by Jennie Jarvis
“Just fear me, love me, do as I say and I will be your slave.”
When I was growing up, I loved the 1986 Jim Henson film Labyrinth. It was a fantastical coming of age film about a young girl (a then unknown Jennifer Connolly) trying to save her kidnapped younger brother from a Goblin King (David Bowie). As a child, there was so much that fascinated me about this film including the magical landscape with its backwards running clocks, the oddball characters, the stunning visuals, romantically dark musical numbers and a whimsically idealistic protagonist. Sarah, the young heroine, needed to learn to put aside her childhood notions of make believable in order to become a better sister and a mature adult.
When this film first came out, the VHS tape player was still a relatively new invention, and I learned the hard way that playing a film too many times could lead to its destruction. I went through several VHS copies of Labyrinth, watching and re-watching it, and annoyed my sister and parents by singing its songs frequently around the house (“You remind me of the babe. What babe? The babe with the power? What power? The power of voodoo? Who do? You do? Do what? Remind me of the babe!”)
Once I went off to high school and college, the demands of life in general kept me from rewatching the film with any regularity. Then, once technology advanced and the DVD player replaced the VHS machine, I had no way to watch this once cherished film. The film was then remastered for DVD, and I was able to pick up the film after its 2003 re-release. As an adult sitting down to re-watch one of my favorite films, I felt nostalgic and ready to rekindle some lost joy from my youth. But then I saw this….
“Dear God!” I thought to myself. “How did I not remember David Bowie’s massive codpiece?”
And the more I watched, the more horrified I became. Being an educated adult who knew a bit more about the world in general, the film took on a new meaning. Labyrinth wasn’t just saying a girl needs to leave behind her childish notions of make believe in order to become an adult – It was also saying a she has to become aware of her own sexual desires and learn to manage them in order to become a mother. Sarah begins the film as a beautiful and innocent young girl:
But she ends the film as a gorgeous young woman who learns to say NO to the walking sex symbol that is David Bowie in order to have a child instead of living a life of fantasy.
So, if we listen to this film, becoming a mature adult means only using sex to have a child? Considering this film was made in the height of the sexual abstinence movement of the post-AIDS scare 1980s, this makes sense, but… as a kid, I saw none of this!
Since that shocking and slightly innocence-shattering re-visitation of Labyrinth, I noticed additional depth to some of my other favorite childhood films: An American Tail is a retelling of the horrors faced by the Jews escaping Russia, The Brave Little Toaster says all people are dispensable unless you find a way to adapt in a changing world, The Secret of NIMH explores themes involving violent animal testing, My Girl really focuses on how children are affected by grief, the list goes on.
“What kinds of films did my mother raise me on????”
But the truth is today’s children’s films also deal with dark, mature themes. Finding Nemo is about co-dependency. Up is about a man whose given up on any kind of life after his wife’s death. Monster’s University is about how, no matter how hard you work, you still might not accomplish your dreams.
In a society where we tend to over-pamper our children, this trend in dark children’s films begs the question: Are we sure we should be creating movies like this?
My answer – Absolutely, but we need to be careful about the messages we want to convey.
If rewatching Labyrinth taught me anything, it’s how our perceptions, as viewers, change as we age. When we are young, we watch for plot. It’s all about what happens. This princess goes to this place and finds this thing which leads to her meeting that prince. They fall in love and live happily ever after.
As we get older, however, we really watch for meaning and theme. What are the implications of the story we are watching? Yes, the girl meets the guy but what does it say about her as a woman? If the guy is a loser, is she choosing someone beneath her? Does this mean the film argues that we should settle for someone instead of holding out for a good man?
For years, Disney has received flack for the deeper meanings behind many of their fairy tale stories. Snow White is a princess, but she is only “safe” when she cleans house for seven men or is rescued by a prince. She never seems able to defend herself. Belle is a smart and intelligent woman, but the fact she falls in love with a man that basically kidnaps her has been criticized. As children, we can see she just saw past his rough exterior, but as adults, we can see she suffers from a bit of Stockholm syndrome. While children loved The Princess and The Frog, the story was read by some adults as having a more racist meaning: If you are a black princess, you should want to work in a kitchen and not dream for a castle. For years, feminists have claimed Disney movies teach young women they need a man in order to find their “happily ever after.” Even though the children may not be aware of these deeper themes and meanings, the lessons taught to them by the stories can stay in their brains and affect them on a subconscious level.
Fortunately, Disney has done a great job of tackling these criticisms. Frozen is Disney’s most popular film in years, and many people believe it’s because the filmmakers did a great job of balancing plot and meaning. In terms of plot, you have two sisters who are isolated from each other due to a dark secret. When the secret is revealed, the older sister flees the kingdom, and her younger sister travels after her. Along the way, she meets a host of wonderful characters including a comical snowman, a carrot-eating reindeer and two very different men. On a deeper level, Frozen is about a girl who has to repress who she really is because she’s afraid of what other people will say and the freedom that comes from being true to herself. In the end, when the princess saves the day, she does it by defending her sister and not by relying on a man. It’s a great film that recognizes the affect films can have on children as they grow up.
I recommend that all writers – whether you be a writer of films or novels or whatever – to go back and review the works you loved as children. What lessons can you see from those works that you took into your adult life? Then look at your own work. Are there any deeper meanings or themes you might be teaching to readers that you don’t want them to walk away with?