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‘Jungle Book’ Dilemma for Parents: Are Live-Action Movies Scarier Than Animated Ones?

Kids’ movies with dark themes and big scares ”can cause trauma,“ child psychologist Fadi Haddad tells TheWrap

Movies for children have long had their share of dark and even terrifying moments. In Disney’s 1937 animated classic “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” the heroine ran through a hostile forest and ate a poison apple, while in 1942’s “Bambi,” a young deer’s beloved mother is shot and killed.

But Disney’s new adaptation of “The Jungle Book,” hitting theaters Friday, ratchets up the scariness by abandoning the usual format of children’s movies: animation.

And according to child psychiatrists, that can lead to even more nightmares for young audiences. “In a live-action film, humans give it another aspect of real,” Dr. Fadi Haddad, a child and adolescent psychiatrist in New York City, told TheWrap. “You see fear and sadness happening to real people. When the person is bleeding, you see blood; when they are sad, you see real tears.”

In “The Jungle Book,” a young boy named Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is orphaned in the jungle, raised by wolves and threatened with death by both the tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) and the orangutan King Louie (Christopher Walken).

Walt Disney reportedly considered the original Rudyard Kipling story too frightening, so the studio softened the tone for its 1967 cartoon version and added light-hearted songs like “The Bear Necessities.”

For kids, though, it’s hard to escape the underlying theme of abandonment that runs through “The Jungle Book” as well as some earlier Disney movies like “The Lion King” and “Cinderella.”

“Children relate and react most to separation from parents” said Dr. Haddad, who also works internationally in orphanages and with adopted kids. “In ‘The Jungle Book,’ the child loses his father and becomes very vulnerable alone. The concept is very scary for young children. That moment of separation from the dead parent provokes anxiety about ‘who is going to take care of me if my parent dies.'”

And live-action versions of these stories, including 2014’s “Maleficent” and last year’s “Cinderella,” can seem that much scarier for younger children because of how much more realistic they seem.

Disney did not respond to requests for comment on this story.

According to Haddad, even the darker animated movies like “Pinocchio,” “The Black Cauldron” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” can leave a mark on some very young children.

“If we see vulnerable kids watching these movies, they can be affected by them in a negative way because it’s very aggressive and kids remember those memories for a while,” Haddad told TheWrap. “It can cause trauma.”

Ultimately, it’s up to parents do decide what they think their children are prepared to see. And most children seem to bounce back from the frights of early moviegoing experiences just fine.

The new “Jungle Book” has gotten raves from grown-ups, with a “fresh” 95 percent Rotten Tomatoes score, and seems poised to scare up big box office on its opening weekend.