The conversation probably started after our 75th screening of Toy Story 2.
Family Movie Night is a regular occurrence in the O’Connell house. My wife and I average a film a week with our two boys, ages 7 and 3. Sometimes we burn through as many as three movies. While it’s scientific fact that children can watch the same film every day for a year without tiring, the repetition of certain movies was reducing our brains to paste.
Seeing as how we’d screened virtually every animated feature on our movie shelves, we started discussing which live-action films the kids might be ready for. But choosing is easier said than done. Your perspective changes as a parent. All of a sudden, Mola Ram ripping some dude’s heart out of his chest isn’t awesome … it’s something to fast-forward past so as not to torment an impressionable three-year-old.
So I’m taking the discussion online, launching this weekly column to ask, “When Can I Watch That With My Kids?” I’ll revisit an older film each week, and walk you through what I’m wrestling with as a movie-loving father. Sometimes I’ll watch the film with fresh eyes. Other times, I’ll actually watch them with my sons and report back what they think.
And while I’ve got a shortlist of titles I want to get to at the onset, please send suggestions of movies you’d like me to cover in the column.
Now, let’s jump to light speed, and travel to a galaxy far, far away to figure out when you can watch Star Wars with your kids.
Of course you want to introduce your kids to Star Wars. For so many film fanatics my age (I’m 37), Star Wars was a gateway drug, a door to endless cinematic realms that we continue opening with each new film. You want them to experience a universe of Jedi Knights, Wookies, Ewoks and the Sith.
But here’s a legitimate question: Where do you start? Do you acknowledge Lucas’ inferior prequel trilogy, buying into the filmmaker’s belief that the six-part Star Wars saga in fact tells the rise and fall of Anakin Skywalker? Or do you begin where we all began -- with what has now become Episode IV: A New Hope -- and work your way through the series in the natural, yet blissfully out-of-order progression we followed?
Opting to start with the prequels isn’t wrong … but I’m not going to tell you it’s right, either. Parents with extremely young kids who are asking about Star Wars because they’ve picked up a toy at Target or watched an episode of Cartoon Network’s The Clone Wars might want to use The Phantom Menace as a launch pad. Kids won’t notice Jake Lloyd’s rigid performance as Anakin Jr., and the podrace sequence can be thrilling … if you are able to cut through the political mumbo jumbo Lucas piled atop his mythology.
For our purposes, however, we’re starting with A New Hope. It’s where we began. It’s probably where you should begin with your young Padawan.
A few things stood out while revisiting the original Star Wars. For starters, Darth’s not as dark as I remembered. Yes, his “beautiful black visage” (to borrow a line from the great Hooper X) intimidates as James Earl Jones’ steely baritone barks orders at his imperial crew. But Vader makes a darker mark in Empire, freezing Han and dismembering Luke. Those are Vader’s baddest, and best, moments.
And even though Lucas’ Star Wars stories take place in alien territories, this film, in particular, looks and feels extremely real. The director hadn’t fully immersed himself in digital technologies and green screen in 1977, giving Star Wars a credibility its subsequent sequels didn’t have (not even Empire, whose environments seemed more “extraterrestrial” than simply “foreign,” and certainly not the prequels).
No matter how imaginative your young ones are, though, they’ve yet to see anything as bizarre as Mos Eisley Cantina, with its array of menacing creatures. “This place can be a little rough,” Kenobi warns the naïve Skywalker, and he isn’t exaggerating. Plus, characters die, from Luke’s parents (albeit off screen) to Obi-Wan. If your children are used to happy endings, where princes kiss fair maidens and everyone’s around for the celebration prior to the credit roll, you have to be prepared to discuss loss with them while screening Star Wars.
Pace also is an issue we are going to run into frequently with this column. Through no fault of their own, kids today are used to faster-moving entertainment than we received in the 1970s, and Star Wars -- which probably moved at light speed compared to its counterparts -- takes awhile to get going.
Think of Star Wars and you’ll automatically recall third-act highlights like Luke and Leia’s perilous swing across a steely chasm, Han and Chewy blasting their way through Rebel forces, and Skywalker’s mortal laser shot delivered to the heart of the Death Star. But do you remember how much time is spent on Tatooine before Alec Guinness finally pulls back his hood and lends some acting cred (and exposition) to these proceedings? It’s endless … and completely necessary if you want your children to understand the back story of these classic characters. Still, you’re going to want to hit the “skip” button on the remote. Often. Be patient, for your kids’ sake.
There’s a reason Star Wars has stood the test of time: It’s cool as hell. At the 33-minute mark, Luke unleashes a lightsaber for the first time, and just hearing the hum of these futuristic swords will rekindle your movie-geek soul.
If nothing else, Lucas mastered the art of inventing amazing toys. Long before we salivated over the muscle cars in the Fast & Furious franchise, we were building models of the Millennium Falcon and using it to create original adventures with our action figures. This was light years before we even knew of Industrial Light & Magic. The Skywalker Ranch was nonexistent. There was a palpable, hands-on technique fueling our story creation, and it started with Star Wars. Rewatching the original film, I’m fairly confident that skill and passion can be passed down to the next generation.
You know what else can be passed down? Sarcasm. I didn’t realize until now how influential Harrison Ford’s Han Solo was in forming my sense of humor. Role models mean everything to kids, of course. The types of heroes I gravitated toward as a kid had a cavalier attitude and were quick with a wise-ass remark. Han Solo. Indiana Jones. Later, it was John McClane (who’s still king in my book).
My oldest son, the 7-year-old, is at the stage where he’s figuring out what’s funny and why. Sometimes it’s knock-knock jokes at the table, primarily because it makes his younger brother laugh. But other times, he’ll hear a sarcastic line, smile and just say, “That’s funny.” He’s going to love Han. One of cinema’s greatest anti-heroes, he steals all of Star Wars because virtually every line Ford gets is gold. Lucas gets a lot of crap for penning clunky dialogue. I dare you to say, “But I was going into Tosche Station to pick up some power converters,” without laughing. It can’t be done. At the same time, Lucas deserves an equal amount of credit for writing great lines for Han, which were aided by Ford’s delivery but still had enough bite to cut through Lucas’ cheese.
My wife is an elementary school teacher, and her time-tested method for instructing our boys is asking them questions about what they just read, watched, or experienced. I know she’d touch on a number of important buzzwords after a screening of Star Wars, from courage and destiny to fate and leadership.
I’d also spend time making sure my kids understood the concept of The Force. We could easily talk for hours about what we’d do if we could harness the power of The Force, and whether it should be used for good or evil. Without even knowing it, I’m sure my boys could dig deeper into the implications that come from being corrupted by absolute power than the prequel trilogies ever dreamed. I’d also like to know how far they’d have gone to rescue the princess had a video message been beamed onto their bedroom wall by a friendly droid. Children face difficult tasks on a daily basis, and understanding how others overcame them could help them rise above their own obstacles.
From a technical standpoint, this also seems like a great time to start educating your kids, if they are interested, about the use of locations and sets to help create stories on film. As we talked about earlier, Star Wars is an excellent example of an artist recreating a unique environment for the purpose of telling a fictional story, and your kids might want to better understand the process that goes into manifesting a world you can’t easily visit.
There’s one last point that jumped to mind, and it’s something we talk about often in our home. Communication is key in our family. We all stay in constant contact, and we often marvel at the different tools we possess to better communicate. That struck me while watching R2D2 “Talk,” though he never says a word. I guarantee that no matter how old your child is, they are wrestling with communication issues at home or at school. Either they’re not sure what to say, or they don’t feel like anyone is listening. If it’s an issue, touch on it with Star Wars and R2D2. For an added bonus, talk to them about the genius of Oscar-winning sound designer Ben Burtt, then pop in WALL-E to keep the discussion going.
Avoiding Star Wars is damn near impossible, thanks to Lucas’s mastery of marketing. Thirty-five years after the release of the original, Star Wars toys still clog the aisles of every toy store. Kids practically leave the womb clutching a Chewbacca action figure and humming John Williams’ Oscar-winning score.
But to Lucas’ credit, he keeps the violence in Star Wars subdued. There is peril – most notably in the trash compactor scene – but the heroism on display should triumph over any fear at the sight of Darth Vader choking an insubordinate stooge or strategically removing Ben Kenobi’s body from his brown robe.
Star Wars is appropriate for the average 6-year-old, who will spend the next few weeks turning everything into a lightsaber and, if you are lucky, impersonating the ultra-cool Han Solo. Let me know how it goes, and may the Force be with you.