Dialog is fine, but movies connect with human brains, even little
ones, in complex ways, which may explain why children respond to
movies that we might not expect them to.
When I was eight, one of my favorite movies was called
The Tinder Box. I've only seen it once, but if I recall, it
starts with a soldier walking down a road that runs alongside an old
tree that has an entrance in its trunk, like the entrance to a
cave. The soldier goes inside the tree, speaks to a witch, and leaves
the tree carrying bags of gold and a lighter, the kind of thing you'd
use to light a cigarette or a lantern. It's a big, boxy lighter, and
the people in the movie call it a "tinder box".
This was an intriguing opening. I wanted to find a tree full of
gold. But it gets better.
The soldier spends the gold willy-nilly, and pretty soon he doesn't
have much left to his name except the tinder box. But this is no
ordinary tinder box. It turns out that when you flick its switch to
light its flame, a giant dog appears out of nowhere to help you
out of a jam.
In Bob & Ray's "Tippy the Wonder Dog", Tippy's neighbor dogs could
fetch coils of rope for lashing down farm implements when storms were
brewing. Sadly, Tippy couldn't do much more than fetch a pie plate.
I don't mean a big
dog. Sure, a big dog can warn off burglars,
help you keep the herd together, or maybe fetch your slippers. But a
dog can get you out of a surprising variety of
thickets. The participants of a drunken bar brawl freeze, slack-jawed,
with bottles raised over their heads, shocked into a silence at the
sight of a giant dog baring its teeth at the door, just long enough
for you to slink away to safety. A teacher who is about to give a test
to her class faints at the sight of a dog that's two-horses tall
appearing at the back of the room, licking its chops, thereby granting
an unprepared student an extra night of study. This wasn't in the
movie, but it's how I, an 8-year-old non-smoker, thought I might make
use of such a tinder box.
This movie blindsided me with its greatness. Its witches and trees and
bags of gold and, of course, its giant dogs who stood at the beck and
call of a simple flame were an amazing spectacle.
Now, I wasn't raised in a barn. One of my earliest movie memories is
seeing Star Wars a year earlier with my dad. I'd seen the light
sabers and the star destroyers, and I loved them, yes. But The
Tinder Box displayed the same fantastic imagination, told the same
kind of hallucinatory tale, and, somehow, felt equally real. They were
both live-action movies that featured realistically dusty interiors
and muted colors that exploded with sudden bursts of fantasy. One of
these movies also had among its bag of tricks an extensive collection
of action figures, t-shirts, fast food promotions, TV commercials, and
peers to reinforce my opinion. But the other was made 20 years before
I saw it, wasn't even made in America, was (I assume, though I don't
remember) dubbed into English, and was unheard of by anyone I knew
besides my little brother who saw the movie with me. Nevertheless, it
knocked me flat.
Now, I also wasn't raised in a cosmopolitan city that hosted world
cinema. I've since discovered that The Tinder Box is a German
movie, but at the time I had no idea. I saw The Tinder Box in
Missouri as part of a summer film series for children. Every summer,
someone, or some committee, would track down prints of family movies
from the four corners of the globe and show one each week to a theater
full of kids. They used the theater in the morning before it opened
for its normal matinees. Kids got to see a movie every week and
parents got a couple hours of peace.
Each week my brother and I went into the theater cold. I think our
parents were given descriptions of the movies, but I knew little more
than the title of what we were about to see. It could have been a
musical from the 50s or a recent Muppet movie, but rarely was it
something I'd heard of before.
Here's a more recent
of Inger Nilsson who played Pippi in the 1970s.
Most of the movies were sufficiently entertaining, some more, some
bored us all to tears, and we laughed at The
. For months my brother and I made fun of the way the
prince says "draw me a sheep," mimicking his high little British
voice. But we liked the one about the robotic dog and loved Pippi
in the South Seas
— I wanted to be one of the kids who got
to hang out with Pippi Longstocking in her house where anything goes,
but her melancholy moods made me glad to have parents who didn't sail
the high seas, frequently leaving me to fend for myself. And The
, in a class by itself, shot to the top of my all-time
favorite list, and I haven't seen it since.
I now know that the movie is based on a Hans Christian Andersen story,
but I haven't read it. I'd like to, but I won't, not yet, because I'm
afraid it will replace my dingy, thread-bare memory of the movie, and
it's the only one I've got. Maybe I'll read the story after I've had a
chance to watch the movie again, but I'm reluctant to do that,
too. I'm not sure I want the adult movie viewer's voice at my ear
pointing out the flaws in the special effects, the sloppy lip sync, or
whatever other deficiencies might spoil a trip down memory lane.
So I'll need to see it with a child.
Not long ago, while stuck in a standstill on an Indiana highway, I was
scanning the radio stations for a traffic update. I came across a
local talk radio show where a caller was outraged about a new
children's movie. Always ready to listen to a rant about the movie
industry, I stopped scanning there. The man's story goes like this:
when he was in line with his child waiting to see Roberto Begnini's
Pinocchio, he found out from another parent that the movie was
in Italian. "The kid won't understand a thing 'cause he can't read the
subtitles!" He was incensed by the failure of the movie's ads to
mention this and left in a huff before he even reached the box office,
dragging his disappointed kid behind him. He called the radio station
to warn other parents who might be planning to take their kids to the
This was the wrong radio station for me to land on if I wanted to calm
my traffic-tensed nerves. The man's complaint had so many problems I
wasn't sure where to start. First, a factual one: Begnini's
Pinocchio was not released subtitled in the US. It was dubbed
into English, by actors who are quite famous in America, such as Glenn
Close, Regis Philbin, James Belushi, and Begnini himself. The
information that was passing through the queue was wrong.