Picking Movies for Young Children

I don’t want this blog to just be reviews, so I am going to try to write a weekly commentary of sorts, posting every Friday. Well, we’ll see how it goes… Here’s the first.

Here’s a blogger’s humble confession. Rating movies for a particular age group is really hard.

I used to be so annoyed with reviews of kids’ movies that weren’t specific, that didn’t give me what I needed to know in a nutshell. “Not suitable for young viewers” just didn’t help me. (What is ‘young’?!)

So when I began this blog I was determined to stamp an age recommendation on every review. And I soon found out why those other reviewers choose to be so vague. As much as a frazzled parent may want concise advice with a minimum of fuss, the First Commandment of parenthood always holds:

EVERY CHILD IS DIFFERENT!

I will do my best to give my recommendations, but the precise age rating must always be regarded as a sliding scale – after reading my reviews you will know if your child tends to be above, below or right smack on my estimates and can proceed accordingly. And please double-check with any other books, websites or blogs that you trust. (I include the Commonsense Media age ratings, which are often a year higher than mine.)

Watching a Barbie movie together. I don't look so sure about it, but neither does she.

I also lean rather heavily on my daughter’s reactions to the movies we watch together (while still keeping in mind the commandment above). Luckily she has taken an interest in discussing films with me. I even showed her the Commonsense website once and now she always wants to check it before we watch a film, to see if it’s “okay for me”.

The real nitty-gritty of each review really lies in the other details, the reasons behind my assessment of appropriateness:  the scary stuff, the violence, the drinking and smoking, the bad language, and any other aspects that might make a parent think twice about showing a particular film. Sometimes, too, I will rate an otherwise inoffensive movie a little older “for comprehension”, if I think younger children will just be baffled by the plot.

Every parent or caregiver has their own set of concerns: Parent A might be bugged by characters insulting each other if his/her child is already going down that road, Parent B might not care about that but might be strongly against depictions of alcohol consumption, while Parent C might only be worried about scenes of violence. My goal is simply to provide you with all the information you need to make your choices.

The best advice I can give is to watch with your children and observe them carefully. What makes them antsy? What makes them cover their eyes? Do they recover quickly, smiling? Or are they not enjoying themselves at all? Is it time to turn it off? The first few films children see are tricky, because they haven’t yet become accustomed to movie conventions, to discerning fact from fiction. That’s why animation can help – the world on the screen is so unlike our own that they needn’t fear the same things happening in their neighbourhood. Fairy tales are helpful too, as the “once upon a time” with castles and princesses and knights is so obviously in a time long ago and far away, that most children by 4 or 5 will certainly come to the conclusion that things they see are not likely to occur in their present-day world.

Scary scenes are okay for 3 or 4 year olds as long as they don’t go on for too long. If you can hug them and help them through these moments, they will quickly see that things turn out all right. The hardship or threat is a useful part of the story because it helps them learn that the characters can get through tough times and be all right. All things will pass and the sun will come out again. Unfortunately however, the trend in current ‘family movies’ (all movies, actually) is to prolong the conflict, milk it to the nth degree, make it last so long that we’re fairly falling out of our seats with the suspense and terror of it all.

You know what I mean. An old movie might show someone tottering on the edge of a cliff, then recovering. The same story in a movie made today would have the character totter, recover, then be pushed over, they hang on to the edge with both hands, then one hand, then two fingers, one finger, then they drop, then they grab onto one of those trees that always seem to be sticking out halfway down a steep cliff, then… It just goes on and on and on! Too too much for preschoolers to handle, often.

Another thing I’ve noticed (and read about) is the love children have for justice served. Just yesterday my daughter and I were discussing our favourite parts in the movies we’ve seen. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs came up and she said right away that her favourite part was when the witch tried to roll the boulder onto the dwarves in the rainstorm and then fell off the cliff. (A suspenseful moment that, I might add, goes by fairly quickly.) I was surprised at this. “But wasn’t it scary?” I ventured. “Yeah… but the witch fell!” The scene is a favourite because it had the right outcome.

As an aside here, Bruno Bettelheim, in his fascinating book The Uses of Enchantment, observes that modern retellings of the old fairy tales often reduce the punishment of the villain to make it less violent or gruesome. Or remove it altogether. (ie. Cinderella graciously forgives her step-sisters and invites them to live in the castle with her?!) In doing so, one greatly reduces the satisfaction that preschoolers feel at good winning out over evil. Young children simply love the idea of someone getting their comeuppance, to use an old phrase.

(I will definitely be writing more about Bettelheim and fairy tales in the future.)

What bothers your child? It is really important to learn this as you watch films with them.

My daughter is not bothered by most scary things. She wasn’t scared by the huge dragon in Sleeping Beauty, though Maleficent’s mere appearance at the beginning made her squirm. Fight scenes don’t upset her, although seeing a main character obviously feeling pain does. For her though, the real deal-breaker, the real turn-it-off moment comes when somebody does something they know they shouldn’t (ie. Mickey in The Sorceror’s Apprentice/Fantasia), and/or when someone just screws up big time. My dragon-and-witch-proof little girl begged me to turn off a My Little Pony movie in which little Minty not only breaks the official Christmas candy cane but also accidentally knocks over the big decorated tree in the main square! That was just too much for her.

Another example. A friend’s son who has no fear of battle scenes, heavy artillery, monsters or magic, is really bothered by natural disasters. So a film like Ponyo, full of storms, tsunamis and floods, which is generally suitable for 4 year olds, would be a very bad idea for him even though he’s 8.

Every child has his/her own set of personal fears and issues. The only antidote to this is to a) know your child, and b) know what’s in the movies you are thinking of putting on.

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All writings posted here are © Kim Thompson, unless otherwise indicated. For all artwork on this site, copyright is retained by the artist.
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