Scary monsters - Can 'family viewing' ever be entirely innocent again?

'The Lord of the Rings', 'Narnia', 'King Kong' - films for all the family are box-office gold. Stands to reason. But kids are growing up fast now, says David Thomson, and in ways that we don't fully comprehend
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The Independent Culture

For over 100 years, the strange dance that involves kids and the movies has been as natural, as fascinating and as dangerous as that meeting between Romeo and Juliet. At the point that young people hesitate on the brink of experience - whether it expects them to be brave enough to conquer monsters, independent enough to set out across infinite oceans, or just so horny and anxious that they need to touch each other - the movies seemed like an experiment made to order. For nearly every risk or adventure could be tried first as a fantasy, with the kid still safe in the dark.

But should the children see the new King Kong? In 1933, when the first version opened, it was not regarded as a children's entertainment, so much as a parable for adults. After all, which parents then would have been quite comfortable with the question, "Why is Kong undressing the lady instead of eating her?"? The original version of the story has its foot hard-down on the sub-text accelerator - "It was Beauty killed the Beast! ", went the line from the film (as if this was a new kind of fairy tale). But when Kong's paw lifts up Anne Darrow (the superb Fay Wray), his blunt eye (and ours) gets an unmistakable sense of a warm quivering body beneath the flimsy tropical clothing. Kong gazing at Anne Darrow is in the scrapbook of movie erotica.

This was no less urgently felt in the very entertaining 1977 re-make, the one where Jessica Lange looked up at the lovelorn Kong, with mischief and curiosity, and wondered just how his amorousness was going to find a practical delivery system, let alone allow a clinch that could make it in a PG film. Today, the girl is Naomi Watts - the least carnal Anne Darrow we've had - but Kong in the posters and the trailers has that lovely sloping gorilla body, the pug nose and the 100-per-cent "in love" look. Peter Jackson's effects may be beyond belief or description, Skull Island may be more exotic than New Zealand. But I don't see how the sexual sub-text or the love story can go much further. We are not ready - are we? - for a movie in which Ms Darrow contrives to give the ape a tasteful blow-job.

But one way the story could have gone - it's not quite Peter Jackson territory - is to recollect the thrust in the line from the first film: "It was Beauty killed the Beast!" Of course, that means Beauty led the Beast away from his true nature. But you could have a very modern movie in which Ms Darrow buys Kong as a household pet and he becomes a fat shadow of his former self, an humiliated drudge, a plaything whose thick fingers cannot work the remote control button on the TV and who finally bores Anne - so she sends him to the pound.

But what sort of movie is that for kids? It's nearly as bad as having Lassie put down. If you want to incur the wrath of a children's crusade in this day and age your best bet is to inflict flagrant cruelty on some animal icon. And don't forget that behind every version of King Kong there lies the dismal melancholy of most urban zoos. Here's a real way to go with the story: an abused and beast-weary Kong is discovered, rescued and re-trained by terrorists.

Of course, the new King Kong (said to have cost close to a quarter-of-a-billion dollars) has to secure the child audience this Christmas. We may never hear the details, but if Jackson left elements of authentic terror or adult sexual suggestiveness in his film, those will have been drained away to get the 12A rating. A little fright is OK, but the creative vision will have been tempered to the box office. One large reason why Jackson was personally paid $20m to do this Kong was because in The Lord of the Rings - full of dread, combat and potential horror (to say nothing of complex mystical urgings) - he delivered a film that children, parents and grandparents saw together, happily, congratulating each other on what is now a very rare thing - a family entertainment.

There's an odd contradiction of forces at work: older generations may long for tranquil "children's films" - thus the return of Lassie in a new version this week to divert the little ones from video games that may entail hours of questing, zapping and destroying. Yet kids also long for a taste of the grown-up world. The new Harry Potter picture has moments that are flat-out scary and intimations of adolescence blooming in our central trio. The bringing to the screen of the Narnia story is an attempt to hold on to the child audience while keeping adults interested. And some of it will work, even if sometimes kids can only prove themselves through rebellion.

Those packed houses for The Lord of the Rings were a throwback to the days when families went to mainstream films together, fairly sure that young children could follow the plot without being unduly frightened. That " golden age" atmosphere is part of the opportunity seized upon by the film industry to reach "everyone" at the same time. In turn, that was a measure of an age when families without the means to afford baby-sitting services liked to go, all together, to see movies. In hindsight, one can see how easily the set genres of that age appealed to everyone: action and adventure films, without undue violence; romantic stories, without too much sex; musicals - "Everyone loves a musical!"; and, of course, comedies. It was always the credo of Chaplin that he appealed to the child in every grown person, and to this day you can introduce a 10-year-old to classic movie fun by showing them Laurel and Hardy or the Marx Brothers. However, try W C Fields, and you discover the extra, embittered maturity in Fields - which went with the alleged liking for children, if boiled or roasted.

Horror and crime pictures were the only genres of the Thirties outside child's territory - and King Kong in 1933 was regarded as a kind of horror picture. The film-makers reckoned that the dynamic emotional thrust of the story was FEAR! That's why Anne Darrow the ingénue actress is first taught to scream the movie way and then allowed to scream for real as she sees a beast beyond her imagining. One problem for the new King Kong is going to be the wise child's response to Anne's alarm: "Gee, hasn't she seen King Kong before?"

In other words, our children have become very hip. In 1973, The Exorcist was - for adults - one of the most disturbing films ever shown. There were reasonable anxieties that some tender teenagers in the audience might be endangered - and this is all the more possible in that the central victim is a child. But when the film was reissued a few years ago I took an 11-year-old son and the only thing that interested him was how they had got the girl's head to revolve. The same boy saw the beast burst out of John Hurt's chest in Alien and chuckled, whereas his mother had once retreated from the theatre with nausea.

Any movie-goer knows such stories and they are steps in the dance I referred to. From the earliest days in film history, parents and teachers were alarmed at how much time kids were spending in the dark watching the flickers. That bias towards youth in the audience has always been there - never more so than today. For decades now, it has been easy to shock parents by telling them that their children, by the age of 18, have probably spent four times as long watching moving imagery (films and TV) as they have reading. In America, to this day, there is a reckless willingness to allow children to be present (with elders) at very frightening films - and over the ages, the threshold of violence and horror has gone steadily higher, enforced by the new armoury of technical effects.

But those scolds that would throw the TV out of the house if that house also contains a child in school forget the flood of knowledge that is carried on TV's toxic river. So, control TV and film? Not so easily done, for they are open taps - turned on, they stay on. The child left with the TV may be descended upon by unexpected image of terrorist horror, they may find The Black Stallion (a masterpiece) or use the remote to find the porn channels. And we have hardly touched upon the possibility that, in the larger educational sense, film and television may have prepared us (in fantasy first) for the new sexual life that became available in the 20th century; and prepared us also to recognise the everyday horrors in world history that are as hard to deal with as they are to ignore.

There is another possibility in all of this: that film and television have helped to make childishness the central emotional condition of our life. In the Romantic age, we discovered and idealised childhood: thus the stress on childish experience in the great novel. But movies and TV concentrated on young experience and helped invent the teenager - not just the model for our economic market, but increasingly the touchstone for our romantic and erotic experience.

Once, we were meant to grow up. Film has surely introduced the sweet and treacherous fantasy of remaining young. This may be far more frightening than the gaping mouth of any movie monster ready to bite our head off. That is the moment in the dance when we see that the darkness is us, ourselves.

'King Kong' (12A) is out on Thursday; 'Lassie' (PG) on Friday