How Young is too Young: "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial"

Previously, as you may recall (and you can totally read it and remind yourself if you don’t), I ruminated on whether my daughter, age nine, was too young to see “Jurassic Park” on the big screen. The screening hasn’t yet occurred so I can’t follow-up on that at the moment. Instead, I’m going to add something else to the mix – “E.T.” Is my four-and-a-half year-old too young to see “E.T.?”

“E.T.” came out in June of 1982 and I saw it at least once during that original theatrical run, making me four-and-a-half years-old at the time. In fact, watching “E.T.” on the big screen is one of my first memories of going to the movies (I also remember “TRON” from that same summer).

Reading those last two paragraphs, you may have noted the most important reason why I think my son might able to go see “E.T.” next week on the big screen. I was just about the same age when I saw it. Of course, I also saw “Robocop” at age eight (or possibly just past nine), so maybe I’m not the greatest example.

Firmly entrenched on the “against” side on “E.T.” is the fact that I know in my heart that he’s going to have a tough time with the beginning of the movie and then again when E.T. gets sick. The dark bits at the beginning of the film where E.T. is first discovered are definitely not going to go over well, they’re a touch creepy and it’s going to start things off for him on the wrong note.

I think he can get beyond those moments. They don’t last long and pretty soon it’s all jokes and lighty fingers and Reese’s Pieces. Or it is until E.T. gets sick and that’s where my son is really going to be dismayed.

When I wrote about “Jurassic Park” I talked about everyone being different and what works for one child at one age not necessarily working for a different child at the same age. “Robocop” didn’t destroy my sense of the world, no matter how young I was when I saw it (my wife may have a differing opinion on this). It comes down to knowing your child, and I know mine – E.T. getting sick is really going to do him in.

My son, you see, is quite empathetic. He looks at people or at situations and if they’re hurting, he feels it. In his bones, he feels it.

He also does not yet get story arcs – things have to get bad before they can get better in movies, it’s part of the journey. When he saw “Paddington” earlier this year, he was truly worried during the movie that Paddington might not find a family. He actually wanted to leave before the end because he didn’t want to learn definitively that Paddington was going to be alone forever. When he saw “Inside Out,” he was dismayed when Goofball Island went down because Joy and Sadness might not be able to get back. Older people watching these moments don’t have such a fear – Paddington is going to be okay, Joy and Sadness are going to get back home somehow.

Why? Because these sorts of movies don’t end on a down note. My son doesn’t get that yet.

So, combine my son’s sense of empathy with his not knowing that everything generally works out in a family film and apply it to E.T. getting sick. I don’t have the sense that it’s going to go well.

But, and here’s the thing, that’s not the same sort of problem that “Jurassic Park” offers.

Avoid scary things if they’re going to stay with you for days and destroy your ability to sleep. That makes complete sense. But avoid emotional moments in films because you don’t yet understand the way a story is told? That’s different, you learn how stories are told because you read/watch/listen to enough of them to figure it out, not by waiting until you’re 15 and reading theory on it.

Even so, that doesn’t mean that taking my son to “E.T.” is a good idea. Figuring out how stories are told is important, is something that should happen, but that’s not the same as saying that it should happen now.

I imagine he’ll be going to see the movie next week. Certainly I’ll talk to him in advance about what’s going to happen so as to soften the blow, but I still have my qualms.

photo credit: Universal Studios Home Entertainment

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