An Introduction, Should You Need One

IntroWizard

“The first film that I had in my possession was 3 meters long
and was brown. It represented a young girl asleep in a field;
she awoke, stretched, got up, and, arms outstretched,
disappeared on the right side of the picture. That was it.
On the box in which the film was put again was drawn a
blushing picture with the words ‘Frau Holle.’
No one in my circle knew who Frau Holle was,
but it hardly mattered; the film was a great success
and was played every evening until it disintegrated
to the point where it could no longer be repaired.”
– Ingmar Bergman, Cahiers du Cinema, 1956

Bergman’s fascination with films and filmmaking began early in his childhood, and the same happened to me. While I don’t particularly remember the first film I saw or the first time I picked up a camera and began filming, many of the movies you’ll find within these pages had a significant effect on me in some way or another. I normally don’t inject my own experiences in a review (damn that objective journalism schooling), but I feel it’s important and useful for the purposes of this collection as I viewed many as a child. We see films differently when we are children, as opposed to watching them as an adult with children. (As you’ve no doubt realized by revisiting a movie you thought was awesome as a kid, and now realize it’s awful – that was Flight of the Navigator for me, by the way.)

In fact my decision to write this collection came from that exact premise. I began it at a time when an increasing number of my friends were getting married and, in some cases, having children. As was the case in my household growing up as a child, many of my friends took their offspring to movies, rented movies, and had an extensive library of their own movies. On the few occasions I visited them, and watched a movie with their children, I found myself increasingly taking my eyes off the screen and watching their reactions instead.

When an adult watches a film, they experience the typical gamut of emotional responses: laughing, crying, cringing, sneering, et al. But when a child watches a film, something significant happens. It’s as if they unveil their entire subconscious and lay it on the table unscathed for everyone to see. They become the main character. They live in the world presented on the screen. By the time they’re two or three, they already see through the elementary plot lines, directing characters to stay away from villains and their treacherous ways. They’ll clench their fists, which hold invisible objects, and swing their arms. If you haven’t watched kids doing this, I highly recommend it.

But, as I’ve found, this phenomenon seems to work best with the best films. Despite what studio executives may think, kids aren’t stupid creatures that are easily duped. And they’re constantly learning, soaking up anything they get their hands on. In fact, after a few years of media consumption, children instantly become critics and won’t hesitate to tell you their gut reactions to any of the fine arts (including culinary). They won’t laugh if it’s not funny. If it makes an inside joke or double entendre, they sense that something is up and ask, “What does that mean?” Children won’t get engaged in characters or a story they don’t care about, and won’t hesitate to look for something else to do.

As I said before, I was entranced by this phenomenon. For more than a decade I had forgotten what it was like to not just watch a film, but experience a film. Sure good ones will transport me to another world, and I’ll likewise suture with characters, but it’s hardly the reaction described above. So I spent the better part of four years watching children’s films (in some cases with little ones) and whittling them down to the very best. Why waste time and money on something a child (and likely you) won’t enjoy?

“I make films that I would like to have seen when I was a young man,” said Francois Truffaut, who revealed a portion of his own childhood in The 400 Blows and exposed his undying fascination with cinema in Day for Night, as he portrays his boyish self stealing production stills for Citizen Kane. I can’t imagine the likes of Stephen Spielberg or Wes Anderson feel any differently.

“I remember 25 years ago reading critics slugging on Lucas, on De Palma, on Spielberg saying these guys are so talented but they’ve dedicated their lives to recreating the junk of their childhood,” said director Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction). “I guess the same people could say that about me.”

What is it, then, that compels the likes of Truffaut, Spielberg, and Tarantino (omitting hundreds of others, I’m sure) to create films they would have loved as children? The only answer, so far as I can tell, is the power cinema has on children. Take, for instance, author Terry McMillan’s affirmation of how The Wizard of Oz shaped her as a poor, black youth in a dead-end Michigan town. McMillan couldn’t understand why Dorothy went back home. “I truly wished I could spin away from my family and home, and land someplace as beautiful and surreal as Oz.”

The truly great children’s films aren’t just for children; they’re for everyone. No matter the material or where they come from, the greatest children’s films strike a universal chord in all of us, and, even if we aren’t one now, make us feel like kids again.

A Brief Explanation of Naughtiness

After some internal struggle on my part, I decided against advising appropriate ages to see these films or posting the MPAA rating. I thought it better to be blunt and lay the potentially crass elements on the line and let you decide. After all, there’s parents out there that buy the life-imitates-art approach while others, like former critic Pauline Kael and myself, believe otherwise.

“The best pictures are mostly those with the ‘R’ ratings, and there have been pictures that got the ‘R’ because of one forbidden word – when all you have to do is listen to kids talking today and you realize no four-letter word is going to come as news to them,” Kael writes.

Many children, especially adolescent boys, will not find nudity especially shocking, either, as I’m willing to bet their school library carries National Geographic and when one in a circle of friends realizes what lies beneath those yellow-trimmed covers, everyone in the school is likely to find out. So like I said, I’ll leave the decisions up to you.

A Brief Explanation About Stars/Awards

If you’re looking for star ratings as you cleave these pages, I’m sorry. You’ll find none. I’m of the opinion, and I’m far from alone on this, that reviews or criticism should stand for themselves. But if you’re still clinging to this dumbed-down and overused piece of cinematic scaling, consider all of the films between three and four stars.

I can’t say how many times a friend, acquaintance or family member has approached me, knowing my love of movies, and muttered the words “This movie is good; you should see it! It’s not going to win awards, but it’s still good.” Though I’ve never thought awards dictate quality, I have included some of the accolades each film has garnered within the reviews.

A Brief Rhetorical Question (aka “What is a Children’s Film?”)

Some people have read the copy inside this little collection and questioned some of the titles asking, “I didn’t think some of them were really kids movies.” I welcomed the criticism, only to ask, “What is a children’s film?” Does it pertain to the subject matter, age of protagonist, MPAA rating, or simplicity of the plot or dialogue? I don’t think so at all. I believe the best films for children aren’t always universally considered children’s films. When viewers watched Pan’s Labyrinth, expecting to see a children’s fantasy film, don’t you think they were shocked to find it’s not a light fantasy? So while it’s definitely not intended for kids, does its protagonist’s point of view not make adult viewers feel like a kid again?

The best films for kids are often great films for adults as well (and sometimes vice versa). They should entertain and conjure emotion, as well as engage the mind. So many of the films written about within these pages are great for both kids and adults, while others lean toward one demographic better (in the cases where they really don’t seem kid friendly, I added titles to the end of chapters under the heading “For adults only.”)

A Brief Explanation of Taste (Mine)

Many critics and reviewers (myself included) target specific readers and their potential taste for any given film using Auteur Theory or derivative versions of Auteur Theory. The theory, made famous by French critics at Cahiers du Cinema who later became filmmakers (Francois Truffaut, Jacques Rivette, Jean-Luc Godard, Andre Bazin, Eric Rohmer, etc.), essentially examines a writer-director’s body of work by separating each part (or film) and relating it to the greater whole (American critic Andrew Sarris wrote two famous essays on the topic). An example to help put it in layman’s terms would be if someone was to tell you, “If you enjoyed North by Northwest and Rear Window, you’ll find Hitchcock’s Vertigo equally, if not more, exciting.” Without getting into theme or plot or a number of other items, that’s the general idea.

Other versions of this could include production companies (comparing Pixar or Disney films), sub genres (animated horror or sci-fi), similar stories (penguin movies, boy-and-his-dog movies, animals-escape-from-zoo movies, etc.), and a number of other options. What I mean to say is, as you read these recommendations I have set forth for you, I am doing so with no idea of your personal tastes (you may be like my father and hate musicals, for instance).

I’d imagine most filmgoers would be classified as “cinemaniacs” (meaning they indeed love films, but usually only certain kinds), while I’m a “cinefile” (meaning I love all of it, from the process to the result). And as such, I likewise appreciate the “awesomely bad,” so when I write emphatically about how bad or over-the-top a movie is, it’s not necessarily to bash it, but to explain that is has a whole different kind of entertainment value than you’re used to (National Treasure, Big Trouble in Little China, and Hook are prime examples).

Assuming that you share my love for all kinds of films, I have tried to include within each review similarities to other films by the same director, writer, production company, etc.

A Brief Explanation of the Number (aka Enough Already, Start the Show)

Many people have asked me how many movies are written about in here. As an avid reader of film books myself, I knew exactly what they were driving at. For marketing purposes, it may have made more sense for me to write The 100 Best Children’s Movies Ever Made. While I was in the process of organizing and writing it, I never wanted to keep myself strapped to one number, which could potentially threaten the exclusion of an excellent film. The last time I counted, the bulk of the book concerns about 175 movie titles and contains recommendations for dozens of others. So, if it’ll make you sleep better at night, consider this About 200 of the Best Children’s Movies Ever Made.

I promise the explaining is over now. You may proceed.