2 Family Movies That Were Deeper Than You Thought

Ever since Pixar’s explosion of popularity that happened sometime around “Ratatouille”, people have been less embarrassed to consider family movies as a source of adult entertainment. Sure, everyone can say how much they love “The Lion King” or “Mulan” but it’s mostly because of a nostalgia factor. Most adults were still reluctant to consider new family movies (or “kid movies”) as anything beyond a guilty pleasure.

Nowadays we’re far more open to admitting how much we enjoy or straight up love whatever new family movie is released. “ParaNorman” in particular received some very positive reactions thanks to how earnest and modern it was. Pixar definitely ushered the mainstream acceptance of family movies as quality entertainment, but for many years family movies have been just as complex and profound as anything Pixar has made.

Remember the people making these movies have always been adults with an artistic vision just like every other filmmaker. Unlike entertainment created strictly with a young audience in mind, these family films have always been made to appeal to both kids and the adults who took them to the theater. But this appeal is meant to go beyond "adult" jokes.

I’m gonna tell you about it with a few examples that I personally like.


“Jumanji”

I saw “Jumanji” many, many times when I was a kid. It’s one of those movies that taught me a lot of the English language of which I have total domain of in today. Like most movies I enjoyed a lot as a kid, I lost track of it at some point, and hadn’t seen it in many years. Recently I caught it again and it’s actually what inspired me to write a post like this.

I discovered there was a lot more going on in “Jumanji” than fun Africa antics and crazy special effects (at the time). This is basically the story of Alan, a manchild with severe daddy issues who cannot grow up, despite having lived a life more arduous than pretty much anyone in the world.

There’s a lot of pretty fucked up drama that is obviously underplayed because it’s mainstream entertainment and we want kids to enjoy it. Think about the lives of the main characters for a second: Alan, a severely estranged virtually friendless kid who is constantly bullied for coming from the privileged Parrish family, lived any kid’s worst nightmare when he told his dad “I never want to see you again” and then it fucking happened.

Worse still, having that last fight with his parents was only the beginning of his nightmare, as he was going to still survive several decades in a jungle that makes Australia look like Discovery Zone. He returns by dumb luck only to find out that time passed back home and that his parents are long dead. Oh, and to top it all off, in a weird narrative choice, his father’s shining reputation in town was tarnished permanently, as they explained Alan’s mysterious disappearance by saying that his father killed and dismembered him.

Fuck that.

The ironing is delicious.
Sarah Wittle on the other hand witnesses in Alan's disappearance a supernatural event that makes absolutely no sense, basically loses her mind and has to spend her entire life medicated and under psychiatric treatment that convinces her that Alan really did die violently at his father’s hands (because apparently "your friend's dad dismembered your friend" is easier for a child to swallow than "magic took him away"), leaving her a maladjusted adult eventhough she was a very popular girl as a kid.

Now thanks to Jumanji, both of them have to become sort of surrogate parents for two orphans. But here’s the thing: neither has a fucking clue about how the world works, from not knowing how to shave/drive, to educating two children. The interesting dynamic is that these two have to essentially grow up while playing a board game—a definitely childish thing. Irony!

The fun thing here is that Alan’s last interaction with his father was a fight discussing how Alan didn’t want to go away to the boarding school his family has been going to for generations, ending in “I hope I never see you again in my life.” Literally the last idea he has of his dad was this huge asshole. This is expressed through a detail a staggering amount of people, including me, miss.

Pictured: Woah.
Van Pelt, the old timey hunter whose sole mission in the entire movie is to straight up fucking murder Alan takes the shape of Alan’s father with a funny accent. What’s more interesting, is that the movie suggests that Alan was already familiar with this hunter from his time in the jungle. This makes us question some things about the game itself and its power. Van Pelt is summoned after Alan’s second roll. Now, it’s not explicitly said in the movie, but it’s interesting that this killer is molded after someone both Alan and Sarah fear (remember Sarah became convinced that Alan’s dad murdered him). That’s some Silent Hill shit.

Suddenly: good bye fourth wall.
There’s a scene halfway through when Peter does some crazy Cirque du Soleil shit to retrieve the game board from floating downriver. Alan is completely unable to throw the kid a bone and at least give him an honest “Good job”. Later, Peter turns into a half-monkey for cheating. Peter begins crying and Sarah forces Alan to talk to him; Alan gives him this super awkward “You have to be a man” speech. It turns out to be for nothing—Peter was crying because his tail was stuck in his pants. Despite knowing everything there is to know about Jumanji, Alan is not ready—he can’t even pretend to be an adult yet.

To linger a bit more on Peter’s atavism: the symbol there is that “Jumanji” is about growing, moving forward. Cheating demonstrated that Peter wasn’t getting it, so it sent him back in a very funny and literal way: through de-evolution (I don’t think there’s a metaphor for puberty here, but hey go ahead).

Now, remember how I said the whole ordeal is about Alan facing his fears and growing up? This comes full circle in the end when, in his final win-it-or-lose-it roll, Alan faces Van Pelt’s souped-up rifle and tells him “I’m terrified”, as the dice were still rolling.

That highly unlikely winning roll isn’t a coincidence—the game realized Alan had finally grown, and basically ended itself because it was done with both. Notice how both Alan and Sarah face Van Pelt when he fires his gun just as the game ends, and when it does, everything is restored. Everything.

Back to the sixties, Alan is ready to face everything he hadn’t been able to face for several decades, before Jumanji: he apologizes to his dad through a loving hug, he admits that it was his fault Carl got fired, and stops being afraid of hanging out with Sarah and face her boyfriend’s bullying. His father wanted to send him away to Cliffside School to become a man; turns out he had to spend 26 years in the jungle, then a few days playing a game to achieve that. He didn't need Cliffside after Jumanji. Cue the overly happy ending I was more than satisfied with.

So there you have it: “Jumanji” was a movie for kids about becoming an adult not just in body. And if you’re not entirely convinced: according to the DVD extras, “Jumanji” means “to change”. Woah, right?

Addendum: throwing the game into the river for someone else to find was kind of a dick move, but considering that game could turn me into a retarded rhinoceros if it wanted, I’d be terrified of even touching it when I was done, let alone destroy it.



“The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride”.

Oh boy hold on to your fedoras here because I’m going to get shit done. “The Lion King” is my favorite movie of all time, and “The Lion King II” is everything I could’ve hoped it could be in terms of story. I had been wanting to talk about this movie for a while so I’ll try to keep this as succinct as possible—I have a lot to say.

Most Disney sequels are deservedly discarded as money-grabbing STV trash that rides on the coattails of classics. While I have no doubt that “The Lion King II” was conceptualized this way, it ended up being more complex and profound than most theatrical features. Yes, the animation isn’t up to par, and yes the music isn’t as good as the first movie’s. Getting over that, we see why this 75 minute gem is so special.

“The Lion King” was a brilliant story about how a pampered little shit grew up with a lot of survivor’s guilt to eventually face his fears and responsibilities and reclaim his birthright by Hamleting his murderous uncle. “The Lion King 2” picks up after the first movie left off.
                                            
The Queen of Mount Crazy
Simba has a daughter named Kiara, whom he sees as a walking tragedy. Simba, completely unlike his father, is an overbearing knob who cannot lose sight of Kiara because he’s sure there’s danger at every corner. There’s an insanely awesome fan-theory claiming that Kiara is Simba’s second child, and Zira—the villain—killed his first, known as Kopa, whom we saw at the end of the first movie. I’ll write more about this theory eventually; it’s chillingly plausible. However, for the purpose of this post, I won’t consider it canon.

Kovu, a young lion who looks too much like Scar, shows up, and Simba trusts him about as far as he can piss. And he shouldn’t trust him: Kovu has been trained by Zira, Scar’s mate who’s completely fucking looney tunes, to gain Simba’s trust and murder the shit out of Simba in revenge.

This sounds pretty generic. Romeo & Juliet after “The Lion King”’s “Hamlet” (and “The Lion King ½”’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead). But let’s look deeper.

First off: this movie is dark as hell. We’re following the story of a young innocent cub who grew in exile and was brain-washed by his psychotic mother to become a murder machine. The villain’s song, called “Zira’s Lullaby” was performed by Suzanne Pleshette and written by Joss Whedon (yep) and is the most violent thing you’ve heard outside of Cannibal Corpse; more interestingly, Joss’ original lyrics were so fucked up he was asked to take it down a notch.

Still, the final version has lines like “The battle may be bloody but that kinda works for me”, “Our flag will fly against a blood-red sky”, or “The melody of angry growls/a counterpoint of painful howls/a symphony of death, oh my—that’s my lullaby.”

Tone it down there, Pleshette, you’re freaking everyone out.

Always liked this framing.
Add to this the fact that a character dies on-screen trying to impress his neglectful mother (I don’t know if we’ve actually ever seen another Disney character give his dying sigh on-screen) and the villain commits suicide when offered redemption and you get a dark little number. But okay “dark” doesn’t mean deep. Let’s talk about the depth.

This movie is mainly about identity and how we choose our own destinies. We can’t point a main character here—the obvious choice would be Kiara (after all, the title’s awesome double meaning [“Simba’s Pride” as in Kiara, who is the pride of her father; “Simba’s Pride” as in, “Simba’s kingdom”] suggests so) but honestly it’s about the dual and mirroring journeys of Kovu and Simba. The story is about Kovu’s family, who stages a scenario where Kovu saves Kiara’s life to earn Simba’s trust and eventually tear out his throat.

You see, Kovu has been trained to follow Scar’s footsteps whereas Simba is desperately trying to follow Mufasa’s. Kovu’s story becomes more interesting here because halfway through the movie, there’s an interesting twist with both. First we have Simba, deeply conflicted over Kiara’s increasing closeness to Kovu and Simba’s own distrust. He tries to figure out what Mufasa would’ve done. Enter Nala, in this film the voice of reason, who says one of my favorite lines: “You want so much to walk the path expected of you [Mufasa’s]. Perhaps Kovu does not [Scar’s].”

Much like she did in the first film, Nala forces Simba to reconsider. Now look at Kovu who, thanks to Kiara and Rafiki, begins discovering that he’s not a killer. A great hidden plotline in the movie, which fucking no one seems to get, is Kovu’s transformation into Scar.

Andy Dick will never out-do himself after this.
I love stories about characters trying to tame the monster within, and that’s basically Kovu’s journey. Just as he begins understanding that his place isn’t in the Outlands with his cuckoo murderous mother, but with Kiara in the Pride Lands, his past catches up with him in very dark ways. The scene in which Kovu changes his mind about killing Simba involves him and Simba taking a stroll to the gorge where Mufasa died. There, Simba uses some dope symbolism to show Kovu that he’s going to give him a chance by saying that light can grow in darkness if you give it a chance (remember Simba is saying this in the place his father died). More importantly, Simba explains the truth behind Scar: he was a fucking psychopath, not a glorious god like Zira told him.

Cue to Zira’s Manson Family attacking and severely wounding Simba in an ambush from which he barely escapes. When Kovu pussies out, Nuka, his half-wit half-brother and the most tragic thing Disney’s ever had, chases after Simba yelling “I’ll kill him for you, Mother!” Have in mind that unlike Kovu, Nuka is actually Scar’s biological son, but was deemed unworthy of his legacy, so Scar chose someone else to replace Nuka (Kovu). Because of this, Zira never paid much attention to Nuka, making him grow weak and insecure.

Trying to kill Simba, Nuka is crushed by logs. Zira, finally feeling some fucking affection for her eldest son, uncovers Nuka only to have him die in her hands. In a scene deleted for being too dark, Nuka’s final words are “At least I finally got your attention.” It’s messed up.

An enraged Zira turns around and slashes Kovu across the eye, giving him a Scar scar. A lot of fans thought this was a cheesy way to just make Kovu look more like Scar in others' eyes (mainly Simba's), but it’s far more complex than that. Think about this: Kovu just earned this scar, making him look more like the monster that was Scar, and his mother blames him for Nuka’s death (she comes from Scar’s School of Misdirected Blame). Kovu literally just killed his own brother.

You know who else killed his brother? “He Lives in You”, the opening song, suddenly takes a darker meaning.

This transformation is so subtle, most people—even hardcore fans—seem to miss it’s actually happening, and it adds a whole lot of dimension to the character of Kovu in an extremely efficient way. It’s just so damn clever. This thing culminates with one of my all timefavorite Disney musical numbers: “One Of Us”: a musically brilliant, excessively epic number in which Simba humiliatingly exiles Kovu back to the Outlands, abruptly ending his chances of happiness—he’s no longer welcome anywhere.

This was meant to mirror the iconic scene in "The Lion King".
There are many more themes of love and unity happening, but I won’t get into them too much because they’re very obvious. Love trumps hate. Unity trumps division. Far more typical Disney fare.

Now let’s talk about the plot, which is intricate to the point of convolution (remember this movie is only ~75 minutes long). First off we are given to understand that Simba’s return wasn’t as triumphant and awesome as we thought—some lions, not only the hyenas, were okay with Scar’s reign. Simba is forced to exile Zira, Nuka and a bunch of other lionesses that thought Scar > Simba, which is an interesting insight into the original’s finale to begin with. But another great hidden plotline is Rafiki being revealed to be sort of a Metatron for the Old Kings.

Rafiki in “The Lion King” played the role of a shaman and confidant to the royal family who did what he could to ensure the safety of the realm. He was basically Varys from “Game of Thrones” in baboon form. In “The Lion King II”, it’s revealed that this role is far more complex. The first movie established that there’s a very fragile balance in the Circle of Life—one that was broken when Scar took the throne, making the entire realm wither and die.

Turns out that, despite having Simba on the throne, this balance is at risk. This is revealed when Rafiki is seemed having a conversation with Mufasa (represented as gusts of wind). What’s going on is that Kovu is meant to fall in love with Kiara and is meant to have a place in the Pridelands because that’s his destiny.

Knowing this risk, Rafiki does everything he can to orchestrate Kovu’s journey. He convinces Simba, passive-aggressively and without letting him know it’s not his idea, to let Kovu stay (“Hey you! How dare you save the King’s daughter!”). He feeds Kovu and Kiara “Upendi” (supposedly Swahili for “love” but I think they’re just mushrooms) to make them fall in love, etc. There’s an awesome shot when Kovu is exiled where Rafiki is seen sighing his sadness—he knows this isn’t supposed to happen and the Circle is at great risk.

"Told you I got this, bro."
When the battle is won and everything is right again, Rafiki looks up at Mufasa and nods. Rafiki is the single most important “The Lion King” character—the world would be fucked once and once again if it wasn’t for him.

There is a staggering amount of visual symbolism in the movie too, including the way Kiara’s shadow is only half of her before meeting Kovu, or how Pride Rock is seen from the opposite side we saw in the first movie, but 1, this has gone on for way too long; 2, though some are great, the visual symbolism isn’t the best.

I intend to write more about some other movies I thought were far, far more profound and well-constructed than people gave them credit for. Meanwhile, I urge you to rewatch these two movies with these ideas in mind—you’ll feel them click a lot more than you expect.
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About The Damn Beast

Pre-op trans-minotaur, sci-fi/fantasy/horror author, metal singer, videogame journalist, pop culture blogger. I also lift heavy things and put them down again repeatedly to occupy more space.
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