Sunday, July 31, 2011

Our Visit to One Hundred Acre Wood

Am I disappointed?

Tonight, Kevin and I took Sophia to see her first movie. I had built it up in my mind. Perhaps because my own first film had left such a deep impression, and not an entirely positive one. I was four when my mother took me to see a double feature: Cinderella and Escape from Witch Mountain. Cinderella had also been my mother’s first film. I only vaguely recall Cinderella—the songs stand out in my mind, and Cinderella’s brilliant transformation orchestrated by her benevolent fairy godmother, but ultimately it was too benign, too milquetoast to have taken up serious nerve cell real estate. I do remember Escape from Witch Mountain. Vividly. Animated, Cinderella was clearly not real. But EFWM, with live action, was terrifyingly possible. Consider the plot: two seemly normal, alien witch children are stranded on our planet and desperately trying to make their way home. At four, when one tends to still straddle the line between fantasy and reality, I was a believer. I managed to keep it together until the male protagonist played a harmonica and magically made clothing get up and dance. That’s when I started screaming. I believe I had to be carried out of there.

I had it in my head that Sophie’s first movie should also be Cinderella, but with Disney keeping their classic films on lockdown in a mythical vault so they can re-release them at great profit, it didn’t look like that was going to happen. But then I picked up a $1 copy on VHS at the library, and we decided to go retro and purchase an almost-obsolete VCR. I regretted that her first movie would be on television—I pictured a much grander experience—an old movie house with red velvet seats and curtains that parted for the film, like Upstate Films in Rhinebeck, my second home when I was in college. But, it was a small concession to be able to continue the Cinderella tradition.

Sophie sat between Kevin and me on the futon. She was atwitter with excitement. I had a hard time holding back the tears as Cinderella, sweetly wakened by her rodent friends, sang in her attic room, “A dream is a wish you heart makes, when you’re fast asleep….” Sophie, who had only experienced ambient television up to this point, was rapt. She popped her thumb in her mouth, removing it only occasionally to laugh at the antics of the cat and mice. In fact, she seemed more taken with their slapstick comedy then the more complicated fairy tale plot line. But she must have understood the bare bones of it because, immediately after, she wanted to re-enact the story, from beginning to end. And for the next several weeks she would play Cinderella to my wicked stepmother, joyfully sponging the kitchen floor and dusting the living room furniture. (An unanticipated—but welcome—side effect.)

I wasn’t against introducing Sophia to a movie-theater movie, but I had a hard time finding one that would fit my criteria: slow, animated, wholesome and not scary. I also hoped to find a theater that lacked an assaultive sound system and wouldn’t preface the film with twenty minutes of commercials. I don’t think they exist anymore. Kevin says that my annoyance is evidence that I’m getting old.

Then, one day, as Kevin and I headed back from the farmers market in the center of town, he pointed out an advertisement on the side of the bus. Winne the Pooh.

Maybe,” I said.

We had both grown up with Pooh. The Pooh of my youth, forever on a crusade for honey with a rumbly in his tummy, certainly met my criteria. Then, one night, Kevin emailed me an article from the Times. The new Pooh film was to be a throwback to the animation of an earlier time, appealing to the nostalgia of geriatric parents like me. Apparently, they had tried to give Christopher Robin and the gang a modern makeover a couple years back, but nobody wanted to see Eeyore breakdance. This, it seemed, in a world where the Lion King is about to be re-released in 3D, might be as close as I’m going to come to what I envisioned for her first movie.

“We are so there.” I wrote back to Kevin.

So, in the grip of an unrelenting heat wave, we went to the local multiplex for a late matinee. I didn’t know what to expect, whether there would be throngs of parents and their preschoolers taking refuge from the oppressive humidity or an empty theater, abandoned in favor of the beach and other summertime destinations, so we arrived 17 minutes early. As it turned out, the latter was true. We were one of three families that occupied the stadium during the pre-dinner hour.

I will never arrive at a movie theater 17 minutes early ever again. The first few minutes of advertising were promising. First, a spot from the Foundation for a Better Life promoting encouragement. Okay. I’m fine with that. Then, an advertisement for touring a battleship on the Delaware. Also relatively inoffensive. Next came a promo for a one-time showing of a Shakespearean play at the Globe theater. Now I was getting the feeling that I had been targeted. Somebody had done their homework to study the demographic coming to see this movie. But from there, things went downhill: not one, but three trailers for Happy Feet 2, two relatively scary coming attractions for animated films for the preteen set, a bizarre commercial for Sprite that involved transforming a rap star into a robot. By the third Happy Feet 2 trailer (A penguin rapping, “Don’t call it a come back cause I been here for years,” followed by an troupe of penguin chicks crooning, “we’re bringing fluffy back.”) I sprung from my seat, ready to throttle the teenage projectionist (if there still are projectionists) and force him (or her) to start the show. In thirty-seven minutes they had made up for Sophia’s three and a half years of television deprivation.

“Sit down, Melissa. There’s nothing you can do.” Kevin said. He has an uncanny ability to detect when commercials are over, always popping the TV off mute a split second before the feature presentation comes back on. I dropped back into my chair, my heart still pounding with its fight or flight response to the Happy Feet trailer.

And then the movie started.

I wanted the experience to be perfect: to bring positive memories from my childhood flooding back, to be a magical experience for Sophia, lighting her eyes with joy and her heart with song.


Though the overall story was sweet, it was a bit chaotic at points and difficult to follow. The animation was, at times, inspired, and in other moments like Disney on acid. The use of text and plays on words was, perhaps, appealing to adults, but soared over the heads of its intended audience. As for the music, unlike “A Tigger’s a Wonderful Thing,” and the title song, “Winnie the Pooh” from the original film, the songs were forgettable (as evidenced by the fact that I can’t recall a line or a possible title).

Having already sat for an hour, Sophia became restless midway. Again, it was the sight gags, less than the verbal humor that grabbed her…Pooh and piglet’s bumbling attempts to raid a bee’s hive for its honey, Pooh jumping into and swimming around a great jar of honey. She managed to sit with it through the credits. At the end, when I asked her what she thought, she simply said, “good.”

Before we had left to see the film, we tried to prepare Sophie, explaining what a movie was like. I described a stadium-like theater with a giant screen in front upon which they’d project a video.

Sophie thought for a moment, “Movies and plays are different.”

“Yes, a play is live action, with people dressed up as characters. A movie is more like TV. It’s just a picture.”

“Oh,” she sounded a tad disappointed, “I thought there would be people dressed up as characters.” I felt a slight wave of glee at her disappointment. Perhaps the movie would not be as seductive as I feared, a gateway drug into a world of television and characters and commercials. A new frontier of pleading for screen time and intense negotiation. A turning away from her precious books.

And so, later than night, as Kevin and I settled into the couch to reflect, I realized that I wasn’t disappointed with her relative indifference to the film. In fact, I found myself feeling relieved. Immediately after the film, she asked for a story about her and Curious George “Go to the Movies”. And later that night, she went right back to begging for “just one more chapter” from her new Magic Tree House book. She liked the movie, but no more than the books we’ve read her or the stories we’ve composed for her or the plays we’ve attended.

It seems that the allure of image will not supplant her imagination any time soon.

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