Getting scared with kid movies

13 Feb

Have you ever watched an old kid’s movie you haven’t seen or even thought about since childhood? With new eyes ten to twenty years later, you notice things so disturbing you say to yourself “WTF!” This is a good thing. I wonder if today’s young generation will experience it.

This WTF scenario we’ve all experienced doesn’t just apply to the movies we’ve forgotten about. We all remember that one scene from that one movie that freaked us out so much we went right into “Mommy!” mode, then suffered from Post Traumatic Stress flashbacks when the lights went out. We never forgot the horror of it. I’m not talking about the time our parents let their guard slip and allowed us to watch some monster flick or when we snuck our first peak at a Slasher film. I’m talking about the rated G “Family films”.

Being adults, we take for granted that we can see any movie we choose; in theaters, at home, or illegally downloaded onto a smart phone. But as my age group gets well into the parenting years of life I have to pay more attention to kids movies, remembering that as a kid there were barriers between me and the movies I could see. Checkpoints like the ratings system and parents limit what kids can and should watch. This denied access kind of puts kids on a movie diet, lets say. Like any good diet, it is important to make sure and include all the good groups in proportion. For the most part, I like modern kid movies and think they are well balanced. But there is a flavor being left out a lot today that older generations got served a bigger helping of: kids getting scared!

Still don’t know what I’m referring to?  Come stroll down my memory lane, and to keep it manageable I’ll limit the list to just 10 animated movies in no particular order.

Dumbo (1941) – This movie has layers of disturbing stuff. Everybody teases a kid about his birth defect then labels his mom as “Mad” for defending him and locks her away. Then, they get the kid drunk enough to hallucinate about creepy elephants on parade. Disney returns to an elephant themed acid trip 36 years later in…

Winnie the Pooh (1977) – Heffalumps and Woozles: psychedelic, shape shifting, elephants and weasels yelling “Beware!”,  floating decapitated elephant heads sucking “hunney” like mosquitoes suck blood. Poor Pooh bear.

The Last Unicorn (1982) – This movie had a harpy drawn with three tits, nipples and all and a tree with the personality of an old horny woman who traps a character in-between her wooden tree titties. This is not the typical girly unicorn movie.


Don Bluth wasn’t shy about using darker elements in all his movies 1989’s All Dogs Go to Heaven almost made the list with a giant flaming doggie Satan and minion mutts on a boat of bones but one of his movies is even less cheery…

The Secret of NIMH (1982) –. This one includes humans experimenting on lab animals, rats receiving painful mind altering injections, children drowning in mud, characters being crushed to death and stabbed in the back,  and blood (blood in cartoons is rare and it stands out to me).  I love this movie.


The Brave Little Toaster (1987) – The terrifying life of house appliances: they have to fear getting abandoned, getting lost, getting replaced, getting wet, and losing power. The vacuum almost commits suicide by swallowing his own chord. They narrowly escape dissection for parts in a frankensteinesque repair store. The final scene in a junk yard puts the crew on a conveyor belt headed toward a scrap metal crusher while the rest of the junk sings about how they’re worthless. Worst of all the toaster has a nightmare involving fire and clowns, F@&#ING CLOWNS! A very early precursor to Toy Story.

Fantasia (1940)– Night On Bald Mountain is obviously what comes to mind; ghostly pale rider, the big demon playing with fire, and taunting minions. But what scared me the most was The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, that disgruntled, mean, old wizard was bad news. More troubling was the indifference of unstoppable brooms that kept multiplying and wouldn’t die, more and more they came and they’re not alive so they can’t be killed. Seriously, it tormented me.

Sleeping Beauty (1959) – I first saw this movie in theatres. I’m not that old, but in the 80’s the mall theater was showing it for some reason. My parents took a very young me and I was so freaked out by Maleficent that I bolted out of the there. A nice usher came by and she suggested I sit in on The Care Bear movie until Sleeping Beauty was over.  That movie seemed safe until the world stopped caring, everything got turned into concrete, then the children all got zombie eyes. I found a happy place in the hall waiting for Sleeping Beauty to end. I’ve since seen sleeping Beauty (there’s blood in it as well) and  can’t nail down what triggered my flight response. As for Care Bears, no I haven’t seen it again but my escape was because it was my first time alone in a theater and not because I was scared of Care Bears. Right???

Pinocchio (1940) – Being eaten by a whale is pretty scary, but the icing on the cake is so called “Pleasure Island,” where little boys  gamble, break everything, smoke cigars, and drink booze. Then heehaw mutate into jackasses and are sold into slavery. It takes skills to make something that messed up. My mom claims this was my favorite movie and I watched it every day when I was very little. A recent viewing made me question my sanity as a preschooler.

Watership Down (1978) – This one is an exception as it is rated PG but a lot of children watched it assuming a rabbit movie would be like Bugs Bunny or the Velveteen rabbit.  We were so wrong. The whole movie is bunnies battling, cats, birds, each other, with lots of blood and at the end a dog rips a rabbit open. There’s a premonition of the future where an entire field is covered in blood. This has got to be the most violent PG cartoon ever.

Unico and the Island of Magic (1983) – In the process of writing this piece someone suggested this movie. I didn’t know what the heck they were talking about until they sent me the youtube link for the entire movie. As a grown ass man, in my house, in the middle of the day, I shuddered. Oh GOD, I HAD seen Unico,  and repressed the memory for 2 decades. The Sci-Fi channel used to run Anime on Saturday mornings  and my sisters and I stumbled into this flick.  A young unicorn Unico is left on an island where a ghoulish spherical wizard Lord Kuruku wants to turn people into these mattress like puppet building block things. Little Easter eggs like a cat with testicles and Hello Kitty are hidden throughout. When Lord Karuku screeches “TOOOBEEEYY” your skin crawls. I’ll bet a lot of people saw this movie by accident on Sci-fi and repressed/forgot it so I encourage anyone to check it out. It is kind of like when you squeeze a lemon then feel that paper cut you thought had completely healed 3 weeks ago.



So why did kids movies seem scarier in the good old days? Is it because parents didn’t shelter their kids as much? Maybe. Is it because people used to be more comfortable with feeling darker emotions and had different standards for what was appropriate for children?  Probably. Is it because these animators weren’t trying to make a children’s movie? In the case of Watership Down, sure, but for the rest it’s a judgment call.  Is it because Walt Disney loved scaring the crap out of little kids? Absolutely. It doesn’t matter why, what’s more important is how the people who made these films used dark subject matter to tell their story. These movies didn’t go for shock and awe. They knew that pushing viewers into an uncomfortable place was an important narrative tool; one that is much easier to appreciate as an adult. So what kids’ movies today include this in their tool kit? I can’t think of any. There’s examples of intense and sad moments, PIXAR is great with those. But really truly scary moments; the closest things we got today are Hotel Transylvania and Frankenweenie. Kids need more, kids need better. Because finally my most important point is this. KIDS LOVE BEING SCARED. Always have always will.

Someone needs to fill that slot. Because kids need to learn how to be scared and how to deal with fear. Because pushing that G rating to its maximum allowable level of fright is a dying art form. Because scaring the crap out of kids and having them still love your movie is the ultimate challenge for a filmmaker. All great reasons to revive the scary movie moments but the real reason to do it is…Because it will make money. The Marketplace is wide open and there a ton of scary children’s books waiting to be computer animated. But it probably won’t happen so it is up to you and me. Pick an old darker kids movie you remember and share the experience of an “All audiences admitted” adrenaline rush of terror with the children in your life.

-Carl Wells


3 Responses to “Getting scared with kid movies”

  1. angelaperea13 February 13, 2013 at 12:59 pm #

    It’s so funny you posted this. I just watched a 60 minute show on Fearnet on cable where Stephen King talks about horror films. The first thing he responded to was ” What was the first horror film you ever saw?” His response… Bambi. It had forest fires mothers being killed, and children abandoned. Scared the sh*t out of him.

    • Carl Wells February 13, 2013 at 11:06 pm #

      I hadn’t heard that. The Master of horror got scared at Bambi, good stuff.

      • Ken Wells September 4, 2013 at 2:49 am #

        Many of the children’s stores that were later turned into movies came from old European stories and the intent was to control children through fear. The stories were softened for American tastes. In an earlier version, the wolf ate Goldilocks’ grandmother and then hopped into her bed and waited for Goldilocks. When she arrived he threated to eat her. She fled and returned with a woodsman who chopped open the wolf’s stomach with his axe and delivered Grandma. Many stories taught fear of nature and the deep dark woods. And the list goes on and on. Looks like the movies are following an old tradition.

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