseye (only Mikko calls him Poke-eye, which is awesome) for ├╝ber-cheap at Goodwill and saved out Woody to hand ceremoniously to Mikko before we drove to the theater. We chose a weekend matinee, which we figured would be suitably crowded with young children and families, who would presumably be tolerant of any three-year-old murmurings or queries of "What his name, Mama?" or antsiness.

The problem is, Toy Story 3 is not all that kid-friendly, it turns out. I mean, it's fine for older kids (perhaps even just a teensy bit older). It's not like it's R-rated or has Woody dropping the F-bomb or anything — but it's much darker than the first one, and darker even than the second.

Remember the innocent freshness of the original Toy Story? Toy StoryAnd how magical it was to see toys behaving like people when the humans' backs were turned? And how the theme was how two very different people … um … toys could become friends? And, sure, there were the darker scenes with the destructive kid, and meeting the other toys he'd messed with, but for the most part it was filled with light and adventure.

Then the second Toy Story brought in the whole Toy Story 2: Special Edition - DVDguilt angle of "Never, ever abandon your toys, or they'll be despondent," and oh, by the way, people who sell on eBay are untrustworthy vultures (thanks a lot for both those messages, Toy Story 2, seeing as we sell things online for a living and get enough of that misunderstanding from certain customers). Don't get me wrong — I still liked the second one, but it was a little less … fun. Especially given the scary Prospector character.

Then Toy Story 3 comes along and really rubs it in about how giving toys away, especially to a daycare, is The Meanest Thing You Can Ever Do. Because our children (and, heck, me, too) really need to be told to cling possessively to everything they own and never, ever give to charity.

But all that has nothing to do with the point of this post (I just can't resist a mini-revival of my pseudo-movie-critic days), which is that Toy Story 3 is really heavy for a three-year-old.

Almost the whole film is literally dark. Buzz gets set back to his factory defaults and is once more an enemy. Woody's separated from the other toys. All of them together are in a daycare that's a de facto prison, and the ones holding them prisoners are other, really mean toys.

That's a little disturbing in itself, but the last straw was a loud wind-up toy monkey who bangs his cymbals together and screeches loudly as a lookout, and Mikko lost it. He started wailing, and of course we were sitting in the front, so of course everyone got to watch me swoop him to the back where he could cry at some distance removed from the freaky screaming monkey.

Mikko informed me he wanted to go home, thankyouverymuch. I thought about the stinking fortune we had paid for even matinee tickets and greasy popcorn and tried my darnedest to soothe his troubled heart. Thankfully, it worked. We bounced and shushed in the back of the theater, and then we resumed our seats and nursed for awhile, and we got to watch the rest of the movie in relative peace.

I count that a success. At least for Sam and me — we enjoyed the movie. But I wasn't sure it was really the finest experience for Mikko's sake.

Well, we had another chance to give him some theater-going fun. Every summer, neighborhoods throughout Seattle show outdoor movies. In West Seattle, the movies are projected onto a blank wall of a building, with a parking lot courtyard that's emptied out so everyone can bring blankets and lawn chairs. The first weekend was Mamma Mia, the ABBA musical, a movie we'd seen before on DVD and that Mikko had enjoyed even then, so we figured it was worth trying out on the big screen.

The upsides of West Seattle's Movies on the Wall are many:
  • Free, family-oriented outing
  • Community atmosphere, making you feel part of your neighborhood
  • Pleasant weather, just nippy enough after sundown to enjoy cuddling under a blanket, unlike our Midwestern experiences with drive-in theaters where you had to turn your engine off to hear the sound, but that meant losing the precious A/C as well
  • No bugs, unlike our Midwestern experiences as well — with the windows open so we wouldn't roast at an Indiana drive-in, I got eaten alive by mosquitoes. I started counting bites afterward and got up to 80 on one leg before I gave up in despair.

The slight downsides we discovered as we went:
  • The movies start at "dusk," which is rather vague, but people begin jockeying for seats much earlier. We showed up before 7 and could barely find room for our chairs. (If you go to the West Seattle Blog's write-up of the event, you can see us in the top picture, if you squint really hard.) I had to walk Mikko around for awhile, but all the stores in the Junction (shopping area nearby) had mostly closed already, and he was so eager for the movie to start and kept thinking we were missing it. In fact, the movie didn't start until 9:30, which is when the sun sets in Seattle in July. It is what it is — one of the shorts they showed before the main event was barely visible, so I realize they couldn't have started any earlier. But, it makes it a really late night for a toddler! The movie didn't get over till after 11 p.m. That explained, in retrospect, why Mikko was the youngest kid present.
  • W.C. Fields was really racist, sexist, and classist. Who knew. The pre-show included a short film of his about a dentist (a truly terrible dentist) in honor (dubious honor) of the dentists who had co-sponsored the night's event. And, of course, this comes just as we've scheduled Mikko for his first dental appointment and have been trying to propagandize him into believing dentists are nice and don't hurt you (um, unnecessarily …), and meanwhile this short film has a woman screaming bloody murder in the dentist's chair, so wouldn't you know it: Our little wailing alarm goes off again, and Mikko wants to go home because the film's so scary. We convinced him to wait it out by promising him Mamma Mia was just around the corner. The good news was Mikko scored quite a bit of dental loot in some freebie giveaways before the main event started, so he had a fun time playing with floss and trying out his new toothbrushes before the movie started. (No, seriously, he thought that was a blast.)

But, anyway! Mamma Mia started, and boy, was it ever worth the wait! Mikko watched it straight through and only asked once "What his name, Mama? What her name?" during the pretty much only extended dialogue scene in the film.

I'm telling you, this movie is gold for kids, because it's almost entirely singing. And not just singing, but catchy, happy songs, with jaunty, energetic dance moves. The plot is told nearly all within the music, so there's none of that pesky exposition to distract your tot from the fun.

I mean, seriously, go watch this clip and see how you could resist such toe-tapping, heartwarming appeal.

And did I get sentimentally weepy during the scene where the mother sings goodbye to her daughter? Yes. Yes, I did.

Oh, ABBA, how I could kiss you! Mikko watched it all, transfixed, and when it was over and people were folding up their chairs and blankets to go home, he started the solo chant for an encore. "Again, again! More! More Mamma Mia." We couldn't convince him the organizers were unlikely to stay up till 2 in the morning just to indulge him, but we promised to listen to the album on our iPod on the way home. And so we did, singing along.

It's been several days now, and he's still bouncing around singing all the songs in his own inimitable style.

The fact that he's crunching chips and that he
steals the camera partway through is all part of the act.

So, there you are. Given the choice between the kids' movie of Toy Story 3 and the adult musical of Mamma Mia for a three-year-old who is sensitive to unhappiness above all else? I'd go with Mamma Mia every time.

It's funny, too, because of course the plot and a lot of the jokes (given the PG-13 rating) are inappropriate for children. But as I discovered when I rewatched Grease as an adult, which had been one of my favorites in elementary school, all the stuff kids can't understand goes — whoosh! — right over their heads. (I seriously had no concept as a nine-year-old of what Rizzo meant by saying she was "late" in Grease. Late for what?) Watching Mamma Mia this time around, with my three-year-old enthralled (and silent! absolutely silent!), I let go of all the quibbles and qualms I had the first time I watched it in terms of plot, theme, and casting and just enjoyed it as he was doing.

So it's up to you and your ethics and sensibilities and tolerance for singable 1970s disco tunes, but if you have a chance to bring your little ones to see Mamma Mia (or something similarly musically buoyant), I would leap at it.

P.S. I wrote the above last week but hadn't had a chance to edit the video and post it. Then yesterday we thought, Hey, we sat through two movies with Mikko! Let's go give Despicable Me a try! So we did, and it was a complete bust. Even though we'd shown him previews on our computer beforehand and he seemed intrigued, when the movie started, every time Gru — the main character — appears on screen, Mikko would say, "Can't like him. Can't like Gru." And he was quite serious. We tried to convince him Gru was mean at the beginning but also funny, and that things would get better. No joy. Then there was a scene where the matron at the children's home yells at the children, and that was that. Wailing and gnashing of teeth. We departed, our heads bent to avoid anyone getting too good a look at us, and fortunately received a full refund of our ticket prices since we'd lasted all of five minutes. I will say, though, the popcorn at Columbia City is really good. I'm still glad we bought some, even though we couldn't return that.

This latest experience gave Sam and me some further insight into what makes a good
preschooler movie, and our thought is that it must (a) be engaging and (b) have no villain. Then we ran down the list of children's cartoons we had seen, and with the exception of a Barney one Sam had endured in his movie-critic days, we couldn't think of one that wasn't at least a little scary. So I guess we'll stick with PG-13 sex-romp musicals until Mikko's five or so…

What movies have your children seen and enjoyed? Any surprises? Any theater-going tips for families with little ones?


Pocket.Buddha said...

There is a movie that I watched as a child that I later bought on DVD that has NEVER failed me in years of babysitting!

It's called Milo and Otis and is about the least scary, most adorable movie you will ever see.

It's basically just footage of a kitten (Milo) and Puppy (Otis) playing together with all sorts of other cute animals being narrated by some guy with a British accent.

It's basically the story of curiosity almost kills the cat but friendship and loyalty make everything alright and everybody learns a bit along the way.

Honestly, I am a grown woman now and some parts of it still make me laugh with delight.

Best of all there is no villain, so I bet Mikko would like it too. Although there's no singing. . . which was part of why I liked it when I was babysitting a lot.

Marilyn (A Lot of Loves) said...

I actually can't imagine that I can ever watch Toy Story 3. When I read review after review of professional critics saying they sat bawling in their seats? That was the end of that. I can see that Mamma Mia would be a lot more fun. We still haven't taken my son to the movie but I'm sure we will soon. He is almost 4 after all. (!)

Laura said...

So far our attempts at having Selena watch a movie were heartbreaking. Too much conflict/drama and Selena is crying. I wonder if she would like Mama Mia?

natalie said...

We tried "Hoodwinked" and ended up with hysteria when the little miner's cart flew off the rails and into the clouds.

We've come to the conclusion that our two year old can handle Baby Einstein and chick flicks. :)

Megan said...

When I was a kid I though "All Dogs Go to Heaven" was the scariest movie ever! And I was considerably older than 3 when I saw it. Why do they make children's movies so scary? I guess they've forgotten what it's like to be a little one, when even the fire alarm is a terrifying experience.

Anonymous said...

Well, my one year old seems to be a fan of Mikko singing songs from Mamma Mia!

Sybil Runs Things said...

My girls like movies. Eloise gets a little antsy (imagine that!) but nothing scares or bothers them. At all. They have even watched those tween "Goosebumps" movies. Anyways, I'm no help.

A couple of suggestions: watch kids movies at the Admiral. Shrek is coming up! Matt took the girls a while ago and said "it wasn't very good" but that it should be okay for three year olds. That place is so freaking huge. And cheap.

Another idea is try the $1 movies at AMC theaters. I think there are only three left this summer, though. I'm going to try and take Eloise to see Kung-Fu Panda tomorrow. It's at 10:00 at the Southcenter theater. Since you all stay up so late, I think the movies on the wall are great! "Up" is coming, isn't it?

Oh, if you want to borrow Milo and Otis, that a previous commenter suggested, we have it! It's super cute.

Anonymous said...

Ugh. We made this mistake too. We thought surely our 3 year old would like to see Toy Story 3. He loved the first two, which we watched at home, and we had braved Where the Wild Things Are (of all movies) just cuz we wanted to see it so much. He was... 2 1/2 at the time? He had no problem then, but NOW it was totally different. He hated being in the movie theater, and even though he liked a lot of the movie he did think it was scary sometimes.

I am surprised at how sensitive 3 year olds can be to movies. I guess I forget how real it all seems when you are little. We watched Tarzan at home the other day and he cried three times because he was heartbroken for Tarzan losing his mom and day. Oh. my. god. what was I thinking?? He still wanted to watch the movie, was I wrong to let him??

Lastly, I am not surprised Mama Mia worked for Mikko. We have had equal success with a lot of "adult" movies.

Olivia said...

I agree with you on Mama Mia, all the "dirty" jokes go unnoticed by kids. All they see is music and dancing. We watched it when our daughter was 8 months old and she loved it.

I also loved Grease and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas for the same reason. The latter it more racy because there is some nudity, but I never thought much about it because my family is easy going about bodies and nudity.

Bibliomama said...

Hairspray -- Eve has adored it since she was four. Although this year we did have to have a talk about racial segregation and bigotry. But when he was little? Angus couldn't even watch Elmo in Grouchland, because the mean blanky-stealing villain was 'too scawy'.

Anonymous said...

When my daughter was around 3 she saw The Wizard of Oz. We edited it, skipping over the trip to the witch's castle. But honestly, she was completely unfazed. However, she found Swiper the Fox from Dora the Explorer TERRIFYING. I was baffled. The witch in the Wizard of Oz seems WAY scarier than Swiper, to my adult eyes.

Kids just don't have the same cultural references that we do, so what they find scary may be surprising. At least, it is to me.

Melodie said...

That was a great laugh I had watching Mikko sing. I agree. My girls love anything with songs in them. Villians (evil step-mothers, witches, ogres, wolves, etc) do not make for good watching even for my 5 yr old. She was even afraid of The Little Mermaid and it took a few viewings of Snow White for her to be get desensitized to the witch with the poison apple. I try not to get anything I know my girls would be scared of. Most Disney and Pixar films are also made for adults and that stuff doesn't get missed by my oldest who will ask "why are you laughing Mommy? Why was that funny?" She's pretty sensitive that one.

Ali said...

Nice insight! Wouldn't have figured this out except by trial and error either. I think it would be harder to get my husband to watch mama mia than anything!

St. Louis Smart Mama said...

I tend to let my kids watch more so-called "older" movies than animated kid's movies for exactly this reason. They're scary, and so many of them freaked me out when I was little.

My daughter has still never seen the beginning of Finding Nemo b/c I always skip the part where the mom dies (which I'm pretty sure usets me more than it would her.)

She watched Mamma Mia with me a few years ago when she was 4 and she LOVED it. You're right, the great music makes it a big hit with kids, and all of the adult stuff went right over her head.

Lauren Wayne said...

Pocket.Buddha: Must try Milo & Otis! Thank you. I understand the no-singing desire. I cannot get the Mamma Mia songs out of my head.

Marilyn: I know, it was a tear-jerker! Sam & I were trying to remember how old we were when we first saw a movie, and I think it was around 4. I know an early one for me was Bambi (um, not when it originally came out in 1942 but some sort of re-release) — talk about tear-jerking, gah! And Sam fell asleep in The Empire Strikes Back.

Laura: Yes! Glad we're not the only ones with a tenderhearted kiddo. I'd give Mamma Mia a try. The conflict is much less overt.

natalie: Yes, chick flicks would probably work, too! :)

Megan: Yes, what is up with that? Mikko's even leery of characters in Dora the Explorer (the Map is too loud, and Swiper is too scary).

navelgazingbajan: So glad! :) I'm trying to get Dancing Queen and Take a Chance on Me on video to round out the set. So let your little one know there's more to the series. Ha ha!

mamamilkers: That's so funny. I definitely had friends who could watch horror movies as kids, whereas I can't watch them even now, so I guess it's an individual thing. Thanks for the tips. I love cheap! We thought about doing Kung-Fu Panda, but you know us and mornings… And, yes, we'd love to borrow Milo & Otis! Score!

Acacia: How sad about Tarzan! I remember how things used to absolutely break my heart as a kid. In some ways, I'm glad I'm less touchy now, and in other ways, I feel like I'm missing that strong empathy. I heard a story today of a friend's one-year-old who saw a big bucket of dolls at a store and almost started crying. She picked up one doll at a time and put the toy pacifier in its mouth and then handed it to her daddy, saying, "Baby?" She had never played with dolls before and didn't realize they were just toys and not abandoned, apparently. She kept mentioning it the rest of the day. "Babies?"

Olivia: I've never seen The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Now I want to!

Bibliomama: And Hairspray! I need to see these things. And so does Mikko, apparently.

Amber: Yes, Swiper! I know, how tame, but we have to fast forward past him every time. It's easier for us at home — like, Mikko still loves Ponyo, but he won't watch the father character because of the one scene where he's trying to squish Ponyo into a bubble. We can fast forward at home but not in a theater. Sam says he should work on imitating the fast forward "bawoop" sound our Tivo makes so he can pretend to Mikko he's fast forwarding when we're in a scary part of a movie in a theater. ;)

Melodie: You're so right. I wonder why there aren't more kids movies without villains. Is that how we really see the world? Is that how we want our children to? Sorry, deep thought break. Ha ha!

Ali: Ha! Yeah, if your husband's not into ABBA and dancing, I can't help you there. :)

St. Louis Smart Mama: I always want to skip the opening of Finding Nemo, so I totally understand. Ever since having kids, I can't stand even pretend depictions of kids or parents dying. Ugh. There's a little girl in Mikko's class who's a year or so older, and she has all the songs from Mamma Mia memorized and belts them out. I thought it was so odd a year ago, but now — I get it!

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