Waiting for Vader

My friend showed the first Star Wars film to her then-5 year-old son, and he loved it.  Her initial reaction was to plan to show him The Empire Strikes Back the next night.  I told her no.  For a lot of reasons.

There are quite a few mistakes in moving on from Episode IV to Episode V in one day with a five year-old. 

Each movie is complicated.  Star Wars happens to be even more complex than just about any other movie he's seen as the target audience.  For one things, there are far more characters in it.  You just don't see kids movies with two male leads (not just a central hero and a princess) plus a load of side kicks: wise old sage, ape/dog co-pilot, plus two robots for comic relief.  The movie also has three distinct Acts (with a lot of things going on in between): hero leaves home, hero rescues princess, hero battles evil space fortress.  There's a lot of stuff there for a kid to absorb in one sitting.  Most of us had three years between each of the original movies.  I'm not saying to wait that long, but multiple viewings of just the first one and some discussion are required before you move to the next.

Each film deserves an identity.  You don't want everything jumbled up in his mind.  These movies are referenced continually in pop culture and will continue to be for the rest of his life.  If the series is twisted around in his head, then it will just be awkward.  I remember as a teen when I bought the last two Led Zeppelin albums the same day and listened to them back to back.  To this day, I can't tell you which songs are on which, just that they're from those two albums.  Each movie has a particular character, but that will only be evident if there's time between each so that when he goes into the next one, it's unfamiliar territory.  Empire in particular is meant to be unsettling, but that is only effective if you get familiar with the first movie (and it's triumphant tone) before venturing onward where the second film matures into more somber territory.

Kids learn by sticking with one thing at a time.  I don't have a copy of Gladwell's The Tipping Point handy to look this up, but in it he talks about how the Nickelodeon show Blue's Clues had a different airing schedule than adult programming.  Specifically, the same episode was shown over again from one day to the next for the duration of the week.  Adult shows usually play through a whole season before they start over again and repeat episodes.  However, the research shows that kids learn best by watching something over and over in rapid succession.  I don't know that the book goes into the reasons behind why this is, but I can guess at one of them: Kids don't have a framework yet, so when they watch media, it's all new to them from one second to the next.  By contrast, when we watch a movie, we get that there's a logical progression: Introduce the characters, establish relationships, introduce conflict, plot exposition, build toward a climax, confrontation, resolution, roll credits.  We are able to see a movie and can summarize it in moments afterward.  Young kids can't do that; it's just a jumble of impressions to them.

Kids learn by sticking with one thing for a looong time.  It takes time to internalize each movie.  He has to get comfortable with all the relationships and understand who these characters are and what they mean to one another.  I realized the importance of passive time when I was teaching in a progressive school that was experimenting with class schedules.  Instead of covering six subjects over the course of the year, they decided to double the amount of time for each subject and do three per semester.  So I was supposed to teach 9 months of chemistry in 4.5 months for twice as long each day.  Seemed reasonable, more immersive.  But it didn't work.  As xmas approached, they were just beginning to get their heads around the basic concepts... which is exactly when kids would in a conventional schedule, even though theoretically these kids should have been twice as far along by that point.  It wasn't the amount of class time that was important; it was real world developmental time that was required to reflect and construct meaning for each student.  The first Star Wars movie will mean something different to him a year from now than it will on the first viewing, even if he never saw it again in the interim.

He deserves a childhood full of Star Wars.  Do you want to burn through some of his best viewing experiences all in a few days?  That would be like having a childhood's worth of Christmasses over the course of a couple weeks then never receiving another present again.

Show Empire when it's age-appropriate to do so.  Perhaps the best reason overall why you should wait before you move on to Empire ought to be pretty obvious: It's the darkest movie.  I'm not saying that he can't handle it, but it's going to mean so much more for him in another year (or two, better).  At the time Lucas was filming Empire, he consulted a child psychologist because he worried what effect Vader's revelation would have on the younger audience.  The psychologist said that when young kids encounter something that is difficult, they deny it.  He said most of them would simply not believe Vader of Luke's father, that they'd think Vader was making it up.  If you wait until he's the right age, then the effect will be much more profound and exactly as intended.  Try too soon, and it will completely miss the target.

It's about the fall and rise of Vader.  Let's say you do the logical thing and do Empire, and then show him RotJ the next day or something.  What's he going to make of the resolution of the central story of Vader's redemption?  It's just not going to have much meaning for him if he isn't even buying the revelation made in Empire.


It's better to spend some time getting him acquainted with the characters.  Quote some of the lines from the movie.  Do impressions of the characters.  And so on, the way most people spent the end of the 1970s.  Maybe even get him a lightsaber and/or t-shirt with R2D2 on it for xmas.  Savor the first movie for the moment before you move onto the next one.

Copyright 2012 "In a gAle[x]y far, far away..."
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