Times have certainly changed for parents looking to entertain their children with a movie on a rainy afternoon.
While caregivers of a previous generation had few options at the theater and limited offerings for their VCR, today’s selections go well beyond traditional Disney fare. Between the increased emphasis on family-friendly features in Hollywood, the proliferation of DVDs, and the ease of acquiring spur-of-the-moment rainy-day rentals via pay-per-view or Netflix, there are plenty of options available for moms and dads looking to spend a couple of hours with popcorn and peace and quiet.
“Somewhere in the past 20 years studios have truly come to believe that movies that appeal to a family audience are good business,” said USA TODAY film critic Claudia Puig. “They paid lip service to that notion 20 years ago, but only in the past decade or even more recently have filmmakers and distributors come to truly embrace the viability and audience potential for family movies.”
Adults who grew up at the movies now have kids and grandchildren of their own. Some run Hollywood studios. Others run the marketing departments, or control business units that are well aware of the profitability of a well-made children’s movie. What was once a niche product released mostly when kids were not in school has become a year-round industry.
Puig remembers that when her 20-year-old daughter was in preschool, her options were Disney cartoons and a few other features like “Babe,” “The Little Princess,” and “My Dog Skip.” Now there is a proliferation of popular children’s characters turned into big-screen icons. From “Ramona and Beezus” to “Coraline” to “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” to “Where the Wild Things Are,” there are plenty of choices for kids looking to see their favorite folks in the written world on the big screen.
“It used to be that summer was the time for kids' movies, and maybe right around Christmas. Family movies are now a year-round phenomenon,” Puig said. “It's rare that there isn't at least one, if not several, movies appropriate for family audiences in theaters on any given weekend.”
However, that doesn’t mean parents of smaller children have it easier. An arena once dominated by Disney Classics now has an assortment of selections with unfamiliar characters and storylines. For someone who knows the characters from “The Little Mermaid” or “Peter Pan” like they were old friends, moving on to “Rango” or “Gnomeo and Juliet” can be jarring. The action is quicker and louder, the scenes shorter, and the music louder than what parents may remember from their own childhood.
Patrick Tolan, a professor and director for the Center for Positive Youth Development at the University of Virginia, notes that themes are different in movies released today. There may not be much that compares with the blunt trauma of some of the earlier films, like Bambi’s mother being shot, but there are more adult elements that are not as sensitive to a child’s way of understanding the world.
"Movies today are visually more real and intense,” Tolan said. “Things occur more quickly, so they are more challenging to the nervous system.”
And even family-friendly ratings can feature uncomfortable moments. Last year’s big kids hit, "Toy Story 3," carried a G-rating. But the scene where the beloved characters seemingly are about to be burned up in an incinerator proved to be difficult for many small children in the audience to handle. Though the main characters are animated toys, the skills of those associated with the film makes them seem real, and thus their fate can make younger viewers anxious.
“The G-rated family movie is a rarity. The most popular movies aimed at kids tend to have PG or even PG-13 ratings, and adventure seems to automatically include some scary scenes,” said Puig.
When kids get frightened
There are several tools for helping parents determine whether a particular movie is right for their children. The ratings guide offers a general indication of a film’s appropriateness and general suitability for different age groups. In addition, looking at which factors influence a particular movie’s rating, particularly violence, can be helpful when making the determination on PG or PG-13 films. And, as Tolan reminds parents, thinking back to what they remembered being scary when they were small can help them prevent their own children from suffering a similar system shock.
Of course, sometimes it’s not easy for parents to predict which movies may cause problems for their children. Strong visuals, loud noises, and intense action can have an accentuated effect on young children, which can be scary for them and surprising to the adults. In addition, 3-D films can make for an uncomfortable movie-watching experience for kids unaccustomed to that effect.
For Marta Gillilan, a mother of two from Lee's Summit, Mo., that moment of unanticipated emotional reaction came when her now-teenage daughter first saw “Mighty Joe Young.” The 1998 release carries a PG rating, and Gillilan got it on VHS to show to her daughter while she was home from kindergarten.
Instead of being an entertaining way to spend a couple of hours, Gillilan found her daughter disturbed by portions of the film, as the scene of the gorilla being attacked were too much for the girl to handle.
“I was really concerned,” Gillilan said, “because it wasn't animated and I wondered how real she thought it was. She was bawling her head off — she was truly involved with this animal.”
That’s not surprising to Tolan, who notes that often what scares young children may be something a parent doesn’t anticipate.
“Listen to what it was that scared them — it might not be what you would expect,” he said.
Tolan suggests several means of coping. If they anticipate difficulty in a particular scene beforehand, parents can shield their child from seeing or hearing parts of the movie that could be frightening. Once the offending scenes have passed, they can reassure children by noting that while the action on screen might have been scary, it’s not a threat now, and it ultimately worked out well in the end for everyone.
That way, even a PG movie with a scary scene or two can still provide a Hollywood ending to a child’s afternoon.
Craig Berman is a writer in Washington.