My Take on Darkness in Disney

One thing which has been continually  brought up on the blog is the issue of darkness or evil in a movie and when does it cross the line into disturbing and violent.  It’s a hard question to answer to be honest.  It is kind of a ‘I know it when I see it’  situation but I will try to explain.

Few things to keep in mind.

1.  I am not a fan of scary movies or horror- I personally do not like the sensation of being scared, never have, never will.  I recognize that is my personal preference and there is nothing inherently wrong with horror movies, but everyone comes to movie viewing with a set of likes and dislikes such as disliking musicals or romantic comedies.  I am Legend, Rear Window, Wait Until Dark are about as scary as I get.

Even a very popular super hero franchise is too scary and intense for my taste.  I find violent content sticks in my brain and I have a hard time getting rid of it.

2. I am also a deeply religious person with conservative values so some things I do not care for because it crosses a line between ghost story and evil such as exorcism movies. I can’t really take off that hat because it’s who I am so I can only look at films through that perspective and try to learn from others who see through a different lens (that’s the whole point of blogging like this!).

Ghost stories are usually OK-

What I mean by this is a story can be set in an all dark world, a ghostly world and it usually is pretty good.  For example, I like:

Corpse Bride-

corpse bride

ParaNorman-paranorman-hero2

Nightmare Before Christmas-The_Nightmare_Before_Christmas121510

Spirited Away-

spirited away

These types of movies are not as upsetting to children or me because they are entirely within their world so the characters become likable and have nuances within the darkness.  There is usually a protagonist in these types of movies who is very easy to relate to despite their crazy environment.

Coraline I wasn’t as big a fan of not because of the images but I felt the story dragged and I didn’t feel that connection to the lead I needed for the dark imagery.

Good vs Evil is OK-

Many children stories are about the battle of good vs evil and I think that is great.  Kids should not grow up believing the world is gumdrops and rainbows.  In fact, being a religious person an understanding of Satan and evil is very important with of course an understanding of Christ and His goodness to compliment it.

I think that balance is the key to my liking a good vs evil movie.  There should be hope throughout the film mixed in with moments of real peril.  When it is all evil, evil, evil, evil and then finally the good guy wins I grow frustrated.

One of the great things about the Harry Potter movies is evil is a real palatable force but there is always hope, friendship, love and kindness.

voldemort harry potter2

The Wicked Witch of the West is a pretty scary villain.  It is unclear how Dorthy is going to make it out of the situation alive. I know kids where Wizard of Oz is too much for them, so a lot of this depends on the kid (or adult watching).  I would say Wizard of Oz pushes the line for small children but she is so over-the-top to be almost more funny than scary that I think it’s fine for most kids.  Most of the Disney villains fall into the category of the Wicked Witch.  They are villains but so over-the-top that they don’t bring us down but entertain us with their evil ways.  The heroine or hero is never completely without hope and there are enough moments of peace and safety to make it all work.wicked witch

Return to Oz on the other hand did not work for me and petrified me as s child.  It’s one thing to have a wicked witch.  It’s another to have a witch who has a hallway of her collection of heads, with wheelies and electroshock therapy on Dorothy.  That’s crossing the line and it gave me nightmares as a little girl.

return to oz

Don’t be mean spirited!-

You’ve heard me say on the blog, particularly about The Rescuers, is I thought it was a ‘mean spirited’ film.  What do I mean by that?  Well, it goes back to tone.  Villains can exist and should exist in a movie, especially a fairytale but when a character is picked on to the point of being an unempowered victim than the movie starts to lose me.  Penny is treated so badly in The Rescuers.  She is told she is worthless, unadoptable, homely, shot at several times, and forced to go down the cave.  To me there is no sense of empowerment or hope for the character.  It’s just beat her, beat her, beat her until she is rescued.  That’s where it crosses the line to me and becomes mean spirited, when it loses its hope.

medusa-and-penny

So not only do you have to get the right kind of villain but you have to use them in the right dosage.  Rescuers Down Under I loved because it kept its hope and used McLeach very little- just enough to be menacing without being shrill or overbearing.

Again, this is just my perspective but I thought it might helpful when reading my blog.   I was scared of Medusa (not in the good way) as a little girl because nothing that happens in The Rescuers (except for the mice rescuing Penny) is really that outrageous.  It could totally happen and probably has happened that a little girl has been abducted by mean people to help them with a task like going down the cave (or some other scheme to make money).

The music and color palate can also have a big influence on creating tone (and nothing is harder as a writer than creating the right tone).   The Rescuers had music which made me feel even worse for Penny and it was all very unpleasant.  Not exciting, funny or shocking like a good creepy villain or scary scene will do.

In Rescuers Down Under Cody immediately has friends when he’s abducted and there is a hope and light that makes it less dark and mean spirited.

Pinocchio was too far over the line for me as a child.  Pleasure Island is very disturbing and no resolution is ever made.  Evil is not defeated, the kids are never changed back to kids from being donkeys.  This was terrifying.  It has only been as an adult I can appreciate it for the morality play it is but I still couldn’t give it an A because I just know I didn’t enjoy it as a child and that has to count for something.

The thing about Pinocchio is it also maintains its tone throughout, which was terrifying as a child but as an adult I can appreciate it more; whereas, other movies try to swing around more and so they aren’t pleasant as an adult or a child.  Pinocchio does have Jimminy but for most of the movie it is a dark, scary tone.  I hated it as a child but like it all right now.

donkeys

Don’t Be R Rated in G Rated Film-

Occasionally a film will come out using childlike themes or settings but for adults.  I think this is great! A perfect example is Pan’s Labyrinth.  I admire Guillermo del Toro for not trying to wedge his vision into a G rated movie but just making the hard R he wanted to make.  I wish Disney would at least once be brave enough to make an adults only movie.  I think with Hunchback the artists wanted to but the studio toned it down creating a tonal mess.

pans labyrinth

I was lucky enough to be somewhat sheltered as a child and it served me quite well.  While I think it is healthy for children to learn about evil and that bad things can happen there are certain subjects I don’t feel a little boy or girl needs to know about until they are older.  Rape and violent murder are in that discussion.  That was my main issue with Hunchback.  I do not want to have to explain to my 7-year-old about lust, rape, assault and burning a family alive.  To me that crosses a line which kids don’t need to cross.  It doesn’t make them a better person or inspire their imagination like a Wizard of Oz or a Nightmare Before Christmas.

Like I said before, there are also certain things because of my religious views that I don’t really want to explain to children until they are older.  For example, in Princess in the Frog the villain is a voodoo man (won’t give away my review).  If I had kids that would be a concern for me because I don’t really want them to know about voodoo, possession, exorcism, heathen practices.  My parents would never let us play with Ouija boards for the same reason.  I recognize everyone does not have the same beliefs but those are mine and they affect my enjoyment of a movie.

Kids can be Sad-

You might think I only like movies which are happy Christian films and that is not the case.  I love movies that take children’s feelings seriously.  It is fine for children to be sad and to learn about themselves as full people.  I love Where the Wild Things Are and many people feel that is a depressing picture but I remember being that thoughtful, sometimes sad kid, wondering about life. wild things areI wrote up a defense of Where the Wild Things Are on my other blog:

http://smilingldsgirl.com/2014/02/20/where-the-wild-things-are-defended/

But it also gets a bit of a pass for me because like Pans Labyrinth it wasn’t really marketed or made for kids.  There are moments which are kid-like but they are still enjoyable to adults not like the gargoyles made clearly to appeal to only kids.   If I had kids I would have to weigh the type of child and maturity levels (and ability to handle a slower paced movie) before watching Where the Wild Things Are..

I love stories about people who don’t feel at home in their environment, who break free and find out who they really are.  That’s why I love The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Where the Wild Things Are . I could go on and on…

Who Knows…

Perhaps when I have kids I will go even further away from darker pictures.  I don’t know but I know what I like now, what I liked as a child and how certain pictures come off to me.  If I say something feels mean-spirited or hateful it doesn’t mean I don’t like darkness in children’s films.  I’ve just given you a number dark films I do like.  It just means that on the particular day with that particular film it was too much.  It was too hateful. It was too mean.

I think part of it also has to do with having been bullied as a child badly.   I know people roll their eyes know when they hear bullying stories but it was a profound experience in my life.  I guess that’s why I am more sensitive to situations where I feel a character is being victimized not merely threatened.

I also know I have become softer and less tolerant in some ways as an adult.  A few years ago I reread a bunch of Roald Dahl books I loved as a child and they seemed very violent to me.  I was shocked.  So, who knows! I just do my best to give and defend my responses and what I would feel if I had a daughter viewing the films.

That’s all I can do and I’m having a great time doing it, so thanks for reading!

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And I realize I am probably in the minority and a bit of a wimp in these views but it’s me and hopefully I still have positive things to say about any movie even if I don’t like the dark tones (no F’s yet! Always something I like).

3 thoughts on “My Take on Darkness in Disney

  1. I think most of what Disney, Warner Brothers, Hanna-Barbera, Ward & Scott, Matt Groening (and others) have produced in this genre, is intended for adults. Just because a movie or TV show is animated, or its protagonist is a minor, doesn’t mean it’s “kid stuff.” Nor, for that matter, is a book written from the point of view of a child or teen, an animal (anthropomorphic or not), or drawn in pictures, a “kid’s book.” All such approaches are literary devices, chosen for their effectiveness in attracting attention and communicating a message that can be completely decoded only by an acculturated adult audience.

    Much of what’s dark about the art in question may go completely over children’s heads (as it did with you, reading Dahl; or with me, as a child watching Disney), or it may cause them sensory overload that feels threatening. That’s why your assessment of The Wizard of Oz (1939) is spot on: I can only remember enjoying the movie from my young childhood onward, but it terrified my daughter until she was in her middle teens. Then she decided to try it again, and she liked it. She told me that she identified differently with Dorothy, the second time around.

    Children may be fascinated by fast action and loud noises; like looking at bright colors; learn rhymes and jingles from musical accompaniment; and laugh at sight gags, but they don’t necessarily understand what’s going on. So, I think it’s reasonable to wait to introduce Disney, et al., until after a child’s age has reached double digits, and it’s apparent that the individual is progressing through age-appropriate mental and moral-judgment milestones.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for reading and commenting. That is a good point- just because something is animated doesn’t mean it is made for kids. I think kids like the challenge of a darker film, sort of the thrill of a ghost story, but I agree the darker themes that disturb me as an adult probably go over their heads. But then again they can pick up on a lot more than we realize too, so I suppose it just depends on the kid.

    Sometimes I wish the directors and producers would realize not all animation is meant for kids and make adult stories (there are a few but not many). What too often happens is a movie like Hunchback which is so obviously for adults with gargoyles cracking one liners meant for kids. This makes the tone a mess and makes the darker scenes feel so off-putting. They should pick is it a darker story for kids or a movie for adults with childlike sensibilities?

    For me, I could handle things like witches and ghost stories but a movie where I felt someone was a victim or attacked scared me more. That made something like Headless Horseman ok but The Rescuers too scary. Other kids it would probably be the reverse.

    In the end, something should inspire a kids imagination That’s what is most important. For me, most of the failures get that wrong.

    Like

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