Wednesday, December 27, 2006

trying to be good, hoping to be lucky

If Tess has a role model right might well be the lead horse in the animated film Spirit. He is wild, willful, brave, and true. Everything about him seems to speak to her...she loves to get down on all fours, stomp her feet, snort boldly, and then rear up, front hooves pawing the air, whinnying at the top of her lungs.

It is both amusing to watch and inspiring...also taxing when you are pressed into service as a stand-in. For as long as I can remember, Tess has walked in the company of equine they horses or unicorns. She has given them such names as Sparkle Rose and Light. The horse is the magic vessel into which Tess has poured all of her most potent imaginings.

And then last week we sat down with the kids and watched the film The Neverending Story. Normally when we offer the kids their weekly video, they choose Spirit by acclamation. But Beth and I had decided to make this a family affair and we wanted to see something new. Neither of us had seen the film; worse, neither of us knew anymore about it than what we could gleen from the jacket cover...ages 6 and up it said.
It began well enough although early on it was evident that there was a middle school sensibility that was a little more flecked with disappointment and imperfection than what our kids normally saw... schoolyard bullies and the like. But soon enough that stuff gave way to the terrain of fantasy, and, I thought we were on our way to a beguiling winter afternoon.
The main character is a boy who loves reading stories and who encounters a book whose storyline, he comes at length to realize, features himself or rather a part of himself as yet unknown to him. He is named Atreyus and he is charged with saving the kingdom of Fantasia from the advancing threat of something referred to as "the Nothing".
Atreyus' bosom companion is his white horse Atrax. Beth and I are pleased to see the familiar vocabulary of child and horse and magic present in the mix...and then comes "the scene".
Atreyus and Atrax are crossing a dank and fetid bog called The Swamp of Sadness. The voice over narration tells us that those who allow sadness to fall over them will disappear into the mire. We have come to our hero's first testing ground, it seems. The footing is treacherous. Atrax flounders in mud up to his withers. The boy dismounts so that his horse will have an easier time of it, but Atrax begins to sink even deeper. Tess begins to cry.
"Why is the horse sad?"
I lock arms with her and we watch, both of us hoping not to see what we may well have already intuited is about to happen.
Alarmed, Atreyus chides his friend not to give up. He tugs with all of his might on the reins but it is no use. He pleads, he cries, he declares his love to the white horse who only looks back at him through round, dark and terribly inexpressive eyes. In the end the boy is on his knees cupping the head of his horse. Tess has been moaning and she says, "I wanted to watch Spirit!"
Both Beth and I are on the brink of jumping up and turning it off, putting in the other movie in the hopes that these past few seconds can be erased from memory. It's as if an unexpected moment of truth has been presented to us.
I decide to try to redirect Tess' attention toward the boy. "Look at Atreus!" I say. "He's not going to give up. He's going to make it. Watch!He's going to escape.!" I feel almost certain that I am right about this, although I am not happy about having to put my faith in a screenwriter.
The inexorable logic of the scene forces Tess to follow the boy, and as a result, to leave the horse behind, but then the plot twists again. The boy too begins to sink. It appears hopeless. I can feel Tess coiling up next to me, and I intervene before she can say anything. "He's not going to drown, Tess. Watch and see how he escapes."
I am thinking hard about how far I am willing to go down this road, but Tess still seems willing to see what will happen. (As for Colm, he has watched the whole thing up this point in quiet fascination, not a whimper, not a single flinch...inscrutable. I'm not sure had we turned off the movie that we would not have had a whole other issue to deal with concerning him.)
Then redemption arrives in the form of a luck-dragon, a giant, flying, white-haired lap dog kind of creature with an amiable smile, who swoops in at the critical moment and carries the boy high up into the air and off to safety. Once again the boy is on the back of a magical creature who has indeed rescued us all. The luck dragon is precisely the tonic Tess needs. She becomes progressively more intrigued by this new creature until finally she seems to have adopted him as her horse surrogate. From this point on the movie becomes a story again, something we can try to puzzle out and keep at arms be sure there are still a couple of scary moments but nothing we can't handle with a confident assertion like..."don't worry, he won't die. He'll be fine." In the end, there's even a wish sequence in which Atreyus is on his luck dragon soaring through the sky and he "sees" Atrax galloping across the grassy plains below. Tess recognizes him instantly.
At the end of the film Beth and exchange looks that might roughly be translated - let's not do that again anytime soon. We're both spent. We've been with them every step of the way, watching them, holding them, whispering into their ears. I can't imagine having left the kids to watch that film alone...on the other hand, having seen it with them feels like an experience that was both difficult and ultimately valuable. The rest of the day passes without incident.
The next morning I am getting Tess a bowl of cereal when she says, "Dad?"
"Yeah sweetie?"
"Atrax sank in the Swamps of Sadness because he was covered by sadness."
"Yeah, he did."
"Why did he?"
"I think...that he was very, very his heart...and so he gave up."
"and he sank."
"Yeah...but Atreyus, he didn't give up. He kept trying and he made it out of the Swamps of Sadness."
"yeah and he had a luck dragon."
"Yes he did. That was pretty lucky wasn't it?"
Tess doesn't answer. She is done talking for awhile. We eat our cereal quietly.


Anonymous Jer said...

Happy New Year Guys!

Those family movie nights can take a lot of a parent. We started having weekly movie nights in the last couple months where I get to pick the movie for the kids -- I usually pick something I have seen so I know how to prep them.

But actively watching a movie with a kid is hard work, especially when the movie throws some curves at you and kills off a beloved animal/friend.

Don't ever watch the late 60's show "Ring of Bright Water" (made by the same folks who made "Born Free"), the hero of this live action film is a lovable otter that lives with people for the entire movie until his owner goes into the city for a weekend and leaves the otter by himself. 5 minutes before the end of the movie, a ditchdigger sees this otter running at him and smashes the poor otter's head in with a shovel. The End. Well, they did show that the otter has mated and had cute pups that frolicked through the ending credits but dang! that was about the harshest thing I've ever seen in a kid's show. Telling the kids it is based on a true story only makes it worse. Beware.

There aren't a ton of good horse movies out there to watch. Ariel watched both "Black Stallion" and "National Velvet" when she was 6. "The Last Unicorn" when she was 5 but that has some scary parts in it. "Into the West" is good (kind of a "Secret of Roan Inish" with horses) but has some scary real-world stuff in it, more of a 6-12 year old movie.

PS We watched NeverEnding Story awhile back, pretty harsh but the kids loved that damn dragon. Stay away from the 2 sequels though, they are really bad. I should really have Ariel post reviews of the movies she watches on her blog...

4:51 PM  
Blogger kc said...

We could sure use a reliable voice like Ariel's to help us screen videos for the kids...thanks for the tips.

6:16 AM  

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