Over the past few years, news aggregator and clickable content sites have become awash with nostalgia for their childhoods – you know, the time before smartphones and Twitter. There’s an impossible quantity of articles and lists detailing all the things we miss from being a kid, but not quite enough detailing how a vast swath of the media we witnessed was totally uncompromising in its brutality. Not to say that kid media today isn’t filled with dirty humor and uncomfortable levels of violence, but before the turn of the century and beyond, kid stuff had a true darkness that extended past occasional lewd references or rogue cleavage.
Below are some shining examples of how kid media had a level of surreal madness that current material can’t hope to ever overshadow (note: The Hunger Games is nowhere near as subtly and tacitly brutal as The Giver).
The Secret of Nimh (1982), that Don Bluth cartoon film, is insanely brutal because it involves animal testing (Nimh stands for National Institute of Mental Health), some seriously scary animation of a crotchety owl, and a cute little mouse kid with pneumonia. Anyone who watched this film as a kid will be forever scarred by the treachery and dark magic. Also, there’s a cat named Dragon.
Bambi (1941) is supposed to be a fun cartoon, except right at the beginning a hunter straight up shoots the protagonist’s mom, starting Disney’s legacy of murdering mother characters every chance they could get in the following years.
The Lion King (1994) doesn’t feature the death of a mother figure, instead focusing on lions being thrown into herds of wildebeests, hardcore animal segregation (what did the hyenas ever do? be voiced by Whoopi Goldberg?), and characters being eaten alive. Also, Timon and Pumbaa definitely watched Simba and Nala doing it while listening to Elton John. It’s intense.
An American Tail (1986), another Don Bluth masterpiece and one of the greatest kid films ever made ever, is a super dark immigration story. There’s persecution, gang brutality, and the most intense giant monster creation ever animated (“Wewease! The secwet! Weapon!”). Any kid who watched this grew up knowing at least a little of urban brutality.
Fantasia (1940) is probably Disney’s best animated feature ever. It’s a piece of musical and cinematic history, with a finale that is anything but whimsical. Anyone who watched Chernabog summon a legion of deathly creatures to the tunes of Mussorgsky and Schubert will forever look at a mountain and think, “See the top of that? Frickin’ demon.” Fantasia is a phantasmagoria of animated horrors.
The Great Mouse Detective (1986) is hands down one of the most brutal cartoons ever made. Disney marketed it as a fun-filled detective romp a la Sherlock Holmes, but after watching a cat eat a drunken mouse to death and the villain go into an insane rage and kick the shit out of the lovable protagonist, I would caution showing this to little kids.
And finally, The Little Mermaid (1989), because what’s more brutal than watching a giant octopus monster lady get fucked by a boat?
Seriously, every Disney cartoon or Don Bluth creation was a shitshow of terrifying misery, with more death than Game of Thrones (no one on GoT has ever gotten eaten alive). And remember shows like Ren and Stimpy and Are You Afraid of the Dark? on Nickelodeon? Imagine being a kid and watch a chihuahua go insane and eat soap, or a bunch of people start oozing purple liquid out of their faces.
However, no matter how brutal older kid cartoons (and live action movies, you know, like goddamn Labyrinth), the quality was better than it is now. In all honesty, the brutality of these shining examples of storytelling was a nod to their audience’s intelligence. Things like Family Guy and the like have adult content, but made for dumber consumers. I’d rather my future children enjoy nightmarish but enlightened material than dogs who like hookers. With any hope, the brutal worlds of Fantasia and Little Foot (remember The Land Before Time?) will reappear to break our children’s minds for the better.