Sheepish Lions and Scary Movies, by 6-Year-Old Me
I had the idea to write about this a few weeks ago, but it was a visit with a 2 ½-year-old this weekend that enticed me to finally explore my memories.
Saturday afternoon I was catching up with a girlfriend – a former co-worker who is a fierce, wonderful mother to two unbelievably cute kids – when Little Miss decided to skip naptime and join us. In an effort to buy a few more adult minutes to talk about stuff like work decisions and finances, Mom helped her pick out a Disney movie to watch upstairs.
They flicked through the plastic sleeves, Little Miss contemplating each page’s contents and why they just didn’t suit her taste today.
“Not that one,” she says urgently. “She’s scary.”
“Oh, you mean Ursula? Yes, she’s not very nice.”
“No. I don’t want to watch her.”
A few minutes later Little Miss wants to show me her entire DVD collection, her little hand pausing on the sleeve holding The Little Mermaid to explain that Ursula is scary because she gets big, really big. Of all of the movies in her binder, this specific villain, this specific scene of destruction in a purple, roiling ocean, sticks in her little mind as something to be afraid of. So much so, she avoids the movie altogether.
Earlier this week, as I listened to talk radio to curb the empty-room syndrome I’ve been suffering from since leaving work, I heard a news story that was introduced by a silly cartoon song. I recognized it as from my childhood, but couldn’t place it immediately. What I did place was a tinge of dread, of knowing that I should be afraid of something, but I couldn’t remember what. So I googled it.
Lambert, The Sheepish Lion is a 1952 Disney short film about a baby lamb meant for delivery to South Africa by stork, but mistakenly dropped in a land where sheep graze over vivid green rolling hills set amongst mountain peaks – New Zealand maybe, or Argentina? Taken in by a mother sheep with no baby lamb of her own, Lambert is raised to believe he is in fact, a sheep. Eventually the little cub grows into a full-grown lion with gentle mannerisms, still clumsily attempting normal sheep behaviors to the amusement of his teenage peers. It’s all silly and fun for the first 5 minutes and 51 seconds…until Lambert hears the screams of a black, mangy wolf, his appearance accompanied by ominous, violent musical notes and creepy, slinking shadows.
When the hungry wolf eventually corners Lambert’s mother on a cliff’s edge – his teeth dripping with silvery anticipatory saliva – it is terrifying. This is the emotion my brain chose to take a snap-shot of, so that one day 25 years later I would associate echoes of fear with bouncing lyrics about a wild and wooly lion. The fear of losing a parent, of a violent end to a gentle creature who was completely helpless to prevent its death – that’s what triggered my selective memory-making senses.
Other movies do this to me as well, some to the point where I know I probably shouldn’t watch them – they come with forgotten emotional baggage:
The Secret of NIMH, 1982: Apparently the thought of a mother mouse protecting her babies from being ripped to bits by a farmer’s disc (and I am the daughter of farmers – you’d think my sympathies would be with the farmer) was too much for me to handle. Some of the characters were scary to look at, even if they were actually good guys (Nicodemus’s creepy glowing eyeballs, for example), and the lab experiment plot line was too difficult for me to totally understand (needles, even at that age, are associated with pain and powerlessness). And having just re-watched the final climax scene again on YouTube, I’m not surprised I associate this movie with a freaky otherworldly evil dread. Watching an anguished mother futilely try to save her children from suffocating inside a cinder block house being swallowed by a brown, bubbling mud pit, then witnessing Mom become overtaken by a amulet full of crazy lightshow magical powers so she can raise the cinder block house out of what appears to be either scalding hot lava or bloody mud? This is too trippy for a 5-year-old to forget.
All Dogs Go to Heaven, 1989: Not only did we watch Charlie die once – by brutally being crushed by a car early in the movie – we had to watch him die twice, the second time as he drowned while trying to rescue the pocket watch that, while ticking, kept him alive. Charlie was given the watch after deciding to leave heaven the first time around to seek revenge on his murderer, on the condition that he would not be allowed back into heaven once the watch stopped ticking. In the final scene of the movie, Charlie chooses to save his friend, a little orphan girl, rather than save his watch. Released the same day as The Little Mermaid, as a 6-year-old I somehow recognized the weight of a sacrificial death as different from the deaths of the other characters in both movies. Though I didn’t know why I felt so scared then, I know now that I also understood the inherent horror of hearing the ticks signifying the disappearance of your life, of death approaching. Not to mention the underground settings for most of the final movie scenes were dark and creepy, the total vulnerability of the orphan girl, Anne-Marie, was too real for me, and the giant alligator was just weird.
The Land Before Time, 1989: This is actually a movie I would watch again with my children, although I’ll be prepared with comforting words to say about loss (same thing with Bambi). Unlike the movies above, the protagonist is a small child of the dinosaur kind, and his resilience after the death of his mother really is beautiful. As terrifying as it was to watch the actual death scene, and as much as it defined the plot of the movie, the majority of the film is spent watching Littlefoot and his friends journey towards the paradise of Great Valley. And when they finally reach it and are united with people who love them, somehow the death of Littlefoot’s mother is redeemed by hope. Bad things happen, but if you keep going, you’ll find happy things again. And you will be safe.
What I realize most when I look back at these movies is that children are capable of feeling incredibly intense emotions at very small ages. How are we developed enough at that stage to feel them? We are not taught those things – I don’t think my parents sat me down to explain the difference between sacrifice and obligation in relationships – but somehow we all carry memories of very strong emotions from our childhood. From simple moments, like feeling rage at a sibling stealing our toy, to complicated, confusing experiences, like feeling very sad after watching a movie or while reading a book. Are we actually born with the ability to feel rich, complex emotions, even if we lack the understanding in our early years to know what they mean? And if not, how and when does our ability to feel grow and change?
Enough about me – what movies, books, or TV shows from your early childhood carry emotions for you?