Disney's 'Lion King' rekindles the violence debate

June 27, 1994|By Janine DeFao | Janine DeFao,McClatchy News Service

With the opening of Disney's much-heralded "The Lion King," some parents may worry that hidden among catchy tunes and state-of-the-art animation lurks a danger to little psyches.

Some critics have greeted Disney's 32nd animated film with warnings about the lion king's "disturbing on-screen death" and "scenes of truly terrifying animal kingdom violence."

Early in the film, its hero, the precious lion cub, Simba, loses his father in a wildebeest stampede provoked by his evil uncle Scar, who wants to be king. Scar then convinces Simba it was his fault, driving the cub from his home at Pride Rock.

"Get ready to explain to the kids why a good father should die violently and why a child should have to witness the death," Richard Corliss writes in Time magazine. And Terrence Rafferty, in New Yorker magazine, says the film dredges up "deep-seated insecurities and terrors."

"The musical sequences provide ideal opportunities to take the kids to the bathroom, the candy counter or the shrink," he adds.

But with many children exposed daily to movie promos chock-full of shooting and explosions, to video games in which characters rip out each other's hearts and to real-life scenes of murder and mayhem on the evening news, could some critics be overestimating the effects of "The Lion King" on children?

It is, after all, a cartoon. And no one has pinned the baby boomers' psychological problems on the death of Bambi's mother.

"The saddest and most mournful movie kids could ever see was 'Bambi.' . . . If kids could survive that -- and they love 'Bambi' -- then 'The Lion King' shouldn't be a problem," said Gloria Hirsch, a child development specialist in Van Nuys, Calif.

"Kids see on the news -- and some kids live it -- things like drive-by shootings. That's 5,000 times worse than what could be in the movie. . . . The real world is much worse for kids than the movie world," Ms. Hirsch said.

Tom Bluett, a Green Bay, Wis., child psychologist and author, agrees.

"Kids are only really frightened and really scared by things they know are real and can happen to them. The 6 o'clock news is the most frightening thing for our children," Mr. Bluett said.

But some child development experts say young children don't differentiate between fantasy and reality and may need an adult to explain that the movie is only make-believe.

"I don't think children should be protected so they never see anything bad, but it has to be explained to them," said Belle Cassidy, a Sacramento family and child counselor. "Children should be warned that this is just a story, that you're not responsible if your father dies or your mother dies. Already children from dysfunctional families blame themselves for what is wrong in their families."

One children's film critic recommends that parents prescreen the film for children under 8 to judge for themselves whether their children can handle it.

The death of a parent "is just about the scariest thing that any young child can think about. . . . I think some 3-year-olds can handle it. I think some 3-year-olds would be traumatized," said Joanna Payne, a La Crescenta, Calif., resident who publishes a newsletter rating films and videos for parents.

But, as Boston pediatrician and author Perri Klass told the New York Times: "Do we really want to protect our children from being saddened or scared or even upset by movies -- or by books? Do we want to eliminate surprise, reversal, tragedy, conflict and leave children with stories in which they can be smugly confident that the good will always be rewarded and the bad always punished?"

Child development expert Ms. Hirsch says no.

"Literature and fantasy are very good for children. . . . The mind under 5 or 6 years old is much more comfortable with fantasy than with reality. The messages in fairy tales, nursery rhymes and Disney movies present subjects that are important for parents and teachers to discuss with children," she said.

And if the undercurrent of voices at a screening of the film last week was any indication, that's exactly what will happen.

Sacramento parents arrived at the screening unaware of critics' warnings and left unconcerned.

Patty Rodriguez said the death scene was handled well, moving so quickly there wasn't time for her daughter Maria, 4, to get upset. "She usually will get upset and cry, and she didn't," Ms. Rodriguez said.

Julie Busch, who viewed the movie with her three small children, said she didn't think it was scarier than any other Disney film.

After all, the Wicked Queen wanted Snow White's heart on a platter, Cruella de Ville planned to skin the Dalmatian puppies for coats, and the mob from Belle's village came pretty close to slaying the lovable Beast.

"In all the movies, there's good, bad, evil, sad. It all balances out," Ms. Busch said.

Her husband, Dave, added, "There was a little girl behind me who whimpered when [the king] died, but she bounced right back. She laughed a lot."

Just as kids have been reacting to Disney movies for decades.

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