Archive for children’s

Family-Friendly Horror in GRAVITY FALLS

Posted in Dark Musings, Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 16, 2016 by smuckyproductions

Last night witnessed the finale of television’s greatest modern kid’s show, GRAVITY FALLS. Had someone pitched this to me and said “it’ll be a massive hit for Disney,” I would have laughed at them. How can a family-friendly Twin Peaks with hints of X Files and Lovecraft become a hit? As awesome as that sounds, today’s market for kids has become so PC and watered down that we would never expect Disney to greenlight such a dark premise. And yet, here we are.

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One of the contributing factors to this show’s success was its older audience. Millennials, people in their twenties, latched onto Gravity Falls and made it their own. In addition to attracting the Disney demographic, its intelligence and darkness widened the audience ingeniously. I think that’s a great sign.

I fell in love with this show because it was clear that Alex Hirsch loved the same things I did. He offered a part to David Lynch, references Lovecraft and John Carpenter all the time, and was not afraid to make things freaky. I’ll never forget the Summerween Trickster or Bill Cipher’s horrible laugh. Seriously, how did those things get into a kid’s show? Didn’t it traumatize people? Yes, it probably did – but I forget that I had my own traumatic content as a kid, too. And I loved it.

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Kids are far more resilient than we tend to believe. My generation grew up with safe  bubblegum shows too, but we also had Tim Burton, Scooby Doo, Snow White, Harry Potter and much more – all brands targeted at children, but featuring some seriously messed up shit. And I’m pretty sure we turned out fine. Being frightened in this controlled way taught us about darkness, and also taught us how to overcome it. Sure, we were still protected by a TV screen, but we understood what fear meant. That’s vital.

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Gravity Falls finds its boldness in its willingness to frighten, to thrill, and to break hearts. The monsters in this show are not easily defeated – the lead villain manipulates people’s minds and reveals their darkest desires, for God’s sake. Even I, a horror film maniac, got chills from some of these episodes. Carpenter’s The Thing makes an appearance, ghosts turn people into trees, and a dimension of nightmares opens to wreak havoc on a town that we’ve come to love.

And through this, Hirsch builds a story about growing up, familial bonds, and the prevailing strength of friendship. He couldn’t tug at our heartstrings so painfully without raising the stakes. So, against the normal child-safe mold, the Falls finale becomes a life-or-death fight for humanity. The plot structure is brilliant and the unfolding is shockingly terrifying. Without giving away the denouement, though, I’ll say this – Hirsch does not play it safe. He ends his show with tenderness, but also tough truth. And through that realism, the viewers feel what it means to grow, to change, and to celebrate those things. It’s not hackneyed or cheap – Hirsch earns these themes.MABEL, DIPPER

I could ramble on for several posts, but I’ll leave this one here. I hope that the success of Gravity Falls allows children’s media to explore the dark, the serious, and the scary – because it is important to encounter those emotions. Let this usher in an era of smarter and deeper content. Kudos to you, Alex Hirsch, for giving us this amazing series.

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OVER THE GARDEN WALL: A Modern Classic

Posted in Halloween, Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 27, 2015 by smuckyproductions

Animation has been at the forefront of the avant-garde television movement, with countless shows – “Adventure Time” and “Rick and Morty,” to name just two – combining vividly unique styles with subversively brilliant storylines. It’s a genre-bending, form-defying renaissance. And from this revolution has come a great Halloween gift: OVER THE GARDEN WALL.

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When reading a logline or seeing the poster for the first time, this Cartoon Network-produced miniseries sounds fairly typical: two brothers get lost in a spooky wood and must find their way home. In execution, the show transcends this premise and fills it with subtle, sublime brilliance. The brothers encounter characters who reveal dark but poignant themes about isolation and loneliness, and also travel on their own philosophical journey, struggling with a purgatorial loss of hope and purpose.

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Through the music, the character design and the general atmosphere, the show places itself in an amorphous early-1900s period that is purely enchanting. The supporting characters range from animals dressed in old-fashioned clothes, grotesque witches, and skeleton-dressed pumpkins. And the forest through which the brothers must find their way is stunningly designed. The animation is luminous, with soft oranges and browns that evoke autumn perfectly. It evokes something akin to “Wind in the Willows,” with a gentle aura that can sometimes turn sinister.

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But these are just style elements. The true genius lies in the characters and stories. Throughout the ten episodes, the brothers encounter about as many different characters – my particular favorites were Auntie Whispers (voiced by Tim Curry) and the pumpkin people – who each evoke something of the lost purpose that the brothers feel themselves. And the villain, a terrifyingly simple creation called The Beast, stands as a testament that the greatest evil is often the most invisible and enticing. I won’t reveal the theme that this creature represents, but suffice to say, it culminates in a heartbreakingly beautiful finale.

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“Over the Garden Wall” also holds itself as one of the greatest examples of animated horror that I’ve seen. The Beast being the greatest example, but supported by a number of other ghouls and wicked creatures, this show displays an unsettling ability to scare the viewer – all without breaching its target audience of young viewers. For this reason, and because of the atmosphere, it’s ultimate Halloween viewing – standing alongside “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” I dare say. Horror does not have to be hardcore to unsettle; in fact, subtle can sometimes be scarier.

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With terror, philosophy, and beauty combined, “Over the Garden Wall” feels like a classic birthed in our modern era – not only for its craft, but for its sincerity. No note of this show comes off as false or pandering. The creators truly believe what they’re making, and each frame is instilled with that passion. It feels honest and raw, which causes it to touch the viewer so much more intimately. The humor, the fear, and the sadness all come from a real, truthful place. It’s cathartic, in the end – and who ever thought a children’s show could be cathartic? That’s why it transcends its boundaries and creates something universally brilliant. And, it so happens, one of the best Halloween watches of all time.

Forbidden Tomes (Halloween Edition): UNCLE MONTAGUE’S TALES OF TERROR

Posted in Forbidden Tomes, Halloween with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 8, 2015 by smuckyproductions

Children’s genre literature is often dismissed, and for good reason – most publishers don’t seem to recognise that kids can handle scary stuff. But, there are some serious exceptions to this rule. Some children’s horror is even scarier than what they give adults. My favorite example of this is Chris Priestley’s UNCLE MONTAGUE’S TALES OF TERROR.

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The book is structured terrifically – a young boy listens to his spooky old uncle telling ghost stories, each of which increase in macabre nature. But as the house fills with noises and the uncle becomes distressed, the boy begins to wonder, what is Uncle Montague hiding?

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From the very start, Priestley’s word is full of the Gothic and the uncanny – a mist-shrouded path of gnarled trees, a dark house full of whispers, and a collection of tales all focused on children who meet horrific fates for their transgressions. He knows his horror, as evidenced simply by the uncle’s name, a reference to ghost story master M.R. James. It’s a deeply atmospheric book, liminal and chilly with a hefty dose of melancholy on top. This makes the overarching story just as compelling as the vignettes in between.

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Speaking of which, I was shocked the first time I read it by how dark they were willing to go. All of them center on child protagonists, who – usually because of mischief or disobedience – encounter the supernatural and suffer the consequences. From a demon bench-end that spouts murderous thoughts into the owner’s head, to an old woman who turns trespassers to trees, even a child-luring demon-cat, the tales are full of horrific protagonists. There is something gleefully classic about the stories, each set in the Victorian era and featuring a wicked twist. It’s a skilful throwback to the old masters like James and Poe. The illustrations, resembling the best of Edward Gorey, only make this homage more wonderful.

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As a young person’s introduction to horror, or just a seasoned fan’s autumn read, “Uncle Montague’s Tales of Terror” impress and chill. It’s utterly perfect for reading aloud by the fire, to keep the shadows away.