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'Lion King' Too Violent for Little Viewers? : Movies: Disney's opus has violence, treachery and a prolonged scene of a parent's death. Be prepared to face the wails of your children, some reviewers say. Bosh, say psychologists.

July 02, 1994|CARROLL LACHNIT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"The Lion King's" animation dazzles. It has the golden G rating. But most important for parents seeking wholesome entertainment, "The Lion King" carries the ultimate blessing: the Disney name.

So why would parents hesitate?

Amid even glowing reviews for "The Lion King," some critics are offering stern warnings, such as this one from the Prodigy on-line service:

"Disney's increasingly weird predilection for cartoon violence, and for killing off at least one parent, is lamentably overdone this time," wrote Prodigy's own on-line reviewer, William C. Banks. On a 1 to 5 scale for violence, Banks gave it a 3.

That's the tenor of the critical cautions: "The Lion King" has violence. Treachery. Slavering, wild-eyed hyenas. A prolonged scene of a parent's death that leaves the heart-wrenching aspects of "Bambi" in the dust. Think twice, some reviewers say, or face the anguished wails of your little ones as you leave the theater.

The movie took in $42 million in its first wide-release weekend, so it's clear that a lot of parents aren't taking the critics' warnings to heart.

But should they? Surely real life is bad enough without putting dead parents, scary scavengers and claw-wielding battles into an animated movie for kids.

More than a few psychologists say that's not the case.

In "The Uses of Enchantment," his classic book on the importance of fairy tales, child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim contends that such stories allow children to give shape to their inner conflicts and find ways to resolve them. He believed that those who purged children's tales of danger, darkness and monsters missed something.

"They missed the monster a child knows best and is most concerned with: the monster he feels or fears himself to be. . . . Without such fantasies, the child fails to get to know his monster better, nor is he given suggestions as to how he may gain mastery over it."

The anxiety about scenes of violence and death often lies with the parents, not the children, said Dee Shepherd-Look, a child psychologist who practices in Woodland Hills and is a professor of psychology at California State University, Northridge.

"A parent feels that if something is tragic or terrible: 'I should shield my child.' But research has shown it's not in children's best interest," she said. "Children do experience feelings of sadness and apprehension. Parents need to let them have those experiences, and be there to help them and guide them."

The violent scenes and the father's death in "The Lion King" didn't bother Rosalyn Laudati, a psychologist who practices in Newport Beach and Brea. The violence wasn't blatant or gory, she said. And the film could help a child cope with a loss short of a parent's death.

"Kids nowadays experience the loss of a dad, not just through death, but through divorce," she said. "This showed a boy surviving," even after his father was gone.

After a recent matinee at Pacific's Lakewood Center Theater, most of the children and parents interviewed said they liked "The Lion King."

Clutching a stuffed-animal version of the hero, Simba, 4-year-old Clarissa Murray of Long Beach smiled serenely and shook her head when asked if she was scared or upset by the movie.

Her favorite part? Not the funny wart hog or the tender love story.

"The hyenas," she said.

Her father and mother, Kevin and Cynthia Murray, said they had been concerned when they saw television stories reporting "The Lion King's" allegedly frightening aspects.

But rather than skip the movie, they prepared for it. They bought Clarissa a book and cassette version, and discussed the death of Simba's father.

Kevin Murray said they didn't want a repeat of "Beethoven's 2nd," where Clarissa watched in horror as a puppy was dangled over a waterfall.

"That scared her," he said.

When Simba found his father lying in the dust after a wildebeest stampede, Joel, 4, and Jonathan Polk Jr., 9, of Compton, were not hysterical or sad, their father said. Just perplexed.

"The kids asked us, 'Is he dead?' " Jonathan Polk said. He and his wife, Cynthia, told them the father was indeed dead.

Later, when Simba sees a vision of his father urging him to return to the pride, the boys were really confused. Was Simba's father still dead or had he somehow returned to life?

"I told them, 'He's dead-dead,' " Polk said.

Twelve-year-old Tiffany Robinson of Long Beach cried her way through the movie, said her mother, Patty Robinson.

"I thought it was really neat, but sad, too," Tiffany said.

But the movie wasn't a hit with Lauren Bartlett, 4, of Lakewood. She spent most of it curled in her mother's lap.

"It was too violent for her," said her mother, Cheryl Bartlett. "She was hanging on to me real tight."

She and Patty Robinson agreed that the movie probably was too intense for children under 5. "It was tastefully violent, though. Not graphic, and there was no suffering," Robinson said. "You see worse on television."

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