Foreign films for kids?

Dispelling the notion that foreign films are strange, arty and incomprehensible is the best reason to introduce them to your children.

By Charles Taylor

Published November 2, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

| No matter how much we'd like to pretend that it's gone away, the notion that foreign films are strange, arty and incomprehensible persists. And dispelling that notion is the best reason I can think of for introducing your kids to foreign films. I don't mean the ones with "uplifting" messages or the prestige snoozers like "Jean de Florette" or "Babette's Feast" -- movies that, at any age, are about as much fun as doing your homework. But the ones that can give kids pleasure and make the great foreign movie experiences that await them -- "La Grande Illusion" or "The Apu Trilogy" or "The Bicycle Thief" -- less daunting on first viewing.

Still, I won't pretend that introducing kids to foreign films doesn't present something of a pickle. In most cases, you not only need kids old enough to read subtitles, but kids convinced that reading subtitles is worth the trouble. That's why I've cheated a bit in the following list. Some of the films I suggest here have English narration, and one is a French film made in English. And note: Not everything that follows is suitable for all ages (and only a few are appropriate for kids under 10), or even for all kids. I'd encourage you to check the movies out for yourself first. It's not every parenting chore that affords you the pleasure that watching these films will.

"The Red Balloon" and "White Mane"

Albert Lamorisse's "The Red Balloon" has probably been the first foreign film for many American kids. If you haven't seen it since it was hosted by Kukla, Fran and Ollie, you may be surprised how engrossing and lovely you still find it. Lamorisse's "White Mane," lesser known but even better, is the story of a young boy who befriends a wild horse and helps him elude capture. It was an inspiration for Carroll Ballard when he made "The Black Stallion." Sad but never manipulative, it's one of the most haunting of children's movies. (Both movies are easy to follow. "The Red Balloon" has no dialogue; "White Mane" has occasional English narration.)

"The Adventures of Milo and Otis"

The great Japanese director Kon Ichikawa ("The Makioka Sisters") worked on this live-action animal adventure. It's the story of a trouble-prone cat who becomes best friends with a responsible, reliable pug dog. When Milo (the cat) wanders far from the farm they grew up on, Otis sets off after his friend. The picture, which is gorgeously shot, features one astonishing animal performer after the other. You spend most of the film wondering, How did they do that? Your kids will be delighted by the sight of things like the pooch riding on the back of a sea turtle, or the cat playing a game of hide-and-go-seek with a bear cub. The English narration by Dudley Moore borders on the icky. But his antic, resolutely upbeat tone has an advantage: It keeps small kids from fearing that anything bad might happen. (Nothing does.)

"Beauty and the Beast"

Jean Cocteau's film of the fable is the greatest fairy tale movie ever made. Its simplicity is the key to the wonder it evokes. Beauty (Josette Day) leaves her family farm to save her father's life by paying back the debt he owes to the terrible and wonderful Beast (Jean Marais). In his castle, mirrors talk, human arms holding candelabrums come out of the wall to light passageways. None of these marvels quite matches the Beast himself, played by Marais with the dignity and sadness that only the most tragic of enchantments can evoke.

"The Wild Child" and "Small Change"

A pair of films from Frangois Truffaut. "The Wild Child," which is perhaps best for kids 10 and up, is the true story of a young boy found living in the forest whom a doctor (played by Truffaut) attempts to civilize. A film about the pain and joy of learning, it's in the same league with "The Miracle Worker," "The Elephant Man" and "My Left Foot." It's also one of the few sound films touched by the lyricism of the silents. "Small Change" is an ensemble comedy about a large group of youngsters, from toddlers to preadolescents, living in the same French town. It's (mostly) very sunny and tender (there is a young boy who, we find out, is ill-treated by the people he lives with; Truffaut doesn't show us any of that). The kids are all winning, particularly a pair of twin boys who have the panache of born con men.

"The Heroic Trio"

Hong Kong audiences don't mind violence as part of their pop entertainments, and some of the mayhem in this -- though it's on the level of a grisly comic book -- makes it unsuitable for anybody under 12. But it is awfully good-natured, and it does feature three terrific Honk Kong actresses -- Michelle Yeoh, Maggie Cheung and Anita Mui -- as a trio of superheroes who team up to defeat a demon who steals babies. The stunts and fight sequences are eye-poppers.

"The City of Lost Children"

It's not just kids who are being stolen in this film, but their dreams as well -- all for the benefit of a mad scientist who can't dream himself. There is a strong element of the grotesque in this French film, from the team of Caro and Jeunet, that I imagine would upset very small children (that and some brief nudity got it an R). It is also one of the few true pieces of magic to have graced movie screens in the last 10 or 20 years. Ron Perlman plays a strongman who teams up with a little gamine thief to retrieve his kidnapped little brother (an unflappable big-eyed charmer who seems no bigger than a thimble and devours every scrap of food in sight). Try to imagine the romantic French melodramas of the '30s invaded by the spirit of "La Strada," "Oliver!," Jules Verne and Rube Goldberg. That comes about a tenth of the way to describing how stunningly imaginative this picture is.

"Miracle in Milan"

The social commentary in Vittorio De Sica's fable will go over the heads of most kids. But they can enjoy the comedy of this fable, which captures exactly the gentle pathos Chaplin almost always overdid. Francesco Golisano plays the boy found in a cabbage patch who grows up to be Toto the Good. He founds a community of the poor and homeless and finds help from the spirit of the old lady who raised him when she descends from heaven to give him the power of miracles. This is the poetic side of the neo-realism of the great De Sica films. Even in this sweet silliness, De Sica works his own miracle: the ability to remove any barriers between you and the people on the screen.

"The Umbrellas of Cherbourg"

Every line of dialogue in Jacques Demy's ravishing musical about young love found and lost is sung. It's a pop opera that, with its brighter-than-life colors and constant music, at first appears to be no more than a confection. Demy wanted to seduce us into his bright pop universe, to show us how the film is -- at first -- a reflection of the way the young lovers (Catherine Denueve and Nino Castelnuovo) see the world and then, when circumstances part them, how the look of the movie becomes the happiness from which they are exiled. This is perhaps the most heartbreaking movie musical ever made. ("The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" is now available on video in widescreen with the color restored to its original brilliance.)

"The Fifth Element"

What's this doing on a list of foreign films? Well, director Luc Besson is French; and though it was partially funded by an American studio, it's technically a French film (it was also the biggest hit in that country last year). More important, it's a giddy cupcake of a picture that kids will probably love. In the movie's vision of the future, the streets of New York have been stacked on top of one another and airborne cars and buses and taxis zoom among the skyscrapers. One of those cabs is driven by Bruce Willis who finds himself having to save the world when a beautiful alien (Milla Jovovich, who has a ball in the part) drops -- literally -- into his flying hack. The plot is a bit of nonsense that keeps puttering along as an excuse for the actors to race good-naturedly through it. The movie eschews the dystopic vision of that gloomy stinker "Blade Runner" for an exhilarating, crazily detailed look. There's always something whizzing by in it, like a floating Thai restaurant that does its business window to window. Some parents may get a bit uptight about a silly scene of sexual innuendo in the second half; kids will probably just experience it as a little breather from everything that's going on. Besson has seen the future and it's a fruit salad.

Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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