Taking trips back to my childhood Movieverse

Harriet Marsden

Harriet Marsden on revisiting the films that she grew up with

12 October 2018 15:25

I still remember my first trip to the cinema. I can’t have been more than three or four, on the way to see a showing of Disney’s Pocahontas (Mike Gabriel and Eric Goldberg, 1995). It was raining heavily that day, and I asked my uncle worriedly whether Pocahontas would still be able to attend. During the opening credits, I marvelled at the birds in the sky over London, wondering why they didn’t fly into the audience. I didn’t understand that what I was seeing was not real.

By its nature, film occupies a space between reality and  imagination that children, better than most adults, can be drawn into. Cinema is multisensory and artistically multi-layered: the conversation, the colours, the movement, the music – visual and audio clues that the most erudite might analyse, infants can pick up too. And so, of all artistic mediums, cinema is best suited to trigger memory: to take you back in time.

If the ‘Movieverse’ is, as DRUGSTORE CULTURE proposes, the expanding space of cinema as it merges with other art-forms on a visual continuum, then re-visiting the films of your childhood navigates a sort of time continuum. Re-watching a film you loved as a child is to watch through two pairs of eyes: those of your current self, and those of the spectre of your past – the memory of how you responded, what you felt and what you understand now.

Now I watch Pocahontas, and I’m considering its relative progressiveness: the pillaging colonialists come to destroy an ancient way of life by plundering for gold that, in the forest, is worth less than corn. I’ve concluded that the soundtrack is a work of genius, but I’m uncomfortable with the ‘noble savage’ tropes. The graphics fail to captivate me as they once did, given the wealth of development since the Nineties. And then there’s the moment you realise the romantic hero is voiced by Mel Gibson.

Yet those birds in the opening shots never fail to remind me of that first cinema trip: wonder, incomprehension and sheer delight. Watching films from your youth is a window into the past – and an astonishingly effective one.

Pocahontas (Mike Gabriel and Eric Goldberg, 1995)

I see pancakes on a griddle, or hear the opening notes to Rusted Root’s ‘Send Me On My Way’, and immediately I see Matilda (Danny DeVito, 1996), feeding herself in the absence of her neglectful parents. I’m six years old, a bookworm cross-legged on the floor watching the film over and over again, scared of being left behind and wishing desperately that I could do magic, too.

Now twenty years later, I’m considering the reality of the childcare burden. I’m loving the banter between Danny DeVito and his real-life wife Rhea Pearlman as the dastardly Wormwoods, and I’m concerned that a toddler can cook better than me. But I still remember the scratchy rug under my legs – and my nausea during the infamous Bruce Bogtrotter cake scene. I also have a newfound sympathy with the comically villainous Miss Trunchbull when she snaps: ‘Why are all these women married?!’

When you discover a new cultural reference or adult joke in a film you thought you knew back to front, it’s like the past reasserting itself; almost a jolt. And, years later, you might experience a deeper emotional impact, giving you a sense of how you might have changed – as well as the world around you.

For example, Babe (Chris Noonan, 1995), a childhood staple for an animal-loving city girl, has just been added to Netflix. Vaguely recalling a gentle farm romp, I was shocked at the scenes of the cruel abattoir, the allusions to domestic abuse, the kind farmer’s metal tools of slaughter and evisceration, and Ferdinand the disillusioned duck screaming: ‘Christmas means carnage!’ Did I forget all that, or did I miss it as a child? After a quick Google, I learned that the success of the 1995 film caused a significant spike in vegetarianism – and James Cromwell, who played Farmer Hoggett, became a champion of ethical meat-free lifestyles.

Matilda (Danny DeVito, 1996)

So many films we take for granted, even dismiss as ‘children’s films’, elicit a far stronger response in adults, leaving you unexpectedly overwrought. The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, 1996) features Quasimodo’s guardian, the pious Judge Frollo, whose genocidal obsession with wiping out and burning the Gypsies, and his contrary sexual fixation on Esmeralda, makes for uncomfortable viewing – particularly considering the charges against Disney of racism, misogyny and anti-Semitism. And the Toy Story (John Lasseter, 1995) franchise, with its themes of jealousy, fear of irrelevance and a bittersweet sense of growing up and putting away your childish things, hits you more as a young adult than it ever did when you were a child.

Another childhood favourite, the 1998 version of The Parent Trap (Nancy Meyers) starring Lindsay Lohan, is all but ruined once you consider the unconscionable cruelty of what the parents really did, how unlikely it is that their daughters would ever forgive them, much less force them back together. As with Mean Girls (Mark Waters, 2004), it’s also difficult not to reflect on the stark and tragic difference between the Lohan of then, the talented young star, and the Lohan of now.

Mean Girls, of course, is the perfect example of how revisiting ‘childhood’ films can foster solidarity and communication among age peers. It still has its own dedicated day: October 3rd. Characters become descriptions – she’s a Regina George. Film titles serve as summaries – it’s like Groundhog Day (Harold Ramis). Memorable quotes become language – ‘Hasta la vista, baby!’. Band Camp was surely ruined for a whole generation of musicians by American Pie (Paul Weitz and Weitz (1999). Re-watching those films you barely remember seeing for the first time acts as a social bonding exercise, and helps you to reflect on cultural developments since that era.

Some childhood films set an artistic precedent that you simply couldn’t appreciate without years of film-watching under your belt. Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993), to my infant eyes, was exactly as it should be. Of course the dinosaurs looked as real as they did – they were real dinosaurs. It was only decades later, disappointed time and time again by poor animatronics and unrealistic CGI animations, that I could finally grasp how technologically ground-breaking that film really was.

Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993)

On the flip side, there are those movies which, thanks to the passage of time, have rather lost their impact – but that help you reflect on progress made. Long before directors were queueing up to feature “badass” women and a diverse cast, there was Mulan (Tony Bancroft and Barry Cook, 1998). But back then, after a childhood of sleeping princesses and orphaned fairy-tale victims, the kung fu, ass-kicking heroine simply took my breath away.

And what of those films that you adored as a child, but that don’t sit with your adult sensibilities? Do they become ‘guilty pleasures’, or simply guilt? I’m thinking of rom-coms, Richard Curtis movies in particular – the toxic relationships, the regressive stereotyping and the happy endings that, on balance, don’t seem quite so happy.

Is Hugh Grant’s Charles in Four Weddings and a Funeral (Mike Newell, 1994) not deeply flawed? Could he have had a functional marriage with Julia Roberts in Notting Hill (Roger Michell, 1999)? Can I now cheer, as I did when I was nine, when Bridget quits her job because her philandering boss, makes her so uncomfortable? (And, more to the point, how is she affording black cabs and a flat in Borough?) Yet, watching them today reminds me of how it felt, as a child, to truly believe that love can conquer all.

Then, there are those films that your adult intellectual capacity for complex plots has completely ruined. Take Bond movies, for example. Now, when I watch one, I frown and struggle to follow the intricate, often ridiculous twists: the geopolitical implications and social commentary. I ask myself: how did I understand this when I was seven?

Of course, I didn’t – and it simply didn’t matter. No child needs a broad knowledge of the breakdown in Communism to follow Pierce Brosnan’s adventures in GoldenEye (Martin Campbell, 1995). Blithely ignorant of the connection between Russia and Havana: you knew who the goodies and baddies were. Episodes IV, V and VI of the Star Wars franchise captivated me throughout my childhood, and I didn’t have a clue what was going on. I couldn’t enjoy the subsequent iterations, for the same reason.

Mulan (Tony Bancroft and Barry Cook, 1998)

One’s tendency, as an adult, is to pick holes and chase implications when watching films: to prepare opinions for a review that nobody’s asked you to write. But there is something to be learned from how you enjoyed them as a child: precisely as they come, allowing yourself to be borne aloft by recognisable tropes and the suspension of your own disbelief.

Then there were those films which prepared children for complex adult plots, which served as a welcoming gateway into great works of literature. Baz Lurhmann’s bravura Romeo + Juliet (1997) gave the kids of my generation a taste of Shakespeare that no school ever managed. That mantle was later taken up by 10 Things I Hate About You (Gil Junger, 1999) an adolescent Taming of the Shrew (William Shakespeare, 1896). I can’t be the only one who only managed Dickens because I’d inhaled A Muppet’s Christmas Carol (Brian Henson, 1992) and Oliver!­ (Carol Reed, 1968).

But alongside the visible gain of maturity and progress there is a vague sense of something lost. You can never feel the way you felt then, with that same sense of childlike wonder. Take Titanic (James Cameron, 1997), a film that loomed large in my childhood – a film so long and brutal that my parents only allowed us half an hour per night before bed. I will never feel suspense that way again – all the more fascinating because, the ending of the great story was revealed in the first half hour. Will I ever find any comedy as funny as Peter Sellers wreaking havoc in The Pink Panther (Blake Edwards, 1963) films? Do I even have it in me, now, to laugh until I puke?

Going back the Movieverse of your past reminds you that those innocent days of childhood, the ones we idealise with the benefit of hindsight, are behind you. But it also helps you reconnect with them.

You find yourself speaking along with lines of dialogue that you didn’t even know you knew, breathlessly anticipating a twist you’ve seen a thousand times, feeling in all its poignancy who you were the first time you saw it. You’re taken back to a time when goodies were good and baddies were bad, pigs talked and dinosaurs roamed the earth – and, just maybe, you believed in magic.