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Onscreen, kids face a perilous journey

It's kiddie season at the movies, and children are everywhere you look: brandishing machine guns in Blood Diamond, fighting for their lives in the desert in Babel, suffering from mortal wounds in Pan's Labyrinth, being blown to bits in Deja Vu, sleeping in public toilets in The Pursuit of Happyness and getting massacred in The Nativity Story.

Hollywood historically has steered away from depicting children in peril, typically limiting any life-or-death struggles to cartoonishly violent genre films such as The Shining, Aliens and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. But as this new batch of movies underscores, the old rules of childhood engagement are rapidly evolving. Instead of consigning children to the periphery of horrific realities, these films are dragging kids - preteens to toddlers - right into the middle of the mayhem.

In a way, the movies are reworking the troubling narratives laid out ages ago in the works of the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen and Charles Dickens. And like those authors, some of the filmmakers are using children to make political points. Others find that putting children into jeopardy gives their dramas more of an emotional wallop.

But even for a generation of viewers desensitized by a 24/7 stream of broadband brutality from sources as divergent as the Iraq war and the Ultimate Fighting Championship, some of these movie scenes may prove difficult to stomach.

"These are not your father's fairy tales," says Guillermo del Toro, the writer-director of Pan's Labyrinth, whose opening shot features an 11-year-old girl apparently dying from a gunshot wound.

Real-life realism

Some of the most troubling imperiled kid scenarios unfold in Babel, a drama featuring four seemingly unrelated but ultimately intersecting stories. In one, two small American children are abandoned in the desert with their nanny but no food or water; in another, two young Moroccan brothers shoot a rifle with catastrophic results.

"I wrote Babel from the point of view of a father, and the pain that you feel when something goes wrong with your kid," says the film's screenwriter, Guillermo Arriaga. "The world is turning more and more individualistic, and solidarity is starting to break down between human beings. And children are the ones who are suffering the most. They don't have a way to defend themselves. They are in this world without asking how they came into it."

Rather than concoct stories for shock value, Arriaga says some of the incidents involving Babel's children are directly drawn from real events. Mexican children as young as 6 months old, he says, are abandoned on the border and left to fend for themselves. "Of course it's terrifying. Of course it's horrifying," the screenwriter from Mexico City says. "But it happens."

Perilous perceptions

Real-life depictions of children in dire circumstances turn up in several other movies. At the center of Blood Diamond, which opens Friday, stands a drama about an African diamond smuggler (Leonardo DiCaprio) battling his conscience. But the movie also focuses on Sierra Leone's civil war, in which children were taken from their families and forced into battle, where they killed other children.

The Pursuit of Happyness, which hits theaters Dec. 15, tells the real-life story of Christopher Gardner, a struggling San Francisco salesman of medical equipment who became homeless. While living on the streets, Gardner (Will Smith) labors to complete a stockbroker internship and care for his young son (Smith's own child, Jaden). In one sequence, Gardner can't find anywhere to sleep and must repair to a public bathroom, where he fashions a bed for his young son out of toilet paper.

"The movie is about how much the father can do to take all the pain," director Gabriele Muccino says. "When you have a child, everything becomes way more dramatic. You have to protect his integrity, save him from being affected by trauma. And you have to forget how much pain you're going through to be able to prevent a child's pain."

Still, not every filmmaker shares the director's protective attitude toward children.

When del Toro, the writer-director of Pan's Labyrinth, was putting together his first film, 1997's Mimic, he was warned by a marketing executive that the two things he couldn't do in an American movie were to kill dogs and children. He immediately added a scene in which one dog and two children die.

Fostering fear?

On hearing descriptions of the upcoming films, David Walsh, president of the National Institute on Media and the Family, worries that focusing on children in peril could amplify fears in a society that has already circled its wagons around the young. "The impact of this stream of movies will be to accentuate the 'mean world syndrome,' making parents and kids think that the world is a hostile place," says Walsh. "There is a real downside to that. As we get more protective of kids, we shield them from many important experiences - as we hover over them in protection, we're robbing them of opportunities to solve their own problems."