by Mark Hadley
In my youth I was a devil-may-care filmgoer, happy to risk a ticket on anything. I was an explorer and just as keen to discover a Bolivian Film Festival as a new blockbuster. Now I’m the father of three young boys. I'm still an explorer, but more the sort that took his family West. Like most mums and dads, I have to choose my path to the cinema more carefully – for their sake. There’s usually only one shot to get it right per holiday, and I’m keen to avoid casualties. I’ve come to the conclusion there are three things every parent will want to keep in mind this break: the movie, the mayhem and the message…
Star Wars VII : The Force Awakens
It’s 30 years after the events of The Return of the Jedi in that ‘Galaxy far, far away…’ and though Emperor Palpatine and the villainous Darth Vader are dead, the Sith are far from becoming history. Enter Andy Serkis as Supreme Leader Snoke who’s seeking to hold together the remnants of the empire with the Stormtrooper legions known as The First Order, led by Kylo Ren.
Kylo has embraced the dark side of the force, but is opposed by a new band of heroes including a reformed Stormtrooper called Finn, a desert scavenger called Rey and a hotshot Resistance pilot called Poe. Together they reunite with old allies of the force – Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Chewbacca and Princess Leia – to reintroduce the universe to the benevolent power at the centre of all things.
As a movie The Force Awakens has strong credentials. The franchise is finally out from under the sometimes cloying influence of George Lucas and safe in the hands of tested sci-fi director J.J. Abrams. All hopes are pinned on him producing a reboot of the 38-year-old franchise that will prove as successful as his rethink of Star Trek.
Wise parents will be ready with an after-conversation about the force. Lucas’ original idea aligned the Jedi power with the Hindu life force that unites all things. However, since taking over the franchise, Disney has used cartoon properties like Star Wars Rebels to translate the power to something more like self-confidence. “You’ve got the potential to be amazing!” – so long as you couple this talent with really hard work. It’s worth getting ready to remind kids the key to their real strength comes from. Not the force but, “With your help I can advance against a troop; with my God I can scale a wall.” 1
The Good Dinosaur
“What if the asteroid that forever changed life on Earth missed the planet completely and giant dinosaurs never became extinct?” That’s the premise for Pixar’s next big animation, The Good Dinosaur. Its story takes place in an alternate timeline where those terrifying lizards of old have evolved into a thinking society of sauropods. When a young Apatosaurus called Arlo gets lost in the woods, he finds himself as scared as any young child separated from his parents. But while trying to find his way across the Clawed-Tooth Mountains, Arlo befriends a human cave boy whom he christens Spot. Humans, having never risen to become the dominant species, occupy something of a wild creature status. Yet a single act of kindness establishes a whole new relationship between these two species. Their journey to Arlo’s home will bring them in contact with dinosaurs who are anything but good - and the greatest enemy of all, Nature. However together they’ll forge not only a path across the wilderness but a friendship that will change them forever.
As a movie, The Good Dinosaur has faced down extinction several times. Originally planned for 2013, it’s undergone a change of director as well as a complete re-write. But the basic premise remains. Story creator Bob Peterson says, “It’s time to do a movie where you get to know the dinosaur. What it’s really like to be a dinosaur and to be with a dinosaur.” These evolved creatures aren’t walking around on two feet and wearing clothes, but their features have been progressed and softened to allow expression and speech in a way that is a million years away from Jurassic Park – which, in part, suggests the mayhem the film will produce. Prepare yourself for a very predictable line of action figures, games, plush toys and happy meals to be released in conjunction with the film.
What about the message? Generally speaking, I'm cautious of any film with a prehistoric storyline because it inevitably involves a plot that uses Godless evolution as its foundation. However, the dinosaur thing is only scenery for a story Pixar has been telling since Woody and Buzz Lightyear bounced on to our screens. An unlikely friendship is the key plot device and though the production may lack any acknowledgement of the Creator, Christian mums and dads will have no trouble pointing out His definition of real commitment. “Greater love has no one than this,” says Jesus, “to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Arlo and Spot both have a chance to demonstrate that message, though neither will rise to the level of sacrifice Jesus made for kids and parents alike.
Snoopy and Charlie Brown: The Peanuts Movie
Charles M. Schultz’s beloved cartoon strip has finally made it to cinemas. Snoopy and Charlie Brown has already done brisk business in the United States and it certainly looks like 20th Century Fox has a hit on its hands.
Brown has fallen head over heels for the Little Red-Haired Girl who has moved into the neighbourhood. He’s desperate to gain her attention and manufactures a string of opportunities to impress her, including a talent show performance, a dance recital, even a War and Peace book report. But what Charlie Brown is best known for is his unbroken string of bad luck. Each time, it turns his best plans upside down – “Good grief!” – and wrecks his relationship with his myriad of pals. The good news for Charlie Brown, though, is that's not the end of the story.
As a movie, Snoopy and Charlie Brown is great fun, though on the mayhem side it might tempt some kids to be more inconsiderate with their pranks than they should be. However the message is sound. Schultz was raised in a Christian household and spent many years involved with the church. The net effect is that Peanuts presented many pictures of life consistent with Christian theology. Consequently, Snoopy and Charlie Brown is built around a philosophy central to the Gospel. In the end the Little Red-Haired Girl chooses Charlie Brown, not because of Snoopy’s dancing lessons or his debatable achievements but because of his servant heart. She praises him for being an honest, caring and compassionate person, and so fulfills Christ’s revelation that it’s not the biggest, brashest or bravest who will win in the end: “But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.” 2
Goosebumps books have been crowding kids’ shelves since the early 1990s with 62 titles in the series, the vampire’s share being written by American author R. L. Stine. This January, it will finally make its way to the cinemas in the form of a Jack Black comedy aimed at late primary and early high school kids.
Goosebumps falls into the children’s horror genre, though the content is tamed to the level of thrilling rather than nightmare inspiring. Teenager Zach Cooper (Dylan Minnette) and his mother Gale (Amy Ryan) move from New York to the fictional town of Madison, where they discover their neighbour is the legendary R. L. Stine (Jack Black). Zach breaks into Stine’s house, thinking he is rescuing the man’s daughter. What he discovers is a library full of Goosebumps manuscripts where the fiends are forcing themselves out of the pages. As werewolves, yetis and killer gnomes rampage across the town, Zach and Stine realize they must write a new book to trap the malcontented monsters if they’re ever to live normal lives again.
Goosebumps is holiday fun on the level of Gremlins, Frighteners and Frankenweenie. Prepare yourself and your kids for lots of jumps but little in the way of blood. Stine attributes the success of his stories to his determination to avoid death, drugs, depravity and violence. But also be ready for a conversation that puts the supernatural in the correct perspective. In his own mock horror, The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis wrote that humans generally make one of two mistakes when dealing with the supernatural – concentrating on it too much, and ignoring it altogether. The most important thing to convey to your children is that though there is a spiritual world that operates alongside our own, it too is controlled by God. Whatever devilish forces might exist, they were conquered at the cross and Christ now rules over them. Any Christian facing that sort of fear, faces a defeated foe.