Canadian cinema is known for many things. The National Film Board is recognized internationally as being one of the world’s best producers of documentaries and animation. Our horror films (both from the tax shelter era and beyond) are known for being especially creepy and disturbing. Our auteurs (from Cronenberg to Egoyan to Maddin) have some of the most distinctive voices in modern cinema. Most people probably don’t think of kids’ movies when you say “Canadian film”, but it’s an area in which we have quietly excelled for decades, especially during the heyday of the 1970s and “˜80s, when QuÃ©bÃ©cois producer Rock Demers created some of our most memorable children’s movies.
Demers’ first foray into children’s fare was in 1971, with a strange and little known film called Le Martien de NoÃ«l (The Christmas Martian), about (surprise, surprise) a Martian who comes to a small QuÃ©bec town around Christmastime and makes friends with the local children. While the film has never been released on DVD and might have been impossible to find in pre-internet days, someone has taken it upon themselves to put the entire thing on YouTube. The film was Canada’s first independently produced children’s feature film (though the NFB had been churning out shorts for kids for some time), and is an enjoyably bizarre and obviously pretty low budget romp.
A few short years later, in 1975, came the next entry into the annals of Canadian children’s cinema, The Mystery of the Million Dollar Hockey Puck, a film so Canadian, it starred several members of the 1975 Montreal Canadiens lineup, including Ken Dryden and Guy Lafleur. The film, about an orphan who discovers a plot by a gang of thieves to smuggle diamonds in the equipment of his favourite team (the Habs, natch) is an enjoyable (if somewhat slow) mystery, and was directed by Jean LaFleur, who also directed one of the notorious Ilsa films ( Ilsa The Tigress of Siberia , if you’re curious).
In 1978, we hit the zenith of Canadian-ness when one of the most beloved books by one of our most beloved authors (Mordecai Richler’s Jacob Two Two Meets the Hooded Fang) was adapted to the screen. Even though the film version of Jacob Two Two was actually directed by an American, it’s otherwise about as Canadian as it gets. There is no official trailer for the film, but this charmingly homemade one should give you an idea of what to expect.
In the 1980s, Canada really hit its stride, and that’s the decade in which Rock Demers produced three of the most strange and iconic children’s classics (and a number of other, lesser known ones). Though Demers was not officially a producer on The Christmas Martian (he distributed the film), it did launch him into the world of kids’ movies, where he remained the reigning champ. In 1980, Demers’ company, Productions La FÃªte, launched the Tales for All series, which was initially intended to be a nine-film anthology of family-friendly films. The success of the early films led to the expansion of the series first to a dozen titles, then a few more, until, well, it just never ended. The most recent Tales for All production (the 23rd), A Cargo To Africa, came out in 2009.
The first Tales for All production (not counting The Christmas Martian, that is) was 1984’s La guerre des tuques (The Dog Who Stopped the War), a heartwarming and heartbreaking tale of a town whose kids are engaged in an intense snowball war. A year later, Demers teamed up with director Michael Rubbo and made The Peanut Butter Solution (recently discussed in our own Essential Cinema column), a film that’s almost too surreal to put down in a simple plot description. A young boy loses all his hair after a terrible fright, and is visited by some ghosts who give him a recipe for a peanut-butter-based solution (hence the title) that will help grow it back. The boy’s hair starts growing back at a shockingly speedy rate, but this isn’t even where the super weird stuff begins. There’s also an abduction, an insane art teacher, some magical paintings, and well, trust me. This one has to be seen to be believed. Unfortunately, like most of the QuÃ©bÃ©cois childrens’ films of this era, it’s not out on DVD (in its English-language incarnation, that is. The entire Tales for All collection has been released on French-language DVD), and pretty hard to find on VHS (though not so hard to find on YouTube).
While the Tales for All series produced several other films in the 1980s, the best-remembered was the 1988 adventure film, Tommy Tricker and the Stamp Traveller, for which he once again paired up with Michael Rubbo. The film (like, honestly, all of Demers’ productions) features a totally weird and surreal plot. After Ralph mistakenly trades his father’s most prized stamp to tricky Tommy, adventures ensue and Ralph finds himself on a journey aboard a postage stamp headed for Australia. The film wasn’t as much of a hit as some of Demers’ other efforts, but it did spawn the 1994 sequel, The Return of Tommy Tricker .
ONe of the very few notable children’s films of this era that didn’t come out of Demers’ hit-factory was George’s Island . A spooky Halloween tale about two kids who go searching for the treasure of Captain Kidd with their eccentric old grandpa, it delivers some real scares and mixes them up with some real history, and in a very different tone than the wacky and off-kilter Tales for All .
While there have been a few interesting entries into the Canadian children’s movie canon since the late “˜80s (such as 2004’s Summer with the Ghosts , about a ten-year-old girl’s spooky holiday adventure), and even some that didn’t come from the Rock Demers camp (such as the lighthearted 2006 fantasy A Lobster Tale ), no director, producer or production company has ever come close to attaining the dizzying heights of Productions La FÃªte’s Tales for All . Demers’ legendary name is practically synonymous with the very idea of children’s films in Canada, and the most amazing thing is, he’s still at it.
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