On our most recent episode of The B-Movies Podcast (episode #36, now with extra crunch), Bibbs and I reviewed Shawn Levy's new fightin' robot film Real Steel, which is, as of this writing, stumbling its way to the top of the box office for the weekend. We both mentioned that the film, while being kind of goofy, was possessed of a quality we rarely seem to see in films these days: a genuine sense of childish wonder. We compared it, I think appropriately, to this year's earlier blockbuster Super 8, in that it seemed to want to recapture a certain kind of kid-friendly genre entertainment that was popular in the 1980s. (That Steven Spielberg acted as executive producer on both films is certainly a direct indicator of this). But whereas Super 8 was a clear homage to the films of Spielberg – perhaps to the point of being a little too affected for its own good – Real Steel seems to be, well, the real deal. This is not a film that kids my age will watch and feel pangs of nostalgia about. This is a film that is genuinely reaching into the brains of 9-year-old boys and leaving subtle marks that will be remembered forever. Real Steel is hardly The Red Balloon; it's by no means a great cinema classic. But it does have a good grip on its childlike awe.
Why is it that so many kid's films we see these days seem to be lacking in this quality? Are studios so untrusting of children that they won't give them original content anymore? Even the films of Pixar, while each somewhat brilliant it its own way, seem more geared toward the adults in the audience that the kids; many reports I have read pointed out that kids thought Toy Story 3 was scary and sad, while the parents were the ones tearing up in a powerful nostalgic haze. And how many kids really enjoyed Up? My guess is few. And when we stray from Pixar, we're given naughty and “clever” films like Shrek, which are crass for the kids, and contain obnoxious pop-culture references for the adults. There's a handful of “funny” animal flicks (for some reason, G-Force comes to mind), but these seem geared toward the baser instincts of little kids; the instincts that still find poo jokes side-splittingly hilarious. For the older kids, we're given fact-paced genre action chase films that have no rhyme or reason (think of just about every Harry Potter rip-off from the last decade).
So, in a way, Real Steel represents a genuine return to form. The film's director had no interest in re-hashing old material, giving us pop references, or making a film for adults that was only tangentially appropriate for kids. He made an enjoyable film that was built on little kid fantasies. There was a reason that Bibbs proudly declared that he wanted to buy the toys from the movie. Real Steel taps into our little kid obsessions better than something like even Harry Potter can.
Very occasionally, you'll hear critics raving about some smaller, off-the-beaten-path kids flick that has this quality: something that seems designed not to placate whiners or to bilk parents out of their money (Why would any adult, for instance, want to see a feature film about Smurfs?), but to entertain families in a genuine way. Something that – to borrow some all-too-familiar marketing language – is fun for kids of all ages. These films aren't always successful, but they're always worth going back to see. For the beleaguered parents in the world, who are burnt out on Shrek Forever After, or Gnomeo and Juliet, or Mars Needs Moms, and are looking to steer their youngsters toward better, quality films that will not only entertain them, but perhaps offer new things for them to obsess about, I offer the following considerations.
ZATHURA (dir. Jon Favreau, 2005)
Before he was the go-to guy for superhero blockbusters, Jon Favreau was proving what a talented director he was, directing smaller family-friendly films like this one. Favreau has an old-school sensibility when it comes to his filmmaking, as he prefers to use as much practical special effects as possible and has a clear and confident camera, making for fewer flash edits, and easier-to-understand storytelling. All his talents are in place for Zathura. The film, a spiritual sequel to Jumanji, is about a pair of boys who find a magical board game that, when they play it, spirits them and their entire house off into the deep recesses of space, where they must deflect meteors and hide from malevolent aliens. More than a bland adventure, Zathura makes space seem like a big and wonderful place, and the threats therein to be weighty and palpable and even a little scary. But, y'know, not too scary. This is not a style pastiche. This is the work of a stylist.
CHICKEN RUN (dirs. Peter Lord & Nick Park, 2000)
I pity the families who are not familiar with the charming and excellent animations of Aardman studios. Perhaps best known for the Wallace & Gromit films, Aardman is one of those animation studios that seems capable of no wrong (Flushed Away notwithstanding). They do not pander. They do not over-reach. They simply make great-looking films based more on wit and character than on speed and action. A film that often gets forgotten about in discussions of great kids' films is their 2000 effort Chicken Run, about a group of hard-working, egg-laying chickens whose coop resembles a Nazi war prison; indeed, references to films like Stalag 17 and The Great Escape come pretty frequently. When a cocky American rooster accidentally lands in their camp (literally; he falls from the sky), a plan of escape is quickly hatched. Er, conceived. And while having seen the war movies the film often quotes certainly help the adults in the audience, they're not “cute” in that insufferable American way. Nor, and this is vital, are they required to enjoy the film. Enjoy the happiness in the production, and the whimsy of the twee British jokes.
I also, I have to admit, have a weakness for stop-motion animation. This comes from a childhood watching Mad Monster Party and Will Vinton movies on TV
CORALINE (dir. Henry Selick, 2009)
I think all parents know that little kids like to be scared more than they let on. Sadly, most studios seem afraid to make scary films for kids, operating on a safe CYA basis. Disney seems especially good at making spooky monsters (take a look at the voodoo scenes in The Princess and the Frog sometime), but seem reluctant to make a genuine kids' horror film. The films of Hayao Miyazaki all have incredibly spooky elements, but are given the “out” of having been produced in Japan. The only director who has put out a series of good-looking, spooky and workable horror films for kids is Henry Selick (the director of the cult classic The Nightmare Before Christmas, one of Goth-dom's most important films), who made a rather enjoyable little fright flick in 2009 with Coraline. The story of the film is yet another souped-up retread of the Hansel and Gretel story: A young girl, stumbling through an undulating umbilicus in her new home, finds a friendly creature that looks like her mother (only with buttons for eyes – eesh) that wants nothing more than to succor her angst. The creature, of course, eventually has more sinister things in store. But the effect of Coraline, apart from the breathtaking animation, is one that actually projects a cloudy oddness. A comforting-yet-off-putting sense of childish dread that little kids will have fun being creeped out by, and adults will certainly groove with.
UP NEXT: Bibbs takes a look back at the golden age of kick-ass family movies, and offers a few new underrated family classics of his own…
FROM THE DESK OF WILLIAM BIBBIANI:
Before we talk about Real Steel and list some recent picks of my own for truly great kids movies, I’d like to backtrack a bit. Actually, let’s backtrack a lot: all the way back to the 1980’s.
Movie fanatics f***ing love the 1980’s, in no small part because many of the most vocal film critics and geeks these days grew up there. Yes, we love the movies we saw as kids. Everyone loves the movies they saw as kids. Those were beautiful, innocent and largely carefree years (at least compared to what you’re putting up with as an adult), and everything associated with your youth always feels magical, at least to you. But the 1980’s were a little different. The decade came right after Star Wars changed the filmmaking landscape forever, creating a new generation of film fans that didn’t just “like”movies but became obsessed with them. More to the point, Star Wars brought visual effects into a new era, when almost anything a director imagined could be brought to life in believable fashion. This didn’t mean much for dramas and comedies, but genre pictures – sci-fi and fantasy in particular – suddenly ballooned in both quantity and quality.
Before the 1980’s, fantasy and sci-fi movies – with a few notable exceptions, like 2001: A Space Odyssey – were overtly theatrical and hard to take seriously because you just knew that the dragon, for example, was a puppet or an iguana with spikes taped to it. All of a sudden, the special effects needed for sci-fi/fantasy movies (genres often geared towards kids) looked realistic enough that both the filmmakers and the audiences could take it seriously, resulting in a sudden slew of great movies like E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, The Neverending Story and The Last Starfighter. And because they were taken seriously, because they worked as films as well as cash grabs for the youth market, they still hold up today. While there are some big exceptions in the two decades that followed, that mentality faded into the background throughout the 1990’s and 2000’s. Real Steel, as I said in my review, feels like the best 1980’s movie since the 1980’s. If I thought long and hard enough about I might be able to come up with a serious contender, but I stand by that general sentiment. Real Steel is big and stupid and full of marketing ploys for action figures (which I will buy), but it doesn’t forget to work as a film, and it doesn’t pander to little kids who, as many in the film industry seem to forget, can actually tell a good film from a bad one, even if they can’t articulate exactly why just yet.
If you loved Real Steel and wish there were more films like it, then guess what? There are. Like Witney I’ve come up with a few other great films, post-1980s, with grand ideas that are geared towards kids, but don’t talk down to them. These are movies you can watch with your kids and not feel assaulted by. They weren’t big hits, but they all should have been.
PETER PAN (dir. P.J. Hogan, 2003)
For the life of me, I have no idea why this particular version of Peter Pan isn’t everyone’s favorite. Disney famously adapted J.M. Barrie’s fantasy play, about a boy who lives in a world of pure imagination and refuses to grow up, to animation 1953 and it’s still a fun movie, but it lacks the depth, danger and wonder of this live-action version made 50 years later. P.J. Hogan, still best known for his wonderful 1990’s chick flicks Muriel’s Wedding and My Best Friend’s Wedding, expanded his horizons to create a spectacular fantasy world filled with high-flying sword fights and scary monsters. The details are all perfectly realized; in fact, I consider Peter Pan to be the greatest cinematic realization of flight I’ve ever seen in the medium, with Peter Pan (Friday Night Lights star Jeremy Sumpter) zooming about without the need for dramatic gestures: watch the way he subconsciously zips back and upwards when he flinches and you’ll giggle with glee. But it also respects the journey of the characters from childhood to maturity, and in Peter’s case his steadfast refusal to do so. The best moment in the film comes when Captain Hook (a delightfully wicked Jason Isaacs) spies Pan and Wendy (Rachel Hurd-Wood) in an innocent moment of romantic realization and starts to cry, because he knows he’ll be left behind, and maybe even vanish altogether, if Pan ever grows up. Peter Pan is truly incredible entertainment for kids and adults alike, and should not be missed.
SECONDHAND LIONS (dir. Tim McCanlies, 2003)
Peter Pan may be criminally underrated, but even that’s better than criminally underseen. Raise your hand if you’ve never seen Secondhand Lions. Okay, if your hand’s in the air, your next step is to slap yourself because you’ve screwed up. Bad. Secondhand Lions tells the story of Walter (Haley Joel Osment), whose money-grubbing mother (Kyra Sedgwick) drops him off with his crazy uncles so she can pursue her own fortune, and so he can discover the location of their secret treasure trove. Garth and Hub (Michael Caine and Robert Duvall, respectively) are bitter old kooks who open fire on solicitors and have no place for a kid in their lives, but over the course of the film, yes, Walter has a positive effect on the old farts. But Secondhand Lions isn’t just a heartwarming coming of age tale, it’s also a rip-roaring World War I adventure thanks to flashbacks showing Garth and Hubs’s swashbuckling duels with a villainous Sheik, and a strange wish-fulfillment fantasy once Walter convinces his uncles to actually spend their millions, leading to adventures with biplanes, boats and a pet lioness named Jasmine. Delicately balancing fun and emotional seriousness, Secondhand Lions has no right whatsoever to be forgotten. Find it and enjoy it with your kids today.
SKY HIGH (dir. Mike Mitchell, 2005)
The best X-Men movie, before X-Men: First Class at least, was Sky High, a modest Disney film about a school for kids with super powers. There are all kinds of ways this movie could have screwed up: the humor could have been base, the heroics could have been lame, the romantic subplots could have been melodramatic and the plot could have been stupid. But Sky High works on almost every single god damned level. It’s fun, funny, kinda sweet (although the ‘girl next door’ romance is pretty clichéd), has respect for the superhero genre and is packed with hilarious performances from great actors like Kurt Russell, Bruce Campbell, Cloris Leachman and Wonder Woman herself, Lynda Carter. The Forbidden Kingdom’s Michael Angarano stars as the son of America’s greatest superheroes who, in an obvious dig at puberty, has yet to develop his powers by the first day of school, forcing him into Sky High’s underclass of “sidekicks,” the social pariahs of the film’s comic book-inspired universe. If this movie was made in the 1980’s it would be a genre classic today: it feels like a John Hughes movie with action sequences. As it stands it's easy to blame the marketing department, since it was promoted like yet another stupid pre-teen cash grab, but it was probably too high a concept to compete with the mass marketed schlock it at the 2005 box office anyway. (Even Herbie: Fully Loaded made more money that year.) Sky High director Mike Mitchell wound up directing just that kind of schlock in the years that followed, “demoted” to high-profile but lesser projects like Shrek Forever After and this year’s Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chip-Wrecked (which could be great for all I know, but I kinda doubt it…don’t you?). Sky High is probably the second best 1980’s movie since the 1980’s.
WHAT DO YOU THINK ARE THE BEST KIDS MOVIES OF THE LAST DECADE OR SO…?