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The Hero’s Journey: The Benefits of Children’s Films

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Fairy tales have been used to advise and guide children for generations. On a deeper level, so have urban legends. Fairy stories frame their cautionary tales by grounding them in fanciful situations. The lessons they teach children are hidden behind the guise of magic, fairy godmothers, and spinning wheels. Any child born in the twentieth century and beyond will be exposed to fairy tales as told by the Walt Disney Company: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, and Cinderella, to name a few. Not many adults choose to look past the musical numbers by examining the metaphors implied by the Disney adaptations.

Kuykendall and Strum remind us that while

“The European canon (Grimm or Perrault) are thought of as ‘original’ fairy tales, there is no genuine or authentic version of a fairy tale. In fact, tales are constantly being reworked and adapted to reveal new facets of a culture or the creativity of an author or storyteller” (39).

For example, the original Sleeping Beauty myth (written and passed down in French as La Belle au Bois dormant, and in German as Dornröschen) is far more thought-provoking than the Disney version. At the heart of every children’s film, there are morals and traits that we wish our children to have so that they can become strong adults. These traits include friendship, courage, and reaching for the stars. These can be found in three children’s films, 1985’s “The Goonies,” 1986’s “Labyrinth,” and 2009’s “The Princess and the Frog.” The trials and tribulations suffered by the lead characters show that even if you’re going through hell, keep going, to quote Winston Churchill. 

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Most children’s movies explain very clearly who the heroes and villains are from the beginning. For example, “The Goonies” are a close-knit group of local children who will be losing their neighborhood (the so-called “Goon Docks”) to corporate development. Their parents cannot afford the exorbitant amount needed to keep the demolition of their homes from occurring. The character Mikey Walsh finds a Spanish treasure map supposedly belonging to local urban legend One-Eyed Willie, a pirate. Ridvan Senturk tells us that

“The subject the viewers are expected to associate themselves with lies in that they first leave their accustomed problematic medium; in that, they set off for a journey during which they will undergo tests to realize their heroism and defeat the vile anti-hero they will encounter; and then in that they return to their earlier environment, usually as a hero” (1130).

This is particularly true for the Goonies. 

Mikey urges his friends on a journey to find the “rich stuff” using One-Eyed Willie’s map. They eventually cross pass with the primary antagonists of the film which comes to us in the form of the Fratellis, an infamous family of felons. Chunk, one of the Goonies, is accidentally captured by The Fratellis. Chunk tells the felons about his friends’ intentions under duress. Despite the head start and overcoming booby traps of all kinds, the Fratellis catch up with the Goonies. The children are forced to relinquish the rich stuff they had just found. While escaping the Fratellis for the last time, they release One-Eyed Willie’s ship back to the open seas. However, they managed to save enough of the rich stuff to save their homes.

Jennifer Connelly’s character in “Labyrinth,” Sarah Williams, is walking the precarious line between adolescence and adulthood.  Her childhood is wrapped up in the words of the play Labyrinth. With the presentation of Sarah’s playacting, Miller says that

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“It is not only entertaining but healthy to indulge in a little escapism every now and then” (28).

She is scolded about arriving home an hour late to babysit her baby brother Toby. She asks Jareth the Goblin King to take the screaming child away. What Sarah does not realize is that there is power in words. Jareth listens to her plea and spirits the baby away. She has thirteen hours to conquer his labyrinth, or Toby will remain in Jareth’s world forever as a goblin. She spends the film on her own hero’s journey, much like the Goonies. She must conquer every fear imaginable within the labyrinth. 

By pursuing the unknown in the Labyrinth, she is able to face her fears about maturing into a young woman. Jareth throws as many obstacles as he can towards her to stop her from achieving her goals. Each obstacle tests her will and pushes her to try and succeed. He ultimately decides to seduce her into staying in his world forever, as the countdown nears. Relying on the lines from the play, she conquers Jareth – and the play – with the words,

“You have no power over me.”

After she and Toby return to the “real world,” all of the friends she made in Jareth’s world come to visit her. This way she is aware that she can lean on them for moral support when she needs to.

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Tiana, voiced by Anika Noni Rose in “The Princess and the Frog,” was taught at a young age that hard work and determination will help you succeed in life. Her dream growing up was to own her own restaurant in her hometown of New Orleans. This goal put her in the path of the visiting Prince Naveen. He is there to find a rich wife to fund his future endeavors, having been disowned by his parents who thought he should hurry up and settle down.

Tiana and her best friend Charlotte were raised on fairy tales like most children. Tiana is not interested in dating or dancing like her other friends. Lester writes that her

“Eloquence and wisdom beyond her years is evidenced in her retort to the flirting suitor Naveen that she does not want to be treated like a princess but rather that she wants to be treated with respect and dignity” (302).

Naveen is made into a frog by his valet Lawrence and the Shadow Man. The prince reassures Tiana that he will become human if she kisses him, just like in her fairy tale. It backfires when Tiana also becomes a frog. 

They begin their hero’s journey together by escaping to the bayou. They meet a firefly named Ray and an alligator named Lou during their travels who both promise to assist them in becoming human again.  Naveen and Tiana make the best of their situation, falling in love as they do so. Ray and Lou take them to meet Mama Odie, who tells them that Naveen must kiss a princess to become human again. Naveen and Tiana believe that Charlotte is that princess. The four of them rush back to New Orleans.

After conquering Lawrence and the Shadow Man, Charlotte agrees to marry Naveen to help Tiana out. However, after kissing Naveen, the two remain in their frog form. Naveen and Tiana seem resigned to their fate, but decide to get married. After kissing at their wedding, they become human, as Tiana became a princess upon marrying Naveen. With her husband by her side, Tiana is able to fulfill her dreams by opening her restaurant. 

As we see with these three films, fairy tales encourage children to always overcome any obstacle that might be thrown their way. Even if you take the magic out of these three stories, there are still metaphorical implications that can be taken to the “real world.” In “Labyrinth,” Sarah must rise above her fears of becoming an adult to rescue her brother. In “The Goonies,” the kids must come together to save their homes from destruction. In “The Princess and the Frog,” Tiana grew up poor but knew that determination and hard work was the only way she would be able to become her own boss. Life is hard, but Walt Disney himself said it best:

“We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.”

These lessons cannot be taught in a cold, unfeeling manner, as we come to expect when we are adults. They should be presented in fairy tale form so that children can be taught to conquer the evil stepmothers in whatever form comes to them.

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Works Cited

Goonies, The. Dir. Richard Donner. Perf. Sean Astin, Josh Brolin, Jeff Cohen. Warner Bros Pictures, 1985. Film. 

Kuykendall, Leslee Farish, and Brian W. Sturn. “We Said Feminist Fairy Tales, Not Fractured Fairy Tales!.” Children & Libraries: The Journal Of The Association For Library Service To Children 5.3 (2007): 38-41. Academic Search Premier. Web. 20 July 2012.

Labyrinth. Dir. Jim Henson. Perf. David Bowie, Jennifer Connelly. The Jim Henson Company, 1986. Film. 

Miller, T. S. “The Two Kings And The Two Labyrinths: Escaping Escapism In Henson’s Labyrinth And Del Toro’s Laberinto.” Extrapolation (University Of Texas At Brownsville) 52.1 (2011): 26-50. Academic Search Premier. Web. 20 July 2012.

The Princess and the Frog. Dir. Ron Clements, John Musker. Perf. Anika Noni Rose, Keith David, Oprah Winfrey. Walt Disney Pictures, 2009. Film. 

Senturk, Ridvan. “Anxiety And Fear In Children’s Films.” Educational Sciences: Theory & Practice 11.3 (2011): 1122-1132. Academic Search Premier. Web. 20 July 2012.

Wanzo, Rebecca. “Black Love Is Not A Fairy Tale: African American Women, Romance, And Rhetoric.” Poroi: An Interdisciplinary Journal Of Rhetorical Analysis & Invention 7.2 (2011): 1-18. Communication & Mass Media Complete. Web. 20 July 2012.

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