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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Why isn’t it cool to be idealistic? Robin Williams and Dead Poet’s Society

I was on twitter after the news broke and I was fine until someone tweeted “Oh Captain my Captain” and I started crying on the train, which was awkward.

Robin Williams is dead, and at first everyone thought it was a hoax, because he can’t die! That’s ridiculous! It’s Robin Williams! He will live forever because he is our childhood!

So I was reading this review of Dead Poet’s Society and the reviewer hit the nail on the head:

“It is not a film that it is cool to admit loving. It is uncynical, idealistic and hopeful – not qualities one necessarily associates with film snobs, but what it lacks in critical kudos it has recouped in audience appreciation.”

Why is it that those qualities – idealism, hope, a lack of cynicism – are considered to be so uncool? I mean, what’s wrong with them? Why are they so undervalued?

As a testament to my personal lack of cool, I’ve realised that every single one of my favourite movies has exactly these qualities to a greater or lesser (but mostly greater) extent. Examples:

Love Actually:  love actually is all around.
American Beauty:  there is beauty in everything.
V for Vendetta:  ideas are bullet-proof.
Life as a House:  you can knock down your old life and build a new one.

… etc, etc.

So yes, I will love these movies. Yes, I will hold to these uncool ideas. I will Carpe that fucking Diem. I will cry in the cinema. I will be starry-eyed and stupid. And damnit, I will miss Robin Williams.

The reviewer gets it right again when he points out: “This is not a film, ultimately, about school or poetry or teaching: it is about death.”

And more specifically, about how precious life is in the face of our limited time with it.

Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.
 

Oh captain my captain

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.

An Ode to Translators

Let us take a moment to pause and give thanks for the humble translator, those secret poets who weigh and balance every word and perform the strange alchemy that allows us to drink in the stories of writers around the world and throughout history. They are the ones who open doors in the walls of language. (How do they manage it? I can so easily become tangled in the ropes and coils of language, and I only hold one of them in my head.)

Today I started reading Homer’s Odyssey, one of the earliest pieces of Western literature. Those words have passed through nearly three thousand years on their way to the page that’s ended up in front of my eyes. Three millenia. And along the way they’ve been handed down and translated by many a scholar, rubbed and polished like pebbles in a stream, in a constant search for the impossible – a perfect constellation of words.

Harry Potter: Why it matters.

A confession: Before this, I’d never dressed up for a movie.

Last Tuesday night, I was decked out in full Ravenclaw regalia, complete with house crest, wand, and certified Luna Lovegood Raddish Earrings. (The blonde wasn’t part of the costume – I’m pleased to say that that’s a permanent feature.)

I know, I know. You’re all jealous of my stylin’ self.

Anyway, so there I was, standing on the upper level of my local cinema just before midnight and looking down on the crowds of pointy-hatted fans waiting to collect their tickets or standing around in groups with large buckets of popcorn. There were Harrys and Ginnys and Lunas and a phoenix and a hippogriff and Death Eaters and a couple of Voldemorts. And when it was time to go in and the barrier to the cinemas was removed, the crowd rushed forward with a roar worthy of any Gryffindor lion.

This was not just a movie – not even just THE EPIC FINALE OF THE WORLDWIDE PHENOMENON, as the trailers proclaimed.

This was An Event.

I’m a sentimental lass and endings have always meant a lot to me. Of course, I count myself as lucky to be a part of the generation that grew up with Harry Potter, which adds a great deal to the sentimentality of the occasion. This was a very different moment to when I finished reading book 7 for the first time (2:30 in the morning, in my grandmother’s house, clock ticking quietly, the book falling shut with a soft, reverent sort of thump into the silence).

The atmosphere inside the cinema as we were all waiting for the 12:01am session to begin was fizzing.

Overheard:

  • Two teenage boys sitting next to us, pouring cups from the bottle of vodka that they’d smuggled in, spoken matter-of-factly: “I seriously think I’m going to cry when this movie finishes.”
  • Girl (slightly worried): “No one’s minding my bag and wallet at the moment, do you think these people are trustworthy?”
    Guy: “Of course they are, they’re Harry Potter fans!”
  •  Boy 1 runs up to Boy 2, who is dressed as a house elf. Boy 1 throws a sock at him, yells “DOBBY! YOU’RE FREE!” and runs away again.

That got the first round of applause for the night, and not the last. I’ve never heard a cinema audience clap and cheer so enthusiastically – not just at the rolling of the credits, but at every significant event throughout the movie. (It didn’t take much to set us off.)

We sounded more like the crowd at a game of football than at the cinema, and I thought that was delightful. Let’s face it, no matter how much you love sport, kicking a ball through a couple of goal posts is never going to measure up to vanquishing the Forces of Evil Once And For All.

And this is why Harry Potter matters. From the robed group in the front row who stood in unison at the end of the credits to wave their wands and declare ‘Mischief Managed!’ with superb satisfaction, to the hysterically crying teenagers when it was over – the costumes, the anticipation, the excitement, the in-jokes, the palpable sense of solidarity. It was people brought together over a story. A simple story about good overcoming evil, about heroism and sacrifice and friendship. We weave our lives around stories and we always have done.

As a writer and a lover of stories myself, to see this fact demonstrated with such clarity gave me a great sense of hope. I thought it was bloody excellent.

Mischief managed, indeed.