In this week’s column I tackle how to pick a family movie that you might actually enjoy . We all know there is an abundance of terrible kids’ movies out there, but there are some really great ones too. Here are some of my favourites:
The Iron Giant – Here’s how much I love this movie: I’ve watched it half a dozen times since it came out in 1999, and I haven’t even shown it to my kids yet. (It’s so good I don’t want to risk letting them see it before they can fully appreciate it.) The story is similar to E.T. – lonely boy meets mysterious visitor, strange happenings ensue – but there’s a whole lot going on in this film adapted from a Ted Hughes story. With a small American town during the Cold War as his backdrop, director Brad Bird packs in some deep thoughts on life, death and the nature of the soul; an understated observation of how violence only begets violence; a spiritual allegory; and a perfectly executed toilet joke. It’s a brilliant film. Though it does get intense in the final act (there are military vehicles with large guns), so I wouldn’t show it to very young or sensitive children.
The Incredibles – Picking the best Pixar movie is like picking the best Radiohead album: there’s so much good material to choose from that it’s better not to rank them and just enjoy each on its own terms. But The Incredibles remains my personal favourite, and one of the kids’ favourites too. Essentially a family drama disguised as an action movie, it manages to be exciting, hilarious and poignant—sometimes in the same scene. Incidentally, it’s also directed by Brad Bird, who has yet to make even a mediocre movie. (He has also made the superb Ratatouille and one live-action movie: the above-average action flick Mission Impossible 4: Ghost Protocol.)
How to Train Your Dragon – The first time I saw this movie, it was one of the most pleasant viewing surprises I’ve had in ages. On the surface it sounds potentially goofy: a tribe of vikings at odds with a horde of dragons, told from the perspective of a kid named Hiccup. But this film based on Cresida Crowell’s novels is a real gem. Its otherworldly setting and truly impressive flying scenes reminded me a bit of Avatar—only this film contains better writing and way more heart than James Cameron’s blockbuster. I love it just as much on repeat viewings.
Toy Story 2 & 3 – Toy Story one of those rare series where the sequels improve on the original. The first one is very good, not to mention an animation landmark for its era (those long-ago mid-’90s), but the next two installments hold up even better as great stories. The third film was one of the best movies of 2010… not to mention one of the most emotionally intense. But for sheer family rewatchability, Toy Story 2 is my favourite.
Spirited Away – Japanese director Miyazaki makes odd, abstract children’s movies. Spirited Away starts with a girl named Chihiro and her parents getting lost. They stop at a fair, her parents each so much that they literally turn into pigs, and Chihiro wanders off to a mystical bath house run by an old lady named Yubaba. The plot, if you want to call it that, also involves a giant baby and an ethereal creature called No-Face. It’s less of a story than a dreamlike experience. And it’s gorgeous.
Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit – The Wallace and Gromit short films, about a flighty inventor and his extremely clever dog, are all excellent, and the characters and concept carry over well in this full-length movie. The films are a visual treat, packed with clever sight gags and dry British humour.
Fantastic Mr. Fox/James and the Giant Peach – These two films have three things in common: they’re both adapted from great works by Roald Dahl, they use unique animation techniques, and most importantly they’re highly enjoyable. I happen to be a fan of Wes Anderson (Rushmore, The Royal Tennenbaums, Moonrise Kingdom), but even if you don’t like his “grown-up” films, his meticulously quirky style is well-suited for the odd world of Mr. Fox and his friends. Plus, how can you go wrong with a film that features George Clooney, Meryl Streep and Bill Murray as furry animals?
There are others I could list. I love Up, Wall-E, and most Pixar movies—though I could gladly go the rest of my life without seeing either Cars film again. Despicable Me managed to be oddly sweet without crossing into “cute,” and the Kung Fu Panda movies are better than their premise suggests. (The downside, though, is they seem to encourage my kids to practise their ninja moves on me.) And I haven’t even touched older classics like The Princess Bride. But tell me—what movies do you and your kids both love?