Most child orientated movie fare is rubbish. The storylines are carbon copy, jovial beginning, perilous middle, happy ending affairs that blend the predictable and the humdrum to create a conglomerate of woe. The characters are endlessly annoying and two-dimensional, usually painted with colours so bright only a toddler with unsullied eyes can look directly at them. Throw in some sappy musical interludes and heavy handed moralising and the perfect children’s movie will be yours. But who decided that children would be entertained by this sort of piffle? I’m pretty sure kids weren’t consulted when Walt Disney came up with his perfect kiddie movie template. Don’t ask them what they want, tell them what they want. Balls to that was what I said as a kid and luckily enough I had parents that shared my view, or at least didn’t ask too many questions when I ejected Aristocats (1970)
from the VCR and stuffed Aliens (1986)
in its place. Sure, under fives might be enthralled by talking dogs bounding threw lush animated fields to rescue their chums fluffy pussy and hairy beaver, but that baloney isn’t going to wash once the first decade marker of life appears on the horizon. As the Enid Blyton era becomes an ever distant splodge of strawberry jam on the buttered scone of history, so kids become more ravenous for cinema that is "cool”, "whack” and other adjectives of the moment. And if you’re a parent you better hope that a small number of intrepid filmmakers continue to break the rules of acceptable children’s movies, because chances are you’re going to be sitting through these films over and over again as well. Or at least listening to them from the relative safe haven of the kitchen. So to ensure that your sanity remains largely intact as your little darlings slope into the funk of teenhood, here are ten movies for children that can also entertain the most stoic adult.
- The JUNGLE BOOK (1967)
A great Disney film can be a thing of wonder. But the studio sure works hard to ensure most of them aren’t. The sumptuous animation of Beauty and the Beast (1991) was marred by killing the "its okay to be who you are” message by transforming the sympathetic beast into a lunk-headed catalogue model. Robin Williams perfect casting and performance as the Genie in Aladdin (1992) was pissed over by sickly, chemistry free love scenes. The Little Mermaid (1989) was ruined when we didn’t get to see Ariel’s tits; Daryl Hannah never wore a bra. But there were no Gremlins in the works during Disney’s golden era. The Jungle Book (1967) was the House of Mouse at its finest. Wonderful animation turned cartoon creatures into beings with more heart than can be found in most live action movies. Timeless, toe-tapping musical numbers were exquisitely performed. A streak of mischievous, sarcastic humour ran through its heart, "I’ll learn him all I know….Oh? That shouldn’t take long”. In all it was a strong story with real emotional weight, and great moments of light and shade. Animation has come a long way since Wolfgang Reitherman directed arguably Disney’s greatest picture. The improvements in graphical quality have not always been matched by improvements in story telling, but when The Jungle Book created a tale so perfect its hard to imagine it being topped. The characters drawn from Rudyard Kipling’s original stories, Baloo, Mowgli, Bagheera, King Louie, voiced to perfection by Phil Harris, Louis Prima et al remain as watchable today as they ever were. If you’re going to plonk yourself in front of the television with your offspring there remains no better film to share.
Tasty Morsel – Director Reitherman cast his own son Bruce as the voice of young Mowgli.
- WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (1971)
Roald Dahl was a writing genius. Not only could he craft a tale of terror that would scare even the pluckiest adult, he wrote some of the most spellbinding children’s books ever. A man then who liked to bask in both ends of life’s literary swimming pool. He also liked to blur the lines and would often slip some nightmarish turns into his kiddie fiction. Mel Stuart’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) was a musical adaptation of one of Dahl’s most beloved but sinister works Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The tale was well known, hard-up boy wins ticket to visit the mystifying sweet factory of Willy Wonka and through his good character is chosen as Wonka’s heir. It was lovely morality tale for the wee ones. But to keep the adults entertained Stuart embraced all the shady undertones of Dahl’s story. If you think most kids are overfed, over-stimulated hellions watch a bunch of them get killed in increasingly bizarre, confectionary based mishaps. The orchestrator is Gene Wilder, his Wonka a slightly schizophrenic old kook with orange faced midgets on hand to do his bidding. Chuck in some creepy song and dance numbers, "Oompa Loompa”, and Stuart’s film is a colourful ninety minutes for kids and a beguiling, eerie experience for oldies. But not everyone was pleased with the outcome, with Dahl refusing to sell the rights to his literary sequel Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator due to his disappointment with the finished picture. A remake wasn’t out of the question though, and who better to mount a reimaging than Tim Burton. Unfortunately, he roped in his eternal collaborator Johnny Depp to fill Wonka’s shoes. No bad thing on paper, but with a mound of quirky characters already under his belt Depp’s portrayal paled against his extraordinary Edward Scissorhands and legendary Jack Sparrow. This combined with characterless CGI made Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) a bland boiled sweet compared to the exquisite popping candy of Stuart’s original.
Tasty Morsel – Dahl’s original choice to play Willy Wonka was balmy British comedian Spike Milligan. Unfortunately, the studio didn’t share his enthusiasm.
- DOUGAL AND THE BLUE CAT (1972)
If you were a student in the UK between 1965 and 1977, verbalizing the noise "boing” brings back fond memories. This twelve year span was when The Magic Roundabout television series was first broadcast, and though it was produced to entertain children, fun loving students and grown adults alike tuned in by the million to bask in its dry humour and alternative lifestyle leanings. The show was originally produced in France by animator Serge Danot but it was not until the BBC got hold of it and persuaded Eric Thompson (father of Emma) to rewrite and perform scripts over the top of the original animation that it became a hit. Danot produced a full length feature in 1970, title translated to Dougal and the Blue Cat (1970) and Thompson was once again on hand for voice acting duties. Taking the psychedelic qualities of the television series to new heights, the film borrows the plot of The Beatles Yellow Submarine (1968) with mysterious new character Buxton the Blue Cat wanting to turn everything in the world into a shade of blue. All the usual off-kilter characters are there, including mushroom snorting favourite Dylan, but the dark story covers their airy-fairy televisual antics with a something much more sinister. Riffs on corruptive power and totalitarianism, complete with unsubtle digs at the Conservative Party ("Blue is beautiful, blue is best” harps the evil Blue Queen, via the sumptuous tones of Fenella Fielding), intermeshed with nightmare sequences from one too many Dougal ingested sugar cubes. Despite this, the kids will still love it. The stop motion animation of the Roundabout defies its age and remains wholly enchanting. Much more so than the awful computer generated monstrosity The Magic Roundabout (2005).
Tasty Morsel – Worth seeking out for laughs is the Jasper Carrott Roundabout monologue, the B-side to the British comics 1975 single "Funky Moped”. Not really one for the kids though.
- TRANSFORMERS: THE MOVIE (1986)
For a television series based around a toy line that was coldly invented to lure in as many kids as possible and thus convince their parents to part with their hard earned, Transformers had a surprising amount of depth and heart. Top notch animation and voice acting from the now legendary Peter Cullen and Frank Welker made the show a Saturday morning must watch for children around the world. When it was announced that a movie was to be made as a bridge between series two and series three, cinemas braced themselves for a tidal wave of sweet throwing, jumping on seats and assorted horseplay. But the tomfoolery was kept to a minimum thanks to a Ron Friedman script that took the bold move of killing off most of the show’s lead characters in the movies early running. Children sat with slack jaws and moist eyes as they watched Autobot leader Optimus Prime croak it in a prolonged death scene. Numerous other favourites went to the Transformer scrapheap in the sky and kids wondered who the hell these new interlopers were that were left to continue the fight against planet destroying goliath Unicron. It was daring enough to ensure that the film was a guilty pleasure for adults as they watched their infants encounter the grim spectre of death for the first time. "But why?” their children cried. It was all an excuse to shift a load more toys when the latest Transformers, namely shiny new leader Rodimus Prime, hit toy stores at the same time as the films release. Still, it was a hell of a gamble and in narrative terms an audacious choice. Story threads got darker as the film progressed, the baton passing of the Matrix, the creepy planet Junk and the apocalyptic undertones of Unicron. Adults were entertained further by the barmy blend of voice talent that was cobbled together. Joining the series faithful were Eric Idle, Leonard Nimoy, Judd Nelson and Orson Welles. Chuck in a stirring and rocking soundtrack from Vince DiCola and Stan Bush and the aural delights were complete. All told, what could have been a lazy cash-in turned out to be an emotional, subversive and unexpected ride.
Tasty Morsel – Transformers: The Movie was Welles last film, the great actor succumbing to a heart attack five days after his last voice acting session.
- THE PRINCESS BRIDE (1987)
Famous people have kids to, or at least adopt a few from rundown, third world countries, and as a little treat to their offspring, maybe something to remember them by once they’ve spent all their Hollywood inheritance, they will occasionally take part in kiddie fare. It explains why so many famous faces meddled with the Muppets. As such children’s films are want to pull in a bizarre range of acting talent from time to time. One of the best assemblages was in Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride (1987). Robin Wright Penn, Christopher Guest, Cary Elwes, Peter Falk, Billy Crystal, Andre the Giant, Peter Cook, Mel Smith; the cast smudged together entertainers from a wide variety of entertainment circles. They also had a great story to tell, the adaptation of William Goldman’s 1973 novel The Princess Bride. Cleverly Reiner presented the tale as read by a grandfather (Falk) to his sceptical grandson (child star of the time Fred Savage). The boy’s consternation at having to suffer a dodgy recount of a tedious fairytale immediately sets the film on a different path. We believe Columbo when he says this tale is different, and boy is it. The stories outer shell is standard enough, Princess Buttercup (Wright Penn) is kidnapped by evil Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon) and her only hope lies with the tag team of fellow swashbucklers Westley (Elwes) and Inigo (Mandy Patinkin). Inside of this premise the movie skips along with sardonic humour, fully aware of the winsome genre trappings it is supposed to wallow in. Ripping the piss out of said conventions, Reiner ladled on the clever cameos, memorable set pieces and sharp dialogue "I wonder if he’s using the same wind we’re using?”. It was a self referential style that Shrek (2001) pilfered to great success fourteen years later.
Tasty Morsel – Watch out for a blink a miss cameo from Monty Python alumni Eric Idle in one scene.
- WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT (1988)
One thing you can’t do with a live action movie is cobble together all the finest acting talent in Hollywood for one epic picture. Well, you could have a stab, but the wage bill would cripple most western countries and the presence of so many egos in one place would cause the planet to implode. No so animation; just grab some paper and scribble away. And that’s exactly what Disney did at the end of the eighties. Purchasing the rights to Gary K. Wolf’s 1981 novel Who Censored Roger Rabbit the studio saw the perfect recipe for a summer hit. Wolf’s story told of a world where cartoons and humans lived as one, and a private-eye investigates the murder of a small-time cartoon rabbit called Roger. Directors Robert Zemeckis and Richard Williams kept the central premise, but instead made Roger a framed suspect in the murder of Marvin Acme, the owner of "Toontown”. The budget at the time was the largest ever for an animated movie, but it needed to be; this would be the first time that actors would interact directly with animated characters. The result was a huge success, and the film became the ultimate kids/adult hybrid film, plenty of familiar cartoon characters for children Bob Hoskins (still cashing in on his The Long Good Friday (1980) hard-man act) and Jessica Rabbit for the grown-ups. There were also plenty of in-jokes and a smoky, hard-boiled film noir edge for those adults for whom Roger’s antics, in the form of the effervescence Charles Fleishcer on voice acting duties, became too much. Steven Spielberg’s Amblin had production duties and the director was able to convince most of the large animation companies to allow the use of their biggest creations. Adult or child, it didn’t matter; everyone enjoyed seeing Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, Donald and Daffy Duck rubbing shoulders for the first time. Such was the film’s success a sequel was discussed immediately. Part two, which has been named at various times Roger Rabbit: The Toon Platoon and Who Discovered Roger Rabbit, remains in development hell though. Wolf wrote his own spin-off book in 1991 entitled Who P-P-P-P-Plugged Roger Rabbit.
Tasty Morsel – Though Spielberg did well in securing most of the classic cartoon characters, the main names he sought but were unable to secure were Popeye, Little Lulu, and Tom & Jerry.
- TOY STORY (1995)
You might think all George Lucas has offered cinema is his Star Wars franchise. But the beardy one has more to answer for than that. Animation giants Pixar originally started life as part of the computer division of Lucasfilm. In need of some post divorce settlement funds Lucas sold the computer animation department to Apple Computers co-founder Steve Jobs in 1986. To get the company into the black Pixar animator John Lassester began creating animated television adverts. But with the company still leaking money Jobs was contemplating selling Pixar on. It was only after Disney agreed to distribute a feature length version of Lasseter’s Oscar winning short film Tin Toy that Jobs relented. The project went through many changes before Toy Story (1995) hit cinemas. The central character Tinny become a military action figure for a while before a spaceman figure was settled upon, eventually named Buzz Lightyear. Tinny’s supporting character was changed from a ventriloquists dummy to a wooden cowboy figure, named simply Woody. A cinematic pairing for the ages was born. Lasseter was on board to direct and wisely fought against Disney’s traditional thinking that animated kids films should be musical. Lasseter wanted to focus on the characters themselves, namely the "buddy-cop” aspects of Buzz and Woody’s unlikely pairing. In the face of animated successes of the time, namely The Lion King (1994) and its vast $780million worldwide haul, it was a bold choice. But Toy Story’s look was so radical it immediately aged all other animated fare by a century or two. Coupled with the arresting visuals was a brilliant story that both children and adults could relate to, without the need for mushy sentimentality. Having the perfect voice pairing of Tom Hanks and Tim Allen helped tremendously. Teaching Hollywood further lessons still, Lasseter and director Lee Unkrich brushed away all notions of inferior sequels when Toy Story 2 (1999) and Toy Story 3(2010) extended the story and topped up the toy box with genuine emotion and integrity.
Tasty Morsel – Lightyear was given the name Buzz in tribute to American moon landing hero Buzz Aldrin, whilst Woody was named after Western actor Woody Strode.
- THE INCREDIBLES (2004)
The Simpsons Movie (2007) was a long time coming. Fans had been anticipating it for years but when it finally arrived the ensuing disappointment revealed that the yellow family should have remained on the small screen. But three years prior to this one of the shows principal masterminds writer/director Brad Bird had created a cinematic familial tale to rival the best Springfield exploits. By 2004 Pixar had become the new champions of animated film. Their dazzling shorts and world conquering Toy Story franchise ensured that all other animation companies, and previous world champions Disney, were struggling to catch up. But Pixar were not about to get lazy and ride the success of their eye-catching computer generated visuals. The Incredibles (2004) was intended as a traditional animated picture for Warner Brothers, but after the studio shut down its development division Bird sold his story to Pixar. What Pixar chief John Lasseter strived for was character over spectacle, and Bird’s story of over the hill superheroes was perfect fodder. At the centre of the story is Bob Parr, formerly Mr. Incredible, a super-powered crime fighter who has succumbed to the languidness of late middle age. But despite a larger waist and receding hairline Bob is struggling to hang up his costume. When a former Mr. Incredible fan turns super villain, and Bob’s kids start showing their own signs of super powers, Bob and his wife must squeeze back into their spandex and save the day once again. The animation was typical of the Pixar feast for the eyes, but it was the characterisation that once again stood out. It will take all of five minutes to forget you are watching pixellated people. Genuine personality is sliced with Bird’s Simpsons-esque humour, particularly in the batty Edna character. Pixar had another hit on their hands, both with critics and audiences. Gracious enough to admit defeat Disney stopped trying to compete and purchased Pixar in 2006 for a whopping $7.4billion.
Tasty Morsel – DC Comics raised an objection to the use of the name Elastigirl, citing their own character Elasti-girl. Pixar comprised by renaming her Mrs. Incredible in all promotional material and merchandise.
- WALL.E (2008)
It’s a recognised conceit that children respond better to an animated film than a non-animated one. The twee characters, the dazzling colours, it all conspires to trap a kid’s attention with a concrete grip. But the outside benefit of being able to draw your entire film is the endless stockroom of stories you can rummage in. The monetary constraint is how long you want your picture to be, leaving the only real limit at the outside borders of one’s imagination. In recent years Pixar have been the most adept at realising the full potential of animated storytelling, and it was Pixar director and writer Andrew Stanton that came up with the idea for their 2008 hit Wall.E (2008). Stanton pictured a future Earth where all the human inhabitants had left for pastures new but forgot to turn of the last remaining robot, leaving it to wander the planet alone. This gem of a concept eventually morphed into WALL-E (a Waste Allocation Load Lifter, Earth class) a drone robot working on an abandoned Earth. The small machine is the last of an army of robots that were tasked with cleaning up the mountains of rubbish humanity had killed Earth’s ecosystem with. But when it is discovered that Earth will never be able to support life again, humanity buggers off, inadvertently leaving one robot, Wall.E, behind. How the Pixar animators managed to craft such a sympathetic character out of a mini metallic trash compactor is wonder of modern cinema. It would be a coal black heart that wouldn’t want to give Wall.E a teary, loveable hug after the opening twenty minutes of Stanton’s movie, all played out in silence, have unfolded. Wall.E does find salvation, albeit via a less interesting second half when conventional story telling takes over and the little robot has to race to save a sprig of plant life that his finally broken through Earth’s scorched surface. But a genuinely touching relationship with sleek "lady” robot Eve, and some cutting commentary on the lardy laziness of humankind rounds out one of the most inventive animated films of all time.
Tasty Morsel – Fittingly, Stanton chose Sigourney Weaver for the voice of the computer on the human’s head vessel, the Axiom.
- CORALINE (2009)
There’s a healthy tradition of sneaking a bit of horror into kids fiction. The Brothers Grimm slipped Rumpelstiltskin and the Evil Queen past unsuspecting parents, Roald Dahl terrified children with the Witches and the Enormous Crocodile. Kiddie cinema has been just as terrifying at times. The boy to donkey transformation scene in Pinocchio (1940) scared the shit out of me, and my sister was equally haunted by the pink elephants on parade in Dumbo (1941). British author Neil Gaiman continued the guilty pleasure that is terrorising children with his 2002 bestseller Coraline. It was a highly lauded work, nabbing a number of prizes, most ironically the Bram Stoker Award for Best Work for Young Readers. In 2009 director Henry Selick brought the book to the big screen. The titular character Coraline is an unhappy girl, more so since moving to a grim apartment building with her neglectful parents. Coraline soon discovers a secret passage that leads to an alternate world, similar to her own but running in parallel. But what seems like an idealistic imagining of her home life soon turns out to be something much more sinister, slowly revealed when Coraline turns down the invitation to remain in the alternate world forever. What makes Gaiman’s story so affecting is the queasy but subtle subversion in the Other World that Coraline discovers. All the alternate characters have buttons for eyes, and to remain Coraline must have her own eyes removed and replaced with plastic poppers. When she refuses the kindly doppelgangers turn nasty and shove Coraline with the eyeless ghosts of other children who also refused to play ball. It’s hardly the stuff of wholesome kids fare. To add to the creepiness Selick decided to shoot the film in stop-motion animation; think a feature length Metz/Judderman advert and you’ll be on the right track. It somehow works though as a kids film (there’s the obligatory happy ending) and as moral fable for adults on the dangers of neglecting the fruit of their loins.
Tasty Morsel – Among those lending their voices to the on screen characters are Dakota Fanning, Teri Hatcher, Ian McShane, Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French.