Sunday, January 29, 2017

Classics: Three More Surprisingly Dark Children's Films By Lauren Ennis

Last year, I reviewed three films that I loved as a child only to find riddled with dark content and disturbing subtexts as an adult. After reflecting upon my childhood viewing experiences, I have come to realize that children’s movies, much like fairy-tales, often use exaggerated and graphic imagery to instill important lessons in children. Even with this common literary device in mind, however, I still cannot help but marvel at how truly twisted even some of the most beloved children’s films are. This week I will be putting the spotlight on three more films from my childhood that in their own way were every bit as gritty, morally ambiguous, and cynical as films marketed to adult audiences.

Damn it feels good to be a gangster...even with fur
ALL DOGS GO TO HEAVEN: Despite its title, the gritty adventures of this film’s canine protagonist are anything but heavenly. The story begins with loveable con-man (or in this case dog) Charlie (Burt Reynolds) escaping from death-row at the pound with the help of his loyal but hapless best friend, Itchy (Dom Deluise). Upon tunneling their way to freedom the pair celebrate with their friends by drinking and carousing at the local rat-track, where Charlie is reunited with his former business partner, Carface. It seems like old times until Carface calls out a mob hit on Charlie in order to avoid having to share their joint profits. In a scheme straight out of The Godfather, Carface holds a party in Charlie’s honor, where he makes sure that Charlie becomes thoroughly inebriated, and lures Charlie out onto a fishing pier where two of his henchmen are waiting. In a shockingly graphic scene the film then unflinchingly shows how Carface’s thugs push a car over the pier and run a completely unsuspecting Charlie down. When Charlie awakens, he is mortified to find that he has literally died and gone to Heaven. Rather than appreciate his good fortune at avoiding Hell after a life of crime, he immediately hatches a plot to escape Heaven and return to Earth, even though the angels warn him that once he leaves Heaven he can never return. As soon as he rejoins the living, he sets about exacting his revenge on Carface by exploiting Anne Marie, a lonely orphan who possesses the ability to talk to animals, to fix horse and rat races in an effort to ruin Carface’s gambling enterprise. Eventually, Charlie does see the error of his ways, but only after such less than kid-friendly adventures as pick-pocketing, opening a casino (complete with what is implied to be a topless dog review), dodging Carface’s raygun, and escaping cannibalistic sewer rats, all while consistently manipulating Little Orphan Annie-esque Anne Marie (Judith Barsi). And then there’s always Charlie’s doggy-Hell nightmare sequence which still haunts this reviewer twenty years on. While the film can be viewed as an apt tribute to classic gangster films of the 1930’s with charmingly scrappy crook, Charlie (Burt Reynolds) standing in for James Cagney (whom Charlie even quotes at one point) and his ruthless bulldog partner acting as an animated equivalent of Edward G Robinson (cigar chomping and all), the question remains; what is the purpose of making a gangster film for children? It could be argued that, much like its classic counterparts, the film attempts to teach viewers that crime does not pay through Charlie’s punishment and eventual redemption. This lesson is undermined, however, by the film’s noirish sensibility which portrays Charlie’s criminal lifestyle as a misguided attempt to find the American Dream amidst the desperation of the Great Depression. Regardless of how and why this film made it past the storyboard phase, one thing remains certain; director Don Bluth took the children’s entertainment to a dark and complex place that it has rarely gone before or since. For a journey into the back alleys of family filmmaking look no further than All Dogs Go To Heaven.

Clearly the work of a troubled mind
RETURN TO OZ: Easily the most disturbing entry on this list, 1985’s Return to Oz takes everything that we loved and thought we knew about the land of Oz and twists it into a Tim Burton worthy nightmare. The film picks up where the 1939 classic left off with Dorothy recovering from tornado induced head trauma as her aunt and uncle struggle to rebuild their devastated farm. When Dorothy continues to talk to her family about her adventuress in Oz the Gayle’s start to suspect that their niece isn’t just a lonely child with an active imagination. Aunt Em decides that Dorothy’s imaginings are the result of a mental disturbance brought on by her recent head trauma and packs the unsuspecting girl up for a trip to the local insane asylum. In keeping with the film’s 1800’s setting the local psychiatrist determines that ‘new electric healing’ a/k/a electroshock treatment is the best medicine. The film then descends into a phantasm of Kubrick-esque horror with a nurse reminiscent of Nurse Ratched, deranged patients, terrifying orderlies and some of the most barbaric medical equipment this side of the Middle Ages. Her only hope seems to be another young girl who is also being held as a patient against her will. Before young viewers can breathe a sigh of relief, however, the film shatters this one glimmer of hope by implying that the girl is a manifestation of Dorothy’s disassociated personality. Fortunately, with the mysterious girl’s help Dorothy does escape to the supposed safety of Oz only to find that it has become a deserted wasteland. Making matters worse, the film employs the same literary device as the 1939 film by having the characters in Oz mirrors those that she encounters in her waking life…which in this instance leaves Oz populated with a mind stealing headless witch (the nurse), gangs of her wheeled henchmen (the orderlies), and a rock giant known as the Nome King (the psychiatrist). After such terrifying adventures as exploring the witch’s head gallery and a deadly guessing game with the Nome King, Dorothy finally restores freedom to Oz and returns to Kansas. Upon returning home, she learns that the asylum caught fire after being struck by lightning in a rain storm and that the psychiatrist was killed in the fire while the nurse has since been arrested. At the film’s close she resumes her former life with one exception; she has now learned to keep Oz and all of her imaginings safely to herself. Part horror tale, and part examination of the disturbing early days of psychiatric treatment Return to Oz is a far cry from either Kansas or that land over the rainbow that we thought we knew.

Don't be fooled by the sunshine and flowers...
THE LAST UNICORN: Adapted from a fantasy novel written for adults, The Last Unicorn was never meant for young audiences, a fact that becomes painfully obvious as the 1982 animated film progresses. The film begins with a nameless unicorn setting out on a quest to discover others of her kind after she overhears a group of hunters discussing how unicorns have disappeared from the world. Shortly after leaving the safety of her forest, she is captured by a traveling carnival run by a witch called Mommy Fortuna, her hunchback assistant, Ruhk, and incompetent aspiring magician Schmendrick. The carnival is populated by animals that Fortuna disguises to look like magical creatures which she presents in a sideshow to unsuspecting villagers as the real thing. The two exceptions in the carnival are the unicorn and the harpy Celaeno; a half woman half bird creature with three ample breasts which the film makes a point to consistently expose. With the help of Schmendrick, the unicorn escapes the carnival, but in doing so accidentally frees the harpy, leading to a particularly brutal scene in which the harpy devours a resigned Fortuna. The duo then continue on their quest and encounter Molly Grue, the common-law wife of a local outlaw who is seriously regretting her life choices. After Molly rants at the unicorn, who she for some reason seems to blame for her lackluster existence, she insists upon joining the unicorn and Schmendrick on their journey. Before their travels can continue, however, Schmendrick’s magic goes awry and accidentally brings a tree to life….prompting the tree for no explained reason to grow human breasts and set about attempting to seduce Schmendrick. Fortunately, he is able to resist the tree’s bizarre charms and the quest resumes with the trio arriving at the castle of King Haggard, who is using the mysterious monster known as the Red Bull to imprison the world’s unicorns who he claims provide him with his only joy. Before they can enter the castle, however, they are ambushed by the Red Bull, an utterly terrifying creature who with hits white hot eyes, flamed hooves, and sharp fangs is a creature straight out of Hell itself. In order to rescue the unicorn from the Red Bull’s detection, Schmendrick is forced to transform her into a sultry…and completely naked, young woman, and pretend that she is his orphan niece. Eventually, the do reach the castle and Schmendrick is offered the position of court magician for the morbidly depressed Haggard while Molly assumes work as castle cook. Meanwhile, the king’s adopted son, Lir, sets about pursuing the unicorn, now called Lady Amalthea, through such romantic gestures as slaying a dragon and presenting her with its severed head. Over time the pair kindle a romance as the unicorn begins to lose memory of her former life and her mission. The film finally reaches a climax that is equal parts nonsensical and traumatizing. This final act includes such less than child friendly episodes as tempting an alcoholic skeleton with wine and  Lir’s brutal death after being stampeded by the Red Bull before the reappearance of the unicorns (who apparently could have fought off the Red Bull themselves all along by…just angrily pointing their horns at it?). Lir is fortunately revived by the unicorn in the final scene and reluctantly lets the unicorn go to resume her former life, though both are plagued by regret at what might have been. Sexually charged, brutally violent, and morally ambiguous, The Last Unicorn makes for an excellent entry into cinema’s fantasy cannon, so long as it is aimed at the adult audience it was originally written for.

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