First of all, kids are brilliant. Especially curious, thirsty kids who ask a dozen questions a minute. I was one of those kids, and in every child-related job I’ve had I’ve worked with kids who are like that. I enjoy answering questions with as much patience, honesty, and thoroughness as I can muster.
But this can become complicated. It’s also led to some fascinating discussions with four, five, and six year olds. This discussion one called into question why I love Star Wars and why Inception is too complicated to be a kids’ movie. (Don’t worry, there are no spoilers.) Pretty heady for a five-minute conversation with a small child.
The six-year-old: “Monsters vs. Aliens is probably my favorite movie ever. Ever, ever. Well, maybe Cars, but that didn’t have monsters or aliens. What’s yours?”
“Star Wars.” I paused, wondering at my automatic response. Is Star Wars my favorite movie? I’ve certainly seen it enough to quote it — but by that criteria, I can also rank Raiders of the Lost Ark and Back to the Future up there with Star Wars. (All right, I admit it: the accompanying films in their respective trilogies, too, though I have Opinions about them.) What other criteria are there? A movie I would willingly watch on repeat all day long? (Under that category I can add most Disney and/or Pixar animated films; every Miyazaki film; a handful of Oscar nominated films of the last fifteen years and The Sound of Music; a handful of record-breaking blockbusters both of the critically-acclaimed and the revel-in-the-mediocrity variety.)
“Yeah,” I said, “Star Wars.”
“So why do you like Star Wars so much?” he asked. He knows exactly what movie I’m talking about although he’s never seen it. His friends have Clone Wars backpacks. He has a Star Wars: Heroes and Villains Young Reader book. He went to a birthday party where the theme was Star Wars and he brought home a lightsaber as his goody-bag prize. He knows who Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader are. He understands Jedi and Sith. But he has never seen this movie.
“Luke is a farm boy who becomes a hero by rescuing a princess, eluding Darth Vader, destroying the Death Star, and saving the galaxy.” Another pause. Not only did I just give an example of Joseph Campbell‘s hero theory in a happy nutshell, but that same plot is also that of a ton of books and movies (just substitute different nouns).
He stared at me, skeptically, as if to say, “That’s all? Lame.”
I found myself compelled to add, “It’s not just the story. The characters are memorable, the action is great, and there are spaceships, blasters, lightsaber fights, and a really awesome world. It’s got the whole package.”
As I said this, I realized that part of the entire reason I love Star Wars is because it started what became a phenomenon, spawning sequels, prequels, merchandise, books (so many books!), video games — it’s a part of culture, a nerdy subset of American media culture that has influenced a generation (or two, by now) and helped pave the way for better technologies (ILM, THX, Skywalker Sound) that have influenced the way film and media have evolved in the past three decades. Not to mention Star Wars’ pop culture influences. (Just look at the Wikipedia articles.) So it’s not simply the first movie, or the first trilogy, but the entire technological and cultural phenomenon of Star Wars that makes it something I love, something I value and appreciate. I can no longer separate Star Wars the single film from Star Wars the cultural beast. As I realized this, I also realized that while I can admit the original Star Wars isn’t stylistically or artistically the best movie I’ve ever seen (and let’s not discuss the prequels, mmkay?), I can’t separate the film from the context of its time and its place in cinema history. It’s like trying to separate Dickens from nineteenth century London, or New York from its skyscrapers. For a fan of science fiction and fantasy, it’s impossible to separate Star Wars from the consciousness of American media and culture.
I think, at this point, the six-year-old was wondering why I was looking so lost. I was having something of a revelation — Do I love Star Wars because of what it represents more than the film itself? How can I even answer that? — but of course all he saw was a blank look. I have a tendency to get lost in my head and I think by now this six-year-old understands that.
“Oh, okay,” he said. His question had been answered to his satisfaction. “So what was the last movie you saw?”
“Inception,” I said. Without really thinking. Why do I do that?
He frowned. “What does that word mean?”
“Well. In the movie, the ‘inception’ is the idea of planting an idea in someone else’s head. In their dreams.”
“Did you like that movie?”
“Yes. A lot.”
“Why isn’t that movie your favorite movie, then?”
I stalled. That’s actually a good question, I thought. Stylistically, aesthetically, in terms of the effects and the vision, it was pretty excellent. Is it too new to be in my top favorites? Is it too controversial? In the days since, I have read quite a few reviews about it. I’m still wondering what to think, how to interpret it. I kept guessing throughout the movie, throwing my theories against the inside wall of my brain only to see the plot shoot them down later in the film. In a word, though, it was brilliant. “I don’t know. I’ve only seen it once,” I said.
“So it’s about dreams,” he said, going back to what I’d said earlier — did I mention he’s a very smart kid? — “dreaming and ideas?”
“Yep.” And, because I had only just seen it that same morning and I was still itching to talk about it to someone, I added, “It’s about what happens if people can go inside other people’s dreams and change them.”
He grinned. “Oh! It’s a kids’ movie!”
“Oh. No. It’s not.”
“But it’s about going inside other people’s dreams. That’s cool. That could be a kids’ movie.”
I imagined, for a moment, Inception as a kids’ movie and had a wild notion of kids playing with dreamscapes and getting in trouble. Star Wars, I thought, is something of a kids’ movie. But not Inception. Could I explain it to him somehow? Then I recalled the time when the six-year-old, at age five, asked me to explain multiplication and division to him. He’s a math whiz, so I did. I struggled to conceptualize it in a visual way for him to understand. Explaining about dividing apples among children as my example, he understood the principle of division — but didn’t want to try it in practice. (He was five. That’s okay.) Multiplication, though. That was hard. So to explain the complexity of this film to a young audience? One would have to be terrifically gifted or terrifically crazy.
“Maybe. But this one isn’t. It’s too complicated.”
“Too complicated how? You can explain it! Come on, come on, please?”
I really wanted to find a way to level with him, that impulse of being straight and honest with all kids as much as I can. But sometimes, it’s better just to give the simple answer. “I can’t explain it. Why don’t you go set up a game to play?”
I sighed, seeing the look. The I-won’t-give-this-up-because-I-need-to-know-PLEASE-tell-me look. “It’s not a kids’ movie because it’s a grown-up movie. Okay? That’s just what it is.” Christopher Nolan, I thought, you have just made me give a blow-off answer to a small child because of your dastardly fascinating film. Why couldn’t Inception’s plot have been as simple as Star Wars’? But then, I wondered, would I have loved Inception so much had it been simple — would anyone have loved it? Its beauty is in its complexity, as perhaps Star Wars‘ is in its simplicity.
“Aw, okay, fine,” he muttered, then went to set up Connect Four.
Kids these days, I tell you. They make my brain hurt.