The Lion King (1994)
Of all the films that drew me into their world as a child, The Lion King perhaps did it the most. In fact, I’m surprised I didn’t destroy my VHS tape by watching it so much. From its fantastic musical numbers with Elton John and orchestral set-pieces, gorgeous visuals and spot-on voice acting from actors such as Jeremy Irons, there is a reason why this is considered an animated classic. This is also the only childhood film I still have on the VHS format; though I would give anything to be able to find my old childhood Simba soft toy!
Spider Baby (1968)
Here is a film you may not have heard of. Spider Baby was an early film from one of my favourite B-movie directors, Jack Hill. He also directed other exploitation favourites of mine; Switchblade Sisters and Pit Stop, while putting B-Movie icon Pam Grier on the map with her performances in Coffy and Foxy Brown. Quentin Tarantino, a huge fan of Jack Hill, would later cast Grier in Jackie Brown with Robert De Niro and Samuel L Jackson in 1996. From the get-go, Spider Baby is guaranteed to bring a smile with its fun opening musical style credits narrated by the great Lon Chaney Jr. To any classic horror fan, Lon Chaney Jr is instantly recognisable as the star of Universal’s 1941 horror classic; The Wolf Man. This is a reference which Chaney and Jack Hill use to create some very funny lines and in-jokes for horror fans.
Lon Chaney plays the guardian of three adult siblings who suffer from the ‘Merrye Syndrome’. This is a condition which makes them regress to a primitive mental state as they grow psychically older. As film also hints, this may also include cannibalistic tendencies. Due to the excellent performances of the actors, however, we as the audience can only sympathise with these quirky, child-like and naive characters. One of these is the titular Spider Baby. In the film’s opening scenes, she traps one of her unfortunate victims in her ‘spider web’. This character is played by actress Jill Banner, who tragically died at the young age of 35 as a result of a fatal car accident, before the film’s rediscovery by genre favourite Joe Dante. Sid Haig, another exploitation icon plays Ralph while actress Beverly Washburn plays their sister Elizabeth. When combined with the atmosphere created by Hill and cinematographer these performances help to create a truly unique, strange and truly unforgettable little picture.
Near the end, Lon Chaney gives a truly outstanding and touching performance as he realises he cannot protect them from either the dangerous reality of the outside world any longer. Many horror film fans have made an interesting observation of the broad similarities between this and Tope Hooper’s later 1974 picture The Texas Chainsaw Massacre over its depiction of the reclusive Merrye Family.
Jurassic Park (1993)
This is another film which never fails to lift my mood or bring back nostalgic memories. The main theme by John Williams still remains my favourite score for any film and I still sometimes play it on Spotify if I am in the mood. The cast is also outstanding. Jeff Goldblum and the late great Richard Attenborough, in particular, give very memorable performances. Yet the main star of the film is, of course, the dinosaurs. In this age of CGI, it is always refreshing to go back and see the work of practical effects icon Stan Winston and his fellow visual effects artists on the film.
By using an ingenious combination of traditional animatronics and ingeniously integrating this with limited computer effects, Jurassic Park still manages to take my breath away. Indeed, of the 14 total minutes of visual effects, only six use CGI. The key when creating these practical effects was to give the audience’s brains a physical reality on which to view the computer made shots of the full dinosaurs. This lost approach to special effects is why Jurassic Park still holds its magic for me.
The Iron Giant (1999)
The Iron Giant is as much of an animated masterpiece as The Lion King. Yet, it was also substantial box-office failure in 1999 for Warner Bros due to their poor handling and marketing of the film. This was a soul-crushing experience for its director Brad Bird. The film’s reputation has, however, deservedly grown in time and can count a certain Guillermo del Toro as one of its original fans. Bard Bird has since gone on to direct such animated hits for Pixar as The Incredibles.
The film is based on Ted Hughe’s 1968 novel, The Iron Man and tells the story of a young boy’s discovery of a strange metal giant from outer space. During the rest of the film, we follow the boy’s heartwarming journey with his new metal friend, as they both learn how ‘you are who you choose to be’ and in doing so, saves the giant from his own original design as a weapon. This narrative arc is undoubtedly the strongest part of the film and what provides its ultimate magic. This element is complemented by its stunning hand-drawn drawn animated style.