Child’s Play: Tough movies for little beasts

There are many myths about children and childhood, most of which relate to a misconception about the notion of innocence. We talk about kids as though they are friendly, effervescent bubbles of untainted purity, as yet uncorrupted by the difficulties and evils of the world. This is, of course, untrue. Anybody who has been a child should know that they are more like Freud’s little demonic ids, as yet unrestrained by the development of a moral thought process.

A mature adult, when confronted with a person who is overweight, ugly, unintelligent, disabled or laden with any other form of misfortune, is generally likely to go out of their way to avoid addressing this trait, or even to discuss any subject that might in some way relate back to the unfortunate person’s condition.  But as I’m sure we all recall from our distant memories of the schoolyard, a child is quite likely to do just the opposite. I’m unaware of any instance in which an overweight child was able to avoid being reminded daily, if not hourly of their physical condition. I’m unable to deny that I was any different – I participated as much as the next person. In fact, I can’t recall any childhood friends or enemies who could claim innocence.

So what’s the point? The point is that the modern tendency to protect children from the horrors of the real world by exposing them only to the most naff, sentimental and unworldly of cinema is redundant at best, and misleading at worst. I’m not saying kids should be forced to watch The Texas Chainsaw Massacre at the age of six, I’m just saying that children should not be entirely shielded from the harsh realities of the world. After all, it wasn’t too long ago that children grew up being told countless fairy tales designed specifically to introduce them to the real world.

And so, here is a list of ten films that provided this simple blogger with a window into the shadier side of life.

Labyrinth (1986)

Jim Henson’s rather dark reinvention of The Wizard of Oz follows a young Jennifer Connolly as she moves deeper and deeper into the bowels of a massive labyrinth in search of her baby brother, recently kidnapped by the Goblin King (David Bowie). Ignoring the uncomfortable implications of Bowie’s apparent physical attraction to the teenage Connolly, this film beautifully captures the angst of a young girl entering into adulthood.

Who framed Roger Rabbit? (1988)

This modern noir reinvents 1940s Los Angeles into a city cohabited by real people and cartoons. In this reality, cartoons are a disenfranchised minority, a situation clearly meant to sit analogically with African American subjugation. When Bob Hoskins (playing an alcoholic private investigator) is hired by the famous Roger Rabbit to investigate claims that his animated femme-fatal wife is cheating, he must overcome his prejudice against toons. Aside from gently touching upon the topic of racism, this film perfectly balances the demands of younger and older viewers.  Even now I find it hard to watch one scene in particular, featuring the tragic demise of a single animated shoe. Powerful stuff.

The NeverEnding Story (1984)

To the adult eye this films seems like a disjointed and unsatisfying production (a surprise from Das Boot director, Wolfgang Peterson), constructed more like a series of incoherent vignettes than a proper film. However, to my younger self this was an incredibly powerful journey into a fantasy world that seemed to threaten the boundaries between fiction and reality. This deceptively simple tale follows Bastian, a young boy struggling to deal with the recent death of his mother. Bastian is fond of escaping into the world of fiction, but when he comes across a magical book that brings the literary world to life everything begins to change. There is an incredible moment when one of the characters of this book reveals to Bastian that he himself is living in a fictional world and being observed by you the viewer. Complex stuff for a six year old – Plato for toddlers!

The Witches (1990)

This perfect adaptation of Roald Dahl’s book (directed by the very adult Nicholas Roeg) follows a young boy as he finds himself trapped in a hotel with a coven of witches. Roeg pulls no punches in this rather disturbing children’s film. Nothing beats the side story of the young girl who becomes trapped in a painting by a witch – then grows old and dies. Sleep tight!

Charlotte’s Web (1973)

The old school version, not that Oprah rubbish! The original loveable pig movie – it’s the tale of a young pig attempting to escape their destiny – the slaughterhouse. With the help of Charlotte, the world’s most loveable spider, Wilbur manages to escape death, only to have the circle of life stick it in and break it off. Love hurts!

The Garbage Pail Kids Movie (1987)

Pretty simple really. They were a bunch of dirty puppets that countered the cuteness of the Cabbage Patch kids. Each armed with a special “skill”, they spent much of the movie spraying things with various bodily substances. Immature – yes. An early lesson in satire – absolutely.

The Dark Crystal (1982)

I watched this again just a month ago and I’m still not sure what it’s about. The ancient turtle dudes share a crystal with the huge vulture beasts, and then the elfling guy must travel west to meet Yoda’s sister and… who knows. But Jim Henson’s nightmare world of puppetry is about as gorgeous (and scary) as it gets.

Anything Disney

Despite it’s less than hard-hitting image, Disney has produced many truly powerful films that don’t shy away from the brutality of the real world. Dumbo, The Lion King and Bambi are just a few examples of movies that leave kids a little more hardened than they started out. Nothing puts hair on your chest faster than childhood trauma.

Beetlejuice (1989)

Not a kid’s film you say? I’m not entirely convinced that Burton has ever made a film with enough chutzpah to justify adult viewing, but the early ones were great for kids! Keaton’s portrayal of a raunchy poltergeist might not take more than 20 minutes screen time, but the character’s combination of the comedic and horrifying will sear itself into the confused minds of children for decades to come.  Life is complicated.

Robocop (1987)

DEFINITELY not a kid’s film? Pah! Time to take off the training wheels. Paul Verhoeven’s dystopian vision of a future Detroit controlled and corrupted by the forces of capitalism (embodied by OCP, the resident evil corporation). Kids may not pick up on the social satire straight away, but they’ll learn something about pathos when officer Alex Murphy is shot to pieces in an agonising display of violence, only to be resurrected as Robocop, a disturbing mix of hero, slave, and commodity. Sometimes kids, you’ve gotta work for the man.

James Curnow is an obsessive cinephile and the owner and head editor of CURNBLOG. His work as a film journalist has been published in a range of print and digital publications, including The Guardian, Broadsheet and Screening the Past. James is currently working through a PhD in Film Studies, focused primarily on issues of historical representation in Contemporary Hollywood cinema.

32 thoughts on “Child’s Play: Tough movies for little beasts

  1. In the ‘old days’ when there was a 9 o’clocK watershed on television children could be excluded from adult fare – but with satellite television they can watch most anything any time of the day.

    I’ve got my 3 grandkids with me at the moment (12, 10 and 5) and they select what to watch now and what to record for later. Surprisingly they have elected to watch mostly ‘kids’ movies’ with a few adult ones sprinkled in. No horror or splatter movies in there. Kids find them boring (they tell me).
    The 12 year old wants to watch ‘All Quiet On the Western Front’ as part of a school project on the Great War, but I think he’ll find it rather pedestrian.

    Kids are tougher than you think but there is still a case for protecting them from the excesses of the real world until they can handle it.

  2. Another good movie for this list would have been the musical version of Little Shop of Horrors. I loved the s**t out of that movie as a kid but I didn’t really realize that it wasn’t really aimed at kids until I saw it again recently, Somehow I forgot about the masochistic dental patient and how gruesome some of the scenes were. Still though, I think it’s the kind of film kids should be allowed to see. Another good one along these lines would be the Tim Burton Sleepy Hollow movie. I was 17 when that came out in theaters and I saw that with my parents but I was pleased to see some other cool parents brought their younger kids to see it as well. If anything I’d argue a movie like that would get the kids interested in reading the Washington Irving classic 🙂

  3. Every film you listed was a staple in my childhood as well, even if they were nightmare educing. I have vivid memories of awaking in fear from dreaming about being turned into a mouse by The Witches or the villain’s red eyes in Roger Rabbit. Other films that could have been included on this list (in my opinion) are: Willow, The Last Unicorn, and Legend. I’m sure I could think of others too, but I won’t bore you with a long list. Thanks for following my blog, and I will be returning the favor.

  4. I was horribly sheltered as a kid, in terms of movies. I definitely remember “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” being on our shelf, forbidden to me. I immediately pictured in my little kid brain that Roger Rabbit was a terrible adult guy, some sort of raunchy alcoholic – after all, the movie was forbidden. Luckily for me, it’s easier to get away with darkness in book than in movies, so books became my alternative to endless Tim Allen movies with the family. To this day, I can’t really navigate the world of movies – perhaps this is the reason why!

    Another point to consider is the way that childhood is portrayed in movies that aren’t aimed at children. I mean, how many “innocent childhood summer” movies are out there? How do you all feel about those?

    • An endless loop of Tim Allen movies would certainly have sent me straight to Stephen King books as a kid (which, being a snotty little boy intent on demonstrating his adultness – I did anyway).

      You are correct about the whole childhood innocence genre being for adults – but I imagine it’s a subject that would bore most kids. I remember thinking that ‘Stand by Me’ was the longest movie in history – and Blue Lagoon seemed pretty gross 🙂

  5. I knew that my parents were infinitely more awesome than any other parents out there when they rented Robocop from the local video store on my birthday when I was in the first grade. My parents were different than most parents though in that they didn’t believe in censorship when it came to movies. As long as the movies weren’t outright porn films my siblings and I were allowed to watch whatever we wanted as long as one or both parents watched the movie with us. So my older brother and sister and myself were exposed to a lot of movies kids in our age group typically wouldn’t see like Robocop, the Nightmare on Elm Street movies and adult comedies like Hannah and her Sisters, When Harry met Sally, Heartburn and others. And because my sister and I had advanced IQs we understood most of the humor in the Woody Allen (and Nora Ephron) films right away and appreciated them a lot.
    That’s not to say we didn’t enjoy stuff that was specifically aimed at kids though. I [as my avatar and WordPress site clearly demonstrate 🙂 ] was also a huge fan of kid-oriented stuff such as the “Disney Afternoon” line-up of shows like Duck Tales, Tail-Spin, Darkwing Duck and others.
    Getting back to the article though I’d argue that Robocop and Beetlejuice were aimed at kids, even if their movies weren’t. After all, Kenner did make Robocop (and Beetlejuice) toys and both movies were turned into toned-down/watered down cartoon shows (which is kind of messed up but not as messed up as Rambo getting a cartoon if you’ve seen First Blood).

    • Amen to all of the above! Sounds like our parents were interchangeable!

      Agreed – Robocop/Beetlejuice were marketed as adult films but deliberately had one eye aimed at the children’s market. Not necessarily a bad thing – Robocop is one of the few films I love as much now as then, all because it functions on multiple levels.

  6. Wow! I don’t agree that many of these are child’s fare, however I enjoyed reading this a bunch.

    I can’t forget the demise of the horse in The NeverEnding Story – I think this happens there – it dies in sinking sand. It was terrible for both the character (who tries to rescue it) and the viewers. In Snow White & the Huntsman the same thing happens to a horse who carries Snow White away from danger (into more danger). Snow White seems somewhat unmoved. I suppose she still has the HORRIBLE HORRIBLE FOREST to face.

    Thanks for a good post!

    • That’s okay, I’m sure many people wouldn’t agree with me 🙂

      Yep, that was The NeverEnding Story and it was definitely a traumatic moment. Not sure I’ll be getting to the Snow White movie until it hits DVD though…

      • Yes, traumatic is the right word.
        About waiting till the Snow White movie hits DVD, I understand. This was one of two movies I’ve seen in a theater after a break from this for several years. The other movie was…The Avengers!

  7. I was really enjoying this list, until the last two. I honestly can’t imagine Beetlejuice and Robocop as children’s movies, even though I watched both of them when I was a kid. Robocop is far too violent (no child should watch Murphy’s execution in its entirety) and Beetlejuice is kinda scary.

    That said, they both ended up with Saturday morning cartoon versions for kids, so maybe I’m wrong there!

    • Robocop was definitely full on viewing as a child, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I even used to have a big pile of the collector cards (the existence of which was certainly strong evidence for a large children’s following).

      In terms of Beetlejuice, I find Burton’s work to be fairly flat and dull as an adult – but as a kid movies like Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands were always favs.

    • Good call. An oversight on my part, but I think we can take Star Wars as a given. I did see the Errol Flynn version of Robin Hood many times as a child though.

  8. I think kids need to face the fact that reality is sometimes not pretty and by preparing them by watching movies that are not too syrupy may be the right way to go. Of course when my kids were little, they subsisted on cuddly teddy bear tales — but hey, that is just me.

  9. I grew up watching nearly all of those films. I can still remember getting a little freaked out by watching The Labyrinth- and it wasn’t just David Bowie’s tight leather trousers! Anyway, it’s a very good list you’ve got there, it’s the kind of list that made me start loving movies from an early age.

    • Thanks. They were definitely some of the key films in establishing my love of cinema.

      I remember a lot of kids being obsessed with Bowie’s mid-movie musical number. Endless arguments over what the lyrics actually were – I’m pretty sure we all had them wrong!

  10. It is not kids’ fault if they don’t know the basics of good behaviors, I think it is adults’ fault, because they don’t teach their children these basics, but on contrary they teach them how to be bad, also these movies don’t do the perfect job, they may teach children to depend in themselves, but they rarely tech them how to behave with others

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