My daughter is three and unlike many girls her age who often visit our house she has very different taste in films. Her favourite film is Coraline and anything that’s remotely dark or fantasy based is high on her lets-watch-this-repeatedly-Daddy list. Although she has watched the usual staple of films from Pixar and Disney they don’t tend to hold her attention. Even Frozen, which seems to entertain all her friends until their eyes bleed, does little to keep her attention. In contrast, anything that’s non-CGI such as Coraline is incredible.
Yesterday morning while looking for a film for her to watch (it’s our routine that we get up at 6:00am and watch something together) that I found Labyrinth on Netflix. Without question it’s one of my favourite childhood films and alongside Willow and Legion offers something modern films don’t. Within the first fifteen minutes of Labyrinth starting we’ve already seen Goblins, the Goblin King, Hoggle and the incredible Labyrinth that stretches out before Sarah. It’s beautiful to look at and unlike CGI heavy films, is tactile and to a child, believable. Seeing real Goblins running around and interacting with the human characters is brilliant to watch and to my daughter one of the best things she has ever seen. She’s convinced Goblins are now real, that the Goblin King is in charge and that Sarah hasn’t yet reached is castle because “the maze is tricky to get through.”
What I love so much about Labyrinth is the puppet work on display and the fact each creature and character has a huge personality. From the Worm with boggled eyes, a cute voice and a red scarf to Ludo and his sheer size, there’s brilliant fantasy here. Sarah’s being blocked by a series of obstacles with the need for her to make choices and friends along the way is gentle and accessible storytelling. Even for a three year old my daughter knows that the Goblin King isn’t a nice man, that her friends are there to help her and that Sarah is trying to find her brother. The fact Sarah can physically interact with these puppets makes it all so much more believable. Too often films are now filled with vacant actors attempting to interact with a tennis ball on a stick.
I tried to get my daughter to watch a few films that I rate highly and ones which although are probably too “old” for her, are films I used to watch as a child: Never Ending Story, Dark Crystal, The Witches, Wizard of Oz. All of these use puppetry and all of them are far out in front in holding her attention. She might sing along to Frozen but she isn’t mesmerized and nor is she interested for long. I’ve asked her why and she simply thinks that what she sees on screen with films involving puppetry is real life while animated features are computer graphics.
I really miss this method of filmmaking. There’s an ethereal quality to all those I’ve listed and I hold all the films in very high regard. As part of my childhood they fueled my love of fantasy fiction, video games and cinema. Seeing such warped creatures as those in Labyrinth or Legion just doesn’t happen any more outside the confines of Studio Ghibli or Guillermo Del Toro. Even the Ghibli set of films hasn’t managed to entertain my daughter as she lumps them in with CGI alternatives.
A few friends that I’ve spoken to in general chit chat about what children watch are surprised that I let my daughter view such films. They think they're too dark, far too frightening and "weird". I really couldn't disagree more. I'm not suggesting the subject matter in some of these films isn't 'dark' but much of these subtleties go over my daughters head. Coraline having her eyes replaced by buttons or a Unicorn having its horn lopped off isn't what you'd normally expose a child to. On the flip side, none of these scenes are gratuitous, or unsightly I’m also always with my daughter when she watches them to answer any questions. My favourite so far being “Why does he have crazy hair?”. I think it's important for children to see such fantasy so as to stretch their imagination. These films might be a farcry away from the sickly sweet of Toy Story or The Little Mermaid but I find them far more rewarding to watch. Where else could you see David Bowie in a codpiece, singing Dance Magic Dance surrounded by Goblins?