Guides | April 18, 2007 | Comments ()
I’ve been thinking a lot about kid-friendly films of late. In a couple of months, Mrs. Pajiba-hyphenate is due to have Pajiba, Jr., and I’m starting to feel that tingly fatherness well up inside of me whenever I think about what sort of movies I want to inflict on my son. It’s not enough, I suppose, that I read Pajiba reviews to the womb every night (what can I say? He loves the TV Whore); I also have a naive belief that I can raise one of those adorably precocious kids that not only loathes Disney and Nickelodeon, but has a preternatural affinity for the shortstop position and and a love of Encyclopedia Brown. But the truth is, I’ll be plenty happy if he’s a good kid who grows up to be a decent person (and a hatred of Brian Robbins wouldn’t hurt).
To that end, I’ve formed a Top 10 list of films I plan to show my son when he’s old enough to appreciate them. There is some irony in this, I suppose. When I was a kid, my family had only two assets — a pair of mannequin legs we dressed in fishnet stockings and hung ornaments on for the Christmas holiday and a subscription to HBO (Embarrassing Fact: The only nursery rhymes I know are Andrew Dice Clay’s versions). Instead of Disney films and cartoons, I grew up on Porky’s and The Last American Virgin, so my knowledge of family films actually came as an adult, once I’d already formed a healthy sense of cynicism and a distaste for sophomoric bullshit, 90-minute commercials for tie-in products, and mindless repetition. Thankfully, HBO did air Fraggle Rock to offset Meet the Feebles.
The criteria for the Top 10 is pretty simple: Aside from limiting the scope to films made in the last generation (20 years) and movies that an 11-year-old could understand (and hopefully value)*, everything else is subjective. In other words, they’re my favorites. And, hopefully, someday my children will feel similarly about them. But I more than welcome other suggestions, as well as your own favorites in the comments below.
* I used Yahoo’s Movie Mom to determine if the movie was suitable to 11-year-olds and under.
10. Because of Winn-Dixie (2005) (8 and up) — Based on the Newbery-Award-winning children’s book by Kate DiCamillo, Because of Winn-Dixie is so amiably earnest and well-intentioned that even when it hits the occasional sour note, it’s hard not to be won over by its sentiment, even if it is a damn dog movie. Wayne Wang’s Winn-Dixie possesses all the adorable elements one might want in a canine movie, but it’s also smart enough to portray kids burdened by real problems — in this case, Opal (AnnaSophia Robb) longing for her estranged mother — instead of sitcom-y humiliations or evil villains set to blow up mankind. What’s more, Winn-Dixie manages to speak to children without talking down to them, eliciting real emotion without overwrought manipulation; it may bring you to the brink of tears, but it probably won’t push you over. The narrative is real and involving; and, thankfully, more about a little girl coming to terms with her own pain — and the rest of the town filling their own voids — than it is about a dog that looks like it’s smiling. And believe it or not, Dave Matthews — who was stolen away from the cool kids 15 years ago by the nation’s frat houses and turned into this generation’s pot-smoking icon — turns in a sweet performance as the Magic Man, whose heavy-hearted voice not only soothes the animals in his pet store, but the audience, too.
9. Big Fish (2003) (11 and up) — I was torn between which of two Tim Burton flicks I wanted to include on this list, this one or Edward Scissorhands. Ultimately, I chose Big Fish because it’s a father-son tale (and apologies to the ladies — the list is heavy on them) and because it’s a slightly more complex film that tugs at your heart for nearly two hours before unceremoniously ripping it out in one beautiful scene. Adapted by the brilliant John August from Daniel Wallace’s novel, Big Fish is about Edward Bloom, a dying salesman known for spinning tall tales about himself that endeared him to everyone in his small town, except his son, Will (Billy Crudup). Will, a fact-obsessed journalist who moved to Paris to escape the shadow of his father’s mythical shadow, returns to Alabama, where he struggles to come to terms with his father and the truth about his life (told through flashbacks, with Ewan McGregor as Bloom). As fans of Hunter Thompson know, there is often more truth in his drug-addled fictions than the writing of any journalist of his time; likewise, Burton finds the ultimate truth of Edward Bloom’s life by parsing his fantasy world. I don’t expect that my child will understand that until he’s much older, but I love the idea of him living in Burton’s world of imagination for a few hours while I revisit those themes. And perhaps, after that, we’ll watch Scissorhands together.
8. October Sky (1999) (8 and up) — I guess you could say that October Sky is an age-appropriate Billy Elliot for the kid’s list, and it happens to be set in the same year as the No. 1 film on the Top 10, 1957. I’m a complete sucker for those hard-work-hope-and-determination films, especially when they feature a closed-off, stubborn, prideful father with a soft center that’s revealed in the film’s rousing heart-warming climax (and who better to play that dad than the brilliant Chris Cooper). And, like Billy Elliot, October Sky is also set in a mining town, though this film just so happens to be based on the young life of Homer Hickam (Jake Gyllenhaal), a high-school kid determined to escape the West Virginia coal mines and better his life by becoming a rocket scientist, a profession he practices in his backyard by building amateur rockets. October Sky is a throwback to wholesome ’50s films, and is notable for being one of the few inspirational true stories that isn’t overly treacly and sentimental. There’s a certain predictability to it, as to be expected from feel-good true stories about overcoming life obstacles. But, damnit all, the characters are so rich and personal and the writing is so smart and poignant that it’s impossible not to be won over by its simple earnestness. And hell if October Sky isn’t the tearjerkiest of the ten.
7. Holes (2003) (10 and up) — Holes, like most of the films on this list, is extraordinary for not pandering to the supposed intellectual-level that many adults must assume of kids. I don’t know why most assholes in suits (and Ben Stiller, apparently) believe that kids must be force fed idiocy, one-dimensional caricatures, offensive stereotypes, lame gags, and bright colors. It’s insulting to kids, who are young adults and not LSD addicts. After all, who is responsible for 80 percent of book sales? Well, it’s not Martin Lawrence fans, I’ll tell you that goddamn much. Kids may not read as much as they used to (I don’t even know if that is true), but they read a helluva lot more than most adults, so it only makes sense that films should be geared to their imaginative mindsets, right? If 10-year-olds can digest 700 pages of Harry Potter, they deserve more than motherfucking Shark Tale. Fortunately, Holes is the rare movie that respects the intelligence of most kids. Based on Louis Sachar’s Newbery Medal and National Book Award winning novel of the same name, Holes is about palindromic Stanley Yelnats (Shia LaBeouf), wrongly convicted of stealing a pair of sneakers and sent off to a camp for delinquent juveniles, where they are tasked with digging holes all the day long. In addition to dealing with the menacing camp supervisors and a hateful warden (Sigourney Weaver) using the boys to find a hidden treasure, there are a number of inventive subplots, which include a kissing bandit, a family curse, and interracial romance. The book may not rival the works of J.K. Rowling, but the film itself is superior to all of the Potter adaptations — it’s an awesome action-adventure, both whimsical and clever, that possesses more imagination and intelligence than the top 20 adult films in all of 2007 so far.
6. Stand by Me (1986) (Age N/A) — I cheated a little in two respects so that I could include Stand by Me on this list. First, it missed the cutoff by a year (it’s 21 years old), and second, it’s actually rated R, which is baffling to me because I’d have no problem showing this film to my 11-year-old son (I hope that doesn’t elicit any calls to protective services). In fact, it is the quintessential film of my childhood, the one that I watched more than any other (Reiner’s follow-up is at No. 4, if only because it held up slightly better). Based on Stephen King’s short story “The Body,” Stand by Me is about four kids (Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Jerry O’Connell, and Corey Feldman) on the brink of junior high, who decide to take an overnight camping excursion to find the dead body of a boy their own age, rumored to have been run over by a train. But it’s not really about the body, it’s about the journey and the way the four boys bond over a testicle-seeking dog, leeches, a story about a pie-eating contest, and mourning over the death of an older brother (John Cusack). But, even more than that, it’s about the magic of childhood, friendship, the loss of innocence, and leaving your adolescence behind. (“I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12. Jesus, does anyone?”) And when the Richard Dreyfuss-voiced narrator tells us the ultimate fate of Chris Chambers, you may actually lose your shit (especially in light of River Phoenix’s own premature death). While I stand by my assertion that the film is suitable for younger kids, it’s even better for adults, who can track the characters’ experiences with their own and remember when we once had the power of epiphany.
5. Babe (1995) (Age N/A) — I can’t stand most films that involve actual animals that speak, most of which smack of the insufferable Look Who’s Talking inanity. But Babe is different; it’s an enchanting and whimsical fable about individualism in the face of conformity, and the only entry on this list nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. Adapted by director Chris Noon and George Miller from Dick King-Smith’s book “The Sheep-Pig,” Babe is about a pig saved from slaughter and taken home by Farmer Hoggett. At first confused about what to make of his new world amongst barnyard animals, a maternal border collie takes the pig under her wing and teaches him about sheepherding, a skill that saves him from becoming the centerpiece of a holiday feast and, later, makes him a hero. Babe is filmed as a series of vignettes, each with their own chapter heading (introduced by mice), so that it plays like a storybook come to life. It’s a simple, compelling story, given some extra heft by the remarkable performance of James Cromwell in a very quiet role (and the music is fantastic, to boot). But what I like most about Babe is the pig’s childlike sense of wonder and awe, as he is introduced to the world in much the same way I imagine a child might be. And believe it or not, the little seen sequel, Babe: Pig in the City is every bit as good, or even slightly better, than the original.
4. The Princess Bride (1987) (9 and up) — Oh, what the hell is there to say about The Princess Bride? If you haven’t seen it, you should; if you have and you didn’t like it, well, you might may want to recheck the function of y0ur brain’s synapses (i.e., you’re an idiot). The Princess Bride could just as easily be on the top five romantic comedies of all time or top five films of the ’80s. It’s a superb fairy tale come to life, and one that appeals equally to both adults and kids, the literate, the subversive, the romantic, and even the dimwitted. It is an almost perfect film that boasts several of the most quotable lines of all time (“As you wish,” “My name is Inigo Montoya,” “Inconceivable!” “I’m not a witch, I’m your wife,” and “Never start a land war in Asia,” among many others) and it holds up repeat viewing after repeat viewing. It has your love story, your revenge tale, your comedy, an action-adventure, a fireswamp, pirates, and Andre the fucking Giant. And if they ever remake The Princess Bride, so help me God I will torch all of Hollywood and I doubt a judge in America would convict me. Besides, who doesn’t love the poetry of the film:
Inigo Montoya: That Vizzini, he can fuss.
Fezzik: Fuss, fuss… I think he like to scream at us.
Inigo Montoya: Probably he means no harm.
Fezzik: He’s really very short on charm.
Inigo Montoya: You have a great gift for rhyme.
Fezzik: Yes, yes, some of the time.
Vizzini: Enough of that.
Inigo Montoya: Fezzik, are there rocks ahead?
Fezzik: If there are, we all be dead.
Vizzini: No more rhymes now, I mean it.
Fezzik: Anybody want a peanut?
3. Finding Nemo (2003) (6 and up) — Hell, I’d love to be to be the guy cool enough to dis on Nemo. How ridiculously unhip is it, after all, to include the 14th top box office draw of all time on a site that prides itself on its contrarian attitude? Well, fuck it: Finding Nemo was a great goddamn film, my favorite of all the stellar Pixar offerings (I could’ve included more on this list, notably The Incredibles and Toy Story 2, but I wanted a little variety). Nemo is rich with luscious animation, a dazzling narrative, and quirky compelling characters, even if most do live in the sea. And the broad behavioral satire is spot-on, as hilarious as the visuals are eye-popping. Nemo, for the three of you who haven’t seen the film, is a clownfish with a tiny fin and an overprotective, neurotic father, Marlin (Albert Brooks). Nemo, in an effort to test the limits of his father’s overprotectiveness, is picked up by a human diver and dropped into a dentist’s office aquarium. Marlin, in turn, embarks on a treacherous journey — replete with repentant sharks and sea turtles — with Dory, a Blue Tang with no short-term memory, as his guide. It’s an undeniably satisfying story about family, trust, friendship, and all that gooey stuff, but it’s damn near impossible not to fall in love with it anyway. And in a way, I suppose, it’s unique for a kids film in that the overall message, encapsulated in this quote, is directed at the parents, and not the children:
Marlin: I promised I’d never let anything happen to him.
Dory: Hmm. That’s a funny thing to promise.
Dory: Well you can’t never let anything happen to him. Then nothing would ever happen to him. Not much fun for little Harpo.
2. Millions (2004) (Age N/A) — Set in a British version of a Tim Burton suburb, Danny Boyle’s Millions concerns 8-year-old Damien (Alexander Nathan Etel) and his slightly older brother Anthony (Lewis Owen Gibbon), who stumble upon a bag of cash near the railroad tracks behind their house. Neither brother wants to reveal the discovery, especially to their recently widowed father, because of their humorously naïve fear they will have to give up a large portion to taxes. Damien, who has a Bill Jamesian knowledge of saints, believes the money is a gift from God that he must use to serve the goodwill of humanity by procuring a few slices of pizza for the local hippie teenagers or by donating large sums of money to the Mormons, believing that he’ll get in God’s good graces by helping out the less fortunate. Anthony just wants to buy cell phones, video games, and, of course, real estate. For both, the point is mostly moot, because in Millions, God has a wicked sense of humor: The money from the sky is not only stolen, but it’s in the British Pound, a currency that will be worthless in a few days, when England converts to the Euro. In Millions, Danny Boyle rewrites Shallow Grave for kids as a rousing religious parable in which spirituality and faith trump evil and greed. And it may be the only film I’ve ever seen where an 8-year-old kid’s simple kindness, the unspoiled goodness of his heart, and the heartbreaking altruism of his actions is enough to provoke tears. Not out of sadness. Nor out of happiness. But out of an overwhelming desire that everyone — kids, adults, humanity — could be as decent as Damien.
1. The Iron Giant (1999) (5 and up) — I suppose it’s somewhat ironic that a Top 10 list devoted to films geared toward youngsters has only one traditional 2-D animated film, but I have to admit a certain bias against the form — I kind of hate all those goddamn Disney films with their obnoxiously infectious Broadway-style musical numbers and their simple moral messages wrapped around deplorable product placements. The goddamn things just scream babysitting anesthetic to me, and I’m not entirely sure I want my children to be raised by Gaston, Aladdin, Simba or the maniacal voice-overs of Robin Williams and Gilbert Gottfried. It took one helluva story to allow me to get past my inherent prejudices against traditional 2-D (even if this one isn’t Disney). But, if my kids ever want to sit in front of an animated film for hours on end, I can’t think of a better one than The Iron Giant, especially to parents who want to subtly brainwash their kidlets into forming prejudices against the NRA at an early age (“It’s bad to kill. Guns kill. And you don’t have to be a gun.”) Based on Ted Hughes’ 1968 short-story, “Iron Man,” The Iron Giant is about a big-ass robot/weapon sent from another planet in 1957 to destroy the Earth, only the Giant loses its memory, forgets its mission, and forms a kinship with a young boy, Hogarth. However, a despicable, paranoid McCarthyistic government agent, Kent Mansley (Christopher McDonald), is hellbent on destroying the Giant, if only because he doesn’t understand it (and we always want to kill what we don’t understand). And excuse me for saying so, but The Iron Giant is the movie E.T. wished it could have been — a beautiful, transcendent film full of sophisticated humor about friendship and tolerance that is sweet-natured but not schmaltzy. Adapted and directed by “The Simpsons” alum and future writer/director of The Incredibles, Brad Bird, The Iron Giant is — above all else — an incredibly moving animated film that eschews simpering musical numbers in favor of actual humanism and delivers its message not in the form of a silly, platudinous speech, but in the sacrificial actions of the Giant. And that’s why I think The Iron Giant is the best kid-aimed film of all time.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives with his wife in Ithaca, New York. You may email him, or leave a comment below.