Classic Films for Children

Films for Children

April 1995 – Published in The Independent

Who can forget the classic moment in the Wizard of Oz where the world is transformed from black and white Kansas into glorious technicolour Oz. Watching the film with my four year old son I realised that it is as important for children to appreciate film classics as it is for them to read classic children’s books.

Classics like Alice in Wonderland, the Water Babies, Wind in the Willows, and the Narnia series have influenced generations of writers and references to them are a part of the language. Children now need to appreciate film references too. My son’s current favourite video, Biker Mice from Mars is full of cinematic references; the Mice heroes appear on Earth at the door of a Space ship to the unmistakeable music from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. (The Biker Mice also make rude cracks about Mutant Turtles. “You were expecting turtles, maybe?”)

I like the idea of a shelf-full of classic films awaiting my son; the following selection will make a very good start, but it would be good to see a lot more cherished classics put on to video so we can value the history of film as well as being deluged with current product.
Many of the films recommended here, from a broad spectrum of experts specialising in film and children’s subjects, date from the golden years of film-making. Disney makes an appearance of course, and many people also mentioned Snow White and Bambi as formative influences. Some are beloved book adaptations, but the very best are those that present the world from a child’s point of view, conveying in a way that perhaps only film can, that the child’s experience can be shared and expressed.

Critic David Thompson points out that so many of the classics that children can enjoy today were not of course made specially for children. They were made for an all-round family audience, intended to have universal appeal. At their best they can be watched by children and parents together, and enjoyed at different levels. Thompson laments the tendency to divide film into separate categories for adults and children, and says that today there are very few adult films he would want his children to see.

Peter Wollen, on the other hand, comments that films, like those of Stephen Spielberg’s that are suitable for children, are not really made for them either. “Spielberg misses it, he doesn’t really make children’s films. Even E.T. is essentially an exercise in nostalgia. It’s made for the child in the adult.”

For so many people the first film they see remains forever etched in their memory. Even today when children watch so much video in the cosy environment of their own home, the first time- preferably on a seriously big screen- is likely to have quite an impact. What to choose to make that first cinema visit really special?

In his study of the Wizard of Oz, (BFI Film Classics) Salman Rushdie says it was his first literary influence, re-appearing many years later in the dreams of his narrator in his novel, Midnight’s Children. The first film I ever saw was Ben Hur. A strict religious background meant entertainment was very censored. No doubt Ben Hur was permitted because Jesus had a starring role. But it was the bloodthirsty if skillfully filmed chariot race that has stayed in my mind forever. Longer than Jesus.

Deborah Moggach

Novelist and TV scriptwriter. Won the Writers Guild Award for the best adapted TV drama for her adaptation of Goggle Eyes. Her children are 19 and 17

The Railway Children (1970. Lionel Jeffries. From novel by E.Nesbit)

“Funnily enough I saw The Railway Children on my first date with the man I later married…It touches on something profound for children as good children’s films do, conveying proper grown up feelings of alarm and so on. The children’s father is imprisoned as a spy, and they try to prove his innocence; they try and and solve his loss in their own way. It’s really about the loss of a father, and it is so important that the children themselves are a force for change. It makes them feel powerful, not helpless, and helps them realise they can alter things It means a great deal for grown ups too, particularly so now when so many children suffer the loss of a father.

David Thomson

Film critic of The Independent on Sunday. He has two young children of 5 and 4 months.

Meet Me in St Louis. (Vincente Minelli. 1944)

This is a great film because it is a complex study of family life. You see how all the different children of various ages really feel, and you also see how the parents feel. They have to decide whether they will leave St Louis and go to New York, and the whole notion of home is introduced in a very interesitng way. A special moment which impresses on children the power of film is the Halloween sequence. The young children decide to play Trick or Treat on the local “ogre”. The idea is built up as very frightening event, you really feel the child’s fear. Then suddenly you see the ogre as a decent, reasonable, albeit ugly man. The speed with which the film can show the contrast, the change from fear, is very dramatic. It would make a deep impression on a child.

David Pirie

Screenwriter. as a film critic he specialised in studies of Gothic horror. cinema. His original screenplay, Black Easter, a dsytopian thriller, is due out in autumn 1995. Children aged

The Parent Trap. (1961.Walt Disney)

This was the first film that portrayed children in a real and spontaneous way. It was an enormous hit; it’s amazing it’s not easily available.

Hayley Mills plays two roles, identical twins split at birth who meet by chance at summer camp. One of them is very proper, and one is rock ‘n roll, one is from Boston, the other from Los Angeles. At first they hate each other but when they realise the truth they scheme to get their parents back together and impersonate each other.

It shows two sides of childhood behaviour, the varied possibilities of childhood. The very different styles of the twins also reflect their very different parents. It has a dazzlingly energetic performance by Hayley Mills- she is clearly enjoying herself. It is a film that really communicates the enjoyment of the film making process.

Peter Wollen

Professor of Film Studies. UCLA. and author of the seminal “Sign and Meaning in the Cinema.” He has children of 2 and 3

The Three Caballeros. (Walt Disney 1945)

This film was made in support of the Good Neighbour policy, just when we had to bring Latin America into the war. The heroes are three tourists with Donald Duck representing the USA. They travel through South America from Antarctica to the US border. You get the songs and dances and bits of folk lore from all the countries they go through; Argentina, Mexico, Acapulco. It features Disney’s most dazzling animation, combining live action with cartoons. There is a real convergence of kitsch and the avant garde.

Christina Hardyment

Writes widely about children and domesticity. Her classic study of the history of childcare, Dream Babies, is to be republished by OUP in June. She has four children aged 15,17,19 and 21

The Princess Bride. (1987. director Rob Reiner. From novel by William Goldman.)

Whenever something horrible happens we always sit down and watch The Princess Bride. I still buy it for someone every Christmas. I love it for its sheer zaniness. Good does prevail, as it should, but not in a sugary way at all. It starts with a grandfather reading a story to his grandson and it keeps coming back to that so you are always reminded that it is only a story. It embraces all the fairy story cliches; it has everything, a princess and pirates, kidnappings and sword fights, even an Errol Flynn take-off. But it’s all very camped up and the script is hilarious. And children know all the cliches- they’ll shout- ‘She can’t marry him, he’s the baddie…” Peter Cook and Mel Smith make cameo appearances, Billy Crystal is the mad wizard and it even has a Dire Straits sound track.

Colin McCabe

Head of research for the British Film Institute, and Professor of English at University of Pittsburgh. His children are 21, 19 and 7

Flash Gordon (Specifically available on video:-Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe. Alex Raymond.1945. )

“Flash Gordon is one of the few films I know that works successfully on two levels; there is one film for children and another film for adults. You can see it again as an adult and find there are lots of jokes you just didn’t get first time around. And it is just packed out with all that wonderful Flash Gordon paraphernalia of birdmen and rockets and all that. It is really much under-rated and was certainly the film that my elder children most enjoyed.”

Nicolas Kent.

Producer of the Naked Hollywood TV series, and a forthcoming film on Antoine de St Exupery. He has a daughter of 4.

The Red Shoes. (Powell-Pressburger 1948)

I think this was a first film for a lot of people, it’s a genuine classic. It’s my favourite film of all time. It is about the production of a ballet, very romantic and tragic, based on the Hans Christian Andersen story of the dancer who dances herself to death. It is about artistic commitment, and the dangers of going too far, balanced with the rewards of throwing yourself into something. It is a cautionary tale without being heavy-handed; you can imagine having a conversation about it. It would provide the opportunity to talk about many things.

It was also was very innovatory and influential, the way the dance sequences are shot is breathtaking. You see the ballerina performing her pirouette and the camera takes her point of view. Then there is the performance of the ballet, which starts off very realistic and then becomes increasingly surreal, until suddenly the conductor is conducting waves onto the stage. It was very influential for a whole generation of Hollywood directors like Martin Scorsese.

Penelope Leach

Lassie Come Home (1943. director. Fred M Wilcox)

Saturday morning cinema was a rich source in the 50s and 60s- there was a real commitment to childrens’ film in those days. I remember the Lassie series as being particularly good. (And I don’t mean that horrid re-make.) The first film, Lassie Come Home, did all those classic things that film does better than anything else. It is about good and evil on all kinds of levels; good fortune versus bad fortune, and of course the power of love. It sounds sentimental but it isn’t. It is a true tragedy. I think probably we took children too young. I recall 7 and 8 year olds being virtually destroyed by it! Perhaps 10 or 11 is a better age. ”

Tony Robinson.

Actor and writer, best known for Blackadder, and the celebrated Maid Marian TV series, which is about to be re-shown. He has children of 15 and 18.

Spartacus (1960. Stanley Kubrick)

I dont really like the idea of films for children. Most successful works for children are things like the Brothers Grimm whch are actually writers addressing their own problems. And I don’t accept that there are issues that are not suitable for children, although it may be that some things need to be contextualised by an adult. I would recommend Spartacus, an epic about the revolt of slaves in ancient Rome. It is a rattling good adventure with a great narrative- and very funny too. It is about human idealism, about ordinary people who become very brave and unite together, basically the same narrative as Robin Hood. It is a moral struggle that can really seize kids’ imaginations. I suppose I’m old fashioned enough to want them to struggle for what they believe to be good – to believe in society.”

Marc Baker.

Production manager of Children’s Film Unit and a film floor-runner. Aged 17.

Danny the Champion of the World. (directed by Gavin Millar. From story by Roald Dahl.1989)

I liked this because it was a really well made film, and because it was all British, the only one I can think of. It has Jeremy Irons, Robbie Coltrane, Jimmy Nail… The story revolves around a young boy who gets up to a lot of mischief. You really feel for him and what he is going through. There were times when I felt really attached to him. It has a very good build up and you really get to know the characters- you can really relate to them, and feel a possible connection between you or someone you know. I think children want more grown up films, stronger stuff that helps them to understand life.