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Ten Smart Films for Children and Their Parents

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Let’s face the firing squad and admit defeat. Big studios aren’t interested in making smart movies for kids anymore. (Before anyone objects, Pixar is excluded from this blanket statement.) Somewhere in between the kids show hell of The Wiggles and The Teletubbies and the cultishness of High School Musical, it hit me: how could I bring children into a world of such fluff? I’m neither married nor a father, but assuming I follow the trend of just about every other man before me and decide to procreate, what will my children watch? It’s not that High School Musical or The Wiggles are dangerous, they just steal precious time.

Fear not! After lamenting the wasteland of age-appropriate cinema, I did what any life-affirming film geek would do — I racked my brain for movies from the past and outlying areas of cinema to come up with a list of ten movies I could recommend to folks with kids. The rules were simple. A movie had to be good and appropriate for children. Movies like Last Tango in Paris and Eyes Wide Shut were out because, let’s face it, who would let their kid watch them? Better yet, if someone were to let their kid watch such movies, social services might be soon to follow.

While for some reason three French films make the list, I tried to add a little breadth to the ten. For instance, several of the films are rather sophisticated and aimed at teenagers; however, movies like My Father’s Glory or The General will most likely appeal to just about anyone. As well, cowboys, screwball comedy, time travel, and a host of other varied people and situations should leave something for everybody. All the movies are thoughtful, so it may be hard to get children raised on the lowest common denominator to make the switch initially. It’s worth a shot, though.

This list is in no particular order and the description for each movie varies.  Some movies I spent time explaining the plot because its necessary to understanding the value of the movie.  Some of the movies (like Zazie in the Metro) are so strange that a less structured overview was in order.

One last bit of advice while reading the list is don't take my guesses at age appropriateness as gospel.  For instance, when I was growing up in the '80s, the Rodents of Unusual Size in The Princess Bride gave me nightmares for ages. I was a wuss. In other words, you know your kids better than I do. My guesstimates for age may need to be revised ad hoc. Don’t be that guy who scars his four-year-old so badly with Labyrinth that she never watches the likes of Psycho, The Shinning, or The Exorcist as an adult.

So without further procrastination, here goes.

Time Bandits – This is an old standby. If you haven’t seen this one and you made it past the age of twenty-five, do penance by watching it with your child. Terry Gilliam may not be a director for everyone, but he’s certainly a child’s director. What I mean by that is he lets the creative juices flow without restraint. Like your kid’s drawings in kindergarten, Gilliam grabs a bunch of colors and goes to work with big, broad strokes. The sets in Time Bandits are lavish and eye-popping.

Time Bandits is Lord of the Rings for a slightly younger demographic. Children will identify quickly with the young protagonist (Kevin), who is bright and thoughtful, and they will be annoyed by his dullard farther and gadget-crazed mother. Kevin is whisked off on a journey with a bunch of thieving dwarves who’ve stolen a map of time from God. (Yes, you read that last line correctly.) The dwarves use the map to time travel throughout history stealing treasure from the rich, famous, and infamous. Robin Hood, Napoleon, and King Agamemnon all make appearances. The movie gets really good when the dwarves get too greedy and fall into the trap of Evil Genius – a clear euphemism for the Devil.

I normally don’t like movies that take pot shots at parents. Ninety percent of kids television does it these days. It’s insulting to parents and a misrepresentation of adulthood to children. Time Bandits, however, is not so much interested in skewering all parents as letting kids know hypocrisy is alive and well whether you’re six or sixty. Time Bandits has a strong sense of right and wrong – it’s a movie about God and the Devil for goodness sake! And yet Time Bandits doesn’t rap a bow around pat answers in its conclusion. The young protagonist near the end asks God himself why evil has to exist. God, played by Ralph Richardson, responds famously, “I think it has something to do with free will.” Kevin isn’t convinced.

Time Bandits ends in a way few movies aimed at children have the guts to end. It has an anti-Wizard of Oz conclusion. Because of the ending and also some scary moments involving Evil Genius, this is probably best for older children, probably approaching middle school age. This movie will make for great conversation about morality and ethics with your kids. Beware. You may get questions you don’t have the answers to.

My Father’s Glory – This is a French gem from the early '90s. If it hadn’t come out the same year as Cyrano de Bergerac, it probably would have been a contender for the foreign language Academy Award. Don’t worry, the DVD has an English language track, so your kids don’t have to be able to read. This lowers the suggested age to all ages.

It is, in the truest sense, a family film. The story of My Father’s Glory is universal: a young boy adores his father until he suspects that his father is not nearly as perfect as he thought. This throws the boy into a funk for some time; however, he eventually realizes it is actually his father’s shortcomings that make him a better father (hence the title of the film).  The father, despite his humanity, struggles to be the best father he possible can.

The landscapes of the French countryside breathe life into the movie and would make My Father’s Glory watchable without any dialogue. The characters are caricatures, but it works within the framework the director sets up. The whole movie is a memoir of a long past childhood. It’s idealized, and frankly, it is more enjoyable that way.

The General – This silent Buster Keaton classic should have grade school children in stitches. Many cartoons have robbed from this and other silent classics shamelessly, so why not let your kids watch the source material? It leaves the imitators in the dust.  Keaton as a simple train conductor rising to the heights of heroism through luck and happenstance is charming.

At first I was a bit skeptical when I heard of parents showing this one to their kids. Isn’t the Civil War story just too hard to explain? Will the kids understand exactly why Johnny has to run off with a train? The answer is no. Not a problem. The story is mostly irrelevant in The General which is precisely why it continues to be considered a classic. You could rearrange the Northern spies with Southern spies, turn the trains around, and no one would care. You could transport the whole story to Siberia and no one would care. All the kids need to know is that Johnny is going after his girl.

Younger children, of course, will gobble up the cannon scene and the under-the-table scene. Keaton’s deadpan expression makes each mishap riotous. In reading up a bit on how children have reacted to this one, I ran across a woman who showed this to her young nephew who watched it through twice in one sitting.

Older children will most likely catch on to more of the story which could lead to a worthy discussion of the Civil War, its causes, and its fallout. How rad would it be if your child went into middle school with an already developing understanding of 19th century American history?

Spirited Away – I hesitated at including this one. It’s arguable whether this is outside the mainstream audience enough to warrant adding it to a list of films for children that don’t really get their due. I decided it was too good a movie to pass up.

If you have seen Spirited Away, you’ve probably already shown it to you kids. If you haven’t, well, you know what to rent this Friday for family movie night. Spirited Away is the kind of movie Disney would be making if they still had the guts to make supernatural stories about witches, wizards, and smart girls. You think Disney would take a cue from Harry Potter and Spirited Away to make a buck. Their loss.  Wait, actually Disney is making a buck from Spirited Away.  They had the sense to secure the distribution rights in the US.

Spirited Away is animated which plays beautifully for its more eccentric characters. Some of these characters are pretty bizarre, so it’s best not to show this to children that are very young. I’d say kids under seven or eight might be overwhelmed. Older children in grade school and middle school will wonder why Cars and Meet the Robinsons were even made in light of Spirited Away. It’s that good.

Spirited Away fits in a category with other recent enjoyable animated films like Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, and Wall-E; however, only Wall-E employs melancholy and wonderment in a similar fashion to Spirited Away. If your kids liked Wall-E, chances are they will probably dig Spirited Away as well.

The guy who directed Spirited Away, Hayao Miyazaki, is the Japanese version of Pixar. Miyazaki can do no wrong. If you like Spirited Away, you should check out some of his other work. He’s been directing regularly since the early '80s. Kiki’s Delivery Service and Howl’s Moving Castle are excellent choices for further inspection of Miyazaki.

OT: Our TownOT is one of the more riveting films I have watched in the last year. I think I leaned forward in my seat through most of it. OT is the only documentary on the list, and it earns its place fair and square. It is a simple movie: a bunch of high schoolers endeavor to stage the first play in over twenty years at a school in Compton. Yes, that Compton.

Because of the four-letter words in the film – which are used sparingly – OT would probably be rated PG-13 or R, but if that doesn’t bother you, children as early as fourth or fifth grade might enjoy this one. It’s a movie that concerns itself with one fundamental question: “What is the limit of your abilities?” We, the viewers, wonder if these kids from a dead end town can push themselves enough to make a watchable production of Our Town – a play with supposed universal appeal. So how can kids from cultural minority backgrounds from Southern California relate to the New England locale of Grover’s Corners? How it plays out is so life affirming and heartwarming, it’s hard not to devolve into warm and fuzzy clichés.

A favorite scene of mine includes several of the children describing what it means to be a real man. If that doesn’t get you, consider yourself the owner of a stone heart. The real take away, however, is the discussion you will probably have with your children about how they are not so different than the children in this movie.

Bringing Up Baby – In his book, The Best Old Movies for Families: A Guide to Watching Together, Ty Burr explains why your kids need to see this one: “[Bringing Up Baby] really is close to Seussian anarchy: An unstoppably whimsical woman brings down upon the head of a nice young fellow a series of widening disasters that cause kids to go nuts with apprehension and delight.” There are few other movies that better introduce the golden age of Hollywood to children. It is the quintessential screwball comedy. The timing is tight. The laughs are thick.

Bringing Up Baby moves quickly enough to keep even the youngest viewers interested, and in doing so, may prompt those young viewers to ask to see the man with the dimpled chin and the tall lady in another movie – and another. If for no other reason than this is a gateway movie to other Hepburn and Grant classics, this movie deserves its place on this list. If later in life your child enjoys Arsenic and Old Lace or Desk Set, you'll know to give yourself a pat on the back.

There are no fundamental life lessons to learn from Bringing Up Baby (other than “the best laid plans…”), but is that such a bad thing? I don’t think it is. It’s generally an order of mindless enjoyment – but done oh so well. They don’t make ‘em like this anymore.

Stagecoach – John Ford introduces us to stereotypes not characters in Stagecoach. Or are they stereotypes because everyone has copied the formula of Stagecoach since the time it was released? It has the quintessential western chase scene. It has Monument Valley. The hooker with a heart of gold, the misunderstood convict, the drunk doctor, the unscrupulous banker, they all show up in Stagecoach. Note that Claire Trevor’s “profession” will most likely sail over younger viewers heads.

Precisely because it is so easy to categorize the characters and situations into columns labeled right and wrong, the movie becomes something else entirely. It is a metaphor for the way we wish the world worked. We wish the innocent were justified, the genuinely contrite received a second chance, and the dastardly received the wages of sin.

Boys, specifically, will probably like this one, and it seems a crime not to show Westerns to growing boys. Children will quickly figure out who to root for and who to boo. The one trick that Ford pulls is that the characters who generally have an outward cleanliness are quickly shown as hypocritical upon inspection. You might want to segue into politics at this point.

The one dicey piece of the movie is the way Native Americans are portrayed, but of course, that’s nigh impossible to avoid in any Western made before the 70s. You may need to pause the movie to make a distinction between a person who happens to be a Native American that does bad things and an entire ethnic population. You may also need to explain why Native Americans seem to be so upset with white men in the movies.

The Butterfly – In The Butterfly, an elderly man is forced to interact with a neighbor’s young daughter and it’s a stretch. The irascible old man/unsinkable child routine has been done before (for example, Dennis the Menace), but here, the old man is not altogether disagreeable and the child is just pushy enough that we can understand the gentleman’s vexation.

Unfortunately, the film is in French and only has subtitles. As such, The Butterfly probably needs to be leveled at middle school children. Boys might have a problem sitting through this one, but I’m betting a log of girls will appreciate this film.

The film moves rather slowly, but the budding relationship between the unlikely pair is genuine and a treat to watch unfold. As the two go in search of a rare specimen of butterfly (after the youngster stows away in the backseat of the old the man’s car), they meet a slew of characters along the way, and everyone assumes the girl is his granddaughter. Each time, the old man takes to the statement more as a compliment and less as a slap in the face.

Again, this may be a yawn for some children, so I’m recommending this one only to parents who notice a general love of cinema in their kids. Ultimately, it’s age appropriate for anyone since it is rated G; however, the sophistication runs a bit deep. The body language of the characters is more important than the words that are coming out of their mouths, and there is a dark event in the past of the elderly man that bubbles up subtly that may frustrate and stump some viewers.

Zazie in the Metro – For anyone that has seen it, you may wonder why, for the love of all that is right, why this is on a list of family films. Zazie in the Metro is certainly anarchic and subversive, but aren’t most great films? Right?! The movie unfolds like a silent-era slapstick short and involves cross dressing and child predators. Okay, maybe I am crazy to recommend this one, but I think for teenagers, this may be the one that bumps them into film geek heaven. Zazie, the protagonist, is a little snot who enjoys uttering merde and generally causing trouble, and yet, it is impossible not to like her. (I’m still not sure why so many French films made it on this list!)

Zazie rips the lid off of hypocrisy in a way few films dare to. If your kids (or for that matter, you) think people are basically good and unselfish, Zazie will put that myth to bed. Of course, it will do so while making you laugh so hard you can barely breathe. I remember watching this for the first time at a French New Wave film festival, and it was hard to hear the movie at points because the laughter was so loud.

Unfortunately, Zazie is pretty hard to find. To screen this for your kids, you will have to either buy a DVD from Europe or hunt down a second hand copy of a VHS tape that has been long out of print. If you can find a copy, buy it. It will all be worth it once you stare incredulously with your high schooler at the humorous mayhem unfolding on screen.

Millions – Something happened to the guy who directed Trainspotting and 28 Days Later — something to compel him to direct a family film. It’s still quirky and edgy in its own way, but edgy for a ten-year-old. Millions is one of the best films in the last couple of years that tells its audience to “do the right thing.”

The plot revolves around a boy and his brother who happen upon a bag of money. A lot of money. They’re still dealing with their mothers’ death too. One of the boys talks to Roman Catholic saints. In fact, this is one of the more complex films on the list. Quite a bit happens in the movie, and consequently, after this one, you might find yourself the benefactor of a long conversation with your child. Millions pretty much hits all the basic life questions: Is there a God? Why be moral? How do you deal with death? Why do bad things happen to good people?

The lead, played by Alex Etel, is endearing. He wishes to try and use the money to help people rather than for his own gratification. He isn’t self-righteous in his conviction, and yet, he isn’t a cardboard cut out of the way movies sometimes idealize children. Millions does a great job of hammering home that it is one tough job trying to be good.

During the writing of this article, I perused Ty Burr's The Best Old Movies for Families: A Guide to Watching Together as well as Andrew O'Hehir's "The Ultimate Family DVD List" at Salon.com.  I must admit that both Bringing Up Baby and Zazie in the Metro were movies I had forgotten about and are only this list because of a reminder from Ty Burr's book.  Both O'Hehir's list and Burr's are much longer than mine, and I highly recommend browsing both; however, you don't need to be a film critic to know a good film when you see one.  Please share your recommendations for smart films for families below in the comments. I’d love to hear them!

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About Luke Johnson

  • There are a bazillion great movies to show to children, but for starters I would recommend musicals. Young chillen will have an easier time getting their minds around a song and a hook and maybe some dance steps quicker than absorbing a complicated plot, and it’s a good way to get them into music as well.

    First thing movie wise that I hunted down for the godson was, of course, the Beatles Yellow Submarine. But Help! isn’t far behind. And of course Hard Day’s Night.

    From the far reaches of the way back machine, don’t miss out on 7 year old Sammy Davis Jr as the first black president in Rufus Jones for President (a 21 minute short), conveniently available for free download. For groovy kid stuff, you can hardly beat President-Elect Rufus singing “I’ll be glad when you’re dead, you rascal you!”

    Also, dig on Stormy Weather with the younguns. Turn ’em on to Fats Waller and Cab Calloway – and definitely even young kids will likely dig the amazing acrobatic dancing of the Nicholas brothers that ends the film.

    But don’t forget more obvious classic movie musicals. Hey, Oklahoma! is the bomb at any age. Annie Get Your Gun surely rates. So many outstanding choices.

  • Al, you are completely right. Musicals are a great intro for kids. Singin’ in the Rain nearly made the list (and is probably in my personal top twenty). Along those lines, pretty much anything Gene Kelly will probably be exciting to youngsters because of the dance numbers.