“To Die Will Be An Awfully Big Adventure”: Mourning and Children’s Cinema

Driven from the house by mid-summer boredom and a rattling air conditioner, my children and I went to the movies, seeing Inside Out, Shaun the Sheep, and Minions (twice!). Although I teach a course on childhood in cinema and ought to have been taking notes, instead I found myself watching my kids, wondering what they would take away from these popcorn-fueled afternoons. Would they grasp Pixar’s primer on emotions, understand the complexity of Claymation, or (most likely) exuberantly shout the word “banana” over and over until I wished we’d just stayed home? I am certain they must have noticed the prominence of parental figures: masters, farmers, or just plain mom and dad were central to these otherwise very different stories. The “children” in these movies, like real children, needed to feel wanted and test the limits of their world. In the process, they saved their “parents,” affirmed their place in the social order, and found their way home.

Has children’s cinema always been this tidy? In 1931, Walter Benjamin recognized animation’s radical potential: “In Mickey Mouse cartoons…we see for the first time that it is possible to have one’s own arm, even one’s own body, stolen.” Of course, Mickey Mouse had no parents, nor were Mickey Mouse cartoons intended only for kids. Yet the possibility of being “stolen” remains a central characteristic of films for children. Indeed, the cinematic image with the strongest hold on my memory is of a theft. It is from the denouement of Annie, when our heroic little redheaded orphan climbs up the railroad drawbridge to escape the greedy imposters claiming to be her parents. She looks into the camera, the sweat of terror on her face, as her black patent leather shoes click, click, click their way up the tracks and into the sky. As a child I reenacted this moment hundreds of times, always imagining Daddy Warbucks waiting anxiously in his car for my rescue. After my parents divorced and I saw less and less of my father, the scene took on new significance. I wanted what Annie had—not the fireworks or the mansion on Fifth Avenue—I wanted to be stolen so that I, too, could be saved.

My father died last month. At the time of his death I hadn’t spoken to him for 15 years. There were good reasons for this, but those reasons haven’t made the scene from Annie any less important. Reasons haven’t stopped me from seeking the cinema’s “good” fathers, from watching Atticus Finch patiently read to Scout or George Bailey glow as he pulls Zuzu’s petals from his pocket. Because I saw these movies as a child, they’re both memories and fantasies; I can remember seeing these scenes for the first time, but I remember only because they were so distant from my real life. Yet watching these movies again brings up very real feelings. Film theorist André Bazin claims the cinema gives us moments more emotional than reality because they can be rewatched. Cinematic repetition responds to the permanence of death: “a photograph does not have the power of film; it can only represent someone dying or a corpse, not the elusive passage from one state to another.” I want to feel something about my father’s death but I don’t want to look at pictures of him, and I don’t need to, because I have Annie on DVD.

*****

pan 1The fantasy of the childhood film is that the cinema can replace our more disquieting memories. We imagine the film will be the same today, tomorrow, and forever, unlike the people we love, or those who should love us, and it’s often alarming to find that the films we cherish from childhood have changed. Annie may still make me cry, but it also tests my ideological tolerance. Childhood films make manifest the flaws in both our memories and our bodies, for they demand comparison to the children we once were, the dreams we once held, and the people we have become. Often created to convey lessons to be remembered, what childhood films really capture is how easy it is to forget.

No children’s story knows this better than Peter Pan. The ageless child, Barrie’s Pan is constantly forgetting—his promises, his enemies’ deaths, his own mother’s love. Pan embodies the joy and cruelty of childhood. Yet the cruelty of forgetting has been forgotten in adaptation. Disney’s 1953 animated version ends with Peter returning Wendy, John, and Michael to their loving parents, restoring the nuclear family and flying off into the night. In the novel, however, Peter makes a deal with Wendy, promising to come back each spring to steal her away to Never Land for a brief time. Predictably, he fails to appear: “Next year he did not come for her. She waited in a new frock because the old one simply would not meet; but he never came.” To grow old is to remember, to stay young we must forget.

I’m not sure if forgetting will play a role in the new Pan, which opens this Friday, but the film has certainly forgotten its history. Rather than escape from home to remain free of adult concerns, in this film Peter is abandoned by his loving mother, kidnapped from an orphanage, and spirited off to Never Land. I don’t know if I will take my children to see this new iteration of the story, not because I fear them being traumatized by the image of an absent mother or a vicious pirate, but because if Annie taught me anything, it’s that children are better off not remembering their parents than forever searching for them.
annieIf the children’s film can’t promise happiness, at least it offers solace in forgetting. Shirley Temple can lose her parents in one scene and perform a tap dance in the next. Mickey Mouse carries no memory of previous affairs from one cartoon to another. Even Annie is happily consoled with a locket and fancy party. Why couldn’t I have been the same?

When I was four years old my father recorded the storybook from the movie Annie on an old reel-to-reel tape recorder. It’s as if he knew he wouldn’t stick around much longer to read it to me in person. I remember him reading into the microphone while I hung upside down from the back of our green plaid sofa, wondering if he’d let me sing “Tomorrow” on the tape. But I can’t remember if I sang or not. In fact, I can’t remember ever having listened to the tape. All I remember is waiting. And now that I can’t wait anymore, I’m not sure what to do.

Mourning has rules, few of which apply to the long-estranged father. The cinema could enable mourning: because its images are always in the past, they might lend themselves to catharsis, helping us let go. The children’s film, however, gives us the illusion that we can preserve the past and whispers the possibility of a future. My father’s death means the Annie I own is different now; what I really have are moving images, canned sounds, and a little girl singing of a tomorrow that will never come. Will my children one day feel similarly betrayed by the movies I took them to see? Will they have become so absorbed by these endless quests for parental love that they wish I were a better mother, one who would never steal an afternoon of peace and quiet at matinee prices? Instead of learning from children’s cinema, I hope they steal from it, forgetting its lessons and taking the bits and pieces of nonsense and pleasure into their imaginative lives. I hope they believe feelings have colors, imagine sheep make crazy faces, and imitate the minions’ joyful gibberish. Most of all, I hope my children won’t need the cinema to make up for what they’ve lost.

–Jennifer Fleeger is assistant professor of Media and Communication Studies at Ursinus College