That was my 8-year-old son’s first question when I pulled John G. Avildsen’s 1984 classic off the shelf, which cracks me up. For whatever reason, we watched Will Smith’s 2010 remake of The Karate Kid – with son Jaden Smith in the lead role – with our boys first. My sons like Justin Bieber’s music, they knew the theme song (with a Jaden Smith cameo), and when Sony sent me a copy on DVD, it just made sense to pop it in.
But I couldn’t let that decent update stand as the definitive story of the fish-out-of-water teenager whose quest to learn karate inspires countless valuable life lessons. I wanted my oldest son to get to know Ralph Macchio’s Daniel, Pat Morita’s graceful and patient Miyagi, William Zabka’s sinister Johnny … I wanted him to meet the real Karate Kid.
Maybe you do, as well.
So, let’s sand the floor, paint the fence, choose No. 2 birthday present, deliver an indefensible crane-technique kick and figure out when you can watch The Karate Kid with your kids.
Green Lights: “Show me wax on, wax off.”
For all intents and purposes, The Karate Kid is a junior-varsity version of Rocky. Not so coincidentally, Avildsen earned a Best Director Oscar seven years prior to directing Karate Kid for his work on Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky, and he brings the same uplifting underdog motif to this familiar story of a picked-on kid learning to fight back against seemingly impossible odds.
Because the film’s set in high school, the easy button to push centers on bullying. It’s an important topic, and one that we’ll get at in the Red Flags section. Here, I want to celebrate a few things that often are overlooked when it comes to the original Karate Kid, but that I quickly recognized during a recent revisit.
For starters, the film rests on a pair of truly outstanding performances by both Macchio and Morita, and while the latter was recognized with an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor in a Supporting Role, Macchio probably deserved as much credit for injecting Kid with a fiery heat and a damaged heart.
“You’re the best friend I ever had,” Daniel tells Miyagi at the culmination of their rigorous training, and damn if we don’t believe him.
This also connected with my 8-year-old son while we were watching The Karate Kid – Daniel works hard, but is rewarded for his efforts. P.J. is a rising third grader. He’s a dedicated student, and he’s starting to understand the value of “sweat,” or working hard in the classroom to get results. The more Daniel received laborious chores from Miyagi, the more frustrated P.J. was getting.
“Now this is unfair,” he told me. “He has to do all of Miyagi’s chores.”
Of course, I waited patiently for the big pay off, the fantastic scene where Miyagi shows Daniel how much he’s actually learned indirectly by following the teacher’s unconventional methods, no questions asked. It’s a magical scene, the final piece of a puzzle being snapped into place, and it lit P.J.’s face up like a Christmas tree. Avildsen’s Karate Kid trumps the 2010 remake in conveying this message of perseverance – “sand the floor” and “wax on, wax off” are just more effective than “pick up the jacket” – and it’s a vital component to the Karate Kid mythology, which is built on trust.
We root for Karate Kid for so many reasons. Avildsen learned on Rocky how to champion a fighter without hammering down shamelessly on our emotional buttons. He grounds Daniel’s difficult journey in a couple of touching personal relationships, and Macchio creates easy bonds with Elisabeth Shue (a friendly face in a hostile environment), Randee Heller (a supportive mother wanting to help), and, of course, Morita.
Ah, Morita. The ultimate guardian. The one scene I feared before showing P.J. Karate Kid turned out to be a triumph. It’s the toughest fight, the one after Daniel soaks Johnny (Zabka) at the Halloween dance. Daniel’s cornered, and its five-on-one. And before Miyagi intervenes, Daniel takes a beating. But Miyagi’s daring rescue (and the kick he delivers to one of the Cobra Kai’s nuts), got the first – and actually biggest – reaction from P.J.
“How many guys did he knock out?” my son asked with astonishment. It was pretty amazing. Earlier this year, this kid witnessed costumed heroes joining forces to save a major city. But he was far more impressed by a 52-year-old custodian finding the courage to stand up to bullies and defend his friend. Miyagi’s such a great hero, and an excellent role model for our kids.
Red Flags: “Strike first, strike hard, no mercy, sir!”
Obviously, the talking points pulled from Karate Kid focus on bullying. P.J. and I talked about the violence he’d see on screen before the movie, then I braced myself for the worst.
Oddly, the fighting isn’t as bad as I remembered in Karate Kid. In fact, I’d argue that Jaden Smith takes a tougher licking in the remake than Macchio does in the first film. It’s important to note when watching Kid with your kids that Daniel’s usually acting in self-defense or sticking up for Shue’s Ali when he invites Johnny’s wrath. Only once, at the dance, does Daniel push back. I asked P.J. what he would have done in that scenario, and he quickly noted he would have left well enough alone. (That also made me laugh, then, when Johnny basically says, “You couldn’t leave well enough alone, could ya?”)
A couple of other Red Flags jumped out during our screening. Screenwriter Robert Mark Kamen tones down the language in this PG-rated drama, so the curse words range from a few “sucks” and “ass” to Martin Kove calling Miyagi a “pushy little bastard.” The film drops a well-earned “bullshit” when Daniel gets fed up with his physical training, but if you know it’s coming, and if you want to skip past it, it’s easy enough.
This also probably goes without saying, but P.J. couldn’t be less interested in Daniel’s romantic relationship with Ali. As a result, the two or three longer scenes outside of the school hallways that worked to develop their relationship got him feeling antsy. The Country Club date seemed really unnecessary. Did we need another example of Johnny humiliating Daniel … as if he needed more motivation to want to defeat his rival in the tournament?
P.J. also asked me what Johnny was doing in the bathroom stall, right before Daniel soaks him. Johnny’s sparking up a joint. I passed it off as a cigarette, but that was an odd side item to drop in. Isn’t weed supposed to mellow people out? It ain’t working on Johnny.
Based on a recent reviewing, I’d wager The Karate Kid’s going to work best on a kid who’s age 10 and up. Not that there is anything obscenely objectionable in the film. The violence is scary but not terrifying (if that makes sense). The life lessons are empowering, and will lead to outstanding conversations with your kids about perseverance, standing up to bullies, learning a new skill and practicing very hard to master it.
But a few elements sailed over my 8-year-old’s head, who preferred to see Daniel learning karate than romancing the adorable Elisabeth Shue. A slightly older kid might better appreciate the finer points of John G. Avildsen’s JV Rocky (though any age is bound to stand up and cheer when Daniel drops Johnny with a perfectly-timed crane kick).
As always, if you give The Karate Kid a try, please let me know how it goes! I’m at @Sean_OConnell on Twitter. Follow along!
If you’d like to read previous entries in the "When Can I Watch That With My Kids?" series, click right here. Some of the films covered: Star Wars, Back to the Future, The Goonies, Hugo, The Princess Bride, The Monster Squad and Elf, to name just a few.