Ben Brantley writes about the increasingly sinister nature of children’s entertainments in Sunday's New York Times, beginning his investigation in a darkened theatre awaiting the appearance of the hideous, hellacious Childcatcher (later than he would like as it turns out – as he endures much sighing and seatkicking from the impatient and put-upon juvenile delinquent seated behind him) in the Broadway stage version of the 1968 Dick Van Dyke movie vehicle(!) Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
I remember Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. I was young enough to be in its target audience when it first appeared on the silver screen (and I’m old enough to remember when the screen was referred to as silver) and can even give a few verses and some of the chorus of songs I haven’t thought about in decades. (“Troooooly Scrumptious… you’re truly, truly scrumptious…” “Toot sweets, toot sweets…” “Oh! You! pretty Chitty Bang Bang…”)
At first I imagined it a strange choice for a stage show – after all how were they going to incorporate the myriad scenes and crazy contraptions? From the sweet factory, to the vile nation of Vulgaria and the underground caves where illegal children hide from the hateful Childcatcher, not to mention the flying car it(her)self.
But then I remembered the boating and chandeliering Phantom of the Opera and that other Lloyd Webber show that was performed entirely on roller skates, and I figure a few scene changes, a Rube Goldberg machine or two and a whimsical floating automobile probably wasn’t beyond the abilities of a modern stage designer.
No, the harder thing would be to recapture the silly goodwill and goofy suspension of reality, balanced against the way down deep, almost viscerally-felt fear of a story that could imagine the demonic Childcatcher character.
Think back. He was absolutely terrifying.
That’s the thing about childhood remembered; until you really give it some thought, you’d likely remember Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – if at all – as harmless musical froth, until you gave it another moment to recall the huddled masses of starving children hidden away in dark, dank caves and the Nazi-like nature of Vulgaria’s politics, and the fear that grabbed your throat and sent a sizzle of pure adrenaline to your tingling limbs as you imagined yourself captured and caged and swept from your parents care, like the adorable Jeremy and Jemima, screaming in helpless horror as Truly Scrumptious ran pointlessly, hopelessly after you – impossible to catch up to the flying hooves of the cage-dragging horses as they galloped you away to a fate worse than death.
Or maybe that’s just me and my old-fashioned imagination.
The other element that lifted such stories above the simple-minded scary fray was the sense of humour, subtly embedded in the clever writing of a Roald Dahl, or in the case of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the surprise of the famed-for-007 Ian Fleming. And the casting! Benny Hill, Lionel Jeffries – even Phil Collins (more famous now for his music) as one of the ‘illegal’ children.
For Brantley to suggest entertainments are taking a newly scary turn they’ve never taken before suggests to me he hasn’t had that much to do with children’s entertainment up until now. And I don’t mean tarted-up versions of Grimm’s Fairy tales; there’s plenty in virtually every Disney movie from Bambi, to The Sound of Music, to Mary Poppins to make a child’s blood run cold between the rousing musical overture and swelling orchestral arrangements over closing credits. And as for the Dahl series, from film to books (Willie Wonka, Matilda, The Witches) never was fear and laughter more deliciously dovetailed.
Murdered mothers, bloodthirsty Nazi’s, wicked, mean-spirited, child-hating step-parents, even the benign neglect by their parents of Mary Poppins’s charges borders on danger as the children are allowed to enter fantasy worlds where chimney sweeps carry them across rooftops and tall buildings, endangering life and limb as their oblivious parents prioritize their own personal pleasures and pursuits.
(Disappointing early shot across the bows of feminism though, as implied by depicting Jane and Michael Banks’ mother as a thoughtless abandoner of children as she hies off to risk imprisonment lobbying for votes for women… silly selfish female!)
But this is old material well gone over, well before me. At least these older entertainments had first class stories and magical song and dance numbers and the fantasies were the over-the-top, yet quaintly old-fashioned sort – so different from today’s irony-free Spy Kids and Ninja Turtles and comic book superheroes and the like, delivered to the screen with nary a wink nor an insider’s nudge.
Because the villains were villainous in ways that truly gave you nightmares. Plain old bad guys can’t match up to the depraved and diabolical Childcatcher, or Oliver’s dark and murderous Bill Sykes, or even Snow White’s evil cartoon Queen.
But we do have our areas of thrill, chill, spill and horror – check out our amusement parks. Anybody seen the latest commercials for Canada’s Wonderland? There’s a new interactive ride that sends you through an urban assault! Wheee! With a cute disclaimer crawling across the bottom of the screen advising viewers that they’re not REAL bullets – that would be silly! (Silly?) That’s an amusement? Dodging a hail of bullets? Eek. Pop me in a Teacup – stat!
These days I like I like my horrors as re-issued classics on DVD, or better – on the printed page. A hair-standing-up-on-the-back-of-the-neck fairy tale, or even a really grisly poem perhaps.
But with a sense of humour please!
Like F. Gwynne Evans ‘Little Thomas’ (“… a little glutton who took four times beef or mutton, then undid a lower button and consumed plum duff…”) a boy who ate so much he finally, well – read on…
“His old nurse cried much disgusted, ‘There, just when I’ve swept and dusted, Drat the boy! He’s gone and busted, making such a mess’; while the painful task of peeling Thomas off the walls and ceiling gave his family a feeling of sincere distress.
“When a boy who so obese is, scatters into tiny pieces, and the cause of his decease is having over-dined, it is hard to send a version of the facts of his dispersion to the papers for insertion, that will be refined.
“Any sorrowing relation asked for an elucidation of the awful detonation was obliged to say; ‘Germans have not been to bomb us: it was only little Thomas, who alas, departed from us in that noisy way.’”
Who needs bullets? Horror, blood, explosions and guts. It’s all there – it’s always been there. I think children need more darkness – and more dark humour; it improves them, seasons them, makes them more... delicious...
Brace yourself Ben; it’s scarier – and funnier – than you think.