Disney offers kids a little bit of trauma and a big, cuddly toy

July 04, 1994|By MIKE LITTWIN

If you have little kids, right now you may be facing "The Lion King" problem.

Your 4-year-old wants to go.

zTC It's the summer sensation, the Disney hit, the movie most likely to sell a million stuffed lions. It's already officially grossed more money than any movie that did not include a dinosaur.

You'd be glad to take him -- like, you want to watch "Beauty and the Beast" again? -- except you know your particular 4-year-old cried for a week when the goldfish died. And in the movie, the father/king gets trampled by a herd of wildebeest (don't worry, no blood) and Simba, the little cub who would be king, is told by evil uncle Scar that it's all his fault (don't worry, it's not) that old dad is dead.

Should you take your 4-year-old?

I know about sensitive kids. I went through the "Bambi" problem with mine. And it got worse from there.

One summer, when my daughter was about 9, we were doing a family read-aloud of "Little Women." This is, of course, the ultimate young-person book. There's a problem, however. Beth dies.

For many children, this is the first time somebody real dies. It's not like the evil witch in "The Wizard of Oz," who got exactly what she deserved. And, if you're like me, you don't care what the psychologists say about fairy tales teaching kids important lessons about suffering, and you fudged the heck out of the ending of "The Little Match Girl." In my home version, she grows up to be Madame Curie.

So, we're reading "Little Women," and Beth grows sicker by the page. My daughter is clearly not getting it.

I say, "Angie, you know Beth is really sick."

"Don't worry, Dad. She'll be all right."

A few pages later: "You know, Ang, Beth is really, really sick. It doesn't look good for her."

"She'll be OK, Dad."

A few pages later still, Beth on her deathbed, I said in my sensitive way: "Angie, I think Beth's history."

"They'd never let Beth die. She's my favorite character."

Beth dies anyway. And Angie wailed for hours about how unfair life is and how Louisa May Alcott, the author, was the meanest person who ever lived. Years later, she would learn that Bob Dole was the meanest person who ever lived.

I know how kids take these things. And so, as a public service, I went to investigate "The Lion King," understanding that Disney has had a long history of movie violence, usually with evil stepmothers trying to kill off the heroine, who is saved by either the prince or friendly mice.

I am sitting in the theater for the late matinee edition. It's the typical crowd.

In the row behind me was one woman with perhaps six children under the age of 6. This is the kind of situation in which you rarely find fathers, who tend to take sons to action movies, so as to reinforce your major gender stereotypes.

In fact, I know men who would rather fake an appendicitis attack -- and actually go through the operation -- than take six pre-schoolers to a Disney movie.

Just before the movie began, a delightful child, perhaps 4 years old, said, "Mommy, which one of the Simpsons is O. J.?"

As I watched, it turned out to be an important question. Children have a tenuous hold on what's real and what isn't.

The movie is both. It's about animals. I think children know the difference between animals and people. The scene in which the father lion dies, though, is fairly terrifying. The wildebeest, who have been stampeded by evil uncle Scar, are about to crush Simba when the father saves him, only to be crushed himself. Simba nudges his father, trying to awaken him. Scar then tells Simba it's his fault.

At this point, your 4-year-old (and, maybe, 8-year-old) is going to be upset. Little Maggie just turned 4 that day. She was wearing a Cinderella crown and her party dress and, of course, her party shoes, which she'll probably insist on wearing to bed that night. At that point, Maggie, who has crawled into her mother's lap, said, "Are they going to make Scar be a good boy?"

But this is Disney. Not only does good triumph over evil, they break the drama with humor, and the vaudeville pair that Disney throws at you this time are among the studio's best. Minutes after the death, parents are laughing. Simba is smiling. Maggie is fine.

The truth is, even little kids need some dramatic tension to make a movie work. Either that, or during the scary parts, there's always a trip to the concessionaire for another box of Milk Duds.

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