The Formative Power of Childhood Movies
✨ FREDDIE HUTCHINS
My Christmas present to myself this year? A ticket to the Lord of the Rings all-night movie marathon showing at the Prince Charles Cinema. That’s 711 minutes of hobbity dwarf-porn (as my partner puts it) seeing me through from 9pm on 29th December to 9am on the 30th.
What a confession.
Thing is: I love these films. Fiercely. Rapturously. Protectively. And yes: I love the books, too. And yes, I read them first, upon being given for Christmas age 13 the most beautifully illustrated editions of each. A year later, the first of Peter Jackson’s lovingly-crafted film versions was released. So you see, it was all in the timing. I was the right age to fall in love.
Cue Empire magazine subscription, cue all 3 framed movie posters, cue the soundtracks, the DVDs, the Elvish inscriptions painted onto my bedroom wall – my God, it’s all coming out now…
Another fervour-adding factor making these movies so special was that, for me, they were Christmas films. Released on consecutive Decembers between 2001 – 2003, any excitement I may have felt around Christmas was synonymous with a frankly greater excitement concerning the next instalment of Middle-earth magic.
I mention all this because I think anyone would agree that Christmas is a time for movies. We all have films we love, that speak to us of childhood, of family, of time spent together and time spent at home. The movie-makers know this too, reserving some of their biggest-hitters for this, the most wonderful time of the year – this year’s showcasing example being Disney’s #MaryPoppinsReturns.
I wonder what makes a quintessential Christmas movie? New research has shown that A.I. can go some way to predicting a film’s success at the Oscars – a strange conceit, but one that does, on inspection, seem to hold water. Oscar success does not always equate with box office approval, however, and there are few things more divisive than the appeal of certain films – consider the marmite effect of Love Actually or The Holiday. (My view is that there’s a place in the world for the former – ‘Eight is a lot of legs, David’ being one of the most perfectly quotable lines ever. The latter can go straight in the bin.)
It has a lot to do with childhood, of course. I was brought up, like any normal person, on a healthy dose of Disney – the result being that I can quote the majority of, and happily re-watch, anything from The Little Mermaid through to The Emperor’s New Groove (my personal underrated favourite) time and again. My fiancé, on the other hand, was not. This is like agreeing to marry someone and then being told they don’t have a gallbladder. It shouldn’t matter, but in some fundamental way, it’s quietly disconcerting.
Furthermore – everyone has certain movies which shaped or even defined their childhoods, but which are virtually unknown to other (apparently perfectly normal and well-rounded) human beings. I’m not talking about your Sound of Musics or your Bedknobs and Broomsticks.
Instead, try Blackbeard’s Ghost. If you don’t know, it's a seemingly (and upsettingly) little-known Disney film from 1968 starring Peter Ustinov as the shade of the formerly fearsome pirate. It was way too frightening to watch on repeat from age 6 up, but watch it we did. (I think Mum was understandably misled by the Disney endorsement.) This film is incredibly precious to me – it taught me the joy of laughing at oneself, the power of embracing the unknown (instead of fearing it) and that in a grown-up world things go right and wrong. It certainly also went a long way toward instilling in me a lifelong love of the gothic. I will also never forget being on the tube, age 26, and finally understanding, in a flash, what Dean Jones meant by his line ‘I don’t drink’ – a notion that had puzzled me my entire childhood viewing life.
Overboard comes from another formative childhood film category we might all recognise – the movie for adults judged tame enough for children, and therefore watched from childhood onwards. Growing up, I probably watched this film more than any other - and every scene, every line is known to me. It's strange because there are plenty of gags centred on sex and class that would've gone straight over my 8 year old head, and yet I knew, even then, that I was watching a film made just for me. It was so deliciously funny. It had so much heart. I also associate this movie with time spent with my older brother – it was something we shared, and of course I now love that about it. The cherry on the cake is that this is a film I can return to, as an adult actor, and continue to take joy in the frankly sublime performances – with Goldie Hawn deservedly stealing the show in every scene she's in.
Here’s my next point – after typing that last, I’ve just gone to Rotten Tomatoes to check up on the legacy of my beloved Overboard. It has a desultory score of just 44%. Reviews include the words 'shabby,' 'harmless' and - most upsettingly and outrageously of all - 'modest.' But I just can’t see it. I truly believe this film to be a masterpiece. I can’t see how it could be otherwise. I am willing to accept, however, that my opinion could be due more to its incredibly special place in my life than the result of a considered appraisal of its artistic merits. I encounter this all the time with my partner. Beloved films of his such as Annie Hall, Terms of Endearment and Heat leave me cold, cold, cold. They’re lumpy, or silly, or just plain dull. And yet they mean a lot to him. I appreciate that. I just don’t see it myself.
As a side-note, I think perhaps my own parents were a little too progressive in their attitudes towards film-ratings and their younger children. I distinctly remember no attempt being made to shoo me from the living room the night Alien came on the telly. Thus, we proceeded to watch it together. Post-John Hurt chest-bursting apocalypse (I pale as I type) I absented myself from said living room, took myself upstairs, sat in the bath and cried. I have never returned to that particular film, and suspect I never will. I’ve even seen Aliens - but still can't countenance a return to its predecessor.
In the current feverish climate of remakes and reboots (I’d’ve loved to have been in on that Disney board meeting: ‘Hey, what if we just remake every single one of our back catalogue titles in live action, or really expensive CGI?’ Someone’s Christmas bonus was big that year…) it’s interesting to consider whether the newest generations will cherish Rob Marshall’s Mary Poppins Returns, Tim Burton’s Dumbo, Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella et al in the way we dearly cherish their ORIGINAL AND BETTER IN ALL INSTANCES counterparts? Can’t we make something new for them? Can’t we do something different? And - stop press - they even remade Overboard. WHAT WERE THEY THINKING?!
Even as I rage, I know it doesn’t matter really. Because our love for movies is so personal, so ingrained, that it’s not really about taste – it’s about a confluence of events from our pasts shaping the people we became; the people we are in the present. These things are in our DNA, they're visceral. And, as I've mentioned, it's often the most unlikely of films that find their way into the innermost chambers of our hearts. Perhaps that's where Christmas and movies truly share a magical connection - both offer a means of reaching back to the children we once were; the wishes we made, the dreams we held. If we're clever, and if we believe it to be so, these childhood dreams and wishes aren't dead and gone. They're a part of us forever, and kept alive through regular remembrance - and repeated viewing. Not least of all at Christmastime.