July 2, 2014

Not Earth to Echo: Characters who looked and sounded creepy, but proved themselves as trustworthy friends in '80s kid culture

Coming out this week is another one of those nauseatingly cutesy, inoffensive, painless, and unchallenging kids' movies, Earth to Echo (trailer here). By all accounts, the plot is a shameless rip-off of E.T. In one major respect, however, they deliberately took the opposite approach from the original -- in designing the alien creature to look like a cute baby owl who purrs like a guinea pig.

I guess an ugly-ass naked midget with a slow raspy voice would be too much for today's generation of wimpy kids.

Although it may seem like a trivial difference, making the alien so cutesy completely undercuts the intended themes of bridging a trust gap between wary strangers, tolerance of that which we initially fear if it proves itself friendly, and judging others by their character and conduct rather than their outward appearance. The cute little robo-owl looks harmless, and acts harmless -- wow, what a challenging lesson to learn!

Children haven't been exposed to characters like E.T. for so long that it's worth taking a look at how common that type used to be back in the '80s. They all frightened us at first, with their ugly appearance and weird voice, but by asking for our help and then returning the favor, they proved that they were to be trusted as friends, not turned away as enemies.

E.T. from E.T. (1982), the prototype who started the phenomenon.

Lame rip-offs of E.T. are nothing new. But back in 1988, Mac and Me still featured an ugly-looking alien because that was such an important part of the whole "strangers growing to trust each other" thing.

Even when the tone was purely comedic, not dramatic, the alien was still ugly. In the TV show ALF (1986-'90), the alien is a wisecracker who creates and "odd couple" dynamic with the serious and cautious head of the household, Willie, who nevertheless does his best to keep others from finding out about his family's new alien companion. ALF was also made into a popular stuffed animal for kids.

Speaking of hideous-looking, potentially frightening stuffed animal friends, 1986 saw the release of My Pet Monster, which was like the My Buddy doll, only ugly and scary. Its bulbous green schnoz was covered in warts, its eyebrows pointed downward, and its yellowy fangs hung out in plain sight (although it looked more like an overbite than an aggressive display). But it still looked friendly enough to be your partner-in-crime when you were playing make-believe.

In Labyrinth (1986), Ludo the gentle beast has an ugly mug, and Hoggle the cynic looks downright repulsive. After an initial scare, both of them help the protagonist Sarah navigate the dangers of the labyrinth to rescue her kidnapped baby brother from the Goblin King, whose glamorous evil contrasts with the ugly yet kind-hearted pair of helpers.

Just about all of the friends that Atreyu makes along his adventure in The NeverEnding Story (1984) look weird, ugly, or creepy. In fact Morla, the giant old tortoise, looks almost like E.T. in the face. But by far the most disturbing is Falkor the luck dragon, whose likable doggie face does not seem to match with his pedo grooming voice, or the reptilian scales that cover his back. (As a kid I thought those were large blisters -- no joke, it made my skin crawl when I first saw it.) But he helps the kid along his journey, rather than take advantage of him, so our initial revulsion was misplaced.

Then there was that creepy, personal space-invading robotic fish eye lens, voiced by Pee Wee Herman himself, who commanded the spaceship that the young protagonist flew in Flight of the Navigator (1986).

Gizmo from Gremlins (1984) has a soft voice and a generally cutesy look, but his naked wing-like ears look a little off-putting when seen against his overall primate appearance. If they really wanted to take it easy on the kids, they wouldn't have included those freaky-looking ears.

Also in the vein of freaky primates was the sasquatch Harry who befriends a middle-class family  in Harry and the Hendersons (1987 movie, 1991-93 TV show). Something about how close together his eyes are, and how often you see his lower row of teeth, give him a disturbing rather than cutesy primate look.

Then there's the title character of the children's picture book Gorilla (1983), who startles a little girl when he comes to life from her imagination, but then earns her trust as he whisks her away from her depressing latchkey kid existence for a night of adventure around town.

Is he human or not-quite-human? Sloth from The Goonies (1985) scares the hell out of all children when his twisted face and horrible scream are first revealed. Yet this lovable abomination of nature proves himself ever faithful and sacrificing when the shit is about to hit the fan for the adventurous kids who stumble upon him chained up in a dark cellar.

By the early '90s, the alien/monster gave way to more familiar creatures who were still creepy-looking yet benevolent. In Home Alone (1990), there's a sinister-seeming old man who turns out to only be upset from being estranged from his son. He and the pint-sized protagonist Kevin have a heart-to-heart understanding in church, and the old man later clobbers the pair of robbers who have Kevin cornered in his own house.

Finally, in The Sandlot (1993), a band of baseball-playing kids discover that the neighborhood dog with Cujo's reputation is in fact a gentle giant, and that his blind owner is not as creepy as they'd thought either. The avuncular owner simply prefers his privacy.

That's about the last example I came across in looking things over. Since then, any aborted attempts at the character type have made it too cute on first impression, or disarmingly campy (which amounts to the same thing). The Nickelodeon show Aaahh!!! Real Monsters, Quasimodo in Disney's take on The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Pixar's cute-ification of Shrek (who looks grotesque in the original picture book from 1990), Monsters, Inc., How to Train Your Dragon, and so on and so forth.

Helicopter parents devote their entire effort toward insulating their child's body and brain with bubble wrap. No hard falls, no hard lessons. Anything awkward must be smoothed over, anything yucky must be sterilized. If this warps your kid's development and stunts them permanently, don't worry -- at least you won't personally feel uncomfortable having to watch them grope toward maturity.

With such a seismic change in the goals of parents, it can come as no surprise to see the repulsive yet trustworthy character from the '80s replaced by the cutesy and harmless ones over the past 20 years.


  1. The Earth to Echo creature reminded me of a modern version of the Batteries Not Included creatures. That film wasn't really for kids though.

    Another example of your idea is Roald Dahl's BFG book which was big in the UK in the 1980s as well. That had an ugly, disgusting yet friendly giant, as well as yet more ugly and disgusting bad giants. His 1980s books are the ones with the most grotesque characters that author's know for. I wonder if late 1970s births generally had more of an interest in that sort of thing, weird and gross characters and creatures, or if it's just the peak of naive / open / hands off parenting. (Kids these days get uninteresting creatures like Gruffalo, poor kids.)

    Other Jim Henson creations like Fraggle Rock, the Muppets and Seasame Street for small children are stupid by modern standards cute, so it's not like the had different ideas of cute then (of course).

    Even just in fantasy films, compare the dwarves in the Hobbit or Ents in the Lord of the Rings, who could look more gnarly and weird and unsettling than they do (the CGs good enough now). Or the goofy but not very discomforting or disgusting creature Jar Jar Binks.

    (Other examples, Troll dolls in the 1960s for a light version, Boglins toys in the 1980s-early 1990s.).

  2. The alien in Super 8 was supposed to be pretty scary looking, but one issue might be that it's harder to make something viscerally grotesque with CGI.

  3. Shrek wasn't Pixar, it was Dreamworks.

  4. They all look so similar I can't keep em straight.

  5. This might be a bit late, but I just came across it via Noah Smith. Hanna Rosin's "The Overprotected Kid" echoes some of your ideas, with a particular focus on playgrounds and unsupervised play.

    On an unrelated note, this article nominally about the 10th anniversary of Michael Mann's "Collateral" is a sort of history of the spread of digital in "prestige" films of the sort that get cinematography awards. It tracks both ASC and Academy awards over time and how digital went from contributing sections of a whole film to 100%. The linked interview with Dion Beebe is unusual in that he views digital and film as having both strengths and weaknesses on an artistic level, whereas all the interviews I've previously read with people using digital regard it as just starting to approach film's quality and only being used because it's much cheaper.

  6. "The Explorers" came out in 1985. It had some pretty ugly-looking aliens with a really scary, intimidating ship. I remember clearly how bizarre and freaky and unlikeable the aliens seem at first. Later on, the earth-kids find out that the aliens are just alien-kids, and they all get along (though the aliens never stop being vaguely creepy and weird).


    It was essentially another E.T. rip-off. But I loved it when I was a kid because the kids build their own spaceship using science-y sounding ideas plus a bunch of abandoned garbage and car parts. (no magic E.T. flying here... the kids create their own adventure).

  7. These are excellent observations on this subject. ET terrified me as a kid I was 8 or 9 when it came out, I couldn't watch it until I was much older.
    I may be in the minority on this but I think the programming for
    kids is superior today then it was for those of us growing up in the 80's and in prior decades for that matter. It was always like the "kids" shows/movies were actually being written with kiddy themes but making direct appeal to the adults in the room with little concern for the developing mind of the child. The entertainment produced for kids today is much more age appropriate and as a parent I don't have to worry about nightmares and explaining concepts beyond their understanding and maturity level. This may be an overprotecting, helicopter style but I think for many Gen X parents who may now be developing programs for children recall the inappropriate mood, tone, language, visuals etc from their own experiences as a child and are producing more appropriate child oriented material.

  8. It's today's children's programming that is aimed at adults, as gatekeepers for what the kids are allowed to take in. I can't count the number of times I've groaned having to listen to meta-ironic comments during Sponge Bob, zipping right over the kids' heads.

    Today my nephew and I watched an old episode of Transformers (on demand), and there was nothing in the themes, plot, tone, or dialog that was aimed at grown-ups. It was refreshing how kid-only it all was.

    Kids can understand all of this stuff -- not right away, we only understand things gradually. In fact, we understood it when we were growing up. Death, revenge, sacrifice, bravery, love, unrequited love, etc.

    What's changed is that late Boomer and Gen X parents don't want to deal with any of life's awkward "issues" when their kid is in the room. So they screen all of those things out, and rationalize it as "awkward = age-inappropriate." Rather than "awkward = stuff you'll have to deal with, and might as well get started gradually figuring it out now."

    If it was about age-appropriateness, then why do helicopter parents dress their kids as though they were miniature adults? T-shirt, cargo shorts, jeans, chuck taylors, faux hawk hairdo, and so on. Or leggings tucked into mini-Ugg boots for girls. When you look through pictures of small children in the '70s and '80s, they all have distinctly kiddie clothing and hairstyles, not a kiddie version of grown-up styles.

    That is just another aspect of the "banish awkward" goal that helicopter parents have. A child is a qualitatively different creature from an adult, lying on the other side of a dividing line at puberty. They're caterpillars, not butterflies. Acknowledging that and treating them accordingly would remind parents that there's still that transformation looming on the horizon. So, why not just pretend they're mini-adults?

  9. Language learning offers a clearer example. If children are never to be exposed to thing that are unfamiliar, uncomfortable, and require practice that is long, gradual, and continual, then they'd never acquire a language.

    It's no different with life's great universal themes, lessons, and rules of thumb.

    Or physical training and development -- look how many children are too weak to pull themselves up into a tree and climb around. That's because parents don't want to deal with all the awkwardness of their kid growing up -- seeing them struggle, take hard falls, whine that "I can't do it!", having to tell them to keep at it anyway and stop whining, etc.

    The outcome is a person that gets flustered at the tiniest discomfort or awkwardness, immediately and totally gives up and shuts down when they stumble with anything, and move onto something else that will hopefully allow them to succeed 100% right away with no practice.

    Bubble-wrapping the children softens their minds and their bodies. And it's all for the benefit of the parents -- soothing their overblown anxieties -- which makes it even more shameful.

  10. "Today my nephew and I watched an old episode of Transformers (on demand), and there was nothing in the themes, plot, tone, or dialog that was aimed at grown-ups. It was refreshing how kid-only it all was"

    Yet somehow the older kids movies seemed to have much more adultlike themes, like death, betrayal, sexual jealousy, etc.(don't get me wrong, I don't still watch them, but you get the point). Even in the Transformers movie, they killed off the leader of the good guys and half the characters. Guess it was the influence of rising-crime.

    Modern kids movies are not necessarily marketed to adults, but rather, neurotic adults. For instance, in the movie "UP", one of the plots is that the crotchety old man had a barren wife, which they recount through a flashback. Seemed strangely inappropriate in the movie. And the main theme was how the old guy is depressed and reclusive since his wife died, etc. These are serious themes, but not ones that kids might want to examine. Kids are more interested in getting to see all the stuff that is in store for them as they grow up(making friends, falling in love, etc.)

  11. "The outcome is a person that gets flustered at the tiniest discomfort or awkwardness, immediately and totally gives up and shuts down when they stumble with anything, and move onto something else that will hopefully allow them to succeed 100% right away with no practic"

    Well, you know, there isn't a lot of help to be given nowadays. I think a lot of Millenials would practice if someone would just show them the basic steps, or they could learn by observing someone. Just deal with any bureacracy to see how unwilling people have become to do basic courtesies. "Look it up online".

    That applies to learning everything though, like academic work, sports, love. The self-help industry has boomed because of this.

  12. For instance, in the movie "UP", one of the plots is that the crotchety old man had a barren wife, which they recount through a flashback.

    Pixar films tend to be about appropriate child-adult / family relationships of one sort or another - there's pretty much always at least one adult and one kid character with some relationship tension in the successful / memorable ones. It's a family friendly thing I guess.

    They tend to be anti-parental over monitoring and control, but probably more parent-child interdependent than something like the Lion King where the narrative is focused on losing a parent.

    I think you might be right that kids don't respond as well to this, but I don't know for sure.

  13. Harry and the Hendersons was awesome! The scene where the neighbour Irene can't figure out what's wrong with her pool still makes me guffaw

  14. Trusting strange and ugly strangers. Why was this pushed by the media as Cultural Marxism increased. Is it so that Whites in the USA, Canada, Europe and Australia-NZ would warm up to the idea of trusting different looking and different behaving strangers (immigrants) from alien cultures? A kind of message 'we are the same after all, it is wrong to discriminate, trust everything and everybody even if your instincts say otherwise'. White people and modernised non Whites in general like the Japanese have become too trusting of outsiders and are thus taken for a ride by other races who have healthy strong racist tendencies. See how easily Whites are fooled in the bazaars of the middle East, by internet scams, by money making Hindu cults.


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