Jimmy Neutron vs. Godzilla

The 5-year-old wrinkled his nose at the TV commercial and stated simply: “That’s a lie.”

We were watching a commercial for some kind of “carpet of flowers” that you’re supposed to roll down, water, then watch amazed as a bounty of blooms appears overnight. Andy had a similar reaction to another ad promoting a cake-decorating kit. The many features of the $29.99 wonder were nothing short of dazzling, and I half-expected him to suggest we purchase it. Somehow, though, he was able to quickly sort it into the “media lies” pile and focus his avarice on the RC helicopter promoted in the commercial that followed.

I shouldn’t be, but I’m still amazed when kids this young can parse the incoming media stream so effectively. The reality, of course, is that they simply have to learn these skills early on in our wired (and wireless) world. Where I had 13 channels of TV and a pile of Hardy Boys books as a kid, our children command enough broadband and computing power to set up their own space center.

Parents of a certain age no doubt remember sitting absorbed in front of shows like “Gilligan’s Island,” “Land of the Lost” or “The Six Million Dollar Man.” I can even remember being transfixed by all the old Japanese monster movies shown non-stop on Channel 11. My friends and I knew all the monsters’ various attributes, good- or bad-guy status and overall story line, and it never occurred to us to giggle over the fact that it was a guy in a suit stomping on a bunch of models. (Most of our mirth centered on the appalling vocal dubbing.)

Comparing, say, an episode of “Jimmy Neutron” to a film like “Godzilla vs. Mothra,” presents a good example for the generational difference in media options. To get to the big scene where the two monsters meet, we had to endure a good hour of setup, including Japanese military officials meeting around a large table and the inexplicable appearance of Mothra’s proxies: two tiny fairies who spoke for the monster. In the 1970s, we didn’t realize how badly the special effects sucked, nor did we spend much time wondering why a country that had recently had two of its major cities nuked kept producing films depicting Japan being destroyed anew.

For “Jimmy Neutron” fans like our youngest son, the formula satisfies by delivering problem, plan and resolution in rapid-fire plot points that are long on faux-tech and short on logic (as well as adult input). For the defeat of Mothra, one must have a logical plan developed by adults that ultimately makes some kind of sense. And we were willing to spend 90 minutes to see that develop.

If today’s short-attention-span theater is preparing kids for the “real world,” where e-mail can follow you to the ends of the Earth and one’s brain must filter 1,700 ad impressions per second (or whatever), what, then, to make of parents who don’t let their children watch any TV at all? I’ve met these people and their children; all seem perfectly normal. But when the kids go off to college and are suddenly bombarded with the media from which they’ve been carefully sheltered, will their brains explode?

Hard to say. As Jen and I watch Andy skillfully work the trackpad on the laptop to navigate through games on nick.com, we worry if he has too much plugged-in time. But then we’ll spend an hour hiking to look for snakes or canvassing the neighborhood for interesting rocks. I can’t help but think that, even as we wring our hands over media saturation, to the kid it’s all just multi-flavored diversions. A snake in the grass is fundamentally no different than a dinosaur on a Web game: It’s just the delivery method that’s different.

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