Thursday, June 03, 2010

Top 5 Family Flicks

Since Katie and I are expecting a little dude to join our family soon I thought I'd go through what I consider to be some of the best family films ever made. Before we get going I would like to say one thing: There's a definite difference between "children's films" and "family films." The fact that a film is enjoyable to a child really doesn't say very much about it's quality at all. After all, it doesn't take very much to keep children entertained. This is why there seems to be little or no difference between many so-called "children's films" and any other brainless form of entertainment, be it a rollercoaster or eating ice-cream. All these things are fun and pleasurable (at least for some people; personally I hate rollercoasters) but they don't have anything to do with art. This is especially true in light of the recent 3D craze, a gimmick that seems intent on reducing films to nothing but spectacle.

Family films, on the other hand, are beautiful and enchanting works of art that can be appreciated (on different levels, of course) by both young and old. Disney used to excel at making such films but have, unfortunately, moved increasingly in the direction of making children's films instead, complete with mandatory singing comic-sidekicks and fart jokes (the output from Pixar studios has been thankfully exempt from this). A family film will entertain and dazzle but it will also be imaginative, beautiful and thought-provoking and perhaps even touch on spiritual and philosophical issues using mythological symbols, both ancient and modern. Some of the great family films seek not to distract children but to inspire and challenge them.

Below are five flicks that I think live up to such artful ideals but which also happen to be among the five favorite films I cherished most as a kid.

5. Pinocchio
Perhaps Disney's finest accomplishment, a film so visually stunning that it is almost inconceivable to think that it followed the much cruder style of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (the first feature length animated film) by only three years. The story is incredibly touching and beautiful, dealing with questions of morality and what it means to be human. But the film is also extremely scary, almost horrifying in parts, especially during the famous scene when poor Lampwick is turned into a donkey. I remember this scene - along with the mythological images of Pinocchio and his dad Geppetto being swallowed by the whale, Jonah-style - scared the living daylights out of me when I was a child. But because of how scared I was I somehow took Pinocchio much more seriously than other films I saw at that age. Children are much smarter than we give them credit for and films that are not afraid to challenge kids, even by showing them images that may be frightening or disturbing (to a certain level, of course), are recognized by children as saying something truthful. Some of the images from Pinocchio are among the most memorable I have ever seen and I can't wait to show this film to Jóakim.

Is it just me or does that cat look totally stoned?

4. Who Framed Roger Rabbit

Films, perhaps more than any other art form, can be magical. They can make the impossible possible, create myths, stories and worlds that inspire and entertain us and make the world around us a groovier, stranger place. Special-effects can definitely help in this regard but only when the filmmaker is subtle and talented enough to make us forget that they are there at all, not calling attention to the craft but letting it serve the art. Robert Zemeckis, first in the Back to the Future trilogy and then in his bizarre and wonderful Who Framed Roger Rabbit, did this better than almost anyone in Hollywood. The film starts with a traditional cartoon short in the vein of Looney Tunes and Merry Melodies where Baby Hue gets into all sorts of trouble and must be saved in the nick of time by the hapless Roger Rabbit. All of a sudden we hear someone yell "Cut!" and a human director walks into the frame, berating Roger for screwing up the "take." And at that moment we are in one of the coolest film worlds ever created, an amalgam of all the great American animation of the 40's and 50's and the live-action films of the era, especially film noir. After this first scene we are completely immersed in a film whose greatness lies not primarily in its use of technical wizardry but in an exciting and involving story with great characters and fantastic dialogue. Zemeckis's love for animation and film in general literally drips off the screen, creating such an infectious and exciting experience that the special effects never even threaten to take over. Modern directors (Jim Cameron take note) would do well to study this wonderful film a bit and see how well the technology and effects serve the story, instead of the other way around. The great actors help a lot, of course, especially Bob Hoskins who is so natural in his dealings with Roger that the two have better chemistry than most human actors in traditional films.


3. Star Wars - The Original Trilogy (Part IV: A New Hope; Part V: The Empire Strikes Back; Part VI: The Return of the Jedi)
The original Star Wars trilogy, in spite of the atrocious "prequels" George Lucas has made us suffer through, is still just as magical for young and old alike. All three films are among the best family films ever made, though The Empire Strikes Back is by far the best of the three, both in technical and artistic terms. Lucas wrote his M.A. thesis on Joseph Campbells "The Hero With a Thousand Faces", a book examining the mythological symbols and images that reapper in most of the great religions and cultural traditions of the world. This idea of the "monomyth," along with a good doze of John Ford Westerns and Kurosawa samurai flicks, became the primary inspiration for Star Wars and Lucas' love and respect for mythology really shines through. The great spiritual themes of good versus evil, destiny, sacrifice and redemption are all in the forefront but so is a wonderful sense of humor and pure old fashioned fun and adventure.

I still refuse to believe that it's only Hayden Christensen in there

2. The 7th Voyage of Sinbad

I felt like I had to have a Ray Harryhausen flick in here and this one is definitely one of the all time-best adventure films. It has a Cyclops that roasts people on a spit, really cool looking dinosaurs and the original Harryhausen skeleton army. What more could you possibly want?

I cut you man! I cut you so bad you wish I didn't cut you!

1. Back to the Future
This was probably my favorite film growing up, at least until I was ten and saw Die Hard for the first time which immediately became, in my mind at least, THE GREATEST FILM EVER MADE. There is something extremely identifiable in Marty McFly. He's really smart and cool but he's also kind of a jackass, someone who's definitely his own worst enemy. The two things I always remember liking the most about the films was how much Marty seemed to grow as a person throughout his adventures and how deeply him and Doc Brown loved each other. Christopher Lloyd really is fantastic as Doc Brown (he was assuredly deserving of at least a nomination)and the script does an amazing job of grounding the story in a recognizable reality. When Doc Brown explains to Marty that the DeLorean can travel through time because of the "flux compasitor" I still to this day think that is a perfectly viable explanation. In fact, why hasn't anyone picked up on this and built a flux compasitor already? Or a hoverboard for that matter.

Were those life-preserver things actually in fashion in the 80's or did Zemeckis just make that up?

Other films that are just as great (I'll have to do a part II sometime):
My Neighbour Totor, Harvey, Back to the Future, Ratatouille, Finding Nemo, The Aristocats, Jungle Book, The Kid, The Circus, The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, Muppets Christmas Carol, Miracle on 34th Street,


e said...

i agree that who framed roger rabbit is one of the best movies ever, as a kid, being completely absorbed in it. I am curious to see what you have to say about finding nemo though.... I really hated that movie.

agust symeon said...

Aww... really? I loved Finding Nemo. I thought it was incredibly beautiful and the story was absolutely wonderful. I didn't care much for the scenes where Nemo is trying to escape from the dentist's office but I loved the character-arc of Albert Brooks' character. Then again, I even loved Cars, which everyone hated, so I might not be the best person to ask about this.

What was it about Nemo that you didn't like? I felt that it was surprisingly unsentimental but I could imagine some people might feel otherwise. Maybe you should write a review about it on the site.