Children’s entertainment: violence, death, existential despair, and other good stuff!

I’ve always been fascinated by the way that the stories you consume in your childhood will have a massive impact on your psche for the rest of your life. The cartoons I watched as a little kid are lodged permanently in my brain. But here’s the interesting thing: when I think of the things I watched as a child, it’s the darkness that I remember. The melancholy, the eerie, and the moments of deep, horrifying terror. Kids entertainment in the 80s and early-mid 90s was not afraid to be a rich source of Nightmare Fuel, true to its fairytale roots.

Don Bluth was a prime culprit of this in my childhood. Movies that you watch when you’re so young that you can barely remember if they were real or hallucinations; and then (thank god) the internet comes along and helps you to remember titles and find clips on youtube, and you’re like, okay, I was a pretty wimpy kid, surely it won’t be as freaky as I remem – oh holy shitcrackers.

Secret of Nimh

 Is that what ‘The Secret of Nimh’ actually looked like?

No wonder I had psychedelic nightmares.

Don Bluth films were a strange mash-up of sparkly, pretty, shiny stuff and pant-crappingly terrifying monsters with evil glowing eyes.

What do I remember from An American Tail? The shipwreck, the fear of a child that’s lost its parents, giant monsters that want nothing more than to eat you.

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Plus whatever fresh hell this creature of unmitigated horror was.

The main characters are small, terrified, often alone.

The Swan Princess was a soppy fairytale romance about a beautiful blonde, a dashing prince, whacky animal sidekicks, AND THIS GUY OMG WTF.

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How about The Land Before Time? Cute baby dinosaurs! A bunch of friends! Road trip adventure movie! PARENTAL DEATH!

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Why. Why would you do this to us.

But Don Bluth was far from the only culprit. Everyone thinks of Disney as all fluffy bunnies and rainbows, but it still comes from the delightfully messed up source material of the Grimms Brothers and that darkness lurks just under the skin. Let’s not forget the ‘Night on Bald Mountain’ sequence from Fantasia, which I basically had to get mum to fast forward for me every single time I watched the movie (thanks mum).

Image result for fantasia night on bald mountainImage result for fantasia night on bald mountain

Even in the golden age of Disney, it was the eerie and strange moments that really stuck in my mind. When I think of The Little Mermaid (still my favourite), it’s not the happy bounce of ‘Under the Sea’, the yearning of ‘Part of Your World’ or even the firefly-lit romance of ‘Kiss the Girl’ that I picture. It’s the darkness of Ursula’s cave, the moment when something reaches in and Ariel’s voice is pulled out of her, and then the body horror of transformation, woah, hello, adolescent anxieties, yikes.

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For non-cartoon entertainment, some of The Weird admittedly also came from the exuberance of 1980s special effects: think anything that Jim Henson was ever involved in. The twistedness of some of those puppets is something that slick, modern special effects can never hope to capture.

The Neverending Story was another foundational movie of my childhood. If you grew up in the 80s or 90s, it’s almost certainly on your list of Movies That Fucked You Right Up In The Best Possible Way. I’m not just talking about the heartbreak of losing Artax in the Swamps of Sadness – the thing that’s stuck with me and continued to terrify me as an adult is The Nothing (embodied in the film by that other thing that gave me a deep and lifelong fear, the wolf).

Neverending Story

Image result for neverending story the nothing I seriously debated on whether or not to include these pics cause they’re goddamn terrifying.

The Nothing was the most existential and the greatest summary of all my childhood fears, the root from which all other fears ultimately grew. A fear of ‘nothing’ is fear of death, the void, lack of existence. In the film, specifically, The Nothing is linked to a lack of human imagination, a kind of obliteration that comes to our existence when we don’t use our minds. Has my lifelong obsession with stories actually stemmed from this threat? It’s possible. I sure didn’t want Gmork showing up at my front door to tell me I hadn’t been reading enough books.

And even though this wolf and The Nothing scared me down to my bone marrow, made me want to cry with fear, and gave me recurring nightmares… I wouldn’t have changed or missed this movie from my childhood for anything. It was one of the fictional building blocks that made me.

 

It’s the weird. It’s the dark. It’s the loss and the despair and the death.

Children need this.

It’s incredibly important.

The kids are alright. They’re better than alright, because fiction lets you explore heavy ideas in a safe and constructive way.

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Disney’s ‘Tangled’: Feminism and The Big Dorky Review

It finally happened: a quirky, interesting, active, BLONDE Disney Princess.

By the time I watched Tangled, I felt like I’d been waiting my whole life to see it. I mean, come on – Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty are so excessively passive that they were practically catatonic (and you can take that literally for Sleeping Beauty).

And then Rapunzel came along, and I did that thing that I always do with Disney movies: I over-identified. Massively. (Apparently other people grow out of that after their childhood? Huh.)

It’s not just the blondeness, although it helps.

Rapunzel is smart, despite her naivety. She’s a scientist (an astronomer, at least) and an artist – the first Disney princess to be an artist, I believe (correct me in the comments if I’ve forgotten one though.) She has about a bazillion hobbies. She has a lot in common with Ariel from The Little Mermaid – my first Disney favourite, and that can’t be a coincidence. Both fairytales are about a girl coming of age (and, yes, sexual maturity), and in both cases the heroine has agency: the plot is driven by the choices she makes. Ariel chooses to become human; Rapunzel chooses to leave her tower.

Hijinks ensue.

(For an excellent article on feminine agency in Disney films and Tangled in particular, please refer to this piece at the Analytical Couch Potato.)

Bare feet touching the ground for the first time - you can't deny the mermaidy-ness of it all!

I have a whole ‘nother essay (perhaps several) to write about The Little Mermaid, so I’ll focus on the little nuggets of feminism within Tangled for now:

1. Tangled passes the Bechdel Test.

For extra marks: discuss other classic Disney films with reference to the Bechdel Test in the comments. Do any others pass?

*/teacher moment*

2. It’s totally about a girl losing her virginity.

Well, kind of. A surprising number of Grimm’s fairytales can be seen to revolve around this issue.

When Mother Gothel gives Rapunzel the crown, she sings [sarcastically]:

“Rapunzel knows best, Rapunzel’s so mature now
Such a clever grown-up miss!
Rapunzel knows best – fine, if you’re so sure now
Go ahead, then give him this!
This is why he’s here! Don’t let him deceive you!
Give it to him, watch, you’ll see!
Trust me, my dear, that’s how fast he’ll leave you
I won’t say I told you so…”

[emphasis mine].

Read that (or better yet, watch the clip) and tell me she’s NOT totally singing about Rapunzel’s virginity. Yeah. That’s what I thought.

This isn’t a pro-feminist thing, necessarily, but anything that even touches upon issues of female sexuality – even in a completely subtle and allegorical sense – gets to count as ‘feminist’ just by virtue of existing in the medium of children’s entertainment.

3. The King cries.

When we see the King and Queen mourning the loss of their daughter, it is the King who is emotionally distraught and the Queen who is stoic. How many kid’s films show a grown man crying – not as the object of laughter and ridicule, but with dignity and real feeling?

(Big hat tip to ‘The Ferret’ who also wrote about the King crying and made me yell “Yes! That! Exactly!” at my computer screen.)

4. The Frying Pan.

Refer to DVD cover above.

The frying-pan-as-weapon gag is a recurring one in the movie. Now, Flynn Rider is obviously the ‘Cool Guy’ in this film. He is dashing and handsome and witty, and at one point he stands there holding the fying pan, staring at it in amazement and exclaiming, “I have got to get me one of these!”

You got that? The Cool Guy. Wants a frying pan.

Subliminal messaging? Check. Encouraging young boys to see a stereotypically ‘feminine’ object as something other than what it traditionally symbolises?

Yes, please!