A savage Winnie the Pooh; a killer Bambi: The rise of anti-nostalgia in cinema - Hindustan Times

A savage Winnie the Pooh; a killer Bambi: The rise of anti-nostalgia in cinema

Jul 28, 2023 04:33 PM IST

Childhood idols ranging from the beloved Pooh and Barney to Bambi and Barbie are being recast. Why this kind of rewrite, and why now? Take a look.

There’s trouble in the dollhouse.

Stills from Greta Gerwig’s Barbie and Rhys Frake-Waterfield's Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey. Also coming soon, Tinker Bell as a recovering addict battling obesity, and a Barney the dinosaur in two minds about his love-all philosophy. PREMIUM
Stills from Greta Gerwig’s Barbie and Rhys Frake-Waterfield's Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey. Also coming soon, Tinker Bell as a recovering addict battling obesity, and a Barney the dinosaur in two minds about his love-all philosophy.

A wave of anti-nostalgia is hitting childhood idols. It started in February, when the large-hearted teddy bear Winnie the Pooh starred as a feral monster, in …Blood and Honey (2023; directed by Rhys Frake-Waterfield).

In July, Barbie leaves Barbie Land in a Greta Gerwig retelling of the doll’s adventures. It’s a film based in part on Mary Pipher’s 1994 book Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, which explores the loss of identity girls face as they approach their teens.

Everything that was once unique about them is planed away, and the focus shifts almost entirely to surface attributes such as appearance and popularity; the result is that each girl is left wondering whether she’s good enough. And those that can confidently say they meet the metric must then worry how long it will be before they fall below it.

From that candy-coloured dystopia to a purple-hued one, there’s a “more realistic” Barney coming soon. Oscar-winning actor Daniel Kaluuya has said that his live-action movie will explore whether the beloved dinosaur’s message “of ‘I love you, you love me’ can stand the test of time”. Interestingly, both Barbie and Barney are being produced in partnership with Mattel Films.

Meanwhile, the British indie-horror movie-maker Frake-Waterfield is by no means done. He is planning a horror universe full of twisted adaptations. In the upcoming Bambi: The Reckoning, the once-beloved Disneyfied deer sets off on a rage-fuelled quest to avenge the death of its mother, who was killed by a hunter in the original tale by Felix Salten.

And in Peter Pan’s Neverland Nightmare, based on the JM Barrie stories, the fairy Tinker Bell is a recovering drug addict struggling with obesity.

No release dates have been announced yet, for these or the Barney film, but there is a possibility of crossovers, Frake-Waterfield has said. “People have been… saying they really want to see Bambi versus Pooh,” he told The Hollywood Reporter earlier this year.

One of the reasons for the sudden onslaught is a technical one: a number of Disney icons, including Pooh, Peter and Bambi, were released from their 95-year copyright protection in 2022 and are now in the public domain.

Why the dark direction? Mattel Films offers an explainer, in a statement by executive vice-president Robbie Brenner: “Working with Daniel Kaluuya will enable us to take a completely new approach to Barney that will surprise audiences and subvert expectations. The project will speak to the nostalgia of the brand in a way that will resonate with adults, while entertaining today’s kids.”

That last bit holds the key: why would today’s young people presumably appreciate these specific takes on these tales? That’s where anti-nostalgia comes in.

“These movies likely represent a reaction against the cultural totems of the Boomer generation; a way of saying: ‘Your nostalgia masks nightmares’,” says film journalist K Narayanan.

“This reckoning comes at a time when people are re-examining the stories that shaped the worldview of a generation that still holds positions of power and makes the laws today,” says New York-based film critic Devika Girish. “There’s a strong desire to acknowledge and correct the mistakes of this generations — the idealisation of certain stereotypes and the problematic depictions of others — because we have started to recognise their impact on society.”

They’re not twists, then, but a reversion, from falsely saccharine-sweet tales to the dark truths they sought to conceal. There is no Teddy Bears’ Picnic; I-love-you-you-love-me is not a viable philosophy; and there should be no such thing as the perfect girl.

If the fairy-tale forest is a place of anything, it is — as in the original folk tales — a place of danger, where hunters may seem friendly but remain armed, and a predator may be lurking in your grandmother’s home.

“So many fairy tales were polished and sanitised,” Girish says. “Today, if storytellers are tapping into core ideas for dark, fantastical themes, it is a reversal of that process.”

And so, in …Blood and Honey, AA Milne’s Winnie the Pooh is abandoned by his friend, a college-bound Christopher Robin. Forgotten and hungry, the veil is ripped off their idealised bond, to reveal the transactional equations beneath it (and beneath so many kinds of love).

Long-dormant instincts kick in, and the bear and piglet revert to the carnivorous survivors that they always, deep down, were. Pooh and Piglet first kill and eat their friend, the gloomy donkey Eeyore, then set out on a spree that ends with 13 dead.

As with so much in art, society and popular culture, we have been here before. As far back as 1726, Jonathan Swift was ripping the veils off a complacent and self-absorbed generation, with tales of fetidness hidden behind perfumed cravats; gluttony among aristocrats; and much, much worse, all disguised as a light-hearted tale of adventure, Gulliver’s Travels, about a young man touring odd new worlds.

Film critic Baradwaj Rangan argues that Barbie, Barney and the rest may not, in fact, be taking things far enough.

“To deconstruct the story of a toy that has been the symbol of female perfection in society is a big task… but for it to truly be anti-nostalgia, we would need to see how Barbie navigates more realistic territories,” he says. “I would like to see a Barbie who binges on burgers, puts on the pounds and deals with real life and real challenges.”

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