Jaws vs. Dora

The marquee of our local drive-in theater revealed something to me recently. First I’ll tell you what I learned about myself and then I’ll explain what in God’s green earth it has to do with the movies.

Parenting is a lens. Once you gaze through that lens, your perception of the world is forever altered. Trying to interpret anything from your earlier perspective after you’ve bespectacled yourself with parenthood is, in my experience, a virtual impossibility. You can’t un-parent yourself. Once you have kids, pre-conception preconceptions disappear and a new set of, um, postconceptions take their place.

Parent brain — or papa brain in my case — is a singular thing unto itself. It’s both sharper and more worn down than the brain I had previously. It simultaneously makes me more in touch with my inner child, and more weighed down by an array of adult worries. It renders me both hyper-grateful for the priceless gifts I’ve been given, and hyper-discontent with the world we are collectively passing down to our children. Papa brain is a many-faceted thing, and a fair number of those facets involve feeling protective of the innocence of both my children and, in a more generalized way, all children everywhere.

So let’s get back to the movie marquee that imparted this small epiphany. Over the years, I’ve seen several wildly mismatched double features advertised at our local drive-in. Two movies that have absolutely no viable reason to be shown in immediate succession to the same audience.

The most egregious pairing, so egregious that it’s stayed with me, was The Nut Job 2: Nutty by Nature followed by Dunkirk. An animated movie about squirrels paired with a dark, intense, deeply un-kid-friendly WWII drama. Then there was The Emoji Movie and War for the Planet of the Apes. An animated movie about smiley faces followed by a dark, dystopian, un-kid-friendly tale of mankind being violently overthrown by simians.

In the Venn diagram of people who want to watch either set of movies, there is no overlap. At all. Heck, the two circles aren’t even located in the same zip code.

Fast forward to this week, when the movie marquee revealed another bonkers double feature: Dora and the Lost City of Gold followed by 47 Meters Down: Uncaged. So what you have in this case is a live-action adaptation of a squeaky-clean animated TV show for 4-to-8-year-olds, followed immediately by…

Wait for it…

A violent Jaws knockoff about terrified teenage girls being hunted in a labyrinth of underwater caves by “the deadliest shark species in the ocean.”

I’m pretty sure Dora never explored that.


This got me thinking about how such a marquee would have struck me in my 20s and how it strikes me now that I’m a 30-something parent of two. As a younger fellow, I would have mostly found it humorous to imagine two absurdly divergent movies pressed together in a shamelessly money-grabbing double feature like this. After all, what’s next — The Barney Movie followed by Jurassic World? The Secret Life of Pets followed by the Pet Sematary remake? The Angry Birds Movie followed by The Birds?

But I’m not a 20-something bachelor anymore. The world seems vastly more high-stakes to me these days. And my instinctive response now to these mismatched marquees is much more earnest and much less fun: It’s pure righteous dad-fueled outrage. All I can think (and cringe) about now are the small children who may be forced to sit through a bloody shark attack thriller because their lazy, selfish parents don’t have the basic human decency to exit the drive-in after Dora and Boots find their lost city of gold. And I also think (and seethe) about the lazy, greedy drive-in owner who didn’t have the good sense to prevent that likelihood by selecting age-appropriate movie pairings.

As a father of small children, one of my preeminent concerns in life is to preserve as much of my children’s innocence as possible, for as long as possible. I’m deeply fortunate to parent alongside a woman who aspires to that goal with the exact same intensity. And that, I believe, is why our 3-year-old reads and puzzles voraciously, is obsessed with animals and the alphabet and nature, and barely glances at a screen in the course of a given day. We take great pride in doing everything we can to nurture the creativity and sweet innocence of the two children who have been entrusted to us.

But I fear for other children too, and more so every time I hear stories of kids being exposed to mildly dark (or unthinkably dark) viewing material. I once heard a dad say he regularly watched Family Guy with his young children. Violent superhero movies are now marketed, via the toy department and without controversy, to kids as young as 3 or 4. I’ve heard of a mom showing twisted horror movies to her young daughter as an amusing pastime. And when I watched Saving Private Ryan in a theater, a mom sat right in front of me with her 5-year-old son. This kind of stuff fills me not just with sadness but with anger. To me, the careless decimation of a child’s innocence is a moral crime.

And that’s my papa brain working at full throttle. These are strident concerns that I wouldn’t have burdened myself with 10 or 15 years ago. But now it’s both my blessing and my curse to look at the world through the protective and hyper-vigilant lens of fatherhood.

The world has always been a dangerous, shark-infested place, but it sure as heck seems to be even more dangerous these days. I’d genuinely like to believe that this is solely a product of my papa brain and the furrowed brow that comes along with it as a package deal. But I fear that things genuinely are getting darker. I’ve even sworn off reading the news for the past month because it was all getting too overwhelming. And I just don’t want to miss out on a moment with my kids while they’re both at an age where they need me to be my best, breeziest, most buoyant self. But it’s a tough balancing act.

Ultimately, I can only answer for my own little ones. Hopefully good sense will prevail and the Dillsburg parents who take their kids to watch Dora discover lost cities will not also let them watch bloodthirsty sharks devour lost teenagers. But even if not, that blood is not on my hands. All I can do is keep Greyson and Violet on the right track. And hope against hope that I can keep them safe and sound, away from the murky, chum-baited, shark-filled waters of the modern age.

Would it be nice to be able to look at a simple movie marquee without earnestly fearing for future generations? Heck yeah. My mental outlook was decidedly simpler before I had kids. I worried about the news a lot less, that’s for sure. And I certainly didn’t worry about drive-in movie pairings.

But I’ll take the burden of having a papa brain in a heartbeat. It’s endlessly worth the hand-wringing and brow-furrowing for the sake of the two heartbeats — and the two innocent hearts — that brought that brain into being.


– JW

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