Peter Rainer Bloomberg News
You don’t have to be a kid to know that most children’s movies lately, excepting some animation, are dreary time-wasters.
Having recently staggered out of “Oz, the Great and Wonderful” and “Jack the Giant Slayer,” I feel a messianic urge to trumpet some of my personal favorites.
I’ll dispense with the obvious ones first:
“The Wizard of Oz” (1939) and “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” (1982) are shoo-ins for the pantheon. Both pass a key litmus test for a great children’s film: They work equally well for adults, expressing childhood imaginings in the most embracing of ways.
We’re all kids — smart, blissfully happy kids — when we watch these movies.
Buster Keaton set the bar for gleefully giggle-inducing films that children enjoy. Perhaps best of all is “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” (1928), with its jaw-dropping cyclone finale.
And Charlie Chaplin’s silent films, especially “The Kid” (1921) and “The Gold Rush” (1925) are peerless.
I would rank Carroll Ballard’s “The Black Stallion” (1979) right up there too. I don’t think any other English-language movie — not even two other favorites of mine, “National Velvet” (1944) and Ken Loach’s “Kes” (1969), about a boy and a falcon — has ever gotten so far inside a child’s phantasmagoric connection to an animal.
“The White Mane” (1953), a French film, almost matches “Black Stallion,” not surprising since its director, Albert Lamorisse, also made “The Red Balloon” (1956). Set in the wilds of Corsica, the film is a rapturous poem about the communion between a boy and his horse.
Speaking of balloons, Jafar Panahi’s “The White Balloon” (1995) is a small Iranian gem about a young girl who sets out to buy a goldfish and encounters a cross-section of the good and the greedy. (Panahi is currently under house arrest in Iran for, in effect, having the temerity to demand artistic freedom).
Movies about familial loss or abandonment figure heavily in movies about kids. Two of the finest are Steven Soderbergh’s little known “The King of the Hill” (1993), about a 12-year-old St. Louis boy who has to survive on his wits during the Great Depression, and “The Little Fugitive” (1953), about a young boy who wanders lost and terrified through Coney Island.
Francois Truffaut cited “The Little Fugitive” as a prime influence on his early New Wave films, especially “The 400 Blows.” My favorite movie of his about childhood is “Small Change” (1976), about youngsters in a French fishing village. It expresses the dream of childhood as an anointed time.
Ingmar Bergman is famous for his brooding adult dramas, but he also had a special feeling for childhood wonderment, best shown in the opening family Christmas sequence in “Fanny and Alexander” and in all of the magisterially silly “The Magic Flute.”
Most of the foreign-language films I’ve cited here have minimal subtitles and can be easily understood by children. This is doubly true of Jacques Tati’s films, especially “Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday” (1953), in which the great comic director unleashes his gangly, accident-prone Hulot on a French resort town. The results are as deliriously funny as anything in the Keaton canon.
Animation is a realm unto itself. I’ll choose but two out of scores: Walt Disney’s “Pinocchio” (1940), and “Spirited Away” (2001), the Hayao Miyazaki masterpiece about the mysteriously rapturous inner life of a 10-year-old girl.
The mostly stop-motion animated “James and the Giant Peach” (1996) is the best of the many terrific Roald Dahl adaptations, including the Gene Wilder “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” (1971), “The Witches” (1990) and “Matilda” (1996), now a blockbuster musical in London and New York.
Three more that I cherish: “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962), one of the rare socially conscious child-centric films that earns its uplift; Carol Reed’s “Oliver!” (1968), the best of all Dickens adaptations (excepting David Lean’s “Great Expectations”); and Alfonso Cuaron’s “A Little Princess” (1994), a remake of the Shirley Temple warhorse about a young girl in a boarding school that is simply one of the most poetic films for any age ever to escape from Hollywood.
If your kids are into nerd power, they could do much worse than the recent “Moonrise Kingdom” (2012), which celebrates it.
Most of these films are available on DVD or to stream on Netflix or Amazon.