A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that What Dreams May Come is a 1998 movie in which Robin Williams plays a man killed in a car crash who must leave heaven to rescue his wife from hell after she commits suicide. The movie doesn't shy away from emotional intensity, especially with parents trying to cope with the tragic deaths of their children, as well as the wife later trying to cope with the untimely death of her husband. As if the deaths of children and a father weren't enough, there's also talk in the movie of a father with his kids about how it's time to put their dog to sleep. The demonic imagery of hell will be too intense for younger and more sensitive viewers -- evocations of wailing and screaming damned souls trapped in lakes and buried up to their necks in mud (featuring a cameo from the director Werner Herzog). Talk of suicide -- a woman has visible scars from trying to slit her wrist. Talk of divorce. Talk of mental and emotional instability. Some profanity, including use of "f--k." Cigarette smoking. A bird defecates paint on the lead character; the colors splatter off his shoulder.
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What's the story?
Robin Williams plays Chris Nielson, a doctor who arrives in heaven after he is killed by a car as he attempts to help the victims of an accident. His wife, Annie (Anabella Sciorra), already devastated by the loss of their two children four years earlier, begins to fall apart, and commits suicide. As Chris explores heaven, he realizes that it cannot be heaven for him without her. But, as a suicide, she is consigned to hell. With the help of a guide, he embarks on an Orpheus-like journey.
Is it any good?
The lush visual beauty of this movie and the interesting issues it raises make it worthwhile for thoughtful teens who are drawn to questions about death and meaning and making profound connections. Those who have endured their own real losses may find it superficial, and some may be disturbed to find the concepts of heaven and hell inconsistent with their own notions. They are not even consistent within their own assumptions. But some teens will appreciate the chance to use this movie to talk about what their heaven would look like and how the characters' struggle makes them think differently about their relationships and priorities.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about Chris' relationships with his children, and how he thinks about what he should have done differently after their death. Teens may also like to learn about the myth of Orpheus, to see the similarities and differences.
This movie was based on a 1978 novel by Richard Matheson, who also wrote many of the classic episodes of The Twilight Zone. The movie is different in many ways from the novel, including setting, the relationships between characters, as well as evocations of the afterlife. What would be the challenges in adapting a novel into a movie? Why do you think movies based on books often take liberties with the story, the characters, and even, at times, the endings?
The afterlife has been a topic that has fascinated artists for thousands of years. How does this movie draw on prior evocations of heaven and hell in art and literature to evoke its own interpretations of the two?
- In theaters: October 2, 1998
- On DVD or streaming: March 4, 2003
- Cast: Annabella Sciorra, Cuba Gooding Jr., Robin Williams
- Director: Vincent Ward
- Studio: Universal Pictures
- Genre: Drama
- Topics: Book Characters
- Run time: 113 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG-13
- MPAA explanation: thematic elements involving death, some disturbing images and language
Themes & Topics
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