That’s me trying to explain the Star Wars storyline to my first-grader, who’s never seen the movies but is curious about them.
He’s heard other kids talking about Star Wars at school, so he checked out a book from the library introducing the series to beginner readers. He’s mostly interested in light sabers and Yoda levitating objects, but he has a lot of questions, and I don’t always know how to answer them.
By way of background, and at the risk of offending fans out there, I have to tell you that for my money, the Star Wars series is the most overrated franchise in Hollywood history.
The plot at the heart of Star Wars is timeless: we want to fight evil, but it turns out that the evil we fear and loathe lurks within our own family, even within ourselves. Not surprisingly, the movie that reveals this shocking fact (The Empire Strikes Back) is the only good one of the six.
Setting this story a long time ago in a galaxy far away is fine–who doesn’t like spaceships and strange worlds? And maybe the central conflict could be made accessible for kids, although I don’t know how, since free will and danger within your own family are heavy concepts. But George Lucas opted to make his movies kid-friendly by playing for laughs, and the comic characters detract from the story. Don’t get me started on the racial/ethnic stereotyping. The dialogue is also dreadful. The Phantom Menace was so bad that I refused to spend money on the final two movies. I felt great about that decision after catching bits and pieces of them on tv years later.
Reading what I’ve written so far, I realize that I sound like a movie snob. The truth is I love silly slapstick humor, and I like psychological stories in a sci-fi setting (Battlestar Galactica, some of the Star Trek series). I just don’t like those elements mixed into one movie by a mediocre director who doesn’t know how to tell a story.
On top of that, our family doesn’t watch many movies, or much television generally. My kids see a full-length movie about once every couple of months. If they’re going to watch one, I want it to be quality and pitched to their level, like Finding Nemo, Cars or Ratatouille. This summer my six-year-old watched The Princess Bride at day camp and loved it. I plan to rent that sometime so we can watch it together.
I realize that little boys will be interested in gun play and superheroes, and at one level that’s all the Star Wars movies are. I am determined not to be “that mom” who freaks out about pretend fighting and shooting that is developmentally appropriate. Still, there are lots of movies I’d want to show my children before we waste time on the Star Wars series.
So, my son brings home a Star Wars book for early readers, and now he and his little brother, not quite 4, have 101 questions. The book goes over the basics about the force, and how people can learn to use the force. Yoda can move things–really big things. The light sabers are cool. So far, so good.
The questions about the characters are harder to answer at their level. I try to keep things simple. These fighters are called Jedi. That one was Anakin’s teacher. Their light sabers are different colors. But when my son points at a picture of Darth Vader and says, “He’s bad,” I don’t want to leave it at that. Don’t they always say in discipline books, “Describe the problem instead of labeling the person”? So, I try things like, “He made a lot of bad choices. He wasn’t born bad, but he made a lot of bad choices.” Yes, he was burned when he fell on the lava rock. Yes, Luke is Anakin’s son. (Way to ruin the best plot twist in the best Star Wars movie, early reading book!)
So far they haven’t asked much about the queen, and I don’t know how I am going to explain that one. Dying of a broken heart because the love of your life went over to the dark side seems pretty far beyond what they can grasp. Nor do I want to introduce fears about mothers dying because they got really sad.
Any suggestions about age-appropriate ways to talk about violence and evil would be welcome in this thread.
On a final (and probably futile) note, you’re wasting your time if you try to convince me that the Star Wars movies are great and Lucas is a genius.