I was watching the latest episode of This is Us with my wife the other night (why I continue to watch this show is beyond me; it’s genetically designed to pull at its viewers’ heartstrings at the expense of anything like a compelling narrative). And as Mandy Moore sat there munching on a candy bar as she received the news her husband had died, I glanced over at my wife. Tears streamed silently down her face, her brow knit up like a Christmas scarf your mother made when you were six. And I turned back to the show and just watched, not crying. Not that I felt nothing, but I wasn’t impacted so deeply by what I was seeing.
Maybe it’s because I know the show’s goal, like the Greek tragedies of old, is to get under my skin and tap into the emotions I’m not supposed to express in my walking-around life. The entire raison d’etre for This is Us is to make its viewers bust a tear every week, to give us a blubbering, tear-streaked catharsis. I know that, and I have feelings about that goal (I think it’s cheap, but more on that another day), and my viewing of the show is as a result inescapably cynical.
It made me think: what was the last movie I really cried at? Adult movies (yeah, what I meant there was movies for grown-ups) don’t really do it to me anymore. My wife swears I cried the first time she made me watch The Notebook, but I remember it differently. And I can still get a little misty towards the end of Titanic, a movie about which I’m as cynical as it comes.
But no; what makes me cry these days are kids’ movies.
Show me The Lion King and I will weep manly tears as Simba noses at Mufasa’s body, trying in vain to wake him up. Inside Out gets me every time when Bing Bong throws himself off the wagon so that Joy can escape the black hole of memory. Shoot, I cried the first time I saw Frozen when Anna sacrificed herself to save a weeping Elsa, and Elsa threw her arms around her sister’s frozen statue. Don’t even get me started on A Dog’s Purpose. I had to leave the room. (I haven’t seen Up. I don’t plan to. I’ve heard stories.)
They didn’t always do this to me. In fact, I would have laughed at a version of myself who cried at kids’ movies, before I became a version of myself who cried at kids’ movies. (Actually, that’s not true. I still totally laugh at myself for crying at kids’ movies.)
And I think I know why I cry at kids’ movies.
It’s because I’m a parent now. And being a parent changes your perspective.
Time was when I could watch a kids’ movie and just, y’know, watch it. As a movie. Here’s a protagonist, here are their struggles, here’s how they deal with them. Strife happens, as strife happens to all, but a resolution is reached. Bing bang boom, kids’ movie over, no tears.
Now, no longer. Now, a kids’ movie comes on and I can’t help viewing it as a parent. Not in that is-this-thing-appropriate-for-my-kid-to-watch-or-should-I-be-calling-my-congressman-about-it kind of way. Rather, I watch it, and either subconsciously (or other times, entirely deliberately) project my kid onto it.
The Lion King: I’m not crying because Mufasa has died. I’m crying because Simba’s father has died, because the center of Simba’s world is gone, and now Simba has to navigate the world without his role model and mentor. And it hits me. WHAM. What would it be like for my kid if he had to go through life without me?
Inside Out: I’m not crying because Bing Bong disappears forever. I’m crying because something that makes Riley young and adorable and sweet just kind of fades out, never to be recovered. Not only does Bing Bong die (and man it’s hard to take ANY sort of post about anything serious seriously [yeah, that’s grammatically correct] when you’re repeatedly typing out “Bing Bong”), he gives himself up knowing full well what it means: that a little part of Riley’s imagination dies with him. WHAM. What will my kid become when she stops obsessing over Minnie Mouse and My Little Ponies?
Frozen: I’m not crying because Anna dies for her sister. I’m crying because for a heartbreaking moment, Elsa knows that she has lost her other half, the sister who’s been her only family for most of her life. WHAM. What will my kids be to each other when my wife and I are gone?
And there’s only so much of this WHAMming that a parent can take before we start to leak from the eyes at the merest hint of strife befalling our kids — or the kids we subconsciously project onto the kids in these movies.
My daughter’s latest obsession is the My Little Pony movie. It’s hard to live in our house for more than a few days and not come away quoting the flavor-of-the-month they’re watching (and the list is long: Cars, Wreck-it Ralph, Curious George, Boss Baby, Finding Dory, The Little Mermaid, Ice Age, Moana, Lego Batman, The Secret Life of Pets, Zootopia, stop judging me this list is not exhaustive), but I’m managing it so far with this one. Not only because something in my soul still manages to HATE My Little Pony since the days when my sisters loved it, but mostly because I don’t want to have to explain to my wife why a handful of animated magical horses have moved me to tears when a perfectly good show for grown-ups doesn’t.
But the day is not far off.
I only hope I’m already chopping onions when I inadvertently catch the emotional moment.