Are Movies For Kids Better With Kids?

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Here’s where I’m coming from: I’m a movie snob. I like to dress it up in terms like cinephile or film theorist, but what it all boils down to is that I take movies seriously, all day, every day. Part of that identity is being obsessed with how movies are presented. Getting a chance to see movies like Seven Samurai or The Wages of Fear in an actual movie theater makes a huge difference. Seeing movies in the right theater with carefully adjusted projection and audio equipment also has a big impact. But perhaps more important than anything else is seeing movies in a theater with a respectful audience. Knowing your neighbors won’t talk or check their cell phones allows you to become fully enthralled in a film, and it’s perhaps my biggest pet peeve.

So you can imagine that I’m not a big fan of small children at the movies.

It’s not that I dislike children (even if I prefer dogs). Young kids just don’t understand the etiquette of going to the movies yet. When you’re seeing spectacular adventures on a screen ten times your own height with booming sound, it’s easy to forget that there’s an entire room full of people trying to watch it too. I get it; movies are exciting. But that doesn’t make chatter and three bathroom breaks any less distracting for the rest of us. That’s one of the reasons I’m a fan of the Alamo chain of theaters with their strict rules on speaking and age restrictions. It guarantees a movie going experience without the risk of someone else ruining it for you.

Until recently I’d become so adjusted to theaters without any kids or, even worse, talking adults. That was until I went to see a special screening of The Lego Batman Movie. This was a show at 9:30am designed specifically for kids, families, and the young at heart. It’s that last part that caught me. Well, that and the promise of an unlimited cereal bar. If you haven’t had cereal in a while, here’s a free reminder that the stuff is absolutely delicious. Crunch berries were a sure thing, but the new Batman cereal was a solid chocolate-y delight. In any case, back to the subject at hand…

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After three bowls of cereal the lights dimmed and it was time for previews. The theater was filled with a buzz of excitement. Kids throughout the auditorium chattered about how upcoming animated features looked, squealed at the appearance of familiar heroes, and asked for more cereal. It was at this moment another Will Arnett role came to mind and I found myself thinking I had made a huge mistake. There weren’t just one or two kids in this theater, there was a veritable army. And if I shushed anyone, then I was definitely going to be the bad guy in that equation.

Would I have to buy another ticket to The Lego Batman Movie just to catch half of the jokes or give it my full attention? Would that mean skipping a later showing of Paterson? Was the cereal really worth the incoming assault on my senses?

I suspect that most sane human beings look at those questions and scoff, but don’t worry, I get it now. Because in this scenario I wasn’t a movie fan being put upon, I was a jerk getting ready to be enlightened.

When the screen went black and Will Arnett began to explain how all the best movies open with a black screen a hush fell over the theater. It wasn’t because Arnett’s Batman voice is demanding, although it is. It was because I clearly don’t give children enough credit. This was clearly the start of the movie and everyone in that theater knew that’s what they were really here for, cereal be damned. Eyes were on the screen and the audience was listening.

Of course, there was some chatter after too long. It included on topic questions like “Who is Barbara Gordon?”, which also make the point that we should have Batgirl or Batwoman in many more films. There were also queries that seemed less pertinent like “Is that an iPhone? I think that’s an iPhone.” If The Lego Batman Movie is anything, it’s packed. There are more characters than you can hope to count and a whole lot of movie pieces, pun intended. Through all of that action there was bound to be some confusion and plenty of excitement. 

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What was surprising though was that this chatter didn’t stand out. What really made an impact wasn’t the occasional question or exclamation, but the rest of the sounds in the theater. The laughter, screams, and gasps were as loud as any movie I can recall seeing. There was a very real energy to experiencing the entire film as each moment landed audibly in the audience.

Rather than serving as a distraction, this audience served as a reminder of just how thrilling movies can be. The experience of watching this animated Lego movie wasn’t singular, but communal. Everyone in the theater, kids, parents, and those of us who just really love Batman were laughing together, and coming close to tears on a few occasions.

On its own The Lego Batman Movie isn’t likely to surprise too many folks familiar with how movies or stories work. It hits lots of similar notes, although it does hit them very well. It wasn’t reinventing anything, but it was deploying its jokes and message very effectively. That skillful use of the cinema was what kept all of the young people in the theater interested, and it also served to remind the rest of us of why we first fell in love with movies. These gags really were funny and the themes about family really were affecting. It was the shared experience that served as a reminder on why movies matter.

That’s why I walked out of The Lego Batman Movie ready to reassess my feelings on seeing movies with kids. In addition to the size of the space and capacity of the equipment, we attend movie theaters to share in the experience of movies. We want to laugh at comedies and scream at horror flicks. There was no restraint in this theater and it helped all of us remember that we watch movies together. And while I won’t be attending any screenings of Paterson that allow for young people, I will be attending the next cereal screening of a big animated feature. Frankly, I can’t wait.