It’s spring break, or summer vacation, and the grandkids are visiting. Or you’re looking for a DVD for a birthday present. You want three things: a) something worthwhile (not junk); b) something they’ll enjoy (not just high-minded or educational fare); and, crucially, c) something they haven’t already seen to death.
The staples of contemporary family entertainment are ubiquitous and familiar. There’s lots of animation, above all Pixar, Disney and DreamWorks animation, and assorted other stuff (Ice Age, Despicable Me).
Then there’s live-action fantasy: Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Narnia, and of course Harry Potter and the current trend (of which I’m generally not a fan) of dark, revisionistic fairy tales (from Alice in Wonderland to the recent Oz the Great and Powerful).
Kids today are lucky if they know the likes of The Wizard of Oz, The Song of Bernadette, Singin’ in the Rain, The Sound of Music, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, Babe and The Iron Giant.
Lots of good stuff there (though older movies may require adult mediation to help kids adjust to the slower rhythms of the Golden Age). But what’s really off the beaten path for kids today? What have most kids not only not seen, but not even heard of?
Of the 10 films highlighted below (with other recommendations thrown in), I can almost promise that at least nine will be brand-new to all but the most film-savvy or fortunate kids — and all are worthwhile for grown-ups, too. (For more on all these films, see the full reviews.)
This brilliant Danny Kaye spoof of Robin Hood and Zorro surpasses the originals, with a whimsically crafty plot brimming with dazzling verbal and physical humor. Fans of The Princess Bride should love this overlooked masterpiece.
Given a chance, kids love silent film, and this “thrill comedy” from silent comedy’s “third genius,” Harold Lloyd, is my favorite introduction to silent film — for all ages. See also Keaton’s The General (1927) and Chaplin’s Gold Rush (the 1942 version). (The Kid Brother is on Vol. 2 of the Harold Lloyd Comedy Collection.)
An astonishingly well-done telling of the life of Jesus, this animated Bible film is simple enough for youngsters, yet sophisticated enough for theology students. Indispensable Holy Week family viewing, and the best animated Bible film ever, edging out The Prince of Egypt.
Sweet and clever, Rowan Atkinson’s last hurrah as Mr. Bean — on holiday in France, where he may or may not arrive at the French Riviera — is a credit to the slapstick tradition of Chaplin, Jacques Tati and Jerry Lewis.
Despite years of Disney marketing, Studio Ghibli remains family entertainment’s best-kept secret (in the USA). My Neighbor Totoro is one of their gentlest films for all ages, along with Kiki’s Delivery Service, Ponyo and The Secret World of Arrietty.
Arguably the best screen version of Peter Pan, this A&E film of the stage musical starring Cathy Rigby is truer to the spirit of J. M. Barrie’s fairy tale than Disney cartoon and other versions. Only the magical 1924 silent rivals this one.
Politically incorrect, slightly naughty and very silly, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope’s “Road” movies are perhaps best watched as a family the first time, with a judicious word here and there, but they’re great fun. If they like these, try Abbott & Costello next.
Entrancing even kids too young to read the spare subtitles, this gorgeous docudrama tells an eye-opening story of life among an extended family of yurt-dwelling nomad shepherds in the Gobi Desert. Other charming family documentaries of human and animal worlds include Atlantis (1991) and Babies (2010).
Gratifyingly faithful to Richard Adams’ beloved epic novel of anthropomorphic rabbits, this British animated film might be a bit too intense for sensitive youngsters, but for many kids it will open worlds of mythological and cultural invention.
Hilarious comic set pieces highlight Peter Bogdanovich’s homage to classic screwball comedy, clearly inspired by Bringing Up Baby (1942) — also merry family fare (especially once the leopard shows up).
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.