A couple of weeks ago my wife Jennifer and I took our four-year-old son Henry to see the new version of “Winnie The Pooh.” Although we were primarily motivated by a desire for air conditioning, it turned out to be by far the most enjoyable experience we’ve had with the boy at the theater because “Winnie The Pooh” turned out to be part of what seems to be an endangered species: a kids’ movie that’s actually appropriate for kids.
Kids’ movies are probably the surest bet in Hollywood, and are always at the top of the box-office charts, because there is usually only one of them in theaters at a time, so parents looking to take their children for a special day out only have one choice. In light of that, it’s a little strange how poorly the people who make these movies and the people who present them (the theater owners) seem to understand their audience.
First of all, what is with the volume? I love a good loud action movie as much as the next guy, but does the movie about the talking cars, or the one about Rapunzel, really have to be as deafeningly immersive as “Die Hard”? With the exception of “Winnie The Pooh,” Henry has watched every movie we’ve taken him to with his hands clamped over his ears, which always prompts me to look around the theater and take note of the fact that half the kids in the room do too. Jen and I have seriously discussed buying a pair of gun muffs — you know, the headphoney-looking ear protection people wear at shooting ranges and NASA launches — just for use in movie theaters. We’ve never actually gone through with that, so instead we always end up trying to MacGyver up some earplugs by wadding up little bits of napkin and jamming them in his ears (which, fyi, doesn’t work).
Even more irritating is the fact that each and every kids’ movie is now in 3D. I’m pretty lukewarm on 3D movies; only the animated ones really seem to make it work, but even those I can take or leave. But little kids don’t (can’t) appreciate or care about 3D any more than they would appreciate a tax refund. It’s nothing more than a surcharge to bleed more money out of us, but it’s all the more galling when it’s tacked onto a movie that a) every parent is contractually obligated to attend and b) is going to go totally unappreciated by the kids. Even if they did dig the 3D, it wouldn’t matter because they are constitutionally incapable of keeping their glasses on. (And not just at the movies: They can’t keep them on in blinding sun on the beach, or even if they’re part of the coolest Halloween costume in the world.) It might help if the theaters provided kid-sized glasses, but of course they do not, so now we’ve got a kid squinting at an out-of-focus, blurry, binocular image with his hands clasped over his ears, to the tune of $18 a ticket. What a treat!
Another problem: No movie made for kids under 5 or 6 should be longer than 80 minutes, tops. I’d even cut it down to 70. Even when Henry absolutely loves the movie he’s watching, he starts asking if it’s going to be over soon right around minute 65. When I took him to the “Toy Story”/”Toy Story 2” double feature a couple of years ago, he loved every second of the first movie (except the Erector set spider with the baby head on it, which he still talks about in hushed, wary tones, like he came face to face with a Chupacabra), but five minutes into the second one he made it clear that he had had enough.
But the biggest problem with kids’ movies is the movies themselves: They are terrifying to little kids. Until we went to “Winnie The Pooh,” every movie we’ve taken Henry to has reduced him to shrieks of horror at one point or another. Two summers ago, chastened by Henry’s terror at movies we’d imagined would be totally benign, we took him to what appeared to be the safest bet of a movie possible. The one that, based on its posters and trailers, we called “the balloon movie.” What could be less scary than a movie about an old man and a Cub Scout tying balloons to their house and flying around? I never imagined this would be the most bloodcurdling moment of Henry’s short life. The first ten minutes of “Up” went right over his head (while reducing every adult in the theater to tears) but once the house landed in the dark forest and the barking dogs were chasing our heroes — I also dimly recall a forest fire, although I could be confused — the kid was screaming like he was watching us being murdered. We had to leave the theater ⅔ of the way through the movie and to this day I have still not seen it all.
Even “Toy Story 3,” which I thought was an extraordinarily good movie and which Henry eagerly anticipated from the moment billboards with his beloved Buzz and Woody started appearing all over town, has a completely terrifying climax, with all the toys on a conveyor belt headed for the incinerator. Again, I thought this was a great movie, but has Pixar forgotten who goes to their movies? The first two “Toy Story” movies were easy, gentle adventures with the barest dusting of peril to raise the stakes for the spaceman and the cowboy. The third one had all the adults on the edge of their seats, so imagine how the kids felt.
It’s pretty universally agreed that all Pixar movies are great, but that if one had to rank them, “Cars” would come in last place. That’s because it’s the one movie in the Pixar catalog that is totally geared toward little little kids: it depicts a world inhabited entirely by sentient automobiles with giant, friendly eyes in their windshields and no conflict more serious than being a little self-centered. It’s boring to adults but little kids eat it up, which is why the red racecar known to them as Lightning McQueen is festooned all over every toy aisle on planet Earth, five years after the movie’s release.
It’s also the reason that Pixar saw fit to make a sequel, or so I thought. I managed to dodge the bullet of taking Henry to “Cars 2,” but Jen was not so lucky. (Her one-word review: “Excrable.”) It seems that in the sequel, Lightning McQueen and Tow Mater do not teach each other gentle lessons about friendship and humility, but engage in a spy plot, suffer death threats, get shot at, and reduce their eager pre-K audience to wails of terror. Come on, Pixar! Not even the “Cars” franchise, so explicitly intended for little kids, is for little kids anymore? I’m starting to wonder if we need an MPAA rating below “G.”
So “Winnie The Pooh” was refreshing, and not just for the air conditioning. It was a very gentle story about the familiar stuffed animals searching for Eeyore’s lost tail and speculating about an imaginary monster that they never see and eventually learn was all in their heads. It was also narrated by John Cleese and made inventive use of the idea that it was a kind of living book. Not too loud, not too long, and really really cute. I doubt any kid over 7 would be very interested, but Henry loved it.
Although, that reminds me of the weirdest detail of our “Winnie The Pooh” experience: We sat in the back row of the theater (it was nearly full when we arrived) and there was a childless couple, probably about age 25 or so, snuggling up together in our row like they were at home watching a Katherine Heigl movie or something. Is that weird? That’s weird, right?