Often maligned as being “just for kids,” films marketed towards children usually don’t get serious consideration as important works of cinema. For many, a good kids’ movie is one that doesn’t have parents taking a matinee nap, or - more recently a trend - is littered with enough “adult humor” to lend endless DVD loops a modicum of tolerability.
Whether these are current favorites, nostalgic favorites, or just interesting films worth talking about, here are a handful of kids’ movies that the adults at Optimism Vaccine have taken care to give the consideration they deserve. Enjoy!
As a kid who liked sports, growing up in the ‘90’s was perfect. The number of sports movies aimed at children ballooned in this decade, providing hours of entertainment in the living room and hours of emulation in the backyard. A lot of these movies are classics (in my heart, at least), and I would gladly sit down to watch many of them right now. I’d look forward to great scenes like Gunner Stahl’s triple-deke, the “Basketball Jones” montage, and of course funky butt-loving. But one movie stands above the rest as my primary choice from this genre.
Little Big League is about a preteen boy who inherits the Minnesota Twins from his recently deceased grandfather. The movie chronicles young Billy Heywood’s journey as he fires Dennis Farina as the team’s manager, gives himself the job, and tries to lead his team to the playoffs. Some people my age may remember Rookie of the Year more fondly, as they would rather imagine themselves in protagonist Henry Rowengarter’s shoes as a major league pitcher (thanks to a shoulder injury that healed in the most amazing way possible). Indeed, RotY does have Gary Busey, John Candy, and Daniel Stern screaming about “Hot Ice.” However, Little Big League has Timothy Busfield. And if that weren’t enough, the movie has the most technically proficient montage (they used minor league players to make the plays more authentic) and the holy grail of trick plays.
The hidden ball trick displayed in this movie is amazing not just because it’s a surprise and fun to watch. Or because it features one of the best lines by a cameo in any of these kids’ sports movies from Ken Griffey Jr. The hidden ball trick made kids want to go outside and play a pickup baseball or wiffleball game. We all wanted to try and make it work against our friends. Even though everyone playing was most likely familiar with the trick play, there always came a time when it was at least attempted. 99% of the time it failed. But if by some miracle you got it to work, you became an instant backyard hero. It became part of your legacy as an athlete. Years later you could be talking about winning a state championship and turn to your friend to offhandedly say “yeah, but remember that time we pulled the hidden ball trick on Bryan?”
Although it has an enthusiastic fan base, Ratatouille isn’t talked about much. Or rather, it’s not talked about in the same breathe as Pixar favorites like Up or Finding Nemo. Rewatching it now, it seems fairly clear that Ratatouille is a peculiarity within the Pixar catalogue; it’s a deviation from their usual fare.
There are a few reasons for this (that might all be connected). Mainly, it’s not as conceptual as Up, The Incredibles, WALL-E, Toy Story, or Cars. Much like another Pixar outsider, Brave, Ratatouille also has a much more ornate color palette than the usual primary colors. And, the plot is predominantly rooted in adult human life.
As a result of abstaining from a story that revolves on a central concept, Ratatouille’s storytelling is elaborate. When trying to summarize the plot, the film reveals itself as quite convoluted, actually. It becomes easier to just say it’s a loving portrayal of a cooking rat, Remy, and a no-talent restaurant janitor, Linguini, as their lives come in and out of contact with each other. It ends up having more in common with Hollywood conventions of a bygone era than a contemporary children’s formula to the point that I’m actually somewhat surprised Ratatouille manages to hold children’s attention.
One of the biggest possible pitfalls of kids’ movies is the way they play for laughs. Fortunately, Ratatouille’s humor is affable in a comforting way that doesn’t simply pander to kids in a Kung Fu Panda-esque, silly, farty, fat-guy-fall-down-go-boom manner (minus a squashed tomato here and there). The way it draws you in through lovable, fully realized characters, and an overwhelming congeniality is more than welcome; it’s almost unheard of.
Along with forgoing a certain type of humor, Ratatouille also eschews a love story of any kind. That alone doesn’t warrant merit, but the film’s lack of a budding amorous relationship feels natural. Though there was certainly an existing possibility in the script between Linguini and Colette, that potential is used instead as a joke on our expectations of a heteronormative obligation – Linguini kisses her as a diversion for Remy.
I never really tried to articulate it before this viewing, but it became clear that the film’s fun conceit – a rat turning this no-talent jokester into his surrogate chef, and the mix of high and low cultures within that conceit – the fine cooking and food criticism sphere penetrated by a garbage boy, the subject of Americans in a popular European location – Paris (and the music that comes with that), the case of mistaken romance, and the general harmlessness of the story is quite Woody Allen-esque. Since “Woody Allen-esque” covers a lot of ground, both good and bad, more specifically I should say Ratatouille epitomizes a style that represents some of the loveliest things that have endured throughout Woody Allen’s oeuvre.
Interestingly, the film maintains the premise that Pixar cultivated in Toy Story: non-humans, in a world that doesn’t care for them, making intelligent correspondence with one human who opens themselves up to communication that belies their existing comprehension of reality. Although Ratatouille’s plot is, as I mentioned, convoluted and serpentine, the boldest through line focuses on Remy’s adjustment from sewer life to coexisting with Linguini. Through Remy’s life (given his backstory), the film becomes a story about the anxiety of someone outgrowing his pedigree, wanting to transcend the world he has been born into and designated to by society.
Outside of that touching subject, there are other major themes that are likewise very mature, such as the meaning of criticism, the origins of artists, and great art over capital gains. Instead of preaching overwrought morals that are used as candy wrapping for inane jokes - the jokes here are good, but economical - Ratatouille broaches more robust ideas in a subtle and poignant manner. What I also adore about the film is that while it’s exploring these deep and meaningful themes and abandoning fart jokes, it earns its audience by achieving absolute affability. Ratatouille is just a joy.
In the words of the film’s food critic, Anton Ego, a great artist can come from anywhere, so don’t let that stop you from digging in to children’s films to find profound and lovely pieces of art.
The only thing a good animated film loves more than musical interludes and princesses in peril is ultra-violence with a side of gruesome death. From Snow White to Frozen, animated films for children have never shied away from depicting death, albeit in a distinctly Disney-fied way. Whether it takes place on screen or is implied, these ‘Disney deaths’ generally boil down to one of three basic scenarios:
- The bad guy gets what he deserves
- A parental figure is sacrificed so that the protagonist(s) can grow up
- A noble hero is sacrificed for the greater good.
Disney death is emotional, painful even, but rarely complicated. Heroes like Mulan can commit mass murder with a well-timed avalanche and the audience isn't expected to give it a second thought. Most kids’ movies play it safe with death and stick to the tried and true Disney formula. The Brave Little Toaster is not one of those movies, and the film’s terrifying suicide scene has been seared into my brain since I first saw it 25 years ago.
The Brave Little Toaster is, superficially at least, the story of a group of anthropomorphic antiquated household objects determined to reunite with their long-gone former master. It's a boilerplate hero’s journey with a proto-Toy Story twist thrown in for good measure. Yes, I know it's a movie created for a target audience who just learned to stop wetting the bed, but it’s impossible to ignore Toaster's glaring narrative issues which arise from the basic premise. Why on earth would a small child turned whiny college age adult have even the smallest iota of attachment to a rag tag group of mundane, outdated household items? A Disney-fied version of The Brave Little Toaster might plug this obvious hole with a brief emotional aside. Instead, the movie presents the audience with a cynical surrogate in the form of window air conditioning unit (voiced by Phil Hartman doing a respectable Jack Nicholson impersonation, oddly enough).
The A.C. Unit is mean-spirited but difficult to disagree with. If the other characters in Toaster are symbols of wide-eyed optimism, the A.C. Unit is the grumpy voice of reason. It's hard to argue with someone who chides a delusional group of appliances who, for over a decade, have adamantly continued to believe that their master will return to retrieve them. The toys of Toy Story had nostalgia on their side, while Toaster's cast is doomed by obsolescence and a looming question of whether or not there was any sort of significant emotional connection between them and their master to begin with. Eventually, the A.C.'s mockery turns to anger, self-reflection and his own realization that he is just as irrelevant as the other appliances and doomed to live out his days trapped without meaningful interaction. There's no effort made to talk down the AC, and his intentions are made abundantly clear: There's no reason for him or any of the other appliances to continue to exist. So, with one big, violent burst he does the unthinkable and commits appliance suicide.
Wrestling with why the A.C. Unit had to die is difficult. He was kind of a dick, but even by Disney rules it doesn't seem like he's committed a crime to justify such a violent death. He's also irrelevant to the plot and the development of the characters. In other words, the only death in The Brave Little Toaster is a footnote, and herein lies the true terror the A.C.'s death. In the real world, death usually isn't special, just inevitable. More importantly, life without purpose might not be worth living at all and death becomes a viable alternative. The A.C’s concerns are real and his death is tragic but none of the happy-go-lucky appliances seem to give a shit.
What does this mean if you're a kid? You either buy the notion that people who are pessimistic deserve to die when they refuse to emotionally support a singing Toaster blinded by nostalgia, or deal with a full-on pre-pubescent existential crisis complete with creepy Jack Nicholson air conditioner nightmares.
HAVE FUN KIDS.
The Witches (1990) occupies a very personal space in my childhood’s popular culture experience. It’s personal because I swear I have never met anybody else who watched the film when I was between the ages of 6-10, let alone anybody at my current stage of arrested development. To this day, some 20-odd-years later, I feel that this is a film I experienced entirely on my own, despite the production’s impressive pedigree: it was directed by Nic Roeg (The Man Who Fell To Earth), it stars a fantastic Angelica Houston, and it is also the last film Jim Henson ever worked on prior to his death. Those three trivia facts make it a film worth seeking out for fans of any of those three.
Beyond that, the film is based on the titular children’s book by Roald Dahl. Though Dahl was involved with the film’s production, he eventually disowned the film (released months before his death), something to do with the fact that the studio changed the ending to make it a little more “Hollywood.” I’ll speak for childhood Stephen when I say that a Hollywood ending definitely made this film more palatable to myself and whoever the hell else watched The Witches as a youngin.
If The Witches accomplished anything beyond popcorn-value entertainment, it may have been responsible for manifesting in me my intense fear of rodent infestation. You see, the premise of the film involves an international witches convention (like ComicCon for legit spell-casting demons) that descends upon the hotel of an English seaside town. The recently orphaned Luke (his folks die, off-screen, within the first ten minutes of the film) and his Swedish grandmother are staying in the hotel during the same weekend, when all of the witches gather to plot how they will rid the world of all of the children. Every. Single. Last. One. Of. Them. The plan of the German-accented grand high witch (Angelica Houston) is for all witches to open up their own candy stores and spike the inventory with a potion that turns people into mice. At the same time, the hotel’s manager Alan Stringer (Rowan Atkinson) is attempting to fight off a rodent infestation so, as you can imagine, all mice spotted in the hotel are basically on the verge of imminent termination.
The witches first test the potion on another hotel guest, the spoiled-but-kind Bruno (who looks astonishingly like XTC’s Andy Partridge), and it proves to be a success.
Shortly thereafter, protagonist Luke, ever the naïve eavesdropper who is chasing his own pet mice in the hotel’s conference room during this meeting, soon finds himself also a victim to their spell. He and Bruno spend the rest of the film as mice attempting to stop the witches while dodging death at the hands of Stringer’s eager exterminator instincts.
The morbid details of this story might make it seem like The Witches is perhaps far too dark for the 4-12-year-old set, but it’s compromising ending—and subsequent triumph for all of the heroes involved—gives it the Kids’ Film genre bump and the happy ending probably saved me from hours of terrified crying fits when I was younger.
Yet, in 2015, The Witches is a mostly forgotten film that, again, I feel truly alone in having experienced. But it introduced me to Angelica Houston—who beyond this film (which she is truly great in) became one of my favorite actors of all time—and Rowan Atkinson. That’s right, before I was aware of Mr. Bean or Black Adder, I only knew of Atkinson as an uptight hotel manager. The film itself holds up rather well, if not only for solid performances and remarkable special effects courtesy of Henson. Current elementary school-aged children should be so lucky to have it in their movie libraries.
If you’ll forgive a touch of autobiography, I wasn’t much of a film fan in my childhood days, growing up in Ireland. At least, not the earliest part when many forge strongly felt connections with the likes of Star Wars or the Disney universe. To this day such titles remain films like any other to me. I’ve no nostalgia to buff out their deficiencies. My parents refused to buy a VCR until I was about 10 years old and prior to that momentous purchase we would, and only for special occasions, rent both films and the VHS-player together. Imbuing such ritual on something so banal may have led me to a weird fascination with the pointless minutiae of video-playback-technology – I recall once watching an ungodly stretch of D.A.R.Y.L. (the eponymous acronym, Data-Analyzing Robot Youth Lifeform, is burned onto my brain like an image left too long on an old CRT monitor) frame-by-aching-frame…backwards! – but it also robbed me of a certain rite-of-passage: to be hypnotized by circular viewings of a tiny roster of like-minded films. Looking back, this suggests that my parents intelligently guarded their sanity more closely than their peers, but in any case, I formed a relationship with cinema a little later in life.
This being so, when the topic of Kids’ Movies surfaced, I was surprised by my brain’s immediate response. Movies may not have defined my childhood, but one film certainly leapt into the spotlight: Joy Batchelor and John Halas’ 1954 animated adaptation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. This is a film I hadn’t seen in twenty years, until I re-visited it expressly for the purposes of this piece, but I saw it multiple times as a young lad. And I hated it. Which is hardly surprising seeing as this film makes no sense as fodder for a child’s mind. Yet, that’s clearly what it was designed to be. After all, it’s animated, which to Anglophone mores immediately allies it with the childish, or at least the emotionally stunted. Never mind what the Japanese, the French, and the Eastern Europeans get up to on their filthy, godless time- for America and its cohorts, animation is the preserve of frivolity and silliness. Albeit a refuge with a moral duty to help shape young minds to produce dutiful and responsible adults who may enjoy fart jokes but who also pay their taxes and buy Coca-Cola. Animal Farm is also short, features musical montages, and has brief elements of slapstick comedy. Granted, it also has a bunch of animals torturously destroying each other due to institutional corruption but kids love that too, right?
Apparently so, because I was made to sit through this thing at least twice in primary school and on every public holiday it loomed on the TV schedule, plopped without distinction, amongst fare with less stridently anti-Stalinist attitudes. This kind of misguided messaging seems hard-wired into a certain brand of children’s programming, and it persisted long after the 1950s too. Maybe Ireland was some kind of weird magnet because one of the great practitioners of emotional manipulation, Don Bluth, set up shop there and produced classics like The Land Before Time (aka. Even Mommies Die) and All Dogs Go To Heaven (aka. You Can’t Love Your Dog Enough to Save Him). These films all boast messages about how friendship is very important because it is all you can cling to when those nearest and dearest to you perish before your eyes and leave you so very, very alone. Now sleep tight, kids. Mommy may or may not be here when you wake up. Hope you can steel yourself and overcome.
This kind of crass emotional manipulation, designed to corral children into more adult modes of thought is of course, woefully misguided. Lacking the wherewithal to create a backdrop to interpret stories from a distance, the events just sort of bombard kids one after the other in a highly personal and literal manner-
The kids are happy…They’re sad…They’re very sad…They’re kind of happy again…They’re very happy…Everything’s okay because they don’t really remember the sad bits any more.
Essentially, such filmmakers are little more than opportunistic bullies, picking on the easiest of targets. About the only thing they teach kids is that if they want to watch a movie, they have to be able to put up with some maudlin nonsense in the early stages before getting any kind of pay-off. If that’s a useful lesson, it’s only because when they grow up they’ll find out that movies for adults are rarely made with any more care.
I really don’t know the backstory of how or why this project went into production but klaxons sound when you find out that the bulk of the budget came from the CIA. Yes, the guys who secretly logged your visit to this website (for your own security, of course) also dabble in film production. Certainly, the American government’s role in supporting ‘subversive’ art, the likes of Jackson Pollock etc., in order to lay weight against the Soviet bloc is well known, and could fuel a hundred separate theses, but it’s still an odd consideration. After all, with the CIA so heavily involved in my upbringing, am I a super-soldier? Will my subliminal training someday kick into effect, just when I need it to defeat a rowdy band of ninjas? I sure hope so, because the ninjas in my neighborhood are some mean bitches.
Watching Animal Farm again it feels like the product of a meeting that got side-tracked and was never reined back in. The illustration quality is good. The English countryside is lent a pastoral quality with generous smudges of greens and yellows, at least until all The Holocaust motifs kick in, while each individual character is boldly designed. The inhabitants of this world may lack the slick grace of Disney, but they’re hardly the twitchy, jumbled denizens advanced by the more avant-garde Eastern European scene either. The film pares down even further an already lean book, assembling a small core of characters and using a narrator to quickly link scenes through brazen exposition. At 72 minutes in duration, we’ve no time to sit around. Yet despite that short running-time, the film feels incredibly leaden.
It suffers from that which also hobbles Orwell’s original text, the weight of allegorical necessity. The book’s calmly measured, minimalist prose helps counteract that, but the film has no such luxury. As a result, there’s little room for surprise or imagination, even in a world of chatty barnyard creatures, because in the end…Boo, Stalin! This weight of pre-destination robs the film of any sense of dramatic tension and makes it feel like a pointless trudge to the finish-line. Although I guess the average child won’t predict the grim outcome because, as a general rule, they don’t have particularly vested feelings in Russian Revolutionary politics. And there’s probably other ways they can learn that even the loveliest, proudest, most hard-workingest horse can be turned into functional, tasty glue by his best friends.
Granted, this film made more sense in its own day, in 1954, where the memories of war remained fresh and the west’s continued resistance to the systems that yoked other lands remained in doubt. But even then talking animals seems a pointless contrivance, and for children, a distracting one, since there’s otherwise nothing here that explicitly indicts the real world, unless you already know about Russia’s ailing. Without that key piece of knowledge, Animal Farm is really just the tale of a bunch of animals that are total dicks to each other. It’s a tale of why we can’t have nice things because of bullies. It’s a tale of how it’s not worth even trying because no one is worth saving. Even with the novel’s conclusion amended to suggest brighter innings, it still doesn’t work. At the film’s close the animals rise again, this time against the pigs, who they now see have adopted all the mannerisms of the humans they already expelled. But this means it’s the same revolution as opened the film. It’ll all go horribly wrong again. We’re all screwed. So don’t even try, kids. Never vote. They’re all crooks. Drop out instead. Maybe give drugs a try. Give up.
Now where’s the Coca-Cola?
It's weird what sticks with you. I could highlight any number of films I treasured growing up, and yet, the defining film of my childhood is one that brought me only misery. I wouldn't go so far as to suggest that I don't harbor a fondness for Steven Spielberg's alien opus. I mean, I've probably seen it north of a dozen times. A lot of those viewings amounted to a childish stab at immersion therapy., considering E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial was the primary source of my nightmares for what felt like years. Maybe it was a month or two. Memory is weird like that.
I'm not going to get into the contents of E.T. It was the highest grossing movie of the 1980s. You're familiar with E.T. We're all familiar with E.T. It was inescapable. And for me, it became an inescapable bogeyman, lurking around every corner, threatening to pollute my mind anew with every flip of the television dial. So let's talk about my toxic relationship with this cherished piece of children's entertainment. I think it stems from my shitty imagination.
I'm not the sort who could keep a compelling dream diary. On the rare occasion that I have any lingering remnant of my nighttime exploits, it's some pretty mundane business. Most of my creative inspiration stems from other works of art. And, most pertinently, the nightmares of my childhood were almost exclusively culled from popular culture. Freddy Krueger found his way into my dreams on the strength of a 30 second television ad. At some point I procured a bendable Gremlins toy that served no purpose other than creeping me the fuck out. But why E.T.? My father certainly never saw it coming. I distinctly remember seeing a poster at the local grocer, and inquiring about the film. He didn't have any reservations about my seeing it. In fact, he was thrilled to show it to me. What could go wrong? E.T. was a lovable friend to all humans, beloved by children around the globe. What is it about this warm family film that managed to cause me so much distress? Perhaps the answer lies in Spielberg's unparalleled ability to craft normalcy. Mary, Elliott, and Gertie feel like the family down the block. So, when something so utterly foreign entered that world, I processed it as a deeply unsettling development, regardless of the creature's noble intentions.
It bears noting that E.T. was born out of an abandoned horror film called Night Skies, which was to serve as a sinister companion piece to Spielberg's earlier Close Encounters of the Third Kind. That film would have involved a group of aliens laying siege to a rural homestead. A plot element involving one of the alien's fondness for an autistic boy was the kernel from which E.T. grew. A lot of the design work that RIck Baker did for Night Skies is still evident in E.T., lending a certain unsettling aesthetic to the alien's design.
As an adult, it's easy to see the charm in E.T.'s design. In spite of his superior intellect, he essentially becomes the family pet. He is cute, even if I don't want to consider what his skin would feel like. But viewed through the filter of a paranoid child... something about that long, thin neck and those spindly glowing fingers... Just keep him away from me. I think Spielberg only included this early scene because he's a sadist, hellbent on ruining the sleeping patterns of an entire generation of American youth:
My older cousin used to torment me with tales of E.T. creeping through our grandparents' home. Don't fall asleep. He's out there. Lurking. Waiting. I used to see him in the pendulum of a grandfather clock, in the woodgrain pattern of my bedroom door. At some point, his hound dog eyes were replaced by the glowing red variety. Those bulbous fingers grew claws. Reese's Pieces? Fuck no. That's asking for trouble. Years later, I learned to enjoy this rather joyous film, but it will always exist in my mind as the embodiment of that pure, unfounded terror that doesn't really exist in the adult mind.
Fun fact: Spielberg and screenwriter Melissa Mathison considered making a sequel entitled E.T. II: Nocturnal Fears, in which carnivorous albino E.T.s invade Earth. Thank God this movie doesn't exist. I'd never sleep again.
I watched Fantasia so much as a kid that something absolutely terrible happened: the tape spool unfurled, got all tangled up, and the movie was effectively destroyed. I didn’t watch it again for many years after that, but it remains to this day my favorite kids’ movie, and I jumped at writing about it for this round of Inoculations. Yet when it comes to kids’ movies, this one is sometimes a hard sell. In fact, plenty of people say it’s not a kids’ movie at all, and some of that criticism is undoubtedly fair. (In a word, Chernabog.) There is no denying the appeal to children though, no matter how scary some of the scenes are, and that spot right there in the middle of being mesmerized by something you don’t understand yet, that’s where my love of Fantasia really resonates: the horror and wonder that compel and await the listening viewer at every turn.
These themes are usually evident in children’s entertainment in one way or another, whether it’s realistic and teachable like the death of Charlotte in Charlotte’s Web or more abstract like the physics of Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner. Their expression in Fantasia is just the space in which my childhood awe meets the appreciation adulthood later gave me. To wit, both the classical scores and the animation reflect the horror and wonder that humanity is capable of conceiving and bearing: the sweeping expanse of a classical score is at once wonderful in its vigor and width, yet terrifying for the very same reasons, able to make you feel as small as it does big. With animation, scenes that could never have happened can be lushly portrayed, and this ability to create is wonderful in its agency but horrible in its possibility.
The dinosaur extinction (not to mention the infamous T. Rex/Stegosaurus battle) alongside The Rite of Spring and the terrorizing demons of Night on Bald Mountain are incredibly intense in their own right, and the two most obviously ‘traumatizing’ scenes that come to mind. With many of the other vignettes, you have to dig a little deeper to get at what might be horrifying, but it tends to manifest in one of three ways: the abstract, unknown, and bizarre. Take, for instance, The Nutcracker Suite, which is paired with a vignette that depicts the passing of the seasons through the masterful choreography of anthropomorphized fish, flowers, and mushrooms. Sure, this is cute, and children’s goods have always been adorned with anthropomorphized animals, plants, and food. But it’s also delightfully bizarre, and the anthropomorphism itself is subtle, allowing one to imagine that maybe everything you’ve just seen really was somehow natural, drawn home even further when, before you know it, the high-stepping flowers have morphed into a still life painting, and we’re moving on to the next season. Is there a more beautiful illustration of the passage of time? I’m sure there are plenty, but this one really does it for me.
The abstract is evoked immediately in the opening vignette, set to Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, with shapes and cloud formations moving perfectly to the music, an obvious (and aesthetically very pleasing) departure from reality. As for the unknown, well, that’s faced by the movie’s highest profile character in its most famous vignette: The Sorcerer's Apprentice. Mickey Mouse himself plays the sorcerer’s young and foolhardy apprentice, and his meeting with the unknown is a direct result of his own laziness. The multiplying brooms are the stuff of many a child’s nightmares, and as they overrun the place while the sorcerer is away, Mickey is forced to confront the fact that he can’t control the magic he set into motion. He can’t control it because he doesn’t know how, and the terror in those moments is keenly felt despite the comfortably familiar face of the main character, and thus all the more impressive for it.
To focus on these aspects of Fantasia, the horror and pleasure that are equally transcendent, is to realize the film’s depth in showing the true immensity of life, where death is only a global climatic change away, but before you die, you might get to see a beautiful hippo dance, and wouldn’t it all have been worth it?
As a fairly stereotypical girl growing up in the 1990s, I was pretty into Disney Princesses. In case anyone was wondering, the correct order of superior princesses is as follows, according to 10 year old me:
- Belle (brunette, loves reading, actually gets to do stuff on her own)
- Ariel (A MERMAID with killer red hair - a life achievement I finally unlocked last year)
- Jasmine (again, actually gets to do stuff, plus cool outfits)
- Aurora (less competent, falls into peril in a really lame way, but with great hair)
- Cinderella (loves doing chores, annoying voice)
- Snow White (loves doing chores for even more people, too easily tricked by the villain)
Despite these criticisms, I was pretty devoted to all the Princesses: repeat viewings, visiting the Holy Land of Orlando numerous times, both me and Santa investing heavily in Disney merch (but never an official Disney Princess costume, STILL NOT OVER IT, MOM.)
I’m not exactly sure when, but somehow Anastasia and Thumbelina snuck their way into my princess collection, despite being from Fox and Warner Bros. respectively. I hesitate to say the two were superior - the hold of Disney magic is still strong - but they were certainly more special to me. Rewatching them now, I think the reason for their elite status was that they felt grown-up in a way the Disney movies didn’t. This can be broken down into three main reasons:
Anastasia’s basically the best because she fits both princess tropes: the born-for-it and the built-into-it. She starts out as a peppy orphan, becomes a reluctant conwoman, and then after the makeover montage is already complete, finds out she really WAS a princess all along. Thumbelina is the regular old marries-into-it kind of princess, except she’s teeny tiny, so she marries a FAIRY prince and gets FAIRY wings at the end of it. Bonus.
While Disney has created some classic and respectable villains, something about the villains in these movies felt distinctly more terrible. In Anastasia, you get a Jafar/Iago vibe off of the evil sorcerer Rasputin and his bat Bartok. While they’re jokey for most of the film, Rasputin is terrifyingly evil (plus, y’know, undead and soulless) in the finale. More than any other princess, I was concerned that Anastasia was maybe not going to make it. Shortly after viewing, I found out the whole “based on a true story” aspect, which freaked me out beyond measure. Even though it’s basic history, the books that detail the whole Romanov murder basement sitch should have been kept on a higher shelf in the library.
Thumbelina was terrible in a more real world kind of way. Getting married happily ever after is always endgame for princessy fairy tales, and Thumbelina still does that, but the whole middle section of the film makes marriage, especially for women, straight up terrifying. Thumbelina gets kidnapped by a creepy toad that wants to marry her, only to escape into the arms of an even creepier beetle. And when she gets away from the beetle, she escapes freezing to death in the winter by getting engaged to a gross mole. She reunites with the cute fairy prince at the end, but what Thumbelina taught me was that marriage was really the only possible route for growing up as a girl. So you better find that prince so you don’t end up with someone gross.
I am a staunch supporter of Disney music - the Pandora station is hands down the best accompaniment to cupcake baking and decorating. The music in Thumbelina and Anastasia though, again, made me feel kinda grown-up.
Example A: Thumbelina sings the reprise of the romantic theme about how she misses her presumed dead boyfriend (and also the sun, now that she lives in a hole in the ground) to her new mole fiancee.
Example B: Anastasia is a sad orphan and she begins to remember all the repressed shit from her childhood about how she was a princess until her whole family was murdered.