Dark Children’s Movies

By D. G. McCabe

Not all children’s movies are light and bubbly.  In fact, come to think of it, very few of them are.  They generally fall into one of three of the following categories:

1. The Unforgettable Tragedies (The Land Before Time (1988); An American Tail (1986); The Lion King (1994); Bambi (1942); Old Yeller (1957); Up (2009); The Fox and the Hound (1981)).

Kids need to learn about trauma and tragedy.  Sorry helicopter parents but even bubble boy was, well, stuck in a freakin’ bubble.  For many of us, our first memory of tragedy is a deer’s mother getting shot in the woods by “man” or a dog having to be put down due to rabies acquired while defending his family from a pack of rabid wolves.  At least Old Yeller died heroically and wasn’t just turned into venison chili.

These films have a tendency to hold up surprisingly well when viewed as adults.  I recently saw The Land Before Time again (which was the first movie I ever saw in theaters), and its heartwarming story of lost, orphaned, starving, baby dinosaurs is still as effective as ever. It isn’t quite the first 15 minutes of Up, but then again, what is?

2. The Weird Stuff (Alice in Wonderland (1951), Labyrinth (1986), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)).

Let’s face it – dark sometimes means tragic, but it can also mean just plain weird. Labyrinth may be a fun movie, but David Bowie is more likely to give children nightmares than anything else except maybe clowns or the below Christmas movies.  While marketed as such and featuring Jim Henson creatures, this isn’t really a kid’s film.

Alice in Wonderland is based on the insane ramblings of a 19th Century opium addict.  Now some people love the Disney version of this insane, illogical, opium fueled hallucination, but I think that it’s better left on the shelf next to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon.

Likewise, someone at Disney thought it would be a good idea to turn Victor Hugo’s dense meditation on loneliness, isolation, and prejudice into a musical romance.  The results were surprisingly mixed, since it seemed destined for disaster.  Still, kids who someday read the book after seeing this film will be shocked to find out that poor Quasimodo (do I really need a spoiler alert for a novel written in the 1820’s?) dies in the most depressing way possible. Ever see the Futurama episode “Jurassic Bark?”  Yeah, pretty much just like that, except worse.

3. Attempts at Christmas Movies (Santa Claus (1959); Santa Claus: The Move (1985); Prancer (1989)).

In Santa Claus, Ol’ St. Nick fights the devil and lives on the moon with his “servant” children!  Check out the Mystery Science Theater Episode, it’s one of their best.

As for Santa Claus: The Movie, the following thought surely came into the director’s mind: “Those studio hacks thought that the origin of Santa Claus wasn’t enough material for more than 20 minutes of a movie!  I’ll show those stuffed shirts!  Yeah, with an evil, corporate villain and, I don’t know, some candy that makes kids fly!”

Prancer on the other hand is the totally not depressing at all tale of childhood trauma, animal abuse, bullying, and the near slaughtering of one of Santa’s reindeer for meat.  I’m sure you can catch this on the Hallmark Channel in like a month, sandwiched between tales of lonely housewives who discover the spirit of Christmas from strange men who are really Santa Claus.  Or just hobos with red jackets, whatever.

(c) 2013 D.G. McCabe

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D.G. McCabe

I'm a writer who loves movies. So I write a blog about movies. Pretty basic stuff.