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).

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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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Sometimes, girls like video games.

I have been occasionally haunting the Skyrim subreddit since I started playing it on PS3 about a month ago, and this exchange made me smile.

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How Not To Write a Finale Episode

(Minor spoilers ahead for HIMYM)

I learned something today. Had a point driven home, hard.

As a creator, you have a huge responsibility to your readers/viewers. You owe them the courage to be truthful to your story and your characters. The dedication to create the best story you can, and not sell it short due to lack of time or ideas or money. This makes me want to go back and finish every story I ever left half-written on the internet, even if there was only one person out there who read it and enjoyed it. Because how could I do that to them?

How could they do that to us? How could they do that, after nine years?

How I Met Your Mother has ended after nine seasons and I only realised from this cutting sense of betrayal how much I had invested, and how much I was owed. Should have been owed.

I’m not talking about catering to your audience, writing to please a crowd, selling out. I’m talking about the fact that stories have their own integrity, and your audience will know and what’s more they will feel dirty and cheated if you tear that integrity up into little pieces. And then set it on fire. And then poop on the ashes.

I know it’s ‘just a story’, but stories are the things of life, and this one went for nine years, and I’m a little heartbroken. Because the story was broken. They broke it. And I had this whole celebratory blog post planned and everything! Which I may still write, if I can ever get over this disappointment.

Rage-texting in commiseration with my brother, I came to this realisation: It was supposed to be 500 Days of Summer. Instead, we got Friends.

This wasn’t what it was supposed to be.

The Avengers – I am not a ‘fanboy’

Yes, I’ve seen and loved The Avengers (particularly loved Australia’s easy release date, but not the fact that we missed out on the second cut-scene in the credits). If I get around to it I might even write a blog entry about it, something like a review crossed with musings on superhero stories in general.  I have a line scribbled in my notebook that says: “Superheroes are the promise that the ordinary can become extraordinary”, and that might go somewhere, one day.

In the meantime, with other blogging priorities, I was cruising Rotten Tomatoes to see what the rest of the world has made of The Avengers, and a few of the reviews made me roll my eyes at their use of terminology.

“Filled with fanboy-wank.” – Dennis Schwartz, Ozus’ World Movie Reviews.

“… the perfect popcorn movie that respects its audience, fan boy or not, though the former will be more excited to see the Stan Lee cameo.” – Andrew Chase, Killer Movie Reviews.

 
I’d just like the world to note that you don’t have to be a fanboy to appreciate superhero/comic book movies. Obsessive geekiness is certainly not dependent on gender. My DVD collection is proof of that all by itself.

 

Video games and typical idiocy from the ACL

The Australian Christian Lobby has decided that a lone mad gunman in Norway is a good excuse to impose their religious opinions on gaming laws and classifications in Australia.

If you’re reading that sentence and failing to see the logical connection, then don’t worry; it’s not just you. I’m pretty sure there isn’t one. But that won’t stop the illustrious Jim Wallace, and neither will lack of evidence or any sense of blatant self-contradiction or hypocrisy.

Yes, the gunman’s manifesto mentions using a video game as a “training-simulation”. Do you know what else it mentions, at much greater length? Christianity and right-wing extremism. (FYI, everyone: climate change is totes a myth, the thing that will bring down society is leftism-feminism-environmentalism-multi-culturalism! Burn aaaall the finite resources that you want, because we’ll all end up partying in Hell anyway.)

If the ACL is in favour of banning works of fiction because of excessive violence, why not ban the Bible? Surely it’s bannable on the basis of Leviticus and Deuteronomy alone. (Has Mr. Wallace not read the Bible…?)

From the SMH article (linked above):

[The gunman] wrote that “target practise” is difficult for “urban Europeans like us” and recommends taking a shooting vacation to a country club or playing video games as alternatives.

So where is Jim Wallace’s call for a ban on guns, or on country clubs, or on mentally disturbed trigger-happy lunatics?

I think what’s really disturbing about the ACL’s position in this case is their chilling opportunism. While blithely ignoring the religious influences of the gunman, they are using the tragedy in Norway to push their own agenda. It’s ignorant and completely disrespectful.

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!