One of the most thrilling things about being a parent is seeing a new character trait emerge in one of your children that you can directly link to your own sensibility. I have many wonderful memories of taking both of my girls to the movies-- my oldest was just four months old when the missus and I took her with us in 2000 to the late, lamented Azusa Foothill Drive-in to see Mission: Impossible 2-- her very first visit to a cinema. She was not quite one year old when I took her to see Shrek indoors -- she hung in there for about an hour and then fell asleep, at which point we snuck out. And we had our first real father-daughter bonding experience at a movie when we saw Monsters, Inc. together for the first of what would be three times for her in a theater (I stopped counting when she received the DVD). Somewhere in the middle of the adventures of Mike and Sulley, my daughter reached up, hugged me around the neck and kissed me, then went back to watching the movie, as if to say, "Thanks, Dad, for bringing me here." I knew then that, whether she became a cinephile or not, going to the movies would still be something special for her, and maybe something that would provide a fond and lasting connection with dear old Dad as she got older and way too big to sit on my lap anymore.
The first real movie my youngest sat through with me, however, came in late 2004, when I took the two of them to see The Incredibles. A friend who was also there expressed amazement to me later that she could sit still for such a relatively long movie (two hours) and be obviously enjoying it, following along with it. But it was Pixar, after all-- no lack of wonderful things to see there, no matter what your level of life experience. I was just worried it might be too loud or scary for her, but even at just over two years of age I guess I needn't have worried about her at all.
There have been several since, most notably our return to see Charlie and the Chocolate Factory together in a hardtop, after having had to leave the drive-in early the previous week because my oldest got a little freaked out at seeing Augustus Gloop take that chocolate dive and get stuck in a gigantic vacuum tube. The movie's perversities and various levels of creepiness were lost on her-- she just liked the candy colors and the music ("Willy Wonka/Willy Wonka/The amazing chocolatier...") and the oversized wonder of the whole image-and-sound thing.
This afternoon I finally found the time to sneak away with my youngest daughter, age three, to a matinee of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. What I'd read about Narnia suggested that there were some potentially scary images and some loud action sequences, and my wife had never supported the idea of the little one seeing it at all. Not much need to worry about whether or not it would be appropriate for our oldest-- she proclaimed her desire not to see it loudly and clearly, at every opportunity. In fact, she is still shaking off the effects of Wallace & Gromit and the Curse of the Were-rabbit, as genial and gentle a horror parody as has ever been made, but one in which she immersed herself in the trappings of the films being lampooned, taking at face value the "scary" conventions that older children might at least be able to accept in the context in which the Aardman Animation film offered them. (On the other hand, the little one saw it twice and loved it.)
Finally, my youngest repeatedly expressed enough interest in Narnia that my wife's resistance broke down, the implicit caveat being that if it was too frightening for her I would hustle her right out of the auditorium. So the two of us headed to our local movie emporium right after a (very) late breakfast. We arrived to a darkened theater, the Disney logo already on screen, made our way to our seats. It didn't take long for us to settle in and begin munching popcorn, my arm tucked around her right side, her pony-tailed head tucked under my arm, as we enjoyed the suspenseful build-up to the Pevensie children's discovery of that snowy world at the back of the professor's wardrobe. My daughter was enthralled; I was less so-- I thought the movie competently made, but too generically imagined to sweep me away. Director Andrew Adamson's imagery doesn't pop off the screen or seduce you with lush grandeur and lurid landscapes surging with evil, the way Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films (Narnia's obvious influence and raison d'etre) do as a simple matter of course. Besides, there was far more at stake for me in seeing her reactions to the movie's moments of loudness and children in peril than there was in whether or not I thought the movie itself was a complete success.
But today, during Narnia, came one of those parental moments that made my heart soar, one that really connected me with my daughter, one where a special character trait seemed to pop up out of nowhere, like a roadside sign that assures a driver that he or she is not lost. And my daughter has no idea that it even occurred. There is a sequence where Edmund Pevensie, the boy who will betray his brother and sisters to the White Witch, is creeping through what appears to be a desolate, snowbound garden of statues, granite figures posed in various stages of battle and configurations of distress. The music hits all the right sustained notes and chords as the camera tracks Edmund making his way through this strange and inexplicable museum.
Then, midway through vaulting over what he (and we) takes to be a large rock, the audience is treated to a very effective "gotcha!" moment as the rock turns out to be the hunched figure of a very scary wolf, one of the White Witch's secret police, who leaps toward Edmund (and out toward us in the audience as well), snarling a murderous, meat-eating snarl, read to rip and tear away at Edmund's young flesh. The "gotcha!" made both my daughter and I jump several inches back and out of our seats, and it immediately occurred to me that I didn't ever remember seeing her have that visceral a reaction to a movie before-- most of the stuff she routinely sees at home is pretty genteel. So I turned to her, ready to be the concerned father and head her toward the exit. But before I could say anything, she looked up at me and said, "That scared me!" And then I noticed she was grinning. And then I heard she was laughing. And then I knew that this truly was my daughter, and that I loved her so much more than I could understand, and I began to hope that someday she and I would be looking at scary movies together and laughing as our hearts got caught in throats time and time again.
We left the theater, and my daughter was beaming with excitement, as if she understood on some level that she'd just seen something with a little more meat on it, in terms of what it required of her as a viewer, and what it put her through too, than anything she'd yet seen in her very young movie-going life. As we walked underneath the stained-glass dome that caps the courtyard entryway to the multiplex where we'd just seen The Chronicles of Narnia, my youngest daughter, whom I was carrying, put her arms around my neck, gave me a kiss and said, "That was fun! Thanks, Daddy, for taking me to the movies." I had to choke back more than one tear as I told her how glad I was that she wanted to come. We stood looking up through the dome, marveling at the colors and patterns, and it occurred to me that this had become a perfect day.