The new wave of kids' cinema is remarkable but limited. Children of the future should be donated films of the past so that they know what's really out thereby Mark Cousins / December 17, 2005 / Leave a comment
Children’s films seem to be on a roll. Exactly a decade ago, Toy Story married kids’ themes with adult jokes and computer-generated imagery and created what has since become a dynamic, shiny, intelligent formula. It revived the animation genre, took $360m in cinemas around the world and made it fun again to take kids to the movies.
Then came Shrek, Toy Story 2, Shrek 2, A Shark’s Tale and The Incredibles: high-quality American family fare for the computer age. Defiantly post-Disney (whose wholesomeness they lampooned), they were marketed aggressively and drove the DVD boom. At last American family cinema had ditched its Eisenhower-era cosiness.
Ten years later, the wonders of computer-generated imagery (CGI) no longer surprise us. We are used to seeing toys, cartoon characters, dinosaurs and spaceships in three dimensions and photorealistic detail. Does this render earlier kids’ films so pictorially primitive that they will no longer speak to young people? Imagine the birth of a child—perhaps your own. Now put in a sealed shoebox a DVD of a film for them to watch on their 17th birthday and another, in another box, on their 14th. What would each film be? A Shark’s Tale? Toy Story 2? Each of these would capture some of the cinematic dynamism of our age, our knowingness and sense of fun, but is that enough of a gift to seal in a shoebox and donate to the future?
I’m not sure. Here are a few films I’d donate to tomorrow’s children.
Albert Lamorisse’s The Red Balloon (France, 1956). Compare it to Chaplin’s films about kids and you see how great it is. Seen entirely from the perspective of a six-year-old boy, it shows him finding the balloon of the title, befriending it and losing it. He isn’t allowed to take it—his metaphorical pal—to school. Schools are no place for poetry. Like many great children’s films, it has little dialogue and deals with feelings of loneliness. The Red Balloon was much copied, never bettered. Dorota Kedzierzawska’s film Crows (Poland, 1994) is also about loneliness, and the most moving children’s film I know. It tells the story of a neglected ten-year-old girl nicknamed Crow who kidnaps a toddler and tries to mother him. Its title sequence is copied in Billy Elliot, and it would appeal most to girls of around 12. Brilliant and devastating.
The Singing, Ringing Tree (East Germany, 1957) was based on stories by the brothers Grimm, bought by the BBC in the 1960s, dubbed and chopped into a children’s television series. It was, for many of us, our first sip of neat surrealism and caused many a nightmare. Yet looked at now, at full length, Francesco Stefani’s original is a remarkable piece of communist-era European fantasy. Its low-tech aesthetic hardly detracts from the mysterious appeal of its story.?
Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbour Totoro (Japan, 1988). Unlike Miyazaki’s recent Howl’s Moving Castle, which was far too long, this mid-period masterpiece goes by in a breeze. It has hardly been marketed in the west, yet it sells like hot cakes because, quite simply, it is a wonder. Satsuki and Mei’s mother has been taken to hospital, their father tells them not to go into the vast forest, but they do, where they discover totoros. Miyazaki’s films are mostly about little girls and many feature ecological spirits, but this is his most uplifting.
Then, dare I say it, a Japanese silent movie. I was Born But… was made in 1932 in Japan by Yasujiro Ozu. Rarely seen, it’s about two grumpy brothers who move to a new town and get into fights. Their father is a salaryman, but when they compare him to their friends’ dads, they are ashamed of his lowly status. The film charts their slow realisation that social status isn’t everything. If you think Henry Thomas is good as Elliot in ET or Jean-Pierre Léaud is great as Antoine in Truffaut’s Les Quatres Cents Coups, look at Hideo Sugawara and Tomio Aoki as the brothers. Their performances are as fresh and convincing as it’s possible to imagine, and the camera—always at their height—captures it all.
Is there more at stake here than a shoebox game? The government seems to think so. The UK Film Council, with the encouragement of DCMS, is producing a new media literacy charter, drafted by a task force from Ofcom, Channel 4, BBC, the British Film Institute and Skillset, on the premise that teenagers should be able to read moving imagery as much as words. This used to be called cineliteracy, then media literacy and now—a catch-all—21st-century literacy.
The assumption is familiar: that television and cinema are such a presence in young people’s lives that we should teach them to be discerning about both. Left to the market alone, kids will see only the cinematic equivalent of a Big Mac. Which is not to say that CGI children’s cinema is the movie equivalent of fast food. But if we believe that film is the language in which countries of the world increasingly speak to each other, then we need to retain scepticism of the kinetic sheen of CGI. Toy Story isn’t bad for us. But other kids’ films, such as the ones above, are more complex and make us feel more human.
Get the shoebox out.