Grimm’s fairytales, those children’s stories that have stood the test of time, have done so not in spite of the danger in which they throw their young protagonists, but because of it. Hansel and Gretel get devastatingly close to being devoured by the witch, Little Red Riding Hood is eaten by the wolf, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty both essentially die when they are put into a never-ending sleep. And yet, we read these stories to our children from a very young age. Stories are where our children first encounter danger, difference, and fear, ultimately overcoming those obstacles while nestled safely in our arms. Movies have stepped in to share the mantle of acquainting our children with experiences that we hope they never have to confront in their own lives. At their best, movies help them vicariously experience and overcome these trials in the safest possible space.
This summer’s children’s adventure film Earth to Echo pulls certain plot points from the genre’s most successful outings (The Goonies and E.T.) and attempts to update the stories for the current generation. If you missed the film’s quick stint in theaters don’t be too dismayed; my reasons for discussing it now speak more to a wider cultural shift in the access children have to risk than just the sins of this particular movie. Unfortunately, when updating this modern story (read: adding the stock references to smart-phones, YouTube, Go-Pros, and Googling) the film ultimately suffers from the current epidemic of helicopter parenting — meaning constantly hovering over children to prevent them from experiencing any and all danger — and essentially sterilizes itself of any merit.
The film’s ultimate message? Confronting danger and difference in fiction is almost as undesirable as confronting it in life.
Earth to Echo’s setup makes no attempt to disguise the homages is pays to the classic films. For example: A whole neighborhood is being forced to vacate due to construction of a new freeway, and three friends find maps burned into their phones and use their last night together to investigate the map and save their neighborhood. Huge shout-outs to The Goonies here.
On said investigation the boys find an extra-terrestrial and spend the remainder of the film helping him return home as they evade the government. Obviously this portion of the film is harkening back to E.T. And although some will think I just suffer from the “we-had-it-better” or “get-off-my-lawn” syndrome, I went into Echo knowing it was trying to modernize these classic adventures and genuinely excited to see how it played out. I was hoping I might have another fairytale to show my eventual offspring.
My children will never see this movie.
As a child, both The Goonies and E.T. were frightening, but not nightmare-inducing. I still remember feeling a sense that even as a kid I could be a person, have independence, make a difference. In E.T. and the government descends upon Elliot and E.T. with fleets of police officers, government suits, eventually enveloping Elliot’s entire home in a huge, terrifying bubble. When Elliot helps E.T. escape this sheer scale helps the viewer understand that even as a child, Elliot has genuinely accomplished something. In Goonies the kids tie up their babysitter, escaping to an abandoned restaurant where they enter into an Indiana Jones style cave full of treasure and booby-traps.
In Echo they evade parents in the usual way, saying they are all going to each other’s place for a sleep over before riding their bikes out into the empty Nevada desert to an abandoned barn where parents are always just a cell-phone call away. Even when the threat appears, the government agents seem to be just a single van of glorified construction workers. No guns. No suits. There never seems to be any sort of eminent danger. All of these stark differences can be seen without even mentioning the fact that The Goonies has the friggin’ FRATELLIS — you know, the family full of murderous felons who are willing to kill the kids to get at One-Eyed Willie’s long lost treasure.
The differences in Goonies’ and Echo’s attitude toward danger are best illustrated by a juxtaposition of each films’ interrogation scenes. In Echo, a government official interrogates one of the boys, asking about the whereabouts of the alien and his friends. When the man wishes to intimidate the boy he slams his hand loudly on the table and raises his voice. In Goonies when Chunk won’t answer the Fratellis’ questions they attempt to shove his hand into a blender. Even as an adult I watch this scene through the gaps in my (thankfully present) fingers. Echo suffers greatly because there are no stakes. It doesn’t take the opportunity to expose children to danger in a totally safe environment, thus allowing them to learn and grow by conquering these simulated dangers. Instead, the film caters to parents who wish to shelter their children from any kind of danger, real or imaginary.
Surprisingly, the failings of Echo aren’t just in its unwillingness to simulate danger, but also in its literal portrayal of the unknown. It misses the chance to show the importance of treating those who are different, or even outwardly unappealing, with kindness. Movies like The Goonies, E.T., and Earth to Echo are all films about friendship and accepting those different than us. In Goonies Chunk learns to love and accept Sloth despite his monstrous form. In E.T. Elliot learns to love the alien despite the fact that he is brown, wrinkly, and makes that gross squishing noise when he walks. Sloth is ugly. E.T. is ugly. Echo, on the other hand, is unbearably cute. He looks like a small metal owl with big doe eyes. When the boys first encounter him they feign fear, but I remain unconvinced that Echo is scary in any way. When the boys decide to accept him there’s no surprise.
Even when the boys decide to allow a girl join their rag tag band halfway through the film she just so happens to be the prettiest girl in school. If all tangible danger is removed from the film, is it really too much to ask to make the characters the boys are forced to accept along the way a little less appealing? To sneak a tiny moral lesson into the endless fluff about friendship?
So while seemingly harmless, dressing itself in the familiar trappings of a coming-of-age adventure tale, being harmless is exactly what makes Earth to Echo so diabolical. The violence, swearing kids, and penis jokes of earlier films may seem threatening to parents’ protective sensibilities, but these older classics are actually a safe way to help children face danger, conquer fears, and eventually become independent. Skip Echo. Let your kids see other kids say “shit,” break rules, and build friendships. Grab some Reese’s Pieces, put on your Purple Rain t-shirt and pop in an old classic.
Most importantly, bring your kids with you.
(This piece was inspired by the wonderful Hanna Rosin and her recent article, “The Overprotected Kid” in The Atlantic. If you want to read more preaching about how you baby your kid too much she is much more eloquent than I am. Read it HERE.)