Trolls & Beasts: Two Quick Reviews and Three Remedial Dad Lessons

I really blew it last week. Big time. And more than once. Still, I wrested a few timely reminders out of the experience.

(photo: Warner Bros. Pictures)

A child admires and looks up to his father
and is ready to accept almost anything from his example and teaching.

Lawrence G. Lovasik, SVD

I really blew it last week. Big time. And more than once. Still, I wrested a few timely reminders out of the experience, but more on those later – here’s what happened.

My high-schoolers were anxious to see the new Harry Potter-ish Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, so I offered to foot the bill if they deigned to let me tag along. I figured if Beasts turned out to be anything like the original Potter films (most of them anyway), then we’d be in for a rollicking good time – vibrant characters, buoyant plots, clever dialogue, and terrific CGI magic. Fun! We planned to go Tuesday – just the thing to kick off Thanksgiving week festivities.

So then my two grade-schoolers chimed in that they wanted to go along, and here was my first mess-up. “Sure, why not?” I chirped (without consulting the missus) – what harm could there be? Nick is 13, Kath is 10, and they’d already seen all the other Harry Potter films on DVD. As far as I could tell they’d not been scarred from the experience, and, besides, all of their friends would be going to see Beasts – the weirdo factor is already high for my offspring (e.g., home birth, 15-passenger van, no TV, etc.), and I’m constantly on the lookout for opportunities to help them better connect with their peers. This seemed like an easy one – emphasis on the word “seemed” there.

Shortly thereafter, the reports started rolling in – specifically, the first-hand accounts of my two college-aged daughters who’d seen Beasts on opening weekend. “You’re thinking of taking Nick and Kath?” Meg asked. “I dunno – there’s some pretty scary scenes.” Joan concurred. “I wouldn’t do it,” she said.

Now I was stuck. The expectation die had been cast, and it was my own doing. In the past, I’d never consider taking my ten-year-old to a PG-13 movie. In fact, I’d always relied on rating systems (both the MPAA’s and the U.S. Bishops’) as a convenient crutch. “What’s it rated?” I used to routinely bark. Anything that didn’t measure up was automatically excluded.

This time, I fell prey to the kind of paternal rationalization that comes after having already raised several children to adulthood. And the USCCB’s Catholic New Service was no help. It gave Beasts the ambiguous rating of “A-II” – appropriate for adults and adolescents – and, like I said, Kath and Nick had already been initiated to the adolescent Harry Potter universe. The disconcerting warnings from Joan and Meg gave me pause, however, and I considered pulling rank and simply reversing course. Yet, I prefer to hold that parenting nuclear option in reserve for weightier matters.

“What are you going to do?” probed my wife, Nancy.

A pickle, to be sure, and I took the wimpy way out by stalling. “I’ll go see it ahead of time for myself,” I announced, with the implication that I’d likely decide in favor of relaxing our movie-going standards. That satisfied Nick and Kath for the time being, but I was uneasy. If, after seeing it, I concluded it was inappropriate for my young ones, I’d still be in the position of having to yank an already granted privilege.

Because of other commitments, I was only free to catch an earlier screening on Tuesday while the kids were sitting out their last day of school before break. That meant that I was potentially setting myself up to see the film twice in a row, back to back. Plus, Nancy elected to join me to see for herself, despite her constitutional aversion to sci-fi/fantasy flicks. What I had envisioned as a family treat was turning into a domestic debacle. “This had better be good,” I muttered to myself as we entered the theater.

It wasn’t – not by a long shot. I know Rotten Tomatoes had initially granted Beasts a pre-release 100% on its Tomatometer, and the reviews had been generally favorable, but I was aghast at how bad it was. Remember that I went in with tons of good will and a strong incentive to really like this movie. Nonetheless, I’m sorry to report that it was awful. No joy, no vivacity, no interesting or sympathetic characters – with the lone exception being Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), the “no-maj” (non-wizard) would-be baker who inadvertently gets caught up in the magical goings-on. We never find out too much about his past or what makes him tick, but he has more personality than all the other primary characters put together.

For the most part, the show is flat from the get-go – flat characters, flat colors, even flat CGI effects. Was there music? I guess so, but it too must’ve been flat – or else so derivative from John Williams’ Harry Potter tunes that it bounced off my eardrums without effect. Indeed, what was telling as the story unfolded onscreen was the lack of sound in that theater altogether: no laughing, no gasps, no chatter, no bubbling over of excitement. Nothing. Silent – silent as the grave.

Which reminds me: This was one heckuva grave storyline, and way too complicated to follow (for us no-maj types). I’m aware that the J.K. Rowling book of the same title was basically a fictional Hogwarts textbook without a narrative core, and that Hollywood essentially had to create an associated tale ex nihilo in order to turn it into a surefire multiplex cash-cow. Yes, I get that. But surely they could’ve come up with something more compelling than the dark, creepy, dare I say disturbing plot that appends the latter half of the film. So much grisly death, so much dysfunction and psychopathy – wasn’t Harry Potter basically a kids’ series?

We could hardly wait for it to be over.

As we left the theater, the obvious dilemma loomed and I panicked a bit: No easy way out! How could I veto Beasts for my grade-schoolers, and let the high-schoolers go – on what basis? “Maybe I can offer an alternative,” I said to Nancy. “Is there anything else less offensive playing this afternoon?”

There was. We scanned the marquee at the theater’s entrance for acceptable consolation prizes, and, bingo, there was Trolls – rated PG! “I’ve heard lots of younger kids rave about that one,” Nancy said. Reprieve!

Now, how to finesse this – how to persuade Kath and Nick that they’d themselves prefer to see Trolls instead of the big-kid movie they’d been planning on.

That’s when Nancy played her maternal trump card. As we drove home and I contemplated my compounding fatherly errors, Nancy suggested prayer. “Let’s ask the Holy Spirit for discernment” (we did – Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful….) “and Mary for her help” (Hail Mary, full of grace….). Why didn’t I think of that?

And, to the surprise of no one, the prayers were efficacious. By the time we got home, Nicky was content playing a game of Madden Football, and didn’t even want to go the theater any more. And Kath? She ran up when we walked in the door – “Are we going? Are we going?”

I hedged. “Well, Kath,” I ventured, “we liked the first part, but we don’t think you’d like the second part.” Then, quick, before she could object, I made my offer: “How about Trolls instead?”

Kath beamed – “I’d rather see that anyway!” A quick check on the USCCB website – Trolls also received an “A-II” rating, but mainly for “mild oaths” and potty humor (of which there is plenty) – and we were off. Instead of two hours of malicious gloom, my young daughter was treated to a delightful romance filled with color, music, and dance. We giggled and laughed, munched popcorn and Reese’s Pieces, and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. My dad disaster morphed into an enchanting daddy-daughter date that I couldn’t have planned any better.

So, dads, what were those timely reminders I mentioned earlier? You’ve already spotted them, no doubt, but I’m enumerate them anyway.

  1. Consult with your better half: “The family is a kind of school of deeper humanity,” the Council Fathers taught us. If it is to succeed, it requires “the joint deliberation of spouses, as well as the painstaking cooperation of parents in the education of their children” (GS 52). So many of my unilateral paternal actions have gone awry over the years that you’d think I would’ve learned that connubial collaboration is of the essence. (I’m a slow learner.) Also, it’s necessary that mom and dad do their deliberating out of earshot of the children, and well in advance of pertinent events when possible.
  2. Listen to your older kids: Our teenagers and older children can be valuable resources in helping us make prudent parenting choices. For one thing, they had to endure our fathering novitiates, and they’ll probably have sound insights with regards to our childrearing blind spots. What’s more, they’re more savvy with regards to cultural trends and undercurrents that their younger siblings are grappling with, so they’ll be able to assist us in overcoming our generational naïveté.
  3. When all else fails, pray: I’m just kidding about the “when all else fails” part, of course. Praying for guidance and wisdom and strength has to be our constant fathering default! Sure, we pray for our kids in a general way every day, but it’s vital to assail heaven with our moment to moment, situational entreaties as well.

That the Holy Spirit and the Blessed Mother intervened in my own little cinematic crisis I have no doubt, and it all turned out splendid. When we got home that evening, Kath gleefully shared with mom and her siblings about the Trolls, their adventures and romantic entanglements, and how it was all about love. She’s been talking about it ever since, even going so far as to ask for Trolls stuff in her annual Thanksgiving letter to Santa.

My own thanks-giving thoughts have been directed elsewhere – to Mary, for her intercession; to the Spirit, for orchestrating such a seamless patch-job on my fatherly flub; to my wife, for putting up with me; and to my kids, for their resilience.

And me? I’ve learned my lesson(s), but if you see me this time next year, it won’t hurt to remind me again.