Scary Stuff in Kids’ Movies: Why?

Watching the lovely and proper Miss Mary P.

So since Lula turned 3 we’ve been slowly introducing the concept of the feature-length film. It’s been great fun sitting with her through a couple of our own childhood favorites, as well as some newfangled fare. But it’s been troubling, too, since we’ve yet to find a single tot-aimed flick that doesn’t have at least one big scary part. Granted, Lula scares easily (the sound of the vacuum—as well as the blender—rank high on her list of frights), and 3 is, in general, an age when fears are typical. And so, that said… Why the obsession with scary elements? And these are not fairy tales I’m talking about, which have long been targeted for being too bone-chilling for their target audience (how did we ever survive them?).

For starters, there’s Curious George, the 2006, generally-benign version of the classic that Lula adored—except for the part when the Man With the Yellow Hat cruelly calls the pound and watches while George is caged and hauled off, then stuck in the creepy lower level of a ship heading back to Africa. Did it really have to be so harsh?

We didn’t even get halfway through The Jungle Book, when the fierce tiger, Shere Kahn, first slips into the frame; but even before that, she was spooked by the panther’s manner, and the creepy ways of various snakes, chimps and other creatures. Even good ol’ Mary Poppins (her current favorite) isn’t free of frights: The bank scene, when the scary old men steal Michael’s tuppence, is totally creepy, and what follows—Jane and Michael escaping the fracas by running into dark alleyways populated by a shady lady and fierce street dog—is even worse. “This is when they get lost,” Lula says right before the scene, clutching at our pants legs.

But the worst offender so far is actually Winnie the Pooh. I know, it seems crazy; what’s so scary about a silly old bear and his quirky coterie of pals? Plenty! In Winnie the Pooh (2011), the movie’s plot centers around the stuffed creatures getting worked up with fear over an imagined monster, while simultaneously trying to find Eeyore’s lost tail. And in Pooh’s Grand Adventure: The Search for Christopher Robin (1997), the animals spend their time cowering with fear as they journey through Hundred Acre Woods trying to rescue their human friend from yet another imaginary beast. Is Winnie the Pooh supposed to be for 6-year-olds? I mean, everything else about it is so basic, it really seems that 3-year-olds should be the ideal target. If not for the scary beasts, of course.

(For an amusing take on some other frightening kids’ films, by the way, check out this great Babble piece.)

So what’s it all about? I suspect it’s pretty simple: that marketers are afraid of gearing a kids’ film toward only one age group, for worries that it pulls in too limited an audience.  Or perhaps it’s been suggested that introducing frightful tales and imagery is actually good for little ones. My sister-in-law (mom to kids 3 and 5) had a healthy take on it, positing that it was useful for preschoolers to learn how to work through fears, and to understand that just because you are scared doesn’t mean everything won’t work out in the end. And that perspective helps. Still, does anyone out there know of just a single tot film that is completely free and clear of scary parts? Because these mamas want to know.