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Disney encourages kids to play games in the theater during “The Little Mermaid”

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(Credit: Disney)

The movie theater is one of the few remaining sanctums where you're largely safe from the annoying glow of smartphones and tablets.

Well, at least until Disney re-releases "The Little Mermaid" on September 13. The studio is actively encouraging kids to bring along iPads and play games while the movie is showing on screen.

Specifically, they're inviting you to be part of Ariel's world with their own app -- Disney Second Screen Live -- designed to let viewers interact with the film. It's essentially a kid-friendly blend of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” karaoke, and video games.

The app will lead sing-alongs with the film's soundtrack, games based on events in the film, behind the scenes information, and a competitive element played against fellow theater-goers. The app is free, but perhaps due to Disney's close relationship with Apple, Android tablets are not supported.

Disney is rolling it out slowly -- only 16 theaters nationwide will take part in the Second Screen Live experiment -- but it's still a radical departure from most theaters' policies, which urge viewers to silence or turn off their mobile devices before a film starts since the bright light from the screens is particularly distracting in a darkened theater.

Film buffs are obviously not thrilled by the idea. Slashfilm derisively calls it a "second screen indoctrination tool for young children." Penny Arcade Report paints an uglier picture.

"Imagine a theater full of children, with everyone looking down at a bright screen instead of watching the movie," writes PAR editor Ben Kuchera. "Let's hope that the app is silent or you'll be dealing with hundreds of speakers all playing music with different timing, or at different volumes. Hellish."

The in-theater Second Screen experience is an extension of Disney's tests with a home-based Second Screen app. Two years ago, the company began testing the idea of offering bonus footage, concept art, filmmaker commentary and storyboard images for home video releases, issuing versions of the app for the Blu-Ray releases of “Bambi,” “Tron: Legacy,” “The Lion King” and “The Pirates of the Caribbean.”

Disney first tested the use of the app in theaters last fall with Tim Burton's “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” The company says the trials resulted in "positive" responses among viewers, though you certainly wouldn’t think that based on the 5-1 ratio of “thumbs-downs” to “thumbs-ups” on the trailer’s Youtube page.

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