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Discovering Movies, And How Visions Are Seldom All They Seem

A first movie, like Disney's <em>Sleeping Beauty, </em>can have a big impact on little kids. It might even turn them into movie reviewers one day.
Courtesy of The Kobal Collection
A first movie, like Disney's Sleeping Beauty, can have a big impact on little kids. It might even turn them into movie reviewers one day.

Editor's Note: Hot weather is the time for popcorn pictures — escapist films that may have laughs or tears along the way, but that inevitably end happily. It's a formula that's served Hollywood well, and that's also served to make a lot of people into movie addicts, including our critic Bob Mondello. He now sees more than 300 movies a year — many of which do not have happy endings, and that suits him fine. But we asked him if he remembered his first trip to a movie theater. And he did.

I was 9. A neighborhood theater in Bethesda, Md., in 1959. A matinee crowded with zillions of kids discovering new things about a fairy tale we all thought we knew: Sleeping Beauty.

The Disney Sleeping Beauty was different from the Brothers Grimm version. For one thing, the Disney animators had reduced Princess Aurora's seven fairy godmothers to three — Flora, Fauna and Merryweather. And Flora and Merryweather had very specific ideas about colors: Flora liked pink, Merryweather liked blue.

When they were magically creating Aurora's birthday dress, that caused problems. They kept casting spells, and blue and pink bolts of magic, some of which started shooting out the chimney like fireworks, blowing their cover and letting the nasty queen, Maleficent, know where they were hiding.

I think the reason I remember this part is that at some point both Flora and Merryweather cast a spell at the same moment, and the dress ended up splotchy and spoiled. If something like that had happened in my house, my brother and I would've gotten spanked.

But then Maleficent showed up, and we forgot about colors and splotches for a while and worried about curses and pricked fingers, and Swords of Truth, and forests of thorns, and a huge dragon, and kisses that awaken fairy princesses. Only to have the issue crop back up at the very end — when Princess Aurora and her prince were dancing their way to happily ever after, fairy godmothers looking on ... and changing the dress back and forth from blue to pink.

It was funny, but I was worried that they'd splotch everything up again. Before they did, I turned to my mom, and saw she had tears in her eyes.

And I said, "Mom! It's not sad!"

And she said, "I'm crying because it's so happy," which, to a 9-year-old is just ... nuts.

Later I would realize that Mom and Dad sometimes yelled at each other in real life, something I wasn't connecting to the lovers on screen, though I guess maybe Mom was. She knew then what I wouldn't learn till much later, "that visions" — in the words of "Once Upon a Dream," the song the prince and princess were dancing to — "are seldom all they seem."

But that day, mixed messages were not what Mom wanted to impart at my first movie ever. So she blinked her tears away. And smiled. And said, "Who wants ice cream?"

And I did.

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Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.