Should Children’s Films be Dark or Light?
It is a common concern among modern parents that what their kids watch, read, and occupy their time with should be appropriate for their current age. They should not partake in media which is too violent, too sexually suggestive, or even too cynical and insulting, depending on what is said, done, or laughed at within the media itself. It often doesn’t even matter if there is a storytelling purpose for the content included. If the parents don’t approve of their children hearing or seeing certain things, then they will keep them from it however they see fit.
An aspect of this issue that often comes up is the seriousness or “darkness” of children’s films. Should they include violence, or should they not? Should they include blood, or should they not? Is it morally right to feature a character being threatened, and even physically hurt, when the only reason it happens is to affect the emotions of the audience in a particular way: to tell a story which presents harsh realities and issues within our human condition, in order to highlight something more important than just how dark the world can be? But perhaps the most important question is: will children even be able to understand it all?
For the rest of this article, there is one fact which must be made clear before we continue. When the word “children” or “child” is used, it is intended to mean an age which is older than a toddler, but that is slightly younger than a tween: meaning roughly eight to ten years old. Because by the age of nine–which is around fourth grade in educational terms–children naturally begin to comprehend a lot of mature concepts. By then they may have lost a grandparent, or a pet. By then they may have had their first crush. By then they’re reading 400 page novels. Many have even been given “the talk.” So if by this critical age many already know so much, why should they be sheltered from similar things in their films and TV shows?
Children all grow up eventually. Some day they’re going to have a job they might get fired from. Some day they’re going to have a relationship which might end in disaster. Some day they’re going to drive a car that could crash into another. Some day they may even break a leg or lose an arm. Some day all of these things could happen to them and more. So when will it become the proper time to tell them about these things? When and how should they learn about them? It’s never an easy thing to teach kids about life, loss, and relationships, and it’s never easy to know when it’s most appropriate.
However, stories have been around almost forever. Film and Animation are the newest incarnations of this pastime, and they’ve been doing quite a good job of explaining what life can be like, the hazards one might encounter–physically and emotionally–and even how to avoid them, through the use of morals and metaphors. Yet the question remains: can stories carry these messages across without scaring or bringing a child to tears, or is it possible that stories cannot do their job as effectively if they do not employ the right amount of atmosphere, the right amount of tension, and a healthy dose of darkness?
The Dichotomy of Early Disney Films
It has largely been forgotten in the modern age, that in the beginning, almost all animation (even television animation) was not intended just for kids, it was largely marketed and designed for adults. Mickey Mouse, Felix the Cat, Bugs Bunny, Woody Woodpecker, Popeye the Sailor Man, and Betty Boop especially, were all created with adult audiences in mind, and the cartoons they came in were played before longer feature films as a common practice. Whether the kids enjoyed these cartoons or not was of secondary importance. It was of course Walt Disney who first expressed an interest in making cartoons and cartoon features which would be accessible to the whole family, and would keep every member of that family equally engaged. Looking back at his filmography, it is decidedly evident that some of Disney’s features such as Snow White, Fantasia, Pinocchio, Bambi, Lady and the Tramp, and Sleeping Beauty, had plenty of mature adult themes, and even imagery, alongside the more colorful and non-intrusive characters and environments.
Snow White had adorable cartoon forest animals cheerily cleaning up dishes and sweeping floors. But it also had an evil queen who used chemicals and magic to horrifically transform herself into a witch-like crone with a bone-chilling cackle.
Pinocchio had a wall full of charming music boxes and clocks, a singing dancing cricket, and a beautiful blue fairy. But it also had tricksters, con-artists, kidnapping, slavery, beer, cigars, and one of the most sobering examples of metaphorical storytelling in the history of entertainment.
Bambi was a lot lighter on the questionable elements like addictive substances and witchcraft. However, its single act of murder regarding Bambi’s mother was enough to make it clear that life can’t always be a lovely romp through the woods, no matter how much they try to put it out of our minds with a pretty little ditty soon after.
Despite being rendered in animation, the Disney films were some of the grimmest and strangest of the time, even when compared to their live-action contemporaries, and many of their most notable scenes are hard to forget.
So, were all of these things wrong for children to watch? Should parents have sheltered their kids from such material?
Fragile Young Minds
One could argue in any instance that each child is different; ergo, not all children are going to be able to handle the same things, and certainly not in the same ways. Some children might find violence particularly disturbing, while others only mildly because they understand that it’s simulated on a movie screen. Some children might also find death distressing, because they associate it directly with someone in their own family or group of friends who has passed. So any depiction of death and loss, or even potential death–where a character has fallen gravely ill–could cause an intense emotional reaction. Still other children could be scared of monsters, ghouls, and the Boogieman, and anything remotely resembling what they envision these creatures to be on film could adversely affect them for days or weeks afterwards, because they think these things are hiding in the dark spaces of their room.
Although, again, not all children are going to have these reactions. Any parent at one time or another could automatically assume that their child could be traumatized by disturbing imagery or acts of violence. Most parents these days would rather not see their kids witness the spoils of debauchery, as can clearly be seen in Pinocchio. But until one can say for certain whether or not their child has shown a negative response to certain images or stimuli, there’s less reason to assume that they cannot handle a film or two that features more serious elements and dramatic turns; especially when it is a film made with them as the target audience.
On top of this, many children of the early 1900s (up to the end of World War II: 1945) had incredibly bleak and demanding lives compared to lower and middle-class families of today.
Kids worked in mines, dangerous factory floors, hazardous steel mills. They handled and operated heavy industrial equipment, which all too often claimed life and limb. People used their kids as a labor-force to help till the fields of vast farm-lands. But even when it wasn’t all of that, homes required more upkeep, people had bigger yards with more chores and responsibilities, kids picked up jobs at younger ages even after the Child Labor laws were put in place after The Great Depression. You were even allowed to walk 5 miles down the road, by yourself, just to go to the drug store for some candy; and no one worried a thing about you, because you were just a kid. There wasn’t a lot of child psychology done in those days. People generally didn’t care about what kids knew or understood. The sooner they sucked it up and had their nose shoved right into life’s responsibilities, the better. On top of this, death was also a common fact of life. There were so many untreatable diseases, infant deaths, casualties of war, death from loss of limbs, death from accidents, and so on and so forth. Seeing bleak deaths depicted in films and other media just wasn’t so strange or obviously emotionally harmful, even to the kids.
So in those days, while the Disney features are some of the more serious and emotionally striking films of the age, they might well have been far easier to stomach than anything kids had actually been through themselves. Even after World War II–when the later Disney films were made–those days were still fresh in people’s minds. As long as the movies were a form of escapism, and perhaps especially since the Disney films always had a happy ending, they were the best things a child could see at the cinema. Because not only were they uplifting, but they were extremely well crafted, and took years of hard work to make–as opposed to the cookie-cutter Hollywood assembly line films they could have been watching instead.
The Shifting Times
Walt Disney had an incredible knack for getting to the heart of a story, and figuring out just what was necessary thematically and plot-wise to translate the emotions and the morals within that story to his audience. But by the time Walt died, his hand was no longer in the development of his animated projects as deep as it had been in the past. He was managing a multi-million dollar company by the late 1950s, complete with two television programs which he hosted, a new theme park and another on the way, and plenty of live-action films to keep a busy but rewarding schedule. More pressure was then put on his favorite group of animators, his “Nine Old Men” as he called them, to pen the scripts and build the characters which would occupy their upcoming cinematic projects. But despite their best efforts, as a result of Walt’s death, the Disney feature films and their characters slowly became homogenized. By the early 1970s their story-lines were smaller scale, their predicaments were not as dire or bleak, and their themes were not nearly as powerful or morally based.
On the audience side, due to the emergence of the television (meaning less theater attendance), and the conveniences of the modern 1960s life, parents, it seems, became more protective of their children and their entertainment. The trends in popular media were steering away from the more literary and philosophical stories with gritty tales of magic and monsters, to the more quirky, bubbly content of pop-music, sit-coms, and a growing interest in education. There was now an expectation to be more prim and proper, to live in nice suburban houses, and live the “All American” way, even in the wake of the independent teenage culture that had begun to grow in the fifties. Even the Disney company got on the band-wagon when they began producing hour-long TV programs, featuring characters like Ludwig Von Drake, who would teach children about the wonders of color, the atom, and the history of music. Never a dull moment and often a delight, but these cultural shifts clearly took a toll on their flag-ship content.
To bring up some films as examples, The Sword in the Stone (1963) is highly enjoyable, and features a delightful cast of characters, but at its heart, it’s a comedy. The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1966-1977) has a few light scares and a scene of fear and loneliness, but it is also mostly a comedy. The Jungle Book (1967) is chiefly a story about childhood angst, but its single scene of deep emotion is cheapened by revealing that Baloo did not in fact die–unlike Bambi’s mother or Simba’s father–even though Baloo was clearly a “father figure.” The AristoCats (1970): once again, another comedy. Robin Hood (1973) was special, in that it changed things up by having an emotionally unstable villain, scenes of sadness and hopelessness, and an anxiously thrilling climax where it almost looks like Robin perished in the flames. But even it fell to the trope of being a tad more hammy and “scenery chewing” (overly dramatic), rather than trying to be scary or intimidating in any fashion.
All of these films had “dramatic moments,” or a scene where characters dealt with sad emotions, but nothing nearly as heart-wrenching or hair-raising as had come before.
The seventies would prove to be no kinder. Most commonly it became known as the “Dark Age” of animation, not only due to the far smaller box office draw the Disney films had, but because animation became weaker, simpler, and perhaps more experimental. You still had a few things like The Phantom Tollbooth, The Rankin/Bass Christmas films, The Point, and all of the Peanuts specials, including my favorite, Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown. But animation had also made its way into the X-rated cinemas with films like Fritz the Cat, Heavy Traffic, and Down and Dirty Duck. It wasn’t quite until Star Wars came out that all film, including animation, would be seeing a rejuvenating revival.
With the 1980s came a new wave of imaginative ideas: a new appreciation for filmmaking, for music, for horror movies (especially slasher flicks), and for magic. The world of fantasy would see a rebirth here, and Disney animator Don Bluth knew that he could bring something back to the silver screen that he felt the Disney Company had somehow lost during the Dark Age of the late sixties and seventies. So after working tirelessly with a moonlighting crew of other animators on his first short, Banjo the Woodpile Cat, Don got the rights to produce a feature-length adaptation of “Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH” (later renamed The Secret of NIMH), and sought to bring feature animation back to its roots: harking back to the high-quality character animation of Bambi, the delicately crafted artistry of Pinocchio, and the emotional maturity of Lady and the Tramp.
The Merits of Darkness
After having worked on Sleeping Beauty–one of the last “high-art” animated films of the last century–Don Bluth went on to animate characters for Robin Hood, The Rescuers, The Fox and the Hound, and he directed the animation on Pete’s Dragon: all films which, to Don, had become simplistic, watered down, and far less magical than the films he had hoped he would get to work on when he joined the Disney Studios back in the mid-sixties.
Now these features are surely nothing wrong to show to children. In fact, even the worst of the Disney features from the twentieth century are better entertainment than some of our most popular today. But it is conceivable, that if you put a child in front of a film that allows them to think, allows them to feel, and asks them to empathize with the characters on screen, it changes them inside: it affects them in a meaningful way, even if they don’t like how it makes them feel at that moment. Certain films for a growing child are experiences that cannot be found anywhere else, and some may define who they are when they reach adult-hood. Perhaps this was not entirely on Don Bluth’s agenda. Then again, maybe it was. None-the-less, Don Bluth is responsible for writing and directing some of the most impactful, honest, emotionally riveting, and perhaps most grim animated features ever made for a family audience.
The Secret of NIMH is notable for its widowed middle-aged female protagonist (a virtual rarity even in live-action film), its violent death of the villain by literal back-stabbing, and its dark Lovecraftian design with regards to the history and the realm of the Rats of NIMH.
An American Tail is notable for its shocking opening scene of destruction, its bleak depiction of loss, loneliness, and fear with regards to Fievel, and its decidedly disturbing atmosphere with regards to New York’s underbelly with Warren T. Rat, his dastardly cohorts, and any of the other unhelpful citizens who turn a blind eye to this lost and scared child.
The Land Before Time is notable for its early death scene (far more tragic than even Bambi’s mother’s death), its tale of a group of children traversing deserts and scaling mountains in order to find their families again, and its suspenseful scenes of danger involving a monstrous T-Rex that threatens to kill the young dinosaurs at every turn.
However, one thing that all three of these films have in common is an incredibly satisfying climax and resolution, that could not be more cheerfully melancholy if you placed a picture of a sad puppy next to the movie screen.
Mrs. Brisby saves her children through the power of a stone and the strength of her will, Fievel finds his family through his boundless hope and the strength of his determination, and Littlefoot and his friends find the Great Valley and their families through the trust of his mother’s spirit, and the bond of their friendship.
So should children not be allowed to see such amazing films? Are these films made in error because of their bleak and sometimes disturbing content, despite their good endings?
There is only one case on record, which could easily be argued was made in complete error despite good intentions. That case being Ralph Bakshi’s Wizards, a film which he constantly claims on the DVD’s commentary track was made as a “family picture:” despite his usual tropes of angry violent characters with guns, brutal bloody battles, sexual innuendos, scantily-clad females, and a drab and gritty landscape. Not at all a suitable film for young children.
Yet, the films of Don Bluth are different. They all have an eerie haunted energy to them, but are not so dreary or mature as to include hateful or foul language, or grating cynicism. There have also been other films even beyond Bluth’s, which not only took many risks with content, but have done similar wonders in designing films that were not only serious in tone and narrative, but were long lasting in the minds of young children who saw them back in the day.
Darkness Beyond Bluth’s
Take for instance Once Upon A Forest. That film had your typical strong environmental message about pollution and caring for wild animals and their environment. But it also told a harrowing tale about three young rodents (“furlings”) who traveled across forests and meadows to seek out some special herbs they needed in order to save their younger badger friend from certain death. It’s definitely a bit softer on the edges than a Don Bluth feature, but not by much.
Ferngully is another; although it came a lot later than the rest. Its most disturbing factor was of course Hexxus; who not only had a sexualized song all about the wonders of slime and sludge (makes one’s skin crawl just thinking about it), but he metamorphosed into a demonic creature with a tar-covered skull and a glowing molten interior, for no other reason than to scare the life out of the audience, and scar kids for life. Was this perhaps too much for kids? It certainly makes a better case. But there doesn’t seem to have been much report of these images coming back to haunt people decades later.
The biggest of these dark children’s features, however, is the cult-classic of 1987, which almost won the grand prize for best feature film at the Sundance Film Festival of 1988. It was a Disney produced film, and had originally been drafted and story-boarded by then short-lived Disney animator, John Lasseter. This film was The Brave Little Toaster.
Toaster should go down in history as one of the most profound films (let alone animated films) that a person can ever watch. Not only is the story of five hopeless (and sentient) home appliances, journeying across the country side to find their owner, a beautifully emotional thing to witness: but the film is punctuated by deeply affecting scenes of near-death experiences, horrifying nightmares, sadistic repair-shop owners, murderous electronics and garbage magnets, and a truly shocking and terrifying climax that could leave you anxious for days. But once again, is it safe for children? Will it scar them to realize that the world isn’t all fun and laughter and good times? Will it be better for them to see this rather than something emotionally easier on their minds?
Honestly, it all depends on what one thinks is most important for their child to see and to know in order to grow up best.
There is no doubt that the stories, struggles, and the emotional turmoil of fictional characters (especially animated ones) have affected millions of people in a palpable and meaningful way. These films have the power to open one’s eyes to things and feelings that one would not otherwise have an appreciation for. It is far more rewarding to learn and to understand what it means to feel empathy for something or someone–to cry when they are hurt, to feel scared when they are lost, to feel hope when they find food, and to know joy when they reach home–than to sit down to another bargain-bin story about following your dreams and standing up for what’s right, with a third-rate villain who doesn’t even draw blood when they make their threats.
As a great young Hobbit once told his best friend on their harrowing journey to Mordor:
“It’s like in the great stories Mr. Frodo, the ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were, and sometimes you didn’t want to know the end because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end it’s only a passing thing this shadow, even darkness must pass. A new day will come, and when the sun shines it’ll shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you, that meant something even if you were too small to understand why.” –J. R. R. Tolkien
For a good while, Walt Disney and Don Bluth were really not so different. Both of their filmographies touched us on a hardened level that intended to draw real raw emotion from us–not the least due to their grim and Gothic imagery–because they both wanted to bring us something better than what they themselves saw in the cinemas. Something new, but something timeless. Something scary, but something wonderful. To tell of good deeds, righteous acts, and self sacrifices. To tell harrowing tales of princesses, warriors, monsters, mice, and magic. To show us the dark as well as the light, because there can be no appreciation of one without the other.
Kids can surely handle more than we give them credit for, and it seems that Don Bluth, and Walt Disney knew that. It simply remains up to the parents to make the discerning choice of whether or not their child is capable of accepting what they see in the cinema, or at home, and learning from it in a healthy and maturing way.
The world of animation has changed a lot since the seventies and eighties. Animated films are more about the gags and jokes like they once were in the 60s. They have moved away from the serious, richer story lines, and have chosen to give people thrills of emotional highs rather than real, honest lows. For a short time, we had it pop up again in the nineties, with the release of Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Tarzan. However, more recently–with the release of films like Coraline, The Boxtrolls, Inside Out, and How to Train Your Dragon 2–there is evidence that the world of animation is returning to that more serious place; where we can trust our kids to understand and comprehend complex emotions and character interactions, rather than just sugar coating everything.
It’s only a matter of time before more writers, filmmakers, and storytellers decide to bring kids stronger, more challenging, and more honest cinematic content. In the meantime, I hear television is doing a pretty bang up job already.
Steven Universe and Gravity Falls anyone?
What do you think? Leave a comment.