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Happy fiction

Calvin spent the afternoon watching Happy Feet with my parents while I took care of some errands, went for a run, and agonized over finishing his Halloween costume (which has been pushing my sewing skills to their limit). This was a great arrangement because I'm not big on kid movies while I think my mom enjoys an excuse to see them. For the past few months my little boy has been in love with penguins, and he had a great time watching the video.

The minute he arrived home, in fact, he was tap dancing and summarizing the movie with gusto. I haven't seen it, and I didn't catch my parents' opinions on it, but it was clear that Calvin loved it, even though, as he and Gram said, "it was a little scary in parts." Apparently a leopard seal and an Orca, both hunters of penguins, are to blame for that description. My first reaction was that certainly Calvin wouldn't have been bothered by this—over the past few months we've watched countless videos about all those animals, about the balance of their lives in the ecosystem, and the importance of each one in the food web. In learning about evolution we've read books and watched videos about predators and prey, and have fallen in love with each in its turn. Calvin, after all, is the one who was rooting for the troll in the Three Billy Goats Gruff.

But actually he was bothered by the predator threat. In fact, my parents said he was continually on edge about the little penguin's safety. That thoroughly surprised me, but When I think about it, what does a kid's movie do better than to clearly define good and evil and pit them against each other? In fact, the story of good and evil is the driving force behind a lot of fiction, be it literature, stage, or cinema, and it is identification with these extremes that allows an audience to unite behind a common belief, or a suspension of thereof. Who doesn't recognize the dark and dissonant sounds as bad, bad, bad? If the leopard seal appears accompanied only by dark lighting and music, then of course he is to be feared.

This isn't a condemnation by any means, just an observation. It seems like one of the separations of fiction from reality is the suspension of not only belief, but also judgement. While the movie (or other media) is judging for you, your brain gets a moment of rest and can just enjoy the entertainment . We could probably watch a hundred documentaries about predators and prey and not flinch at a single one, yet still we would be drawn to root for the little penguin at the threat of the leopard seal, even if the seal were to be at risk of starvation. There will be time enough later, during our next non-fiction viewing, to root for the leopard seal and hope that he gets enough to eat.

So Calvin had a great time watching the movie today and now I get to have a great time watching him tap dance all over the house. I seem to remember a time from my past when, after my parents took me to see Aristocats in the theater, I spent the next few days crawling around on all fours pretending to be a cat. I think I like the tap dancing better.