'ParaNorman' poses a parental challenge

"I'm not saying have an intense conversation about these things. But when I ask parents how they deal with scary pictures, they often say, 'I don't show it to them.' And that is a serious mistake."

Said Hara Estroff Marano, editor-at-large of Psychology Today and author of "A Nation of Wimps: The High Cost of Invasive Parenting": "Not addressing scary images at all? It conveys to kids that some subjects aren't appropriate for discussion. The unspoken message is you, the child, are a fragile thing."

In fact, there's an unofficial nickname among teachers and psychologists for kids like this:

Teacup children.

When Katherine Sarafian, a producer at Pixar and co-director of "Brave,"was in Chicago this summer, a parent stood up after a screening and asked, "How can you live with yourself?" The woman's daughter was scared by a few (admittedly loud and intense) scenes in "Brave." Sarafian told me that because the film was PG (as is "ParaNorman") and because the story was rooted in fairy tales that threatened actual consequences to a character's actions, she felt justified and wasn't overly concerned.

But then she and Mark Andrews, her co-director, think that kids are coddled, she said. "Some of these parents, you want to show them, like, the scary forest scenes in those old Disney movies they grew up on. The first movie I ever saw was '101 Dalmatians,' and I was petrified by Cruella de Vil. That woman wanted to make a coat of puppies. Which we kind of take for granted, but just think about that a moment."

On the other hand, though it's easy to imagine the timidity of, say, the "Ice Age" and "Madagascar" franchises as a natural progression from preschool-obsessed parents and jungle gym bans, that protectiveness has a longer history.

Said Jack Zipes, a professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota and an expert on fairy tales, "the Grimms made major changes to their tales throughout their lives, throughout the 19th century, softening them to suit Victorian or Puritan sensibilities. It led eventually to a children's literature that concealed for the sake of middle-class children. Disney, their movies, were the worst about concealing."

The irony is that Disney, which is synonymous with watering down, delivered some of the most intense childhood memories of the past century. After all, who killed Bambi's mother? Disney killed her. That paradox has been so pronounced over the years that Tim Burton, in the early '80s, partly left the embrace of Disney's animation department because Disney didn't embrace his eerie "Frankenweenie" short.

Of course, parents have a legitimate concern about unsettling images affecting their children. Jonathan Pochyly, a pediatric psychologist specializing in anxiety at Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago, told me children with anxious dispositions aren't generally helped much by scary films: "But any serious lingering stress (because of a film) is very uncommon."

Pochyly said the mother's death in "Finding Nemo," for instance — which (ironically) justifies the father's anxiety about his young Nemo, Sarafian pointed out — might even be an opportunity to talk to a child about death. Same with "Frankenweenie" and the touchy issue of dead pets.

Still, Fell and Butler told me they caught a lot of criticism from parents because of "Coraline." It's a dark story about a girl who finds an alternative universe that's a distorted reflection of her own world and full of ominous compromises. It's a premise as central to children's culture as "The Wizard of Oz" and "Through the Looking Glass." They were surprised.

"Every day we got asked, 'How dark is too dark?' 'Is this appropriate for a 5-year old?'" Fell said. "In the end, every parent knows their own child."

His own son? "He comes home from kids movies remembering only moments. Like this happened, this happened. Not much more."

"Which is sad," Butler said. "It's why the 'feeling' in these movies feels so fake: chase, joke, chase, joke, then feeling. There are no stakes. As a child, I remembered more than bright colors and mediocre jokes."

Yes, helicopter parents, you've given birth to helicopter movies. Trust me, I know.

cborrelli@tribune.com

Twitter @borrelli

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