Setting the Scene
I’ve discovered that watching movies with Chloe and Sophie is a great way to reassure myself during times of doubt that my girls are actually sentient humans who are capable of feeling compassion and empathy for others.
I have recently learned the hard way, however, that Sophie is more likely to feel compassion and empathy for other animals than for her fellow homo sapiens. It’s not that she doesn’t like people. It’s just that, with the exception of ants, she loves other mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds and invertebrates more.
Surprisingly enough, until the other day I’d never observed Sophie, who is an extremely sensitive soul, cry during a movie. Mind you, I won’t soon forget her reaction the first and only time she saw the music video for “Radioactive” by Imagine Dragons. In it, stuffed animals fight one another to the death in a boxing ring. Anyone who knows Sophie knows that such a video would hit too close to home for her. She shed buckets of tears when she saw it on TV, trying desperately to avert her eyes, but she was pulled in, despite herself, because the tune is simply too catchy. To this day, the song remains forever banned in our household.
The Plot Thickens
In a rare display of what I thought was excellent maternal resourcefulness, I decided to combat the demotivating and depressing effects of the snow and the bitter cold on Presidents’ Day by taking the girls to see the 2015 Oscar nominated animated short films at our local theater.
How could this not be anything but a smashing success? I heartily congratulated myself for finding an activity the three of us would all enjoy – an increasingly difficult task when you’re dealing with a curmudgeonly 46-year old mom who’s about had it with winter, a too-cool-for-school 14-year old and a moody tween.
Warning: Spoilers Ahead.
Below is a reel-by-reel description of each of the shorts and Sophie’s reaction to them.
Me and My Moulton. A nostalgic and touching film about a young girl and her two sisters whose parents are too hip for their own good. One of the scenes eerily mirrors a delicate situation Sophie’s currently navigating with a friend. I feared she’d notice the similarity, but when I looked over to gauge her reaction, she was fine.
Feast. The runaway star of the short is an adorable dog, so there’s nothing not to like, unless you hate Disney, dogs and/or predictable plots. This was the only story that had Sophie smiling from beginning to end. It will probably win the Oscar because it’s cute and ends on a happy note.
The Bigger Picture. This beautifully crafted film – with “life-size” animated characters – recounts the relationship between two very different brothers and their dying mother. Some heady stuff. Things don’t end well for the mom, but while Sophie claims she was sad about the old woman’s demise, she didn’t look particularly sad to me.
A Single Life. This whimsical and dark little film about a woman and a record player accomplishes in its two minute running time what most films fail to achieve in two hours. Things don’t end well for the woman in this movie, either. But Sophie wasn’t phased, probably because it was over before she even realized what transpires in the final frames.
The Dam Keeper. I was sure Sophie would have something to say about the allegorical movie’s themes of bullying, solitude, friendship and humans’ deleterious effects on the environment. But she liked this one the best, which is not surprising given the filmmakers’ Watership Down-like decision to use animals as the main characters.
Sophie’s all about the animals. I think she relates to their simplicity and their vulnerability. People, on the other hand, tend to confound her. I can totally relate because, let’s face it, most people are confounding.
So far, so good. We made it through the five Oscar-nominated films. If Sophie wasn’t entirely thrilled by what she’d seen, at least she wasn’t visibly dissatisfied. But, wait! The movie wasn’t over. As a bonus, we were treated to four additional short films that were selected by the Academy as “highly commended.”
And that’s when the shit hit the fan. Two of the honorable mention movies didn’t provoke any notable reaction in my little girl. But the other two (whose endings I reveal below), caused a tsunami of tears.
Sweet Cocoon. This devilish French movie was deceptively charming. Who can resist a claymation story about a fat caterpillar who survives metamorphosis with the help of her cute weevil and cockroach friends?
We were all smiling until the final frames of the movie when the newly transformed butterfly spreads its wings for the first time. “So sweet!” we all thought. Sophie was beaming. That is, until butterfly takes off towards the bright blue sky… and immediately gets eaten by an eagle.
Chloe and I looked at each other and laughed. It was funny, in a circle of life, butterfly-goes-splat kind of way. And then we simultaneously turned to Sophie. Who was crying hot tears of despair. When she caught me looking at her, she turned away. How could her mother subject her to such torture?
Bus Story. I thought Sophie would recover from the premature demise of the butterfly rather quickly. Alas, it was not to be. Along came “Bus Story,” a French-Canadian film about a young woman who dreams of nothing more than to become a school bus driver. Her wish comes true when she finds a job driving the bus that belongs the nasty owner of the town’s general store. Problem is, she’s a horrible driver. One day, as she’s parking the bus next to the store, the nasty owner’s dog is peeing in the snow behind the bus. I don’t need to describe what happens next. Suffice to say that the owner doesn’t find his dog until the spring thaw.
Chloe and I looked at each other and laughed again. How amusingly twisted, we thought. Again, we both glanced over at Sophie. Through her abundant tears, she unleashed such an evil eye at me that I had to turn away. The fact that the nasty human bus owner suffers a similar fate at the end of the film didn’t bother Sophie at all. Nope. She was all about the damn dog.
Sophie continued to sob as we left the theater. She was crying so much I was certain the tears would freeze on her face. She refused to talk to me for an hour, her silence an implicit condemnation of my parenting skills. In a mere 80 minutes, I had ruined her childhood.
Let’s just say that I learned my lesson. The hard way. In an effort to spare fellow parents and their kids a similar fate, here are a few takeaways:
(1) Oscar-nominated animated short films are not going to be warm and fuzzy, unless they’re made by Disney. Same goes for the Academy’s “highly commended” shorts. While all of the movies are gorgeous and creative, death and sadness and darkness lurk in very frame.
(2) Never conflate ‘cartoon’ with ‘animated film,’ or you’ll go in expecting Snoopy to play with Woodstock and instead witness Snoopy tragically die from getting hit in the head by Charlie Brown’s errant football.
(3) Sophie likes animals more than she likes people.
(4) When it comes to animated shorts, don’t be fooled by French or French-Canadian filmmakers. Better yet, be wary of any filmmaker whose native language is French (and I am allowed to say this because I’m a French citizen). They are masters at using enticingly drawn characters and charming music to give your kids a false sense of security before they turn all Samuel Beckett on you. STAY FAR AWAY from these purveyors of morbid humor if you value the relationship you have with your young child. Trust me on this.