I have been writing about movies professionally for about 18 years. In that time, I developed a lot of strong opinions about children's movies that, now that I am a dad, I realize have less to do with actual children than with my hard-wired ideas about cinema and escapism and the unrelenting horror of existence. When you don't actually have children, it's easy to develop strong ideas about them and their place in the world. Then reality—and children—hits, and forces you to re-examine those strongly held convictions.
For a very long time I was of the mindset that the best thing a children's movie can do is to terrify children. It has been my strong conviction that the purpose of children's entertainment is to teach children important lessons about how the world is a brutal and cruel place, largely devoid of kindness and warmth, in which happiness is a fleeting sensation quickly and permanently replaced by unrelenting despair.
Before I had my son Declan, for example, I would have been impressed that despite its gentle title and advertising campaign, "The Good Dinosaur" is filled with the kind of soul-scarring darkness and brutal intensity I previously felt all children's movies should share. I would have been overjoyed that, in the time-honored tradition of Pixar's parent company Disney, "The Good Dinosaur" centers on parents who either died before the film began or do not make it past the second act.
Moreover, I would have been psyched that "The Good Dinosaur" has creepy and disturbing supporting characters like the ones who joyously traumatized my own childhood, like a contingent of crazy-eyed, vulture-like creatures who belong to an insane death cult that worships a storm that seems to have a crazy power all its own.
As a dad, however, I saw the film much differently. I saw it through the prism of my own fatherhood, and I think the movie was more powerful and resonant for me because the little cave boy who befriends the titular affable dinosaur looked and acted so much like my own son. Like Declan, he's all big, beautiful eyes, crazy runaway hair, ragged sweetness and runaway baby energy.
As a dad, children are no longer abstractions. Their sadness and confusion and terror are no longer theoretical; they're real and urgent and something that must be managed constantly.
Although Declan did not come with me to the film, I found myself seeing it through his eyes. The difference was telling. Before I might have casually dismissed the multiple dead patriarchs in the movie as a familiar kid's movie trope, but as a new dad myself, I found it extremely disturbing. I imagined myself having to explain to Declan what happened to the dinosaur's dad, and why the little boy who looked just like him didn't have a mother or a father, only a weird dinosaur surrogate brother, and I wondered what that conversation might sound like.
More than anything, however, I was worried that the movie might scare and sadden my son, that he'd find the menacing vulture death cult nightmare-inducing and be deeply saddened by the death of the daddy dinosaur the same way I was, in childhood, so distraught over Apollo Creed's death in Rocky IV that I had to leave the theater, so that I could weep openly about this incalculable loss.
As a dad, children are no longer abstractions. Their sadness and confusion and terror are no longer theoretical; they're real and urgent and something that must be managed constantly. I don't think my son will be ready for "The Good Dinosaur" any time soon. I still think there's a lot to be said for scary, dark, immersive children's entertainment, for movies like "Dumbo" and "Pinocchio" that are beloved classics, but also full of terrifying imagery and sequences too grim and horrifying even for adults.
But, I'm also coming to appreciate the gentler side of children's entertainment. I want my son to love and embrace art and entertainment and music and movies and culture of all different varieties, but I no longer think it's essential to throw kids into the deep end, pop-culture-wise, to subject them to things that might scar and alarm them, before they're ready.
So while I want my son to know that the world can be a dark and scary and sad and overwhelming place, I also want him to know that it can be wonderful and joyous. And I sure don't want to do anything that might traumatize my son, and I don't want pop culture to traumatize him either.