I stand before you ready to fully admit my perhaps excessive serious-mindedness. I’ve rarely been able to enjoy a film “just for fun”. There have been a few exceptions, of course: Wayne’s World (1992), The Cutting Edge (1992), and maybe even, on an exceptional day, something saccharine yet playful like Home Alone (1990). But for the most part, when my twenty-something friends suggested a couple of years back that we all go see Madagascar (2005) in the theatre, I groaned pretentiously and declared I was going to stay home to read post-structuralist literary theory instead. I know, I know… even I hate myself. Well, time to make a change! As part of TFS’ Kids’ Cinema Month, I’m going to jump into those dad-joke-filled puddles of optimism, earnestness, and joy known as kids’ films.
Of course, kids’ films can be as wide or narrow a category as you want it to be. I decided to stick to the last couple decades or so of English-language films, for no particular reasons other than to narrow it down. I began by asking myself what I was like as a kid, and what kinds of things I actually enjoyed, thinking this might translate into some clues about what kinds of kids’ films my adult self might enjoy. My answer was singular and immediately obvious: Roald Dahl.
As a kid, I voraciously consumed the man’s fantastical and charmingly high-brow tales of kids outsmarting adults, so I decided to watch two recent adaptations: Matilda (Danny DeVito, 1996) and James and the Giant Peach (Henry Selick, 1996). I immediately remembered what I liked about Dahl: both of these films have a remarkably dark sensibility, and yet it somehow translates well into children’s fare. Matilda is, quite frankly, a delightful and light-hearted romp through severe child abuse and neglect. James (he of the Giant Peach) loses his parents to a murderous rhinoceros and goes on to befriend a peach-dwelling spider and his Gothic insect friends. Indeed, the latter is a film obviously infused by the Gothic sensibility of Tim Burton, spindly legs and cavernous skulls and all.
I think Matilda , in particular, is actually a remarkable film: at the core of it, our protagonist suffers what would otherwise be unendurable abuse, and yet she’s crafty, witty, self-confident, and ultimately victorious against her oppressors. What a positive role model, not only for kids, but adults alike! Watch this film and you’ll find yourself taking a deep breath and standing up for yourself against all kinds of bullies, whether they’re of the schoolyard or the office variety.
I decided I should make it up to my friends from 2005 by actually watching Madagascar and… breaking news: it’s actually pretty good. Look, it’s not Great Cinema… but it’s pretty good. The lively animation and undeniably catchy musical numbers can’t fail to stop you from nodding along with a grin. There: I’m broken. I’m watching a kids’ film and I’m smiling and I’m liking it. Sigh. It certainly helps that marketing gurus have caught on to the lucrative potential of making so-called kids’ films that adults actually enjoy. The trio of mafia-esque penguins in Madagascar frequently crack jokes that I’m pretty sure kids don’t get, and the hedonistic, languishing King Julian is basically a play on the stoner clichÃ© (hardly kid-appropriate material). Anyway, let’s just say you could watch Madagascar with full-grown friends and some wine and not have a horrible time. Plus: there are two sequels.
Moving along with contemporary animated kids’ films that contain a suspicious amount of jokes addressed to an adult audience: I sat down to watch Rango (Gore Verbinski, 2011) on a particularly low sick day. Guys, this movie rules. For kids, for adults, I don’t even care. It’s the best. From its opening moments, the film plays with such an incredible degree of absurdim that I thought maybe David Lynch had decided to make an animated film. Not so. This little slice of avant-garde pie is for the weird kids. Yes, the plotline is conventional: confused pet lizard sets out to find himself, becomes hero, saves an oppressed town, gets the girl in the end. But the film looks, from beginning to end, like something out of an LSD nightmare. My eyes were dried-out from not blinking throughout the film. If you truly want to see some of the most imaginative and creative art direction in recent cinema, Rango has it. Plus, it emerges as a charmingly light homage to one of my favourite films of all time: Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974). You’ll have to watch Rango to see just how this homage plays out.
To return briefly to the Roald Dahl train of thought: I recalled the fuss of a couple of years ago, by kids and adults alike, over the apparently remarkable Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson, 2009), a stop-motion animation adaptation of Dahl’s book. At the time, I just considered the film too unbearably adorable to even give a second thought. Well, it turns out Mr. Anderson was faithful to the complexity and nuance of Dahl’s book: the film is a joyfully destructive critique of contemporary capitalism and its attendant labour exploitation. Who knew?! And George Clooney (as the voice of Mr. Fox) obviously charms the pants off anyone (par for the course, Clooney). Last year’s critical hit Hugo (Martin Scorsese, 2011) also seemed to me to be a bit too Jumanji -esque to stomach, but I decided that, as part of this project, I should check it out. Who knew this would be a heartbreaking story about humanity’s love of the magic of cinema! I’m tearing up even as I think about poor old Monsieur MÃ©liÃ¨s (Ben Kingsley) and his dashed passions!
I stand before you having learned an important lessons about not only kids’ films but also about myself. With respect to the former: they often harbour a depth, creativity, and darkness of a kind I never expected to find in what I formerly considered light-hearted and joyous fare. With respect to the latter: I need to stop being so sour!
MORE FROM TORONTO FILM SCENE
- The surreal history of Canadian children’s films
- Cinema Revisited: kids’ movies we used to love as kids
- TFS Essential Canadian Cinema: The Peanut Butter Solution