Ran into an online conversation the other day discussing the feelings of dread and fear many recall from a variety of children’s movies in the 80s. The assumption was that such dread and fear is no longer in vogue – you couldn’t (or maybe just wouldn’t) make a Black Cauldron or Rats of NIMH today or, if you did, you would do it differently.
Now, in the first place, I can’t say with any authority that this is actually true. Granted, I can’t really think of any “children’s” movies quite as harrowing as the ones I remember as a kid, but they may very well be out there. In the second place, assuming it is true (or that people think it should be), I’d like to take a moment to defend such films.
Fear, Dread, and Horror
For starters, let’s define terms. I think fear, dread, and horror are different things and, while I am definitely advocating for the second of those, I am very much not angling for children to encounter the third. So, to be specific:
- Fear is an immediate emotional response – it’s the jump, the flinch, the nervous jitters. You can get this in any kind of story and its a momentary thing. Hell, it’s essentially the same emotional response generated as you crest the top of a roller coaster.
- Dread is a sense of unease and disquiet. It is a lingering feeling that things are not quite right and that hidden dangers may lurk round corners.
- Horror is the desolation that occurs when hope is extinguished and all that is good seems lost. Like dread, it can linger, but it bears with it not a sense of anticipation but rather a sense of helplessness.
As I hope is clear, both dread and horror involve fear. Fear is the drumroll, the squeal of terror, the crash and bang your heart goes through when it is surprised or frightened. Kids have this sensation often, as the world is large and strange to them, and there is nothing wrong with exposing them to a little bit in their entertainment. Probably the best example of this is the Evil Queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: she shows up, she cackles, she says “boo,” and then she falls off a cliff. Scary, yeah, but not eliciting much dread and certainly not horror.
Horror, on the other hand, is when the xenomorph pops out of the guy’s chest in Aliens and runs across the room.
Not only is he dead (irreversible), but the thing is still out there, somewhere, on a big dark ship. And there is no help to be found. And they have no weapons. Horror is also the inevitability of death in slasher movies like Friday the 13th or the despair in the face of such monstrous things as the Holocaust or genocide in general. Horror is not for children because they lack the maturity or perspective to understand that what they are being shown is not, in fact, all there is to it. They even have difficulty differentiating between the real and the fictional. Show a kid Event Horizon or (God forbid) IT and, while I’m no child psychologist, I’d say you stand to do actual damage to the poor kid’s psyche.
That brings us to dread. Dread is harder to pin down than horror or fear, I think, because it is not as clearly defined. That is really the point of dread, I think – it is uncertainty, eerie-ness. The dread I retain from Return to Oz is not because it was necessarily scary (though it was), but because it seemed to strange and so alien. I could not understand how the world worked and it was…unsettling. You look at all those heads in cases and have to ask yourself “how are they still alive? What does it mean that they are? How can this be?” The kid watching is engrossed but also freaked out. They are scared, but also fascinated.
The Importance of Dread
There is a long list of movies that made me feel this way as a kid. The Rats of NIMH, Return to Oz, The Black Cauldron, Labyrinth, The Last Unicorn, The Dark Crystal, and a lot more besides. All of these films were eerie and creepy to varying degrees. All of them had parts that frightened me. Nevertheless, I watched all of them constantly.
It should be noted that dread is not a new aspect of children’s stories. Hans Christian Andersen was a master of it, as were the Brothers Grimm and Washington Irving. You can trace that feeling – that unsettling, eerie prickle up the back of your neck – way, waay back to the earliest of folk tales. Of course, go far enough back and there wasn’t really a division between what qualified as “children’s stories” and what was meant for adults – they were just “stories.” The kids crowded around to listen to someone sing the Odyssey as much as anyone else. Our definition of what qualifies as “suitable for children” is a relatively modern invention in a lot of ways, dating back to around the turn of the 19th century, anyway.
But even in our modern conception of childhood, I think dread serves a real and important and enriching purpose for children. We’ve got to remember that children, simply by dint of their inexperience, live in a world full of the
frightening, unsettling, and unexpected. Experiencing dread in a controlled circumstance – as in a movie – gives them a chance to sort through and understand how to cope with this feeling. It instills in them a sense of caution (important) but also a sense of hope (the hero triumphs in the end). Beyond that, these stories are also wonderful fodder for their dreams and imagination. How much of my own imagination was fired by these films that I saw when I was young? A lot, I’d say. The Black Cauldron and the Rankin/Bass Return of the King are probably half the reason I became a fantasy writer.
Now, I am no child psychologist and I’m certainly not advocating forcing your kids to watch a movie if they’re screaming a crying with terror. But, I do think that exposing children to this content is not bad for them – far from it! We live in a frightening world full of mysteries and dangers, and stories like this have a lot to teach kids about how to manage such things.
Or, at least, that’s what I think.
Disney occupies some interesting territory when it comes to constructing villains for their animated films. On the one hand, they’re making movies for little kids and our modern society generally frowns upon exposing our fragile youth to the face of true, terrifying evil. At the same time, however, their fairy-tale source material often includes some pretty nasty people as the primary villains in the stories and, indeed, good fairy tales can’t really function without good villains. To their credit, Disney has managed to walk this line in order to come up with some pretty stupendous villains – bad guys and gals that have occupied our imaginations every bit as forcefully as the likes of Darth Vader and the Monster Under the Bed. What follows are my top five, in the order of Least Evil to HOLY CRAP THAT’S EVIL.
#5: Cruella DeVille
To be fair, Disney didn’t create Cruella – she was born out of the novel upon which the animated movie was based – but she occupies a unique and loathesome spot in the pantheon of Disney’s Baddies, as she’s the only one actively trying to kill and skin puppies so she can wear them as a coat. Wow. Puppies. That’s pretty damned cold, especially when she goes to such (crazy) lengths to get such a coat.
Then again, puppies are still only animals, and what Cruella is doing might get her a few years in prison and some serious community service time, but she really isn’t any more evil than Michael Vick, and we all forgave him, didn’t we? Honestly, the worst thing about her in terms of society is her reckless driving and the second-hand smoke exposure. What she has making up for it, though, is panache – it’s hard to find a villain with quite the same dramatic flair as Cruella.
Evilness Scale: Pretty Evil.
#4: The Wicked Stepmother
Skinning puppies is one thing, but the systematic and conscientious emotional torture of a minor is a whole other kettle of fish. Cinderella’s stepmother makes her own stepdaughter into a domestic slave and deliberately attempts to destroy the young girls will to live FOR NO GODDAMNED REASON AT ALL. She doesn’t even really get anything out of it other than spite.
I really have to hand it to the artists and voice talent that made the stepmother come alive in the old Disney flick, because this woman is vile. You don’t laugh at her; not at all. There is nothing funny about the Stepmother. She is the very embodiment of horrible, petty meanness. From allowing her own daughters to rip off Cinderella’s dress in the front hall to locking the girl in her room just to prevent the merest chance of the girl escaping her power, kids and adults loathe this character from the moment she steps on the screen. Wow, evil.
But, again, not really off-the-charts Hitler-wanna-be evil, either. She belongs in prison (and needs to meet with a therapist), but she’s ostensibly still a member of the human race. Those higher on the list can’t really make that claim.
Evilness Scale: Wickedly Evil
#3: Ursula the Sea Witch
Honestly, Ursula makes this list because she’s exactly in the middle of the road. She is engaged in some classic, bottom-rung evil activity here (stealing souls, killing people, etc.), but she lacks a certain…panache? She’s well past emotional abuse and animal cruelty, certainly, but is she at a level much higher than ‘standard evil witch’? Not sure.
The thing that separates Ursula from other standard witch-archetypes (think the Wicked Queen of Snow White or even Mad Madam Mim in The Sword in the Stone) is her musical number. “Poor Unfortunate Souls” is a masterpiece of evil song-singing. Ursula blows to doors off most of her competition with that stuff, and the fact that she steals Ariel’s voice is fiendishly clever. Beyond that, however, I’m not overly impressed. I would rank the Wicked Stepmother higher were it not for the fact that she still provides for Cinderella’s room and board and seems to never indulge in physical abuse. It’s a near thing, though.
Evilness Scale: Textbook Evil
Okay, so say your neighbors don’t invite you to a party. You don’t really want to go, anyway, but you see the cars lined up around the block, hear the loud music, and think to yourself ‘I’m going to crash.’ Now add on the thought ‘and see if I can curse their infant daughter to die in sixteen years and watch the fuckers squrim for the next decade and a half trying to avoid it.’ Is that pretty evil or what?
The thing that Sleeping Beauty’s Maleficent has that the lesser villains lack is how she sets up her victims to create the maximal amount of suffering with the minimum amount of effort on her part. She could have just blasted the princess Aurora into ashes, but no – she figured it would be meaner to let the kingdom keep her long enough to fall irrevocably in love with her and then take her away. Wow, that’s cold. And patient, too, which is even more terrifying.
Take what she tells Prince Philip when he’s in her dungeons: I’m going to let you go…but only after you’re so damned old that claiming your princess with true love’s kiss will be robbed of all meaning. Your beloved will be shocked and disgusted by you, you’ll die shortly thereafter, and it will all be horribly, gloriously fucked up. And I, Maleficent, will be willing to wait that long for my evil punchline.
Evilness Scale: Daaaaamn….
#1: The Coachman
Any of you see Pinocchio, lately? Well, if you haven’t, let me remind you about the guy who, for my money, is the most horrifying villain Disney ever put in a movie: The Coachman. Here is a guy who rounds up little boys who misbehave, tells them he’s taking them to a theme park, and then, after encouraging them to act like animals, he turns them into donkeys and then either enslaves them or sells them to glue factories.
He doesn’t do this to one boy, either. Not to a dozen or a score, but to hundreds and hundreds of kids over a span of probably years. Himmler and Goebbels have nothing on this psycho. Why does he do this? That’s just it – whereas all those other villains have ostensibly understandable motives for their wickedness, this sociopath does this just for the hell of it, apparently. If he wanted to make money, he wouldn’t bother with this. If he just hated little boys, you’d think maintaining a theme park for them to play in would be a bit counter-intuitive. No, he just likes making little kids suffer horribly for his own psychopathic enjoyment and then, when he is no longer amused, he has them killed and melted down into glue.
Holy shit, people, we show this to our children. Jesus.
Evilness Scale: Nightmare Fuel
My daughter received an Easter present from my sister the other day–the movie Hop. First off, this was a very nice gift and my daughter (who is two) thoroughly enjoyed the bunnies and chicks and action sequences. My wife and I, however, having now seen the movie twice now in as many days, have been left with a rather confounding question: Who on Earth thought this movie was a good idea?
Hop occupies that weird non-space between so-called ‘children’s movies’ and those intended for adults. It is visually and thematically geared towards kids (or so they tell themselves) but includes enough ‘adult’ comedy to keep parents from wanting to kill themselves every time they see the movie. The problem with this, however, is two fold:
- Children don’t need their movies to be stupid for them to enjoy them or to find them worthwhile. A good children’s movie is a good movie, full stop. I need only gesture vaguely in the direction of Pixar Studios to prove my point.
- Adults do not enjoy being pandered to. They enjoy it even less than children, believe it or not.
So, you know, when we adults watch a grown man trying to become the Easter Bunny (yes, you read that right), we do not find it amusing. It is disturbingly bizarre.
In brief, the movie is about a perpetually unemployed young man who, through serendipity, meets the runaway son of the Easter Bunny, EB, who has come to Hollywood to become a drummer. However, while the Easter Bunny frets over the disappearance of his son, Carlos, the chief chick in the Easter Bunny’s workshop, stages a coup to overthrow the Easter Bunny, only to be thwarted by EB and the young man, who has now realized his lifelong dream is to actually be the Easter Bunny. In the end, both EB and Fred (the guy) become co-Easter Bunnies and Fred finally earns the respect of his overbearing father (which is, perhaps, the weirdest scene in a movie I’ve seen in a long time).
If I’m giving the movie far, far more credit than it deserves, we can maybe see it as a postmodern deconstruction of the holiday movie. It is, beat for beat, the basic plot of dozen Christmas movies, except applied to a holiday that enjoys nowhere near the same popular support, interest, or mythology. Thus separated from our childhood nostalgia, the movie seems crass, empty, and downright weird, even though it’s the same story as the ‘heartwarming’ Santa Clause or Elf.
In order to make it ‘palatable’ to adults, it features the comic stylings of Russel Brand as the voice of EB. While I have nothing against Russel Brand, most of the time I find myself asking the question ‘when did Russel Brand become a thing?’ while the CGI bunny talks like the Artful Dodger. (I have concluded, by the way, the Russel Brand became a thing because somebody saw him walking down the road and said “Is that Captain Jack Sparrow?”, and the rest, as they say, is history.) The movie isn’t funny, mostly because it’s trying so hard to be, and because Russel Brand seems to be the only person trying to tell jokes; the movie is, for some bizarre reason, a Russel Brand vehicle. And this is presumably a long time after everybody realized he isn’t really Captain Jack Sparrow.
In the end, though, the real reason why Hop exists is because of money. It began, as most evil things do, in the head of some marketing specialist at a major movie studio. The question was asked ‘why aren’t there any kids movies about Easter?’ and the answer was ‘because everybody else thought it was a stupid idea.’ Millions of dollars in sales, however, is never stupid, and so the producers went to their rolodex to find a bunch of people not proud enough to turn down the money they would be offered to write a ridiculous movie about an easter bunny coming to America.
Perhaps I hear you sneering at those writers (and actors, and director) who dared to make Hop, but shame on you. These people are trying to make a living, so leave them alone. I was in a screenwriting class once, wherein we were asked to explain to the professor (himself a well-respected screenwriter) what movies we had seen over the past week. In this class I was surrounded by film snobs who went out of their way to point out the edgy, fancy, artistically challenging films they’d seen. Me, I typically watched whatever happened to be on basic cable when I was sitting in front of the TV, and one week I had watched Anaconda. When I told my professor this, I could hear the skin tightening on my classmate’s faces as they sneered. My professor, though, said this: “I know the guy who wrote Anaconda. He’s a good friend of mine.”
“Really?” I figured he was putting me on, or that I was about to lose a lot of respect for the man right then and there.
My professor then told me a story, and it went like this: Once you get a certain number of successful movies made in Hollywood as a writer, your name goes in a rolodex (or now, I suppose, smartphone) on a producer’s desk. When they want a movie made based off their marketing data, they call somebody in that rolodex. So, when the news that a giant snake picture was due came to a certain producer’s desk, they called the professor’s friend (call him ‘Bob’) on a Friday afternoon.
Producer: “Hey, Bob, I need a giant snake picture!”
Bob: “Errr…I don’t have any giant snake…”
Producer: “We’ll pay you $25,000.”
Bob: “Giant Snake picture, coming right up!”
By Monday morning, Anaconda was sitting on the producer’s desk. Bob bought a boat.
BTW, Hop made 38.1 million dollars on its opening weekend. Just sayin’.