Ex-Christians have a lot of shorthand ways of talking about how it feels to be deconverted. Often that shorthand involves scenes from movies like The Matrix. But there’s one I’d say gives that classic example a run for the money, and it’s been on my mind lately. Today I want to introduce you to the very odd duck that is the 1974 animated Jack and the Beanstalk–and why it reminds me so much of my own time in Christianity.
We’ll start with just how in the world an impressionable child like me ended up seeing something as totally out-there and bizarre as this movie in the first place.
I don’t think younger folks really understand just how bizarre kids’ programming was in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Maybe this field has always been just a little transgressive; just in the 1980s it was downright horrifying at times.
And parents just had no idea how weird any of it was. They were used to cartoons being Saturday-morning fare for kids. We didn’t get much animation at all during the week–I had Star Blazers that I was totally obsessed with in my mid-teens, but that’s all the animation I can remember aside from Saturday mornings. VCRs were the big new technology at that time. Before then, videocassettes barely existed, and cable TV was only just beginning. So to most parents, animation equaled kid stuff. Period. Anything animated was regarded as specifically aimed at kids and therefore safe for them to consume.
Programmers for the nascent nationwide cable TV channels–HBO first in 1975, and then others swiftly following–found themselves desperate for programming to be delivered on a continuous 24/7 stream. For all the things that went perfectly, stunningly right–like the debut of Michael Jackson’s longform “Thriller” video in 1983 on MTV, which I think every human being I knew saw that night–a lot of things went hilariously wrong.
As a result, I don’t even know how many times I saw The North Avenue Irregulars (1977), Candleshoe (1977), and that one nature show about coyotes that was on perma-rotation (possibly this one). But those were the generally-benevolent ones. There were a lot of other movies that left me staring owl-eyed at my family’s wood-paneled TV afterward, going dafuq did I just watch?
So gang, that’s how I was allowed to see Heavy Metal (1981) and Rock and Rule (1983). My parents had no idea that both featured copious amounts of adult content of all kinds. They were animated, so therefore they must have been for kids! Right?
Some of the movies back then were fascinating; others were horrifying. Some were actually well-made, just not for kids; others were wackadoodle on a scale that can barely be described. And all of them mesmerized me anyway. Here is a very short selection of the ones I absolutely shouldn’t have been allowed to watch. It is by no means exhaustive.
- Dot and the Kangaroo (1977), which largely formed my entire hazy opinion of Australia until Crocodile Dundee came along and confirmed it. A little girl gets lost in the outback and is taken in by a heartstricken kangaroo whose joey has been stolen. The kangaroo decides to get her home, which somehow involves the two of them traveling through THE. MOST. TERRIFYING. COUNTRY. EVER. Dot is chased by spear-wielding indigenous Australian hunters, gets terrorized by the Bunyip, and eats grubs. Eventually she gets home. There’s a sequel to this thing. I haven’t seen it.
CN: I can still barely watch this.
- The Water Babies (1978), in which a little Cockney boy in (I think?) the Regency Era in England is abused by his caretakers, goes to sleep under a bar table with a tankard of booze for his dinner, and eventually throws himself off a cliff into a roaring river to escape a false charge of thievery. He turns into a little animated boy who can breathe water, discovers a bunch of sea-dwelling kids like himself, sings a lot, and travels somewhere to do a thing. This movie may well have happened because of Sea Monkeys.
This is probably the most sense that this movie ever makes.
- The Mouse and His Child (1977), an obscure little fever-dream about a little windup toy mouse and his son, who are attached at the hands. They escape their toy shop and are preyed upon repeatedly before finding a sort-of-happy ending. I have no idea who thought that any of this would be a great idea for a movie for children.
- Watership Down (1978), based on the beautiful and lyrical novel by Richard Adams. In this one, a fluffle of rabbits flee the cruel destruction of their warren to find a new home. Along the way they are picked off by hunters and birds, almost die a number of times, and eventually fight a fascist warren dictator hellbent. This is “nature, red in tooth and claw” — literally. The animation is gorgeous, but it’s all nightmare fuel.
One of the granddaddies of them all, though, was a bizarre hot take on the fairy tale of Jack and the Beanstalk–and it bears a very special relevance for me now, as an ex-Christian.
An Enchanted Kingdom.
Chances are most folks haven’t even heard of this movie. It’s directed by Gisaburô Sugii, who’s been working on the decidedly-weird end of kids’ anime for years. And it is not a Disney-fied fairy tale!
In it, Jack (a scruffy little boy, in this version) climbs up his magic beanstalk into the clouds–only to meet a variety of half-anthropomorphized mice wearing clothes and a beautiful (human) princess named Margaret. The dreamy-eyed Margaret thinks she’s about to marry a handsome prince, one whose kindly mother has been like a second mother to her ever since her own royal parents were killed by an evil witch. She lives in a beautiful gauzy fantasy of love, one in which she is surrounded by nurturing, caring people who only want the best for her. She might dislike all the mice that overrun the castle, but she takes no actions to eliminate them because she’s just so gentle-hearted and kind. Nor does she worry her pretty little head about why the mice all wear medieval costumes and squeak and gesture purposefully at her. She spends her days wafting around clouds, mooning over a large portrait of her prince, and planning her wedding.
In reality, though, the prince is a horrifying monster named Tulip (YES, that is really his name!).1 His mother is a cruel, evil, insectoid witch named Hecuba. Hecuba wants to be queen of the cloud castle, which she will become if Margaret marries Tulip. But she knows that Tulip is far too boorish, bestial, and graceless to ever gain Margaret’s love on his own, so the witch simply enchants the princess to believe that Tulip is a totally different person and that she loves him very dearly.
The enchantment requires a daily re-application of a soporific scented magic cream to Margaret’s face, a ritual the girl submits to with obvious delight. The ritual also allows the witch to reinforce Margaret’s various delusional beliefs. If the enchantment is delayed, then Margaret gets dangerously close to reawakening.
The conflict set up by the movie has some serious holes in it, natch. Obviously, the enchantment means that the wedding would not actually be consensual–but the movie cruises right past this point and expects its audience to do the same. It is clear that the witch only needs Margaret to say a series of particular words in the correct order at the correct time–not especially for her to do so with full enthusiastic consent. And yes, that realization does bring with it a number of probing questions regarding the movie’s plot and Hecuba’s course of actions in ensuring that Margaret says those necessary words, but it’d be quite some years before I realized any of that.
The Moment of Awakening.
Though initially dazzled by the riches he’s looted from the castle, Jack grows a conscience and decides to return to help the people he’s met in the sky. That means that he must crash the wedding. And he does–by offering the dazed Margaret a kiss that he hopes will break through the spell laid upon her. It’s the dead opposite of a romantic kiss; Jack is just a little boy, while Margaret is on the young side of “old enough to be getting married.” Part of me thinks that it’s just a sudden rush of human contact that does the trick–contact with someone who really does mean well. (And yeah, a kiss unasked-for like that is a problem all of its own–one the movie hopes we won’t mention.)
In a glorious crescendo that is, itself, the height of a crescendo, Jack declares, “A wedding done with magic tricks is no wedding at all!”
The crescendo I’m talking about happens around the 1:05:00 mark after the “pastor’s” bizarre psychedelic song. Don’t. Miss. THE. SONG.
After Jack’s explosive declaration and kiss, all Hell breaks loose–beginning with Margaret’s sudden awakening. She blinks slowly, calmly. Suddenly her eyes turn from blue to brown. She is suddenly lively–aware, awake, present. She begins to spin around in a little circle, exclaiming,
I don’t understand. I feel so strange, so light! As though I could float on a sunbeam!
Then she spots Hecuba–and fully recognizes her.
The last third of the movie concerns the fallout of Margaret’s awakening. And it’s a glorious mess. Evil is vanquished, Jack goes home, and everybody gets what’s coming to them one way or another.
There is exactly zero chance in the world that I would not have an affection for this movie.
Words That Ring True.
Jack’s assertion at the movie’s climax rang true to me when I saw this movie as a child–and still rings true to me today. Yes, a lot of people do try to attain with magic what they can’t have with reality. Yes, there are people out there who act loving and kind who really aren’t–people who, moreover, are really just taking advantage of those they’ve duped. And once we awaken, those people are not going to be happy with us at all.
I saw just so, so, so many parallels between the plot of this movie and what I experienced as a Christian, right down to that feeling of waking up from a dream that Margaret seems to share, right down to feeling like I could fly with feeling so light and free. You can likely imagine the sinister parallels as well between what I thought Christianity was and its reality, and what I thought Jesus was like versus what the Bible actually says about the character. I mean really, even the name “Tulip” ought to make a few ex-Cs snerk a little.
Out of every single part of my deconversion, what I’m happiest about–and have always been happiest about–is that now I’m not struggling to make sense out of a world that just doesn’t fit with the version of reality that religion offered me. Awakening has suddenly snapped the world–and my own life–into place as both precious and hugely more meaningful.
We’re going to be talking next time about that deconversion, so this movie’s been on my mind lately. Ex-Christians, I wonder–is there any story like Jack and the Beanstalk that speaks to you, one that perhaps comes close to capturing what it felt like for you to deconvert?
Lord Snow Presides… over weird-ass movies that say more than they seem!
1 And what’s sad is that Tulip’s a monster, but not an egregious one. He actually seems sad a couple of times that he’s not the handsome, noble prince that Margaret loves–and his resentment of his mother is totally justified. He’s not a good guy, so don’t get too caught up in sympathizing with him; I’m just sayin’ he’s not a puppy-kicking bad guy. There’s some unexpected depth there.
If you like what you see, I would love to have your support. My PayPal is firstname.lastname@example.org (that’s an underscore in there) for one-time tips, and I also welcome monthly patrons via Patreon with Roll to Disbelieve. Thanks!
Lord Snow Presides… is our off-topic chat post series. Feel free to talk about anything you want here! I’ve started us off with a topic, but you can go anywhere you want. Lord Snow is my sweet, elderly white cat, who doesn’t know anything and yet knows everything.