As films show up at the house, the boys like to open all the packages, something I've had to decide against thanks to some of the more extreme movies that have been sent to me over the years. I'll glance inside before deciding if they can open something.
There are times when the boys are excited not because they know anything about a movie, but simply because they recognize that they heard someone talking about the title. It's sweet, and I'm sure they take their cues from me. No matter how hard I try to make sure that what they watch is about laying out choices and letting them make those choices, they get excited if I'm excited at all. They're just trying to learn about the world that way. “Hey, mom likes this so I'm going to like this!” “Dad said this movie's title ten times, and so we want to see it!”
Marketing is pervasive, and as Toshi's been learning to read, one of the big joys for him is reading the titles of movie posters as we drive around. Living in LA, there is a constant barrage of roadside imagery selling movies. And they ask about EVERYTHING we go by. There are times when they become excited about something for bizarre reasons, and one of my recent favorites was when they became fixated on the release date of “Crazy Stupid Love.”
Reason one: my wife. She was all about “Crazy Stupid Love” in the weeks leading up to release. Asking when the press screening was. Making sure she was free for the night of the press screening. Seeing the movie. Loving the movie. Telling her mom and her sister about it the next day. Telling them that they HAVE to see it. Toshi and Allen banking this recommendation, but not just because their mother was excited, but also because…
Reason two: “stupid” is considered a bad word in my house. My sons know not to use the big swear words at all, not under any circumstance. There is no debate, and they are clear on that. They've each had one moment where they bravely tried out a private “shit” or two in the other room, but when confronted, they dropped it. Right away. But “stupid” evolved into a bad word in the house, because they would call each other the name until someone would cry or punch or punch and cry or punch and then get punched and then everyone cried. Some variation thereof.
So my wife outlawed it. She gathered the villagers and declared our house a “stupid” free zone for Toshi and Allen. As with all bad words, Mommy and Daddy have special dispensation. We're the police state. We can walk around wearing a shirt that says “THE REALLY DIRTY DON'T SAY IT F WORD” if we want to and that's just the way it works. We try not to, but they get it. With “stupid,” it's been a real struggle to get it out of their vocabulary, but we were making ground until…
Reason three: They realized they could say the name of the movie without getting in trouble. Toshi broke the ice, asking me “Daddy, is the name of that movie on that poster 'Crazy Stupid Love'?”
“What's 'Crazy Stupid Love' about?”
“It's about kissing and grown-up stuff.”
Involuntary shudder at the thought. A shared look with his brother each time he says “stupid.” “Daddy, is 'Crazy Stupid Love' for kids?”
“No. It's something your mommy wants to see. And Lala and your tia, too.”
“Ohhh. So then when are you going to go to see 'Crazy Stupid Love' with Mommy?”
And on and on. And then his brother got into the act, quizzing me for ten minutes, fifteen minutes, anything and any excuse to ask about it.
My wife caught on, of course, and declared a hit on the title itself, telling me to just call it “that Steve Carell movie” when referring to it. Then earlier this week, there was an envelope at the door, and Toshi was at school but Allen was here, so Allen brought me the envelope and told me he was going to open it. Opened it. Takes out a Blu-ray and recognizes the key art since he doesn't read. But recognizes it immediately. Eyes wide. He looked at me like it was Christmas and he just opened a box containing his very own real life pet dinosaur. And he couldn't help himself. He held it up, title facing me, upside down, and loudly demanded, “Daddy, is this can you tell me this is 'Crazy Stupid Love'?!”
So pleased with himself he was almost out of breath.
That's my long way of saying they get excited about things for strange reasons, as I'm sure all kids do. They react to whatever culture is presented to them. We don't let them watch plain old fashioned live TV of any kind. If we can't be there to watch it with them, they're not watching it. Someone is always present as they intake media. It's not a background thing. It's not sonic wallpaper while they're playing. They're either watching something, or they're not. And more often, they're not. During the week, they don't do a lot of idle watching of things. Allen has about an hour that his mom will let him watch whichever of the little kid networks on our cable box has no commercials at all. There are between show breaks and bumpers but there's nothing for any product or brand. Toshi can maybe watch a half-hour of something during his post-school snack. They don't watch tons and tons of TV.
Instead, we've made it so when the TV is on, it's special. They're either hanging out with me or with their grandmother and aunt or with their mom, and there's something communal about it. We've made it an event for them. So there is a sense of outsized reaction to some degree. It's a big treat, and they act like it is each time. They ask for a lot more than they are able to see. Both “Captain America” and “Transformers 3” were recent arrivals that they begged for, and like “Green Lantern,” they were told no, that it wasn't for them.
But when the “Jurassic Park” trilogy arrived, my wife took it out of the envelope and as she handed it over said, “I've never seen any of those. Is it worth it?”
“Absolutely,” I said. “You'll love Jeff Goldblum in it, and you'll love the dinosaurs.”
Ooooooops. I said “dinosaurs” and both boys were hooked. Thing is, I wasn't sure I was ready to show them any of the movies. I decided to watch the T-rex scene and the raptor stuff again before deciding, and late that night, I watched those sequences. While I think those scenes remain expertly crafted set pieces, I didn't think they were wildly out of bounds. At the time in 1993, I remember thinking the film had gotten away with something with that PG-13 rating. Every time I saw the film theatrically, that T-rex attack was greeted by genuine fear from the audience. Real panic. Temperatures went up a few degrees. People were short of breath. It was amazing how visceral the experience was, every single time. I was so fascinated by the response that I went to see the film in about six different LA theaters.
This time out, I was convinced by seeing it on my set-up that the boys would be able to handle it. If it was theatrical and 3D, probably not, but at home, it felt like it was safe enough for Toshi. I decided to bring Mom in for the conversation about Allen, and we decided that she would see it with Toshi, and if she thought Allen could see it, there could be a second viewing for his sake. But not the first time through. We left Allen set up like a little king in my bedroom, his favorite venue for watching things, and he asked me to put in “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein,” which he loves unreservedly, and which is always kept right by the DVD player in my room. I put it on for him, and with Toshi and my wife, adjourned to the office for a trip to “Jurassic Park.”
I've always had a bit of a difficult relationship with the film. As fascinated as I was by some of the set pieces in the movie, I think it's a very uneven script, and I think the exposition dominates much of the running time. It's slow to get going, and it ends so suddenly that it feels like they just quit after they got to the big beats. It has always struck me as a movie built on one great idea that inspired some genuinely aggressive good work from Spielberg. But a great film? Not in my book.
Time may have mellowed me a bit, though, because on this viewing, I liked the film a little more than I have in the past. I still think it's got some weird structural issues, but for me, the character work by Sam Neill, Sir Richard Attenborough, Laura Dern, and especially Jeff Goldblum is what really makes it work. The set pieces I liked then, I still like now. More than anything, though, I was struck by just how small the film is overall. At the time, I remember being amazed that there were “only” 75 CG shots in the whole film. I look at it now, I'm not sure it even feels like there are 75 total. By the event movie standards of today, “Jurassic Park” is positively quaint.
More than anything, I was curious to see what impact it would have on Toshi, who, like most boys his age, absolutely adores anything that has to do with dinosaurs. I think he has trouble believing that anything that cool ever really walked the earth, but we've gone to the museum enough times to look at the skeletons that it's starting to sink in. Because he's dino-crazy, we've watched any number of TV specials along the lines of “Walking With Dinosaurs,” and I realized as we were starting the film that he may actually be numb to the movie's charms as a result of thinking that it is entirely ordinary to see them on film these days.
I should have had more faith in Spielberg.
He is, after all, one of the greatest visual storytellers to ever work in film. It's fine if you don't like certain movies of his, or if you don't like his taste in general, but if you try to claim that he's not an enormously gifted communicator in terms of visual language, you're just wrong. I think he is sometimes let down by his writers, but he can make even weak material sing when he's really hitting on all cylinders. In the case of “Jurassic Park,” there's an energy to it that is just relentless, and the film strikes a nice balance between wonder and horror. The way the film gradually sets you up works quite well, and Toshi was onboard from the very start. He loved the premise, and as the movie inched towards the first big reveal, he was impatient, almost afraid to blink.
The first moment with dinosaurs worked well on him, and one thing I love about kids is that they're not looking for seams in special effects. We've spoken before in this column about his budding love of Ray Harryhausen's work, and it's the imagination behind an effect that he seems to respond to most. When he saw the brachiosaurs, he was just as impressed and amazed as Sam Neill's character, delighted by the idea of a place you could go to see real dinosaurs. At the Natural History Museum here in Los Angeles, they have an exhibit hall where they have a dinosaur that makes occasional appearances. It's a very clever costume, along the lines of what they use in the live-action “Walking With Dinosaurs” touring show, and we've gone several times to see the show. Toshi loves it, and when the dinosaur comes walking out among the gathered kids, he is both terrified and delighted. With the first big appearance by the brachiosaurs, he was delighted.
And when the T-rex finally appeared? He was definitely terrified.
Of my two sons, Toshi is the one who seems to react most acutely to being scared by a movie. The first time I tried to show him “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein,” he made me shut it off about halfway through. He was shaking he was so scared. And that was an Abbott and Costello movie. The strange thing is, he's in love with monsters. He adores Godzilla for example, to such a strong degree that when we watched the original 1954 film together, he cried when Godzilla died. Inconsolably. It destroyed him to see them kill something so amazing. The only thing that finally calmed him down was when I showed him a shelf full of other Godzilla movies, assuring him that Godzilla wasn't really dead. His godfather gifted him with a whole bunch of orange monster books designed to introduce kids to various movie monsters, and we spent months reading them every single night. In a book, it's one thing. But in a film, he finds monsters to be almost emotionally overwhelming.
So when the T-rex scene began, I paid close attention to him, ready to shut the film off if it got to be too much for him. Instead, he stayed riveted, reacting with his full body to each moment. Just when I thought it was about to really freak him out, the beat with the lawyer on the toilet happened, and as the T-rex chomped down on the guy, Toshi let out the biggest belly laugh. And that's what makes Spielberg so great. He knew full well that the sequence would cause an animal panic in people, and he made sure to punctuate the entire sequence with gags that gave people an out, a pressure valve, a way to defuse the pure terror. Each of the laughs built into the scene landed perfectly, and I was amazed to see Toshi ride that rollercoaster. Fear, fear, fear, laugh. Fear, fear, fear, laugh. And once we made it through that entire sequence, he turned to look at me, face flushed, the biggest smile on his face, and said, “Daddy, that was awwwwwwwwwwesome.”
Another fifteen minutes or so into the film, the office door opened, and Allen stepped into the room. I paused the film, and the three of us must have looked at him like the Watergate burglars, totally busted and unsure what to say.
“What are you watching?”
My wife looked at me, unsure how to answer.
“We're watching a movie, sweetie.” I stood up to walk him back into the other room, but he wasn't having it.
“It's a scary movie. It's not for you.”
“Scary?” He pointed at Toshi, outraged. “BUT HE'S WATCHING IT!”
As I said, Toshi is the one who gets scared watching films, while every time Allen's ever seen anything scary in a movie, he's the one who leans in closer, intrigued. His point was a valid one. If Toshi was watching the film with us, then why couldn't he watch it, too?
I stood there for a good ten seconds trying to come up with a valid reason to take Allen back to the other room.
So of course, he ended up watching the rest of the film with us. After all, the T-rex scene is the scariest sequence in the film, so I figured he'd be fine with the rest of it. We explained the basic story to him, and he settled in on my wife's lap, excited to see some dinosaurs. He and Toshi chattered away at each glimpse of a new dinosaur, and they were having a great time. Then the raptors got loose, and they got quiet. Toshi had seen the beginning of the film, so he knew that the raptors had been explained as the scariest dinosaurs of all time. He told his little brother what to expect, and they both sat forward, waiting for the raptors to actually appear.
Spielberg's very smart the way he brings them into the movie, with just a glimpse at first, then gradually accelerating things. The boys were so excited to recognize their new hero, Samuel L. Jackson, in the movie that they got a little distracted, explaining to my wife that he's both Mace Windu and Nick Fury and that means there's no one cooler anywhere ever, and they weren't really ready for the moment where Laura Dern is trying to turn the power back on. A raptor bursts out from behind the cables, a fantastically framed and shot jump scare, and I looked over at everyone else in the room. My wife jumped, laughing even as she did so, and Toshi actually stood up for a moment, as if he was going to run out of the room, before he also started laughing.
Allen, though, went totally rigid. His arms both shot straight up over his head like he was reaching for something, and his legs shot out in front of him, and his mouth dropped open. It took him a good four or five seconds before he returned to normal, realizing what he'd done. He saw me looking at him, and he smiled at me. “I wasn't scared, Daddy.”
Yeah, right. The rest of the movie played out very well, and at the end of it, both boys were already asking to watch it again. They told me that they wish Jurassic Park was a real place, and I asked if they'd go there if it was. “Oh, no,” said Toshi. “But it would be cool.” There have been no lasting after-effects, no nightmares. It seems like the film sort of bounced off of them to some degree.
They're interested in the sequels as well, and I'm sure we'll find time for them. There's no narrative urgency, though, and I'm not in any rush to show either of them. In talking with the boys, there's almost nothing about the film that hit them on a deeper level than “that was awesome,” but sometimes, that's enough.
The “Jurassic Park” trilogy is available now on Blu-ray.