When we think back to our childhoods, there’s always a shiny, glittery film of nostalgia wrapped tightly across the surface. Whether it’s reminiscing on the time before the great avocado toast crisis or dreaming of days when Star Wars had only three films to its name - there’s a tendency to remember the past like a fond Disney VHS.
It’s only when you peel back the dreamy cellophane on the cover, then, that a darker reality is revealed. Sexism and racism were much more of a struggle, Jane Fonda workout DVDs plagued shelves, and spam sandwiches were entirely unavoidable. I mean, it’s clear to see which is the most devastating of the three. F*ck spam.
Children’s films made in the 70s and 80s were no different, with movies such as The Little Mermaid and The Fox and The Hound proudly presenting themselves as the faces of nostalgic entertainment that definitively shaped growing up. But truthfully - in a period that the film industry would seemingly much prefer to forget - it was also the heyday of cult, dark, disturbing fantasy wrapped up in a cartoon cover and shipped off to children none the wiser all over the globe.
Films that seemed like heartwarming tales of bunnies roaming the fields and trips back to the emerald city turned out to be Watership Down and Return to Oz, riddled with rabbit murder and decapitated shrieking heads, respectively. The films that defined childhood were visually warped and narratively corrupt, telling tales of death and interdimensional horror underneath their glossy surfaces.
But what sparked this trend, and why has children’s cinema changed so much now? Can the future generation not take what we went through? Should they have to? Did it affect us maybe more than we’ve realised? A marked shift in the tone of children’s entertainment reveals a decade where devastating stories were left to define a generation - so what exactly do we get from exposing youngsters to content that still makes adults shiver over 30 years later?
The central piece of this time period to consider is of course The Dark Crystal - probably the movie that best depicts the disturbed vein of children’s fantasy flowing tumultuously through the decade. Utilising Jim Henson, best known for his puppetry in The Muppets and Sesame Street, you’d think the film would be a safe bet - instead, The Dark Crystal regales the story of a race war between two equally terrifying-looking species, with an eerie Gelfling the only one able to stop the inevitable death of his planet and all the creatures on it.
Just one look at the evil Skeksis translates well enough as to why this film was really f*cked up for children, and traumatised plenty in its run when they expected charming frogs and dramatic piggies. Instead, we got murderous bird-lizard hybrids intent on wiping out anything that wasn’t as disgusting-looking as them, and even our protagonists were uncanny enough to be seriously off putting. Whilst Henson’s creations where detailed and breathtakingly imaginative, they remain some of the most unnerving characters of children’s entertainment out there: and he reasons that it’s a good thing.
Co-director Frank Oz stated “What Jim wanted to do, and it was totally his vision, was to get back to the darkness of the original Grimm’s fairy tales. He thought it was fine to scare children. He didn’t think it was healthy for children to always feel safe.”
And to some extent, he’s right. The world isn’t a nice place, and has its own share of horrors - to replicate that on screen in a way a child can connect with and understand is only going to help them become a fully rounded, realistic adult later in life. The generation that grew up with films like The Dark Crystal were taught about death, consequences, and fear in fantasy settings where it was safe to explore such topics - the realm of high adventure an exaggerated play on our reality to translate mature ideas through.
The Secret of Nimh is another animated example of a children’s film that holds these values at its centre. Exploring animal experimentation, betrayal, and plenty of struggle, children watch and can see the very real horrors that life throws our way. Most importantly though, they’re taught that any hardship can be overcome, and whilst sadness and pain are a part of the journey - there’s always a light at the end of the tunnel.
Dark fantasy is the perfect landscape for children’s entertainment in this way, then. The Last Unicorn, The Black Cauldron and The Adventures of Mark Twain all further animated examples of beautifully rendered and magical worlds that have hard lessons to teach, and we’re all the better for it. Life isn’t sunshine and rainbows, and growing up on this concept will only lead to a harsh awakening further down the line. Dark fantasy pushes for understanding and warmth and imagination, but doesn’t sacrifice depth in the process. It remains as interesting and important to watch as an adult as it does for a child.
There’s a definitive shift that has happened from this time period to now. Instead of the thieving goblin king stealing babies and threatening their eternal damnation in Labyrinth, children are offered CGI worlds that swaddle and protect them, rendering beautiful, rich environments as entirely vapid in the process. There’s an element of threat and darkness in every children’s film, as otherwise there would be no story arc to follow - but the difference between stories of murder, extinction, and demons is clear.
Now children’s fears don’t lie in monsters. The rise of the internet has brought about a generation of children that have access to increasingly dark content at any time, with reality being far scarier than the films of old. Pornography and violence are at the tips of our fingers, meaning the movement from intense children’s films maybe is born from a need to bring happiness and light back into childhood - as there’s so much disturbing content saturating our media that kids are often exposed to the terrible facets of human nature long before a film can teach them in a difficult, but positive way.
The internet has brought about an anxiety towards being ‘a sheep’, with films now reflecting that consciously by depicting Mary Sues that stand out from the crowd whilst overcoming their hardships. The past generation weren’t so worried about fitting in than they were about the future itself - nuclear war being a terrifying prospect to many of the 80s era. The warped creatures and disfigured enemies perhaps reflected this fear as subconscious entities of radiation, with human protagonists always making it out on top despite grotesque monsters attempting to undermine them.
There's obviously different fears that define the eras, and reason for the change. But that doesn't mean these dark films don't have anything to teach, and their place in educating children on the good and bad is perhaps more vital that ever now that they've been phased out of filmic canon. Without a little scariness and evil, without some threat to safety, there's all the more reason for kids to go searching for that content in places they shouldn't - and come up against much worse than Jim Henson's puppetry.
Visually, the most obvious movement is from live-action movies to a softer animated style. No longer do films like the aforementioned The Dark Crystal or Labyrinth take precedence, or even fare such as The Neverending Story, Legend, or even Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory - all of which had their own terrifying creations and sad storylines bought into our own dimensional plane.
Even Disney tried its hand with films such as The Black Hole, The Watcher in the Woods, and Something Wicked This Way Comes: all of which have been pushed into relative obscurity in the wake of their animated films skirting around the edges of the 70s and 80s.
With reference to the production behemoth, Disney’s play into this time period is an important one to consider. After Walt Disney’s death in 1966, the studio veered from the path of quaint stories and whimsical animation he’d previously laid out - going through a phase of trial and error that lead them down a darker path. Disney had always been the holy grail of children’s cinema, and one that had carved a niche in the market many tried and failed to replicate, so the descent into the unknown could be argued as the spark that ignited a trend across the film industry: resulting in the dark fantasy genre.
Whilst we look back on these films with a fondness now, despite their haunting content, this period marked one of the least successful in Disney’s entire movie history. It wasn’t until the renaissance of the 90s that the studio started making money again, returning to the animated musical fairy tales of old - and the rest of the industry followed suit. Left behind was a decade where children were brought up on eerie visuals and heartbreaking narratives, and the millennials were born.
Maybe this filmic period is representative of the adults it has spawned. Mental health issues are at their most prevalent, unhappiness is palpable, and disillusion now separates us from the baby-boomer ‘American Dream’ approach to life that saw our parents get anything they want if they just worked hard enough. Maybe the realism was too much and the movement back to animated fluffy adventures was the only way to counteract it.
Even if that’s true, the generation of dark children’s films has taught us that these difficulties are only part of the story - and working through them will result in a future worth fighting for. People die, dreams end, and there are individuals out there that would do us nothing but harm (cough cough, Trump), but that makes the good things that happen all the more satisfying. Dark fantasy teaches anything is always worth persevering through, and good always beats evil, even at its most damaging. It’s the perfect lesson to teach children, and one that’s maybe been lost in the wake of overprotective censorship in places where it's not necessary.
Defeating goblins, riding dragons, and saving the world, the oldies really are goldies when it comes to 80s children's movies.