Today I’m going to break from my usual content and style. Back in 2008 I reviewed David Gilmour’s interesting memoir The Film Club, which describes an experiment he conducted with his teen-aged son where he “homeschooled” him for three years, the curriculum being nothing but movies. I commented there that I thought there was much of value that could come from incorporating film into a child’s education, noting specifically that carefully selected films can 1. introduce children to classic literature, 2. give children insight into other cultures, and 3. expose children to the history of film-making, and, by extension, of popular culture.
In the years since then our family has seen many, many films. In today’s post I’d like to share with you the very best of what we’ve seen in hopes that others looking for intelligent movies for children will benefit.
I should mention that all of these films were available to us thanks to Netflix, which is not paying me to say that! I have no idea how I would have ever found out about many of these movies, much less been able to rent them, without it.
1. There are many great animated films that most American children have never seen. My absolute favorites are the works of the eminent Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki. His entire oeuvre has been expertly Englished by many well-known American actors, so the movies are very accessible to children (no subtitles). If you’ve never tried a Miyazaki film I’d suggest beginning with Spirited Away. It’s visually gorgeous, with a sweeping, beautiful story. If your family likes Spirited Away you’ll probably like all of his other films as well. My own personal favorites of his are My Neighbor Totoro, which many consider his masterpiece, and Nausicaa and the Valley of the Wind. As the father of three girls, I especially love how Miyazaki’s protagonists are nearly always girls or young women full of life, intelligence, and inner drive.
2. If you like Miyazaki, there are many other neat Japanese animations. Most “anime” stuff I don’t much care for, as it is largely just a bunch of fighting and/or silliness. But there are some truly excellent works out there. These include the delightful and profound Princess Tutu, about a duck who becomes a girl who becomes a princess who helps a prince defeat the evil Raven. Every episode references either a classic ballet or classic symphonic work. I’d also recommend Whisper of the Heart, which has a time-travel theme, Millennium Actress, a genre-bending exploration of the history of a film studio and so much more, and My Neighbors the Yamadas, a quirky look at Japanese domesticity.
3. Another director we’ve enjoyed very much is the French animator Michael Ocelot. His most well-known work is Kirikou and the Sorceress, a winsome story about a little African boy who rescues his village from an evil witch and in the process heals the witch of the wound that makes her evil. Some American parents might not approve of this one since the African women and children are depicted in historically accurate attire (meaning there’s tasteful cartoon nakedness), but our kids loved it. They also loved Azur and Asmar: The Princes’ Quest. This one is set in the middle ages and does a fine job giving the flavor of the era’s Christian, Jewish, and Islamic cultures. It’s also a wonderful tale.
4. Some other great animations: The Secret of Kells, a pure delight that sort of tells the story of the young (eventual St.) Brendan and his quest to complete the famous Book of Kells. That may sound dull, but trust me, it’s great. Sita Sings the Blues is another really interesting and creative animation that both tells some of the stories of the Hindi epic The Ramayana and showcases director Nina Paley’s own quirky humor and heartbreak. A Town Called Panic is unlike anything you’ve ever seen. Of the Pixar films, our favorites are WALL-E and The Incredibles. Finally, we loved Coraline, though young kids might find it a bit too scary, and The Triplets of Belleville, though some might find it too weird.
1. Of course the 1995 version of Pride and Prejudice with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle is a family favorite. I think it’s still the best of the many Jane Austen adaptations. That same year’s Sense and Sensibility with Emma Thompson is also very good.
2. Of the many Shakespeare adaptations, our family favorites include Much ado about Nothing, which is in my view Kenneth Branagh’s best picture, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (the 1999 one with Christian Bale and Calista Flockhart). My kids for some reason also really like the Branagh version of Love’s Labour’s Lost, though most critics hated it. It, by the way, is set in World War II-era France and includes many standard songs from that era that I’m glad my kids now know.
3. There are a number of French period pieces that we have loved even though you do have to read the subtitles. The Count of Monte Cristo, starring Gerard Depardieu is lavish and engrossing. It’s also a pretty faithful re-telling of the novel until the very end. Even more powerful is the flawless, beautiful, and finally tragic duo of films Jean de Florette and its sequel Manon of the Spring. Finally there’s the delightful slice of country provincial life chronicled in another two-film work, My Father’s Glory and its sequel My Mother’s Castle.
4. Here are several other period dramas we’ve enjoyed as a family: Babette’s Feast, the best movie about making a meal you’ll ever see; Driving Miss Daisy, set in the early 1960s American South; The Secret of Roan Inish, a charming mix of fairy tale and historical realism set in Ireland; Princess Caraboo, a little-known but wonderful tale of a mysterious stranger who may or may not be a foreign princess; The Englishman who Went Up a Hill, a heart-warming and family friendly Hugh Grant film; Foyle’s War, a terrific mystery series set in Great Britain during World War II (warning: the actual crimes are sometimes shown in a more graphic manner than I wish they were); Ballet Shoes, a pleasing British film starring Emma Watson about three orphan girls and their dreams; The Railway Children, a pleasant adaptation of E. Nesbit’s classic tale; The Young Victoria, another great British costume drama; Dean Spanley, about a man who thinks he was a dog in a previous life; Catch Me if You Can, a great Spielberg movie about an American kid/forger in the 1960s running from the FBI; Enchanted April, about several British women vacationing in Italy; My Family and Other Animals, about a British family vacationing in Greece; Jeeves and Wooster (seasons 1-3), hilarious adaptations of P. G. Wodehouse’s classic stories; The Importance of Being Earnest (2002), a funny adaptation of the Oscar Wilde play; and Bleak House, an amazing 2005 adaptation of Dickens’ classic.
I’ve shown our kids very many old hollywood films. Here I’ll just list the best ones, meaning by that the ones that I thought were quality pieces of work and that the kids liked. Viewing them in order gives a great history of the development of film technology and helps children understand the origin of so many of the standard plot lines that still make up most of the movies Hollywood produces. You’ll notice the list is Hitchcock-heavy. Our kids really liked Hitchcock.
The General (1926)
City Lights (1931)
Duck Soup (1933)
The Lady Vanishes (1938)
His Girl Friday (1940)
The Man Who Came to Dinner (1941)
Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)
National Velvet (1944)
How to Marry a Millionaire (1953)
Dial M for Murder (1954)
Rear Window (1954)
Witness for the Prosecution (1957)
North by Northwest (1959)
The Beatles: Help! (1965)
How to Steal a Million (1966)
The Taming of the Shrew (1967)
There are a lot of other wonderful films/shows that don’t fit into the above categories but must be mentioned. Here follows a grab-bag assortment of family-friendly excellence, again listed in chronological order:
The Princess Bride (1987)
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988)
Gulliver’s Travels (1996)
The Truman Show (1998)
Waking Ned Devine (1998)
Galaxy Quest (1999)
Arabian Nights (2000)
The Road Home (2000)
Napoleon Dynamite (2004)
March of the Penguins (2004)
The Tiger and the Snow (2005)
The Singing Revolution (2006)
Pushing Daisies (2007-2008)
The No. 1. Ladies Detective Agency (2008)
The Color of Magic (2008)
Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog (2008)
Hachi: A Dog’s Tale (2009)
Alice in Wonderland (2010)
Temple Grandin (2010)
And that’s our list so far. If anyone wants to add to it, feel free in the comments!