For my next Halloween Treat I’d like to deal with good ole Uncle Walt and his uncanny ability to scare the pants off young viewers for generations.
Most people can remember the first Disney movie they went to see, because it was probably one of the first movies they ever saw. And as formative experiences go, they are pretty terrifying ones. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that’s necessarily a bad thing. After all, when kiddie fare is too sweet and cute it’s often deadly dull too. And those fluffy bunny tales are hardly going to prepare your little darling for the leap into the realm of the 12A when he/she is going to have to cope with Heath Ledger’s Joker slamming pencils up people’s noses in The Dark Knight and the like (did anyone else wonder who had knobbled the censors to get that one through as a 12?).
And anyway, Disney’s propensity for kiddie horror has an honourable tradition in the fairy stories of old. Just watch Terry Gilliam’s take on The Brothers Grimm and you’ll have some idea of just how much their stories could warp impressionable minds (or Mr Gilliam’s at any rate). And the tradition has continued in children’s literature to this day, from The Chronicles of Narnia, to Roald Dahl to Harry Potter and the Darren Shan books (about boy vampires). Why are these books so successful? Probably because kids like to be scared, just a little bit.
Fine, so we’ve established that scaring kids isn’t all bad – and Walt Disney, especially in his early years, was an expert at it. Remember the Evil Queen in Snow White, or the haunted forest poor little Snow White runs into and can’t find her way out of, not to mention the Queen’s transformation to a wizened old crone with a shining red apple full of poison (so much for an apple a day keeping the doctor away)!
But much scarier than Snow White in my memory is Pinocchio. Cute puppet boys being eaten by whales or stalked by a wolf in a frock coat are not very nice for starters (actually I wasn’t too keen on that talking cricket either, but that’s probably just me and my suspicious nature) but what really stuck in my memory was that Dante-esque scene in which our sweet little Pinocchio goes to the terrifying Pleasure Island theme park — which is all neon lit fun and frolics on the surface and all dark adult excess underneath. He gets drunk, he smokes cigarettes, he plays pool, he spits, he swears and then he almost turns into a donkey and narrowly escapes getting carted off in a crate for his crimes.
Now, if that isn’t an allegory for the terror of what awaits you in the adult world I don’t know what is. And here’s a strange coincidence, Walt created Disneyland – his very own theme park and the first of its kind – less than 15 years later. Make of that what you will.