I recently re-watched Contagion, and i had a flashback to my original viewing of it… Many months ago I trekked to the local cinema with the wife for the perfect date movie – Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion. Sitting there in the ambient darkness, waves of trailers washing over me, something suddenly caught my eye. A family of two adults, and two young children, were making their way down the stairway and corralling themselves four seats in the lower corner of the room. Were they in the wrong screening? Lion King 3D was playing next door, maybe they’d gotten lost. Should I tell them? It would be irresponsible of me not to, right? No one (and I mean NO ONE) wants to miss the opening of Lion King. A plethora of exotic wildlife painstakingly animated as they make a pilgrimage across the Serengeti to the banal sounds of Elton John’s ‘Circle of Life’, all in glorious Disney digital 3D. Who in their right mind would want to miss that!?
Two hours later, now with an innate fear of touching anything at all with my bare hands or of anyone with a cough, I noticed that said family from earlier were happily making their way from the front of the room toward the exit. They HAD, it turns out, intended on bringing the kids out for a trip to see this EXACT film. “Madness”, I hear you say…maybe not. It got me thinking – Contagion actually had very little material unsuitable for kids; no nudity, minimal profanity, almost absent of violence – it was, in fact, probably less scarring than Mufasa plummeting into a herd of Wildebeest, and then being trampled under foot (unless of course, theseparticular children actually understood the premise of Contagion. In which case, their lives are probably now a frenzy of paranoia and hypochondria)
Why should parents always have to pander to their children’s film needs. In the last 5 years, 40% of the 75 highest grossing films were family films. With the likes of The Smurfs and Alvin and the Chipmunks raking in a disproportionate amount of benjamins, it’s a worry that the youth of today will be the brain-dead of tomorrow. There is of course, an abundance of genuinely brilliant family films out there; but for every Toy Story 3 there is an Air Bud 1 through 83. We want children to be raised on a healthy diet of food, then why not a healthy diet of cinema? Of course, no one wants to destroy childhood innocence – not like my morally bankrupt parents who, before I was 9, had let me watch the likes of Predator, Die Hard and Alien. (NOTE: for the record, I should state that I may or may not have kept these particular videos inside a Mac and Me cassette case; thus rendering my parents ignorant to my viewing habits) There is a whole world of ‘proper’ films out there which are aimed at adults, but – shock – are also suitable for children.
That is not to say that kids will necessarily ‘enjoy’ these films initially, but after a few months of ‘veg’ amongst their diet of popcorn and smarties, these brave young minds will be soaking up Hitchcock, Ford and Spielberg rather than just green ogres and talking robots. To help set you on this new route I have compiled a list of 10 ‘alternative’ children’s films. I am assuming you are not a complete monster, and that your child(ren) has/have already seen the likes of The Goonies, E.T, Ghostbusters and Indiana Jones (1 to 3, not 4). So I will not be putting these in the list. Also, the list itself is not just a case of choosing PG films, after all, who wants to expose their 7-year-old to Robert Shaw’s blood soaked face in Jaws? No, this is a list of films carefully chosen because they are actually ‘suitable’ for children. Think of me like the Jamie Oliver of cinema (except less smug or head butt worthy).
1 – Life is Beautiful (1997)
It won an Oscar for a reason. Truly touching and heartfelt, this is The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas for grown ups (in fact, if your children are not too adept at reading subtitles, Boy in the Striped Pyjamas would be a good substitute) Life is Beautiful is a perfect film to inform your children about war (the reason for this, is because the film is about a man explaining/hiding the war to/from his child) Roberto Benigni’s Chaplinesque presence gives the film a spirit and warmth that will draw the family together. His rubber joint performance gives the film a much needed air of humour and joy, but he directs the film with a delicate compassion and reverence to the subject matter. Definitely a heavier film than what most kids are familiar with, but then again, they can always go watch Scar kill his brother Mufasa over in screen 12.
Parental Benefits: Sometimes it feels nice to have a good cry, and what better way to express your emotions, than in the presence of your children. Use Life is Beautiful to teach them that it is ok to embrace all emotions and to express them with loved ones. Teach them about compassion and charity, and explain to them that when they have power over another, to be kind.
2 – About a Boy (2002)
Regrettably containing two examples of the ‘F-Bomb’, this is an otherwise brilliant little film for the whole family. Funny, witty and truly heart warming, Nick Hornby’s Brit-Com stars an unusually enjoyable Hugh Grant and a pre-Skins Nicholas Hoult. The film is actually ‘about a boy’, which surely makes it suitable ‘for a boy’ (or girl). Ducks being killed by bread, high pitched singing and silly dancing – About a Boy has plenty of ‘kid friendly’ moments.
Parental Benefits: The films sardonic humour and grown up themes of responsibility are both very rewarding, and also a great talking point for discussion with your kids. There is also the whole attempted suicide thing. Never a pleasant subject, but something one could either brush off as ‘sleeping’ or to meet head on and discuss with your offspring.
3 – To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
This one has ‘classic’ written all over it. From Peck’s outstanding turn as Finch, to the dreamlike airs of Lee’s source material, To Kill a Mockingbird is an experience of quality filmmaking during the tail end of Hollywood’s golden period. A film focused around the world outlook of a young girl, To Kill a Mockingbird is like the old auntie of other great coming of age tales such as Stand By Me and Dead Poets Society. Like a rare Pokemon or an oddly shaped crisp, your children should be collecting the experience of films like To Kill a Mockingbird as a bog standard practice. In short, if your child reaches their teen years without knowing who Boo Radley is, or what Mary Badham rolling downhill in a tyre looks like, then technically you should not be a parent in the first place.
Parental Benefits: Forget The Wizard of Oz, To Kill a Mockingbird is THE quintessentialHollywood movie experience. As a child, it carries whimsy and awe. As an adult it’s the ultimate example of parental guidance; a bridge in that moment when, for the first time, a child begins to grow up. When the wearing experience of the world threaten their innocence and naivety…or maybe its our opportunity as adults to explore that transition backward, when life seems pure and humanity is full of promise.
4 – The Fifth Element (1997)
Luc Besson, Bruce Willis, Gary Oldman. Consider your child’s life 23.8% better off for watching this underrated gem. Two main areas of concern are the implied oral encounter between Ruby Rhod (Chris Tucker) and an air steward, and the partial nudity of Leeloo (Milla Jovovich) at the beginning. This aside, Fifth Element is a real gas. Spaceships, monsters, goofy clothes, blue opera singers – what more can a young mind ask for?
Parental Benefits: Euro-cinema is often something which parents rarely get to watch with their children; mainly because Europeans are so freaky-deaky, and very little of what they produce is suitable for young minds. However, like Asian cinema, there are some truly astounding filmmakers out there, making ‘proper’ films; and it’d be a shame for children not to experience this level of story telling. Luc Besson thought of The Fifth Element when he was a young boy, so you could encourage your child to create a sci-fi story of their own. Speaking of sci-fi…
5 – 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Hands up who thinks their child deserves to reach puberty without ever seeing something from StanleyKubrick….thought not. This will probably be the most tasking watch for a child (At 27, even I still struggle with an entire sitting), but there is no denying that 2001 is cinematic caviar. From the perfect shot compositions and cinematography to the intense horror of HAL’s imposition, this is the sort of stuff that infuses young minds with a new level of imagination. And for you, the adult, isn’t it nice to watch something that eyes were actually created to enjoy (as opposed to bleeding profusely at; I’m looking at you, RIO).
Parental Benefits: 2001: A Space Odyssey is a rare opportunity to show your children that not all sci-fi is Star Wars or Transformers. It will, at least, do until they are old enough to watch Blade Runner or Moon. Also, a perfect opportunity to talk to your children about the dangers of too much technology, and discuss when and how much technology should be a part of our daily lives – i.e: too much PS3, or wanting an iphone aged 8.
6- Young Frankenstein / The Producers (1974/1968)
I’ve cheated a bit here, because I don’t know which one to pick. Two films laden with sexual innuendo and irreverent humour; these might seem like an odd choice. But when you think about it a moment, didn’t you watch Look Who’s Talking when you were little? (or, if you’re a bit older, you might have ACTUALLY watched either Young Frankenstein or The Producers as a child) Sexual innuendo, (or in the case of Look Who’s Talking, blatant images of the reproductive process) is often something which goes over children’s heads. So that aside, either one of these films are great comedies – peppered with old school laughs. Mel Brooks has, and always will be, a rough cut diamond in the crown of comedy, and these are great examples of his work. Juvenile and pure slapstick, kids will lap this up.
Parental Benefits: The whole Nazi issue of The Producers will probably not be something your 6-year-old is familiar with. So, on second thoughts, maybe give The Producers a wide birth if you are not prepared to explain to your child why ‘springtime for Hitler’ is not an appropriate song to sing at school. As for Young Frankenstein, it opens up a doorway to exploring the absurdity of monsters with your children, and maybe even dispelling that rumour of the boogieman (NOTE: a perfect partner film to Pixar’s Monsters Inc).
7 – The Party (1968)
Classic Peter Sellers, The Party is definitely one of those films which will reward children’s patience. A great example of improvised cinema and comedy, before Hollywood became potty mouthed, The Party contains scene after scene of pure brilliance. “Birdy num nums”, swinging door mayhem and “Howdy part-en-er”, this is Sellers at his best. (If The Party goes down well, then maybe a visit to a more well known Sellers/Edwards collaboration like The Pink Panther might be welcome).
Parental Benefits: You get to watch Peter Sellers, what more can a grown up ask for? In terms of family discussion, the sweet natured character of Hrundi Bakshi could be looked at. When we stay innocent and good natured, can we avoid the negative influences of life?
8 – Lars and the Real Girl (2007)
On the surface, Lars and the Real Girl may appear to be just about a man and his ‘multi-purpose’ doll, but dig a little deeper and you will find some of the most fundamental lessons taught in children’s stories. ‘Be yourself’, ‘appreciate those you love’, ‘never judge a book by its cover’, ‘family over isolation’, ‘innocence instead of worldliness’. Lars and the Real Girl deals with themes of love, loss and friendship; it is a film with a massive heart. Visually there is nothing arresting about Lars and the Real Girl, nor is there any distinct signature which would set it apart from generic films. But it’s the acting, the writing and the patience of the film which exhibit what all us film junkies have been saying for years – independent cinema is not all art projects and sinister tone.
Parental Benefits: We bump into a similar snag here, as we did with Mel Brooks – after all, the film is about a sex doll! But, as with Mel Brooks, this sort of thing is a lot more deficient to children. Lars Lindstrom (Ryan Gosling) never, as far as we can tell, intends of using his faux girlfriend for anything other than a surrogate friendship. To kids, it’s just funny that a grown man is playing with dolls, but what we can teach them here, is that Lars is sick, and that its love and support which help him improve – not ridicule and spite.
9 – The Searchers (1956)
The first of my two most clichéd choices, but I refuse to apologise for insisting that your child(ren) should watch a true masterpiece. The quintessential western; it has cowboys, Indians, chases, battles, stand offs, John Wayne, idyllic desert settings and a dab of racism (an issue which can be discussed, i.e; how does Ethan overcome his bigoted views?) There is no denying that John Ford was and still is the most talented director in history when it came to establishing the conventions of a genre. With a film that has more iconic shots than you can shake a stick at, The Searchers will encourage kids to slow down from the 3 second a.s.l (average shot length) of modern cinema, and begin to appreciate the beauty of long lingering stationary cinematography. In the meantime, you get to watch a solid film, safe in the knowledge that you are doing a wonderful thing for your children.
Parental Benefits: There are various themes to be explored here; bravery, racism, patience, the destructive nature of rivalry. But the biggest benefit of a film like The Searchers is that it will give your child(ren) a taste of classic cinema magic. Not the Spielberg kind (which of course is also a necessary part of childhood cinema), but rather the awe and warmth that well made ‘old fashion’ films can bring. Granted, kids might have to build up to this snail paced 2 hour epic. But once they are there, it will be a real experience.
10 – North by Northwest (1959)
Part two of my cliché matinee, easily the most family friendly Hitchcock film out there. Of course, one has a choice of other classic such as 39 Steps, The Man who Knew Too Much, Vertigo, Rear Window, but North by Northwest seems to me, to be the most overtly accessible of Hitchcock’s ‘PG’ catalogue. Like To Kill a Mockingbird and The Searchers it is a treasured relic of a faded period in cinematic history. For kids it has the plane chase, fights on Mount Rushmore, spies and much more. For adults….well we want exactly the same, don’t we? Hitchcock was a true master of filmmaking. If Michael Bay is the Freddo frog of cinema, then Hitchcock is Thorntons, and North by Northwest is his Christmas chocolate selection. Fun, cool, scary and iconic, North by Northwest is the sort of film that primary school kids should be shown at schools (not like the drivel I was forced to watch as a defenceless minor, namely Georgie Girl and Ghost Writer).
Parental Benefits: I cannot scientifically prove anything, but tests show that children who watch Hitchcock films like this at a young age, grow to become very successful and fulfilled. According to reports (which I wrote myself) Hitchcock’s genius is soaked up vicariously by young viewers, and makes them into better people. Aside from that, North by Northwest is just a ripping good film, and the majority of modern films are in some way inspired by Hitchcock’s work anyway – even Mr Popper’s Penguins. So why go out for burgers, when you have the celluloid equivalent of a juicy steak at home? (Unless of course, you own NONE of these films. In which case there is no helping you.)
Other notable mentions:
- Napoleon Dynamite
- Where the Wild Things Are
- Apollo 13
- King Kong (1933)
- The Prestige
- Minority Report
- Matchstick Men