When kids see animals attack

Violent scenes in `March of the Penguins' concern some parents

August 27, 2005|By Joe Burris | Joe Burris,SUN STAFF

Three-year-old Matthew Tagle of Millersville is a budding authority on animals. Already, he can distinguish between a carnivore and an herbivore, and between those that are viviparous (give birth to live young) and oviparous (lay eggs). That's why he was particularly excited when his day care provider, Michelle Hines, told him she would take him to see the March of the Penguins.

But then, about midway through the movie, a viviparous animal (a seal) feasts upon an oviparous one (a penguin).

"I'm a little scared," a sad-eyed Matthew said afterward. "I really like penguins, and the seal ate the penguin."

Such is the dilemma posed by the surprise hit film of the summer, a touching French documentary that follows the extraordinary lengths emperor penguins go through to hatch, feed and raise their babies but -- because this is the real world -- also contains some frightful scenes of death.

It is rated G, but some parents are hesitating before taking their children to see it.

"I wouldn't have brought my daughter without discussing it with her beforehand," said Susan Pluta of Sykesville, who saw the film with her 7-year-old daughter, Caitie, at The Mall in Columbia recently.

"My parents saw the movie and told me about it. I didn't want her to think it was going to be a movie about penguins just frolicking around," Pluta said. "We talked about how they would show hardships the penguins went through, how some of them were going to die."

Caitie said she enjoyed the film, and though she gripped her mother's hand tightly during the penguin-eating scene, she said it didn't frighten her.

"It was OK," she said, "because I see that on Animal Planet."

Many moviegoers argue that the content of March of the Penguins is no more violent than shows kids see on Animal Planet or the National Geographic Channel.

But the difference is those shows don't give human characteristics to the animals. March of the Penguins is set up as a story about love; its characters are cute and cuddly, and their rituals -- acts that are most likely a product of animal instinct -- are portrayed as being borne of tenderness and iron will.

It's hard not to love these penguins. For a kid, the experience is much more like watching a Disney film or Cartoon Network program rather than an Animal Planet documentary, which is why when the violent scenes appear, they can be so shocking.

Most of the disturbing images, though, move quickly -- no blood, no guts. They scarcely take away from an entertaining film that offers a rare look at how the animals maintain family bonds and provide for their offspring. And that, in the end, is what most children take away from the film, some say.

"I really liked the film. I thought it had an inspirational tone to it as far as these creatures are subject to natural hostilities and manage to survive," said Dr. Adair Parr of the division of child and adolescent psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Children's Center. She took her children, Tyler, 8, and Celia, 7, to see the movie last month.

"Certainly, there are some distressing parts and visually distressing moments. I was sort of cringing at some of those moments, as a parent," she said. "But afterward, [the children] were more interested in talking about how the penguin father protected the egg."

Still, Parr said she didn't know March of the Penguins was rated G until weeks after she had seen the film.

"I believe I would have rated it PG because of the distressing images of penguins dying," she said.

The G rating comes from the independent Classification and Ratings Administration, a group of parents that watches films for the Motion Picture Association of America to determine their suitability for children. Kori Bernards, spokeswoman for the MPAA, said the ratings group does not talk about why ratings are given and instead pointed to the general ratings criteria:

A General Audience (G-rated) film is for all ages. Such films contain no content that most parents would consider offensive to children to see or hear (no nudity, drug use or sex scenes), but it does allow for minimal violence.

A Parental Guidance Suggested (PG-rated) film contains material that parents might consider unsuitable for children. Such films contain no drug use or sex scenes but can contain brief nudity, and moderate violence or horror.

By those criteria, March of the Penguins seems as if it could fit either rating.

Many of the youngsters who watched the film at a recent showing at Arundel Mills mall seemed to misunderstand its first tragedy, when an egg cracked after excess exposure to sub-zero temperatures, killing the developing penguin inside.

"It's hatching! It's hatching!" bellowed several children, leaving adults to explain what really happened.

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