Movies, Dr. Seuss and Teaching with a Story

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Every Friday night we watch a movie and make pizza as a family. Everyone looks forward to it but I’m the one who is usually in charge of what movie we watch. I usually start obsessing about it on Thursday. I try really hard to find things of substance, movies that present something deeper than a straight to video sequel of a movie that was based on a character that was popular in the theater years ago, and believe me, there are a lot of those. I admit that I tend to push the envelope as far as content goes. My son is five, but if I could get away with it, he would be watching things for a ten year old. His mind is just ok with it most of the time, and then sometimes it’s not and I’m totally surprised about something I would never have thought to worry about. Though trial and error I’ve come to realize that just because he says he wants to see something, doesn’t mean it is a good idea, and it doesn’t mean that I should suggest movies more suited for older kids, for him. I just really want him to see things and have memories like I did as a child, in other words to be like me. Which he is not. We are both very different humans who respond differently to things. Sometimes I just need to shut-up, let him grow on his own and not push him to be what I think he should be.

What movie should we watch?

Recently I’ve been really into watching the Laika’s films with my son. I’m not sure if they consider themselves a studio or not, but that’s basically what they are, a studio for a new kind of old animation. A lot of what they do is based on a stop motion that is quite beautiful, but more importantly, they have a focus on story, and boy do they tell it well. They are responsible for movies like Kubo and the Two Strings, Boxtrolls, and ParaNorman. This Friday as we all sat down with our pizza I suggested ParaNorman. We watched the trailer and I could tell right away that it looked too scary for Max. I could tell, but I was willing to let him watch it if he wanted to. His Mom however, was not. I’m really thankful that Nicole is around otherwise I’d probably end up letting him drive a car while he mixes household chemicals, or something. As it became apparent that Laika was going to loose out, Max saw the image of a movie that he was interested in; Horton Hears a Who.

Seuss stories

I have very strong feelings about how Dr. Seuss’ books have been turned into movies. Mostly I wish they hadn’t. Because of Max I’ve see a couple of them and have always been slightly horrified about the creative ways they have found to use the central message as a way to expand story filler in a short fable about something important (I’m looking at you Lorax) and turn it into fluff. However…while we were watching the movie I realized that this one had some clever ideas about what it wanted to say and how it chose to do so without loosing what was great about the book. It felt like there was something in the bones of the story, Seuss’ story, that our whole family could take away and hold tight too right now. In the movie Horton, an elephant, hears the Whos that live on a speck, on a flower, and the Mayor of Whoville, on the speck, hears Horton. Long story short, each one is trying to convince others (Horton the animals in the forest, the mayor, the citizens of Whoville) that there is a truth greater than they realize, there is something happening that they should pay attention too, something that is right in front of them that they are either not willing to see or are not willing to look close enough to see. It’s a powerful idea, distilled a bit for kids, but still holding true to some of the story’s original ideas.

The story

As we sat watching, my mind flitted from story to story thinking about all the great things Seuss has given us. All the ways he found to tell the youth (and grown-ups) of the world to pay attention. He was an activist of the most simple and philosophical kind, writing stories that entertained us with their pictures and taught us how to live with their words. For one reason or another there was one story that kept popping in my head, one that my subconscious kept pulling me back too. It is not as well known, at least I don’t think it is, but for some reason, I have never been able to shake the impact it had on me as a child and now as an adult. As I sat there watching an Elephant talk to a speck on a flower my mind began to turn over why this story would haunt me now. Yertle the Turtle is in a book titled, Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories and revolves around the previously named turtle who is king of his pond.

Unhappy with the stone that serves as his throne Yertle orders the other turtles of the pond to stack one on top of another so he may sit on them, seeing further, which he thinks expands his kingdom. However, there is one turtle at the very bottom, Mack, who is suffering quite a bit as a result of all the turtles on top of him. Mack asks Yertle for a rest, but the king tells him no, and expands his kingdom even further up, ordering more and more and more turtles to his throne. Mack asks again for a rest but not just for him but all the turtles at the bottom of the stack, because the ones on the bottom hurt the worst because of all the weight. Again, he gets a no. Soon Yertle sees the moon rising in the sky. He is immediately angry that anything would dare to be higher than the king, so he orders more turtles to his throne so he can be higher than the moon. It is right then that Mack decides he can’t take anymore and…he burps. That one little burp knocks down Yertle’s throne, tosses him off the backs of his turtles, and into the muddy pond, freeing the others.

It is such a simple story, with such a powerful message. This is my favorite passage in the story:

But, as Yertle, the Turtle King, lifted his hand And started to order and give the command, That plain little turtle below in the stack, That plain little turtle whose name was just Mack, Decided he’d taken enough. And he had. And that plain little lad got a bit mad. And that plain little Mack did a plain little thing. He burped! And his burp shook the throne of the king!  (Seuss, 13)

A small thing a little burp but it shook the whole turtle world and toppled the king. Our little ones have big voices and we can try to give them memories based on what we know or what we think is right for them, but in the end, what they take away is somewhat beyond our control. There are always outside forces at work that run things,  putting walls around us, and forcing us in a direction. Whether it is money, time, law, race, or religion, their lives will be directed by how some of those things function. All we can really do is sit down on Friday nights, show them a movie, feed them some pizza and teach them how to burp. Maybe one day, one of them will be the King of the turtles or the Mayor of Whoville, and if that’s the case, and they are choosing the movie for their little turtles and Whos, I hope they are stories about us all, that, like Dr. Seuss’ stories, do their job and reflect for all time.

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