Wednesday, June 11, 2003

`Nemo' teaches that it's OK for kids to be a little scared

June 11, 2003

The mother of a 4-year-old who wanted to see "Finding Nemo" wrote to ask me one of the questions I hear most often: "Why do Disney movies always kill off a parent?"

The reason is a pretty simple one -- if the parent is there, the child cannot have an adventure.

It isn't just Disney. This is true of just about every story with a child as the lead character. We never see parents in "The Wizard of Oz." Dorothy lives with Auntie Em and Uncle Henry and leaves them behind in Kansas when she is carried off by that twister. After all, just imagine what it would be like to have a mother standing by her elbow as Dorothy looks down the Yellow Brick Road: "You can't go to the Emerald City today! You have homework! You don't have a sweater! And stay away from that scarecrow and tin man! I don't want you talking to strangers!"

In "Tom Sawyer," the character based on Twain's own mother is Tom's "Aunt Polly," and Huck has no mother and stays away from a drunken, abusive father. In "Alice in Wonderland" we just see Alice's older sister, who is soon left behind as Alice follows the white rabbit into Wonderland. Roald Dahl cheerfully dispatches parents, sometimes gruesomely. In "James and the Giant Peach," they are killed by rhinos. We all know that You-Know-Who killed Harry Potter's parents. And in "Home Alone," Kevin's parents are alive, but far away.

Benefits of fantasy

Most kids instinctively understand this and enjoy identifying with these brave and resourceful children. The whole benefit of a story is fantasy. Though they would not want to be on their own, kids like to identify with a child who is and who handles it well. They are far less fussed by it than their parents, who sense the devastating impact it would have on the children if something happened to Mom and Dad. Just as important, the issue plays into adult fears as they grapple with losing their own parents.

In terms of what's scary in "Finding Nemo," the beginning of the story tells us Nemo's mother and his 399 sibling-eggs were eaten by a barracuda (off-screen). Some kids will be upset by that, and some will be upset by the movie's subsequent theme of Nemo being separated from his dad.

But it is important to note what are not scary in this movie: the bad guy and the matter of Nemo's fin. Most animated Disney movies, like the fairy tales that inspired them, rely on evil villains acting out of greed, jealousy or anger. Think of the Queen in "Snow White" (No. 10 on the American Film Institute's just-released list of the movies' top villains) and Cruella De Vil, who wanted to turn the 101 Dalmatian puppies into a fur coat (No. 39 on the AFI list of villains). In "Finding Nemo," there are no scarily wicked bad guys. Nemo is captured by a dentist who just wants some fish for his office aquarium. Even the sharks are trying to be vegetarian.

A lesson about the disabled

The most important thing treated as not scary in "Finding Nemo," though, is something about Nemo himself. The little fish is what we humans would call disabled; he has an underdeveloped fin. Movies have traditionally ignored disabilities or portrayed them as ennobling. Nemo's fin is handled frankly but matter-of-factly. It is part of what makes Nemo's father overprotective and part of what makes Nemo a little more eager to prove his independence. With one important exception, he never uses his fin as an excuse for not being able to do something. It does not define Nemo or his relationships, but it is just as much a part of him as his adventuresome spirit.

As for dealing with the potentially scary elements in "Finding Nemo," parents of younger kids should always to talk to their children before going to a movie or watching a video for the first time to make sure they understand the basics of the story and the characters. And they should make sure they give children an emotional vocabulary so they can talk about how they feel. Ask them what they will do if they get "this much scared" -- thumb and finger-measured -- maybe hold Mom's hand or sit on Dad's lap. But if they get "that much scared" -- two hands apart -- then they can go out into the lobby or turn off the television.

We parents know just how Nemo's dad feels. But like him, we have to learn that while you cannot always protect your children from scary things, you can be there to comfort them and to teach them what they need to stay strong and brave enough to comfort their own little fish someday.