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The Father Factor


Teaching an "Old Dog" New Tricks

This weekend, I watched the 2009 Disney movie Old Dogs with my family. Clearly, working at NFI has gotten to me, because about 15 minutes into the film I got a notepad to jot down the great fatherhood moments in the film.

Old Dogs is a family comedy that tells the adventures of Dan (played by Robin Williams) and Charlie (played by John Travolta), friends and business partners who are suddenly thrust into the roles of “dad” and “uncle” when Vicki, the woman Dan married for less than 24 hours during a drunken beach vacation, reappears and Dan learns that he is the father of 7-year-old twins.

While I can’t unequivocally recommend this film due to some suggestive innuendos, Dan’s transition from a 50-something-year-old man who has no clue what to do with children to a father who makes some significant sacrifices to be involved in his kids’ lives is heart-warming and hilarious. And it offers some insights into what kids really need in a dad.

Both of the twins, Zach and Emily, deal with their father’s absence in ways that reflect the different needs that boys and girls have that a father is uniquely positioned to meet. Zach has created a “Dad List” of things he wants to do with his dad that includes camping, learning to ride a bike, and going to his first baseball game. Emily decided that her unknown father was a superhero because, Vicki said, it was her way of explaining who he was. When Dan struggles with pretending to be a superhero or king when Emily asks him to play with her, Charlie tells Dan that Emily just wants someone to protect her.

As NFI’s president Roland C. Warren says, kids have a hole in their soul in the shape of their dad. Zach and Emily show us that the hole looks different for boys and girls. Zach needed a man to walk him through the “rites of passage” in boyhood, and Emily needed a man to help her feel secure and safe. While moms certainly play an important role in both those areas, fathers bring a special and unique presence in their children’s lives that can’t be replaced.

Vicki knows this is true - she wants Zach and Emily to meet Dan because she recognizes that there are things she can’t do for her kids that a dad can (even if it’s as basic as taking Zach to the men’s room when he needs to use the bathroom).

Dan ends up making his own “Kid List” of goals, which includes doing something special for his twins’ birthday. Setting goals like that is a good idea for any dad, but the last item on Dan’s “Kid List” is the most important one, and is the message that Old Dogs communicates in between the comic moments - “Be there.”

Cloudy with a chance of .... fatherhood?

In the last few years, a number of animated movies with very strong fatherhood themes have been released. Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, The Princess and the Frog, and Up, to name a few. I just got around to watching Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs over the weekend, and it can be added to that list.

I am not sure what is going on here, but I am sure there is something going on here. It seems nearly every animated film deals, at some level, with "daddy issues," even if only as a side note.

My theory is that most of the men responsible for bringing these films to the screen are themselves fathers of young children - guys aged between 25 and 45 - and they are "living" this fatherhood thing day in and day out. Naturally, when they go to their typewriter to write a screenplay, or to the storyboard to create a character, fatherhood is foremost in their minds.

As for Cloudy, the best scene in the movie, in my view, is the "fatherhood moment" near the end. I won't give anything away for those who haven't seen it yet, but the scene really gives the entire film meaning. Much like fatherhood does for life. Either for good or for ill, fatherhood tends to be a life-defining institution that instills meaning in everything we do.

We either reflect fondly or sadly on our own relationships with our fathers. And when we become fathers ourselves, it brings joy, pain, or both into our lives. It is not surprising that the most creative among us - these filmmakers - are starting to see the storytelling potential of such a powerful institution.

Is Everybody Really Fine?

Everybody's Fine, a new Robert DeNiro movie, opened a few weeks ago. Here are the details.

Here is a synopsis of the film: A widower who realized his only connection to his family was through his wife sets off on an impromptu road trip to reunite with each of his grown children.

The title of the movie is a reference to what his late wife used to say to him whenever he asked about how his kids were doing. She would say, "everybody's fine," and he would move on without getting more details.

I had the opportunity to pre-screen the movie before it came out. For the most part, I thought it did a terrific job of showing how fathers, through their emotional absence, can let their children's lives pass them by. DeNiro's character, despite providing materially for his four kids, knows little about them, they know little about him, and he has no real relationships with any of them.

There were some very poignant moments throughout the film that realistically show the pain and problems that father absence causes both children and their dads.

However, the final moments of the film contradict the message that the first 90 minutes so effectively communicated. His surviving children all show up to his house for Christmas, and as they are all sitting around the dinner table, DeNiro's character says, "For the first time, I can honestly say that everybody's fine."

The problem is that two of his grandchildren were sitting at the table facing the exact same problem his four children had - they were growing up in situations that would not allow them to know their fathers!

So, they establish throughout the film that when children and their fathers lack a good relationship, it causes problems. But then at the end, we are told that two children growing up without their fathers are "fine."

I don't get it... If you have seen the film, I would love to get your thoughts.

The Princess and the Frog (and the dad!)

On December 11, a great new Disney movie is coming out - "The Princess and the Frog." A few of us here at NFI had the privilege of seeing an early screening of the film, and we were impressed on several levels.

First, the beauty of the hand-drawn animation is amazing.

Second, it is an extremely funny, entertaining film with fantastic music.

And third, there is a great fatherhood theme in the film. As NFI president Roland C. Warren is fond of saying, "Good fathers make sure that their daughters find their prince without having to kiss all the frogs." The father in the film, James (voiced by Terence Howard), is a hard-working, dedicated dad who shows his daughter, Tiana (voiced by Anika Noni Rose), that she has value, talent, and that she can achieve her dreams through hard work and perseverance.

Throughout the film, Tiana and her mother (voiced by Oprah Winfrey) reflect on her father's positive influence on her life, and how his presence contributed to the good things she achieves.

Given the fatherhood message of the film, NFI was honored to work with Disney to distribute movie-themed cards, books, and other materials to community-based organizations across the country. The organizations will use the materials to create father-friendly atmospheres in their facilities, to provide dads with gifts they can give their children, and to use as giveaways for father-child activities.

To say the least, we at NFI are excited about the release of this film on December 11 (limited NY and LA on 11/25). Visit the official "The Princess and the Frog" website to view trailers and learn more about the film.

Wild Things

I saw "Where the Wild Things Are" over the weekend. The artistry and creativity of the film are top notch. However, I am not sure that the film's message is especially helpful.

Without giving too much away, the film is about a boy struggling to come to grips with his parents' divorce.

The story effectively explores the emotions that many children of divorce go through. But, in the end, it communicates that it is a child's responsibility, not the adults' responsibility, to "grow up" and "get over" his parents' divorce.

The only conclusion I could draw from the story arc is that divorced parents really have little responsibility for the behavior of their child or the consequences of their actions - it is up to the child to come of age and deal with it so that his parents don't have to feel guilty.

If you have seen the movie, I would love to hear your thoughts.

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