When Can I Watch 'Jaws' with My Kids?

When Can I Watch 'Jaws' with My Kids?

Aug 14, 2012

Welcome to Jaws Week! When it was announced that Steven Spielberg's Jaws was arriving on Blu-ray, we thought it'd be perfect to dedicate an entire week to the movie that created the summer blockbuster. Every day this week we'll be posting an assortment of really fun features tied to the film, its production, its legacy, its fans, its merchandise and so much more.

You’ve decided its time to screen Jaws for your kids. Maybe your family’s summer beach vacation was a nightmare, and you’re hoping to scare the children off the ocean for good. Perhaps you’re simply sick and tired of your kids sleeping soundly through the night. 

Whatever the reason, Jaws is finally available on Blu-ray, giving parents a new excuse to share Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece with the next generation.  

When Movies.com mentioned a Jaws Week dedicated to Jaws content, a When Can I Watch column about the doll-eyed blockbuster was a no-brainer. And my immediate reaction was, “Well, you can’t watch Jaws with your kids!” Right? 

Not exactly. In fact, your kids likely are more familiar with Jaws than you realize. The ominous score, the imagery chosen for the poster (and, later, DVD cover art), the one-liners… they’ve all become part of our pop-culture conversation. 

But is it the right time to share Jaws with your young ones? Let’s slice the shark’s belly open, shovel bloody chum into the water, recount the petrifying story of the USS Indianapolis and figure out when you can watch Jaws with your kids. 

Red Flags: “You yell, ‘Shark,’ we’ve got a panic on our hands on the Fourth of July.”

Obviously, Jaws is brilliant: A bona fide masterpiece that could be argued as Spielberg’s strongest directorial effort. There’s hardly a single misstep over the course of the film’s two-hour run – remarkable given the fact that its production, mostly set at sea under the guidance of a wet-behind-his-ears director, was a well-documented disaster. The mechanical shark might not have worked for the duration of Spielberg’s shoot, but everything else – from the performances and the pacing to John Williams’ masterful score – hummed like a finely tuned clock. 

Jaws is an amazing film. Amazing. But I wouldn’t show it to my kids. Not yet.  

As you all know, the frequent shortcomings of Spielberg’s shark, lovingly nicknamed “Bruce,” meant the young director had to improvise by keeping his underwater threat offscreen for the bulk of Jaws. As a result, the movie deals in psychological terror rather than blatant, bloody scares. The inadvertent absence of a threat ramps up the tension coursing through Jaws. It plays on your nerves. It messes with your mind. And it actually can make you scared of the water. 

If you are my age (I’m 38) and you grew up with Jaws, you think about sharks when you go in the ocean. You can’t help it. Jaws scarred you. My kids currently enjoy the ocean. But a recent bout with an army of jellyfish already has made them a little wary of the sprawling surf. Jaws would scare them off the ocean… perhaps not permanently, but for a good, long time. Our 8-year-old, P.J., is especially susceptible to psychological disturbances. Jaws would linger with him (as it did with me). It’s too realistic, too possible. That’s always been the simultaneous blessing/curse of Spielberg’s masterful work. 

That’s not to say Jaws isn’t a legitimate horror movie, as well. Chrissie’s brutal death makes it clear in the opening frames that we’re dealing with a murderous antagonist. “It hurts! It hurts!” she screams. “God, please help!” That’s her final scream before she’s pulled beneath the surface… and it goes eerily silent. 

Revisiting Jaws for the first time in years, though, reminded me that it’s not as gory as I remembered (at least, not until Quint bites it in the closing scenes). Spielberg communicated shark bites by spilling blood in the water. He quick-cuts to a chomped leg when Brody’s son, Michael, gets knocked into the pond. There’s… well, let’s just say the “surprise” waiting for Hooper as he explores the remains of Ben Gardner’s boat. 

But it’s the looming threat of that fin breaking the surfacing when we least expect that sends chills down our spine. It’s why we love Jaws, and want to share it with our kids, once they are ready.

Green Lights: “What we are dealing with here is a perfect engine. An eating machine.”

A “perfect engine.” Those words could describe Spielberg’s film, as well. And yet Jaws was formed in as “imperfect” a laboratory as any film could have asked. If your kids are interested in moviemaking, the behind-the-scenes story of Jaws can be as fascinating (and as frustrating) as Chief Brody’s one-sided efforts to shut down Amity’s beaches on July 4th weekend.  

I never connected with Brody, the terrified father, quite the way I did while rewatching Jaws from start to finish for this column. Roy Scheider deserves credit for playing Brody as a city-bred fish out of water, fighting small-town bureaucracy at every turn. But it was a brilliant move on the part of author Peter Benchley to also make Brody a protective dad in addition to a spooked police chief. It lends Jaws an emotional component that ramps up the film’s inherent tensions.

Chief Brody’s conflict of conscience also creates a number of teachable moments for parents watching Jaws with kids, though none are quite as shocking as when Mrs. Kintner (Lee Fierro) slaps the law-enforcement officer for bowing to political pressure and keeping the beach open when he knew there was a credible threat. Brody knew his actions were wrong. He thought he dodged a proverbial bullet with the capture of a (smaller) shark. And the Kintner slaps reminds him he isn’t out of the woods yet.  

Another theme of Jaws resonated on this repeat viewing. Earlier, I was too young to notice how far into Moby Dick territories the film drifts. Jaws passes the point of no return when Quint (Robert Shaw) shatters the radio connecting the men to the mainland. As we’ve seen in several enthralling dramas, one of our heroes grows obsessed with obtaining a prize – in this case, catching this “white whale” of a shark – and that’s always an interesting conversation to have with your kids. 

Finally, the brightest Green Light glowing out of Jaws is that, once it gets past its desire to scare you out of your skin, Spielberg buckles down and turns the second half of the film into an adventure yarn, with John Williams’ iconic score giving us a hint of the playful tracks he’d come up with on the Indiana Jones movies. Scheider, Shaw and the fantastic Richard Dreyfuss have tremendous chemistry. Screenwriter Carl Gottlieb figures out how to consistently ratchet up the tension as the Orca slips deeper into the sea. And the trademark yellow barrels become a terrific visual device that – when paired with Williams’ score – meant Spielberg didn’t have to show audiences the shark at every turn. 

All of which help make Jaws that much more terrifying.

Appropriate Age

It goes without saying in virtually every When Can I Watch column that the decision is up to the parent, and each kid is going to react to on-screen scares differently. But with Jaws, the terror is rooted in realistic, psychological threats, and so it operates on a different playing field. I’d argue that Jaws is far scarier than a standard creature feature, because zombies, werewolves and vampires don’t exist. Sharks do. They can be found in the ocean, which you might visit. Frequently. 

Jaws, the film, probably is appropriate for kids age 12 and up. It’s not overly gruesome, but it’s effectively chilling because it all seems possible. I know my boys will get a great scare out of it, but I’m going to wait until they’re better equipped at separating reality from fiction… particularly when that “fiction” looks like it can be shockingly real.

I hope you are enjoying Jaws Week on Movies.com! And as always, if you try Jaws with your kids, let me know how it goes.

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.

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