Shopping With Darth Mall
They've been talking about it for weeks. They tore advertisements out of magazines. They got their action figures before the movie opened, they read one of the illustrated adaptations and knew the whole story. On opening weekend, they waited impatiently until it was their turn to enter the theater, then sat cheering as the opening text scrolled across the screen.
No, I'm not talking about throngs of fans who've waited since the 1980s for Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. I'm talking about my five-year-old and two-year-old sons, Daniel and Adam.
I admit that I was a bit worried about taking two little boys to see The Phantom Menace during opening weekend. The only other theatrical movie Adam has seen is A Bug's Life, in the middle of which he announced loudly that Hopper was too scary. I could imagine the wrath of people who'd waited for Star Wars nearly twenty years, only to have to listen to a two-year-old proclaim, "Darth Maul should get a time-out!" at the climactic moment. Then when we got to the theater and saw the concession stand lines, I realized I wasn't even going to have Junior Mints to barter for silence.
As it turns out, I had nothing to worry about. My kids sat in rapt attention, even during the parts they couldn't understand because they can't read subtitles. Adam, the two-year-old, did lean over and whisper the name of each new character as he or she appeared onscreen - after the fifteenth battle droid, I assured him that yes, I knew those were all battle droids - but they didn't complain that it was too scary and they stayed relatively still as they mimed driving the pods while Anakin was doing it.
We did a couple of smart things: we went to a theater with stadium seating so they wouldn't try to stand up to see, and we sat in the row on the exit aisle so that if they swung their legs, they wouldn't kick any seats in front. But really, George Lucas gets most of the credit for how well-behaved my children were. They absolutely loved the movie.
Here is the five-year-old's review: "I liked Darth Maul the best. Actually I didn't because he is the bad guy. I liked it when Obi-Wan jumped out of the pit. Obi-Wan got Qui-Gon's lightsaber but his fell in the pit. Anakin Skywalker blew up the ship that made the battle droids run and they all stopped working. He wasn't supposed to fly the ship but he pushed the wrong button and it got stuck. I liked the Queen a little bit but you know who I liked? Jar-Jar! I have Jar-Jar's Coloring Fun, that's a coloring book."
And here is the two-year-old's review: "Darth Maul was too scary. I want Darth Maul's lightsaber which is red. Remember when Jar-Jar got his hand stuck? Oh yeah, I liked Jabba the Hutt, Jabba the Hutt is funny. Anakin Skywalker wasn't a bad guy but when he grows up he's going to be Darth Vader. Darth Vader is a bad guy. Remember when they were in the water and the fish came? Remember when all the battle droids got broken?"
I am sure that if I talked to a child psychologist, I would be berated for exposing a two-year-old to Darth Maul. But what could I do? He would have assumed he was being left at home as a punishment, no matter what earnest explanation I gave him about not wanting to make him suffer the violence of our entertainment culture. Adam knew which Darth was Maul before I did, having seen the action figures at KB Toys the day they came out. Daniel had heard who died in the movie from a classmate whose parent had read Terry Brooks' novelization. What's a mother to do?
I see no easy way to avoid Star Wars hype, short of banning all television in my household (something advocated by certain children's welfare groups which I find utterly misguided - shunning all television seems akin to me to banning books or declaring the entire Internet the dominion of Satan, though of course any of those media can be used inappropriately). And even if my kids had never seen an advertisement for the movie or a tie-in at Pizza Hut, how do I explain the giant posters of Jar-Jar in the bookstore window, or Darth-Vader-When-He-Was-A-Little-Boy-That's-Anakin-Skywalker (Adam's name for the young hero of Episode I) peering out from behind the pharmacy counter? I'd have to raise them in Antarctica to avoid media exposure, and even there I bet there are soda cups with C-3PO on them.
Having seen it exactly once, my two-year-old knows nearly everything about the movie. "Look! Gungans!" he exclaims as we walk past the bookstore with the giant Jar-Jar poster. He's even interested in the Barbie-sized doll of the Queen of Naboo - something which wasn't true of Mulan. You know, I do my best to expose him to female role models. Heck, Amelia Earhart only flew planes. Amidala gets to order people around in spaceships.
We have tried to be restrained in how much of our hard-earned money we're willing to part with for Star Wars merchandise, but even that gets rationalized. They need bathing suits for camp, so we might as well get Darth Maul swim trunks, right? And since Adam is toilet training, he can have that podracer underwear. Originally we said one action figure per boy, but obviously we need Qui-Gon AND Obi-Wan AND Darth Maul AND Anakin AND both of the Queens. Besides, Mommy gets to keep the Comm-Tech chip reader along with all the chips for safekeeping, and Mommy thinks they are very cool.
Which brings us to The Lightsaber Dilemma. We have a strict no guns rule in my house...this means no water guns, no Playmobil figures which come with little firearms, no G.I. Joe equipment, though we've tended to ignore things constructed by the kids out of Legos. Unfortunately we do have plastic swords left over from a Chanukah dramatization about the Maccabees, which have occasionally been used in re-enactments of Luke Skywalker's duel with Darth Vader from The Empire Strikes Back (yeah, both my kids have seen the previous three Star Wars movies on video).
After viewing The Phantom Menace, Adam had a brief period of wanting to be Qui-Gon, which as far as he was concerned meant that we should run out to Toys R Us to get a green lightsaber. We had our doubts about this. Then, when he learned that his brother intended to be Darth Maul - using a stick from the backyard held in the middle to represent the extremely cool double lightsaber, since we balked at purchasing a $30 plastic fake weapon - Adam decided that he, too, wanted to be the bad guy. No amount of pointing out that Obi-Wan beat Darth Maul seems to make an impression here. The dude with the coolest weapon is clearly the man of the month.
We're working on this with Lego re-enactments - fortunately Darth Maul snaps apart neatly in the middle, though unfortunately my Star Trek: The Next Generation engineering set has been deemed the closest approximation to the site of his battle with Obi-Wan, and the best way to recreate Maul's ultimate fate seems to be throwing him over the side of the deck behind our house. I'm a little afraid that the next time his father and I stop to debate appropriate punishment, Daniel is going to move for a vote of no confidence in our leadership.
I was ten years old when I saw Star Wars...the one subsequently subtitled A New Hope. I remember having nightmares from the burning skeletons of Aunt Beru and Uncle Owen, and from some of the scary guys in the cantina sequence. Yet my much-younger kids don't appear to have nightmares at all, not even about Anakin having to leave his Mommy. Does this mean that movies have gotten less scary, or that social tolerance for things which should frighten us has shifted? Should it concern me that my small children take Dark Lords of the Sith in stride? Or should I go back to worrying about how to explain why we're bombing Kosovo and things like that?
My kids have an easy solution to the European crisis: send in the battle droids. They understand the concept that they're computer-generated images, but they still think we should build some, and I've met some defense contractors whom I'm sure would agree. I wonder how my kids would have settled last year's impeachment crisis; why do I have a feeling it would have involved a lightsaber duel between Bill Clinton and Henry Hyde?
You know, the more I think about exposing my kids to the real world, the less disturbed I am by Star Wars. Bring on the infrared remote-powered Royal Starship; we're cruising.