Who needs to review earnest indie films when we can argue about kids' movies for the rest of the summer? We can argue not just over which of six or seven animated films by Hayao Miyazaki is the best fit, or whether "The Muppets Take Manhattan" trumps both "The Muppet Movie" and "The Great Muppet Caper," or whether "Holes" and "Millions" and "Three Adventures of Wallace & Gromit" all belonged on the original list (no, no and I'm not quite sure). We can argue about the underlying philosophy and maybe even epistemology of the whole thing, as in, what is a "kids' movie" or "family film," anyway? Mere pablum laced with anesthetic, or training wheels for Tarkovsky?
It's the Awesome Kids' Video Project, a gift that just keeps on giving! As promised, here's the list of runners-up from the impromptu reader poll I ran in early June, all movies that got at least one enthusiastic vote but didn't quite seem to fit on our final list, for good reasons or bad. But before we get to that I want to wrestle briefly with three themes that emerged in the reader response -- which was, once again, amazing -- to the list I published here over the weekend.
One reader wrote that she was a public-school teacher in New Orleans, and suggested (without any rancor, I believe) that this list was tailored to upper-middle-class metropolitan or suburban kids, adding that it might be mighty tough to get the kids in her class, all African-American and mostly poor, to watch these movies. My first response was to feel: Ouch, she touched a nerve. Anytime we write or think about culture, unconscious prejudice comes into play, and under the surface of a subject like "movies for the whole family" lies a vast reef of unspoken assumptions. Speaking personally, I was raised not merely in the white middle class but also in the intelligentsia -- a subset of a subset -- and of course that affects my worldview in ways I'm not likely to notice.
But the more I thought about it, the more complicated the problem became. We could and perhaps should have included the wonderful 1972 film "Sounder" on the list (it got several votes), and the 1976 TV miniseries about Harriet Tubman, "A Woman Called Moses," should be required viewing for all Americans. But I don't think questions of representation or diversity, important as they may be, really speak to this reader's point. Let's ask the question a different way: Is there something innate about poor black children in the Ninth Ward or West Oakland or Bedford-Stuyvesant that makes them unable to enjoy a Chaplin film or "My Neighbor Totoro" or "Small Change"?
Most of us will immediately reply no, there isn't, and most of us will readily agree, after a moment's consideration, that poor white children in exurban trailer parks aren't super-likely to embrace those movies either. So the problem is not about skin color or income level. It's about class, and that nebulous corollary of class that sociologists call "cultural capital."
A household where the grown-ups might even consider putting on a Buster Keaton film or old Betty Boop cartoons or a foreign flick on family-movie night already has certain cultural advantages over a household where the question would never come up. Sure, an eclectic movie habit may correlate with whiteness and middle-class-ness to some extent, but it's likely to correlate much more strongly with other stuff, like a liberal-arts education, lots of books in the house and wide travel. This is a rich and diverse country these days; I can think of one biracial kid about my age who was raised in straitened circumstances, and who I'm willing to bet watched all kinds of stuff while he was growing up. He's now the prospective Democratic nominee for president.
Ultimately, I think my response to this question is the same as my response to the populist-contrarians in the readership, whose argument goes: Bah humbug to all you pious, virtuous liberals trying to make your children watch boring movies! No red-blooded American kid will put up with your black-and-white, silent, vitamin-enriched tedium over the full-bore amphetamine excitement of corporate-grade CGI entertainment! Perhaps I am paraphrasing, but you get the gist.
To which I say this: Most young people (and most adults, for that matter) in the United States consume a limited range of entertainment products, sold to them by a few large corporations, for the same reason they eat food that makes them sick. It's all they know about, and almost literally all they can see. Beneath an ideological umbrella of unlimited freedom and uninhibited choice, they are offered a constricted array of predigested selections, and persuaded that they do not like things they have not tried.
This list does not seek to undermine the Walt Disney Company's hegemony in the family-film market (not an achievable goal in any case), just to burrow out a reed-sized space at the margins where it's possible to see alternatives. If my 4-year-old son Desmond had asked to watch "Cars" this morning while his mom was working in the garden, he could have. He chose "A Field Trip to the Minivan Assembly Plant" instead. My daughter Nini loves Disney's "Dumbo" over all other movies -- with "The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh" in second place -- but she also watched about half of Giuseppe Tornatore's "The Unknown Woman" with me, without understanding a word of the spoken Italian or being able to read the subtitles. (I'm pretty sure the prostitution and murder subplots went over her head.) If our family's built-in eccentricities are competing, at least, with the ministrations of multinational corporations -- well, I think that's all we can hope for.
Which brings me to a final question raised by readers: Why does the category of "family film" or "children's film" exist at all? Are we patronizing children, or inoculating them with substance-free pap, by insisting on such a thing? Eric Beckman, head of the New York International Children's Film Festival, says he wrestles with these questions daily, without finding a satisfactory answer. I'll respond by referring to the journalist's best friend, the gross (and totally unproven) statistical average.
My parents started taking me to art films before I was 10, and R-rated Hollywood films not long after that. Some kids -- like my daughter, I am guessing -- virtually cry out for it. If your 7-year-old loves "Kagemusha" or "Godfather II," you damn sure don't need my permission. Other young children may, like my stepsister, find "Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree" unbearably traumatic. Most kids fall somewhere in between those poles, which brings us back to our initial subject: finding slightly offbeat, not-quite-current videos for kids and adults to watch together while midsummer evening gathers into dusk and the crickets under the azalea bush begin their cheep-cheep-cheep. Herewith the list of runners-up and rejects, in no order and minimally notated.
"Holes" A lot of votes. I've never seen it and maybe younger-kid bias kicked in, but I also felt it was too recent and had been a pretty big hit. Would certainly have filled a niche, since I gather the target audience is, like, 10-14.
"Millions" Danny Boyle's kids' movie has a real constituency, judging from the votes. I haven't seen it, but made an impromptu decision that anything made in this century, at least if it got anything close to mainstream theatrical release, was ineligible.
"The Mouse and His Child" Adaptation of Russell Hoban's beloved, if slightly spooky, kids' book. Not available on U.S. DVD at the moment.
"The Phantom Tollbooth" Chuck Jones' adaptation of Norton Juster's children's classic is not universally beloved by the novel's fans, but it's too hard to find in any case.
"Ronja Rovardotter" The foreign-language quota was full, but I'm mighty curious about this Swedish film, apparently a Scandinavian kids' classic. Anyone seen it?
"Playtime" Got votes, but I thought one Jacques Tati title was enough. (Too much, says Eric Beckman.)
"The Singing Ringing Tree" OK, this East German kids' film from 1957 was suggested by a film-critic friend, as an example of the thematically intense, folktale-based children's cinema for which the GDR's film industry became famous. It sounds awesome, and I love the German title: "Das Singende, klingende Bäumchen."
"True Stories" Yes, really -- the David Byrne/Talking Heads movie from 1986. Got a couple of votes, and I was seriously tempted. Will damn sure show it to my kids in a couple of years.
"The Cat From Outer Space" Quirky, lesser, live-action Disney flick from the late '70s. Feh.
"The Ghost and Mr. Chicken" Somebody's kids, in 2000-whatever, actually want to watch a Don Knotts movie? No foolin'? Well, I guess this demented family-horror-mystery would be the one, although I haven't seen it myself in 40 years.
"Journey to the Center of the Earth" Several readers suggested this 1959 sci-fi epic with James Mason, but I couldn't tell if they had actually watched it and confronted how peculiarly boring it is.
"Father Frost" (aka "Jack Frost") Soviet-era Russian folktale film, made briefly famous among stoners via the "Mystery Science Theater 3000" takedown.
"On the Town" With "Singin' in the Rain" and "Meet Me in St. Louis," we had enough musical classics. But of course this is a great one.
"Fantastic Planet" Tripped-out 1973 animation from French director René Laloux, set on an alien planet where humans are kept as pets by 50-foot-tall superior beings. Most adults will already find the erotic and/or sadomasochistic surrealism of this film plenty disturbing, but I can buy that some teens and tweens will be blown away.
"Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation" Jimmy Stewart family-vacation comedy from 1962. A couple of votes, but I've never seen it. Sounds unbelievably square.
"Spirited Away" Second-most votes of any Miyazaki film, but some distance behind "My Neighbor Totoro." Despite the fact that the main character is a young girl, this picture's gloomy, spooky view of the spirit world strikes me as a good fit for significantly older kids, probably 12 and up.
"The Wiz" I love this idea, actually, but not having seen the movie in umpty-ump years, I'm concerned that it might really, really suck. Diana Ross was 34 at the time she played Dorothy.
"Sounder" A true classic of American family entertainment, with a tremendous African-American cast. I didn't include it because it was such a staple of my own childhood that it seemed too familiar, but that's almost certainly unfair.
"The Triplets of Belleville" Remarkable French animated film from 2003 got a ton of votes. Struck me as too recent, and also primarily as a movie for teenagers and adults.
Wallace & Gromit I was a little overwhelmed by the choices when it came to Nick Park's beloved claymation duo -- who appear in numerous shorts and at least one feature -- and also uncertain whether the sheer number of votes meant that the lovably quirky W&G universe was so well-known it didn't need to be included. Still, you could say the same thing about the Muppets, right? So this omission could well be an error in judgment.
"Anne of Green Gables" (1985) Readers evidently adore this TV version with Colleen Dewhurst and Richard Farnsworth. Haven't seen it and never had any relationship with the source material. Blame sexism.
"Bedknobs and Broomsticks" A popular Disney classic from 1971 that mixes animation and live action, with Angela Lansbury, Roddy McDowall, et al. No real excuse for not including it, except that it's pretty well known and broke my (entirely arbitrary) rule about no Disney films of the last four decades.
"The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T" I came very close to including this bizarre, Dr. Seuss-scripted paranoid fantasy from 1953, but it didn't get all that many votes, and the darker section of the store was already filled with "Time Bandits," "Baron Munchausen," "Nightmare Before Christmas" and "Secret of NIMH."
"The Muppet Movie" I give up: This one or "Great Muppet Caper" or "Muppets Take Manhattan" or pretty much any DVD of "The Muppet Show." There's not really a bad direction to go here.
"The Little Fugitive" (aka "The Coney Island Kid") Only got one vote, but this Ray Ashley-Morris Engel slice-of-life from 1953, about a little boy who believes (incorrectly) that he has killed his brother and runs away to Coney Island, was a key influence on François Truffaut and the French New Wave, and prefigures American indie-film themes and techniques by at least 30 years. Newly available in a Morris Engel box set from Kino Video, this is an important film -- but I have no idea how it would play with actual children.
"National Velvet" Mickey Rooney, a 12-year-old Liz Taylor and a horse. Of course it could have made the list. Just the teeniest fusty feeling, perhaps?
"Where the Red Fern Grows" Decent 1974 adaptation of beloved boy-and-dog movie. Didn't seem special enough.
"The Man From Snowy River" I've never seen this family-friendly Aussie western directed by "the other" George Miller (see below), but it's evidently well-loved. Planning to check it out.
"Babe" OK, mea culpa on this omission, pretty much. My defense is that it was made in 1995 and was a decent-sized hit, but a whole generation of parents may well have forgotten about it. Produced and scripted (but not directed) by George Miller of the "Mad Max" films, who also made the sequel, "Babe: Pig in the City," described by Roger Ebert as "the 'Citizen Kane' of talking-pig pictures." That one's for precocious 8-year-olds and up, while my 4-year-old twins adore this one.