In honor of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (watch for the review on Saturday morning), this week’s Listicle is all about kids’ movies spooky, weird, and/or dark kids’ movies. Alice in Wonderland is rated PG-13 for “fantasy/action violence involving scary images and situations” and “a smoking caterpillar.” Really, MPAA? We all know it isn’t tobacco he’s smoking. I suppose I shouldn’t complain too much; at least they left it in. Many of the movies on the Listicle this week were released previous to the PG-13 distinction, and thus are G or PG. Frankly though, some veer beyond creepy into “I-need-a-nightlight” territory. Others contain themes we may not have understood as happy-go-lucky six-year-olds, but looking back, make us cringe. And we love them all.
THE SECRET OF NIMH (dir. Don Bluth, 1982)
First off, The Secret of NIMH is a fantastic example of why we should insist that studios continue making hand-drawn animation. Each and every frame looks like a watercolor painting imbued with bright, primary colors. The soundtrack is melodic and pretty, and Dom Deluise’s bumbling crow Jeremy provides comic relief (R.I.P Mr. Deluise). You would never guess from the trailer (which uses the old adages of “a motion picture for everyone to share” and “rediscover the child in us all”) that this movie is about animal testing. Cute little mice and a silly crow may have the forefront, but the underlying themes are positively horrific.
Based on the book Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, the movie tells the tale of a mouse that must move her family to avoid the farmer’s plow without risking her son Timmy, who’s sick with pneumonia. She visits a soothsayer in the form of an unimaginably old and wise owl. The Great Owl’s lair, lined with bones and dripping cobwebs, is enough to scare any kid off her dinner, but when the owl, an enormous spook show with glowing eyes, squashes an enormous spider in his huge, gnarled talons, it goes above and beyond creepy. After the owl, Mrs. Brisby (they changed her name for the movie because it sounds too like everyone’s favorite flying disc, the Frisbee) visits the wizened rat Nicodemus. Nicodemus shares a story about NIMH. When said aloud, NIMH sounds cutesy, eh? Well, it stands for the National Institute of Mental Health, where animals were “put through unspeakable tortures, all to satisfy some scientific curiosity. Often at night, I would hear them crying out in anguish.” This story is punctuated by shots of miserable puppies, rabbits, and monkeys in cages deep in the bowels of NIMH. From here, the movie turns into a true adventure story with, of course, a happy ending. But there are also bloodshed, crushed bones, and even one light curse word. This is no Veggie Tales. By the way, the animators must have done something right: my deaf, albino cat is, for some reason, totally fascinated by Don Bluth movies—this includes The Secret of NIMH, The Land Before Time (the first one, not number eleventy-seven they’re on now) and All Dogs Go to Heaven. He sits rapt, wide-eyed in front of the TV for nearly 80 minutes for each one!
WILLY WONKA & THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (dir. Mel Stuart, 1971)
I’ve never met anyone who hasn’t seen Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. It has an enduring appeal and gets rereleased every few years (for good reason). It’s a Technicolor fantasy land that draws you in from the credits’ hypnotic shots of flowing chocolate. Adults and children alike would kill to frolic inside Wonka’s factory. When Wonka (Gene Wilder) opens the doors to the heart of his factory, that stunning room full of candy plants, edible grass, and a chocolate river, anyone who’s ever gorged on sweets will want to jump through the screen.
Think about the premise, though: a creepy, eccentric old man lures children into his candy factory so he can pick them off one by one. The movie’s a morality tale sheathed in the irresistible promise of brightly colored sweets. Each time the Oompa Loompas burst into hypnotic song, another kid has fallen prey to his or her sins. In fact, six of the seven Deadly Sins are covered here: Augustus Gloop is gluttony; Mike Teevee is sloth (“he’s never been to the dinner table!” Mrs. Teevee crows); Veruca Salt is avarice with a touch of anger (“I want it now!” is my favorite song from the movie); Violet Beauregarde is pride; that spooky, omnipresent Slugworth has envy covered. The only one missing is lust, but after all, this is a kids’ movie.
After Augustus gets sucked into the pipe from the chocolate river, the remaining kids and parents board a boat that ferries them into a tunnel. This is where things get really creepy. As Wilder’s progressively off-key voice intones, “Not a speck of light is showing/So the danger must be growing/…Are the fires of hell glowing?/Is the grizzly reaper sowing?”, images appear superimposed on the tunnel walls: a horned lizard eating a fly, a chicken’s head cut off. The brightly flashing lights make the tunnel seem like a really bad drug trip. It’s to Wilder’s credit that he can redeem himself after that scene. Once again, spooky subject matter wrapped up in pretty colors and the promise of wanting to gorge on Everlasting Gobstoppers, which somehow made it into the real world as jawbreakers. P.S. Why haven’t amusement parks co-opted Wonka’s Factory for their own uses? It would make a much cooler ride than Pirates of the Caribbean.
THE LAST UNICORN (dir. Jules Bass, Arthur Rankin, Jr., 1982)
The Last Unicorn was brought to you by the same team that made the uber-spooky animated adaptation of The Hobbit (Gollum and Smaug haunted my childhood nightmares). The Last Unicorn’s opening scenes are pastel-colored and lovely, backed by a cheesy song by the band America. A butterfly flits in to tell Unicorn (voiced by Mia Farrow) she’s the last, that the Red Bull herded the rest of the unicorns to the ends of the earth. She must find them, so she leaves her forest home (populated by creepily sentient foxes, bears, and other woodland creatures). When Mommy Fortuna (a hag voiced by Angela Lansbury) captures her, Unicorn helps to free the Harpy Celeano, a terrifying bird creature whose gnarled beak and gleaming eyes would frighten the most hardened kid. Only when the movie was rereleased with restored animation did I notice that the Harpy is equipped with three pendulous, anatomically correct breasts. They aren’t prominently displayed, but it’s enough for older me to flinch. Unicorn goes on a magical quest to find them, encountering wizards, evil kings, and outlaws in the spirit of Robin Hood.
In order to reach the Red Bull, the heroes have to talk to a drunk skeleton (“What?” You wonder. Yes, it drinks nonexistent wine and forms a drunken flush in its cheekbones as it blathers nonsensically). She finally comes upon the Red Bull, an enormous, blazing elemental spirit. With its twisted horns, grimacing lips pulled back over massive teeth, stamping hooves as big as a human head, and furiously flaming skin, the thing is a monster straight from hell. Before he can herd her into the sea, though, she enlists the help of her newfound friends and defeats him, freeing the unicorns from their prison in the sea.
The imagery of this movie is jarring and bizarre, and even though the script is clunky and the music is awful, it’s a good, spooky, weird ride with legendary characters and great voice actors Farrow, Jeff Bridges (an Oscar nominee for Crazy Heart), Alan Arkin, and Christopher Lee.
TIME BANDITS (dir. Terry Gilliam, 1981)
Time Bandits is the adorable tale of a charming young boy who goes on the adventure of a lifetime, travelling to the most exciting places in history with a group of hilarious little people while trying to avoid being captured by God.
No one should be shocked that Terry Gilliam would make a very unique kind of kids movie, complete with Pythonesque touches like an insincere Robin Hood modeled after Prince Philip or a Napoleon Bonaparte who is obsessed with his overcompensating for his height, but Time Bandits really excels in its utter disdain for parental figures, from the protagonists actual parents – who are so distracted by products that they wish to purchase that they pay no attention to their son at all – to God (Ralph Richardson), who doesn’t quite remember why he allows people to murder each other, but is pretty sure that it “has something to do with free will.” Even when Kevin finds a loving, seemingly perfect father figure played by Sean Connery, the development is tainted by the fact that he’s playing Agamemnon… a Greek figure of legend who historically had a somewhat “iffy” relationship to his kids. The result is a film that tells children that horrible things happen for no reason, and nobody who should care about you can be trusted to have your best interests at heart.
And the ending, which given the film’s hatred of parents feels downright poetic, is also completely #@$%ed up.
RETURN TO OZ (dir. Walter Murch, 1985)
Return to Oz is the Total Recall of children’s movies. In the film Dorothy (played by Fairuza Balk, so it’s already kind of creepy) is committed to an insane asylum for electroshock therapy because she insists that her trip to Oz from the first movie really happened. Just as they flip the switch to fry her brain, lightning hits the asylum and she soon escapes back to her wonderful fantasy land where everything she sees and does has a clear analogue in the prologue of the film. The orderly who wheeled her on a gurney into the electroshock room is now a terrifying “Wheeler,” a half-man/half-gurney creature who tries to murder her. The evil nurse who kept her locked in her room is now Princess Mombi, an evil sorceress who likes to decapitate girls and wear their heads whenever it fancies her. The jack-o-lantern that festoons her cell at the asylum becomes a new scarecrow figure, only this one insists on calling Dorothy “Mommy.” (Don’t get me started on that one.)
At the end of the film Dorothy kills the Nome King, whose lair burns to the ground. Soon she wakes up to learn that the asylum burned to the ground, and the only victim of the “accident” was the doctor, played by the same actor who played the Nome King (Nicol Williamson, who is awesome). As the nurse is carted away by the authorities in real life she stares at Dorothy through the bars of her barbarically small cage. Her eyes tell the story: Dorothy had another psychotic break, burned down the asylum and killed the doctor, and what’s worse, in the last scene Dorothy’s homicidal hallucinations help her conspire to keep this mental instability a secret.
BATMAN BEYOND: RETURN OF THE JOKER (dir. Curt Geda, 2000)
When Warner Bros. announced that they would follow up the enormously popular and successful “Batman: The Animated Series” with “Batman Beyond,” which presented Bruce Wayne as a very old man taking on a new apprentice in a Blade Runner-esque future, fan reaction was mixed. Until, of course, the series premiered and was better than anyone expected it to be, brimming with action, character and of course the mystery of whatever happened to all the characters from the old show. The biggest mystery of all was the ultimate fate of the Joker, which got its own straight-to-video movie in 2000 to play up the epic nature of the really-rather-excellent story they had to tell.
But Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker was so incredibly dark that Warner Bros. ordered a drastic post-production clean up of everything creepy in the film. The initial release had many changes from the original director’s cut, which was eventually released on DVD. Some changes were made for obvious reasons. Others were not. Here’s a small sample of the changes (SPOILERS):
– In the Director’s Cut, when the Joker kidnapped pre-teen Robin and tortured him for days, brainwashing him to kill Batman, footage of electro-shock torture performed on a young boy did not make it into the WB-approved version.
– In the Director’s Cut, the Joker stabs Batman in the leg and chest with a knife. This was cut, and all blood – including the “HA HA” that the Joker writes in Bruce Wayne’s blood all over the Batcave – either changed colors or was omitted entirely in the WB-approved version.
– Bruce Wayne and his new apprentice Terry always wear their seatbelts in the WB-approved version.
– Batgirl no longer talks to prostitutes during a montage in the WB-approved version.
– In the Director’s Cut, The Joker kills one of his henchmen by shooting him on-screen. In the WB-approved version, the henchman is killed by laughing gas off-screen.
– A movie theater that is clearly full of people blows up in the Director’s Cut. In the WB-approved version, a clearly-vacant building blows up instead.
– In the Director’s Cut, pre-teen Robin murders the Joker by shooting a javelin into his chest on-screen. In the WB-approved version, the Joker slips in some water and accidentally electrocutes himself.
The Director’s Cut, which was finally released two years later, is creepy as all hell. It is also the better movie, and highly recommended.