It's of course lovely to be presented with make-believe, the supernatural, magic sparkles, bright colors, and happily ever afters. A lot of that is the general icing that mainstream media produces for child audiences. It's not as easy to spot other movies being produced today with stories that are rich, somewhat deeper, sound in values, and not as patronizing of childrens' intellectual and emotional sensibilities nor their scale of imagination. Here are some films, mostly older and a couple newer ones, that get kids and teens' dream wheels turning and push the envelope when it comes to beautiful storytelling audiovisuals (click on the titles to watch clips or the trailers):
1. The Secret of NIMH (Don Bluth). In the 1980s, aside from Disney there were Don Bluth feature films, one of which struck a strong chord in me. Mrs. Brisby is a widowed mouse mother fighting to survive while one of her children falls severely ill and their stone home is sitting on a compromised area of a large farm. She must rely on secret government help from the intelligent rats of NIMH who also face an inner threat.
2. Iron Will (Disney). This was a sled-dog film based on a true story about the 500 mile sled dog race held in 1917, the Red River derby from Winnipeg to St. Paul. In the film, Will Stoneman joins the race to hopefully win the cash prize, pay to save his family's farm, and pay for college. If you are a dog lover and look forward to adventure, this family-friendly film is certainly for you and your children, nephews, and nieces, or younger siblings.
3. Nausicaa Valley of the Wind (Studio Ghibli). Nausicaa is a warrior/ pacifist princess living in the years following a catastrophic fallout of war. The land and air is poisoned and dangerous giant insect herds roam the land, but are they really the enemy of two warring kingdoms? Nausicaa doesn't think so. In order to protect the beautiful valley that is her home, she fights for what she believes and what others do not see. With strong environmental themes, impressive animated action, and beautiful scenery, this is a Hayao Miyazaki film I watched when I was four years old and never forgot.
4. Finding Neverland (Miramax). We all know the story of Peter Pan but this film inspired by the story of the author behind Neverland has been a family favorite of ours for years. James Barrie, an author, is also a well-known playwright who has hit somewhat of a losing streak with his work. He's in need of inspiration and suddenly meets a family of four boys and their widowed mother. It has its tear-jerking moments and serious ones but there's a lot of love to be found in the story of the man behind the boy who never grew up. I love the music, the acting, and the tenderness behind this film. Coming of age never felt so heartbreakingly sentimental.
5. The Little Prince (Paramount Pictures). Released last year and loved by many, 2015's The Little Prince empathizes with children struggling to find their place in a very busy, monochromatic world. A little girl moves in with her mother after an apparent recent separation from her father. The objective is to study hard enough to make it into the finest school nearby and her mother is determined to get her in. There may be some other lessons she needs, however, outside of the classroom. She realizes this after making a new friend, their next-door neighbor.
6. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (Miramax). Based on the book by John Boyne, which I've read as well, it is war time during this film and a young boy with a father in the German military moves into a new home with his family. Beyond a forest beside their home he explores and makes friends with a young boy in striped pyjamas on the other side of a wire fence.
7. A Goofy Movie (Disney). Goofy is facing teenage troubles all furiously bottled up in his son, Max. Max is having to deal with "playing it cool" and that doesn't come easy with an embarrasingly over-enthusiastic Dad like Goofy. My cousin Paolo Valenciano and I loved this animated feature because it gets right to the heart of the difficulties that teens and parents go through in order to understand one another. For the lead characters there's a lot of the giving way and laying down of self to understand one another in this film and it makes for a heartwarming addition to your Disney collection.
8. Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (Touchstone Pictures, Amblin Entertainment). Enter the world of Roger Rabbit where toons rule Tinseltown together with real live human beings! I recall being fascinated by this film because the effects and lighting were so clean and well done. It was so surreal back then to see animated characters interacting with real live actors onscreen.
9. The Black Stallion (Omni Zoetrope). An American boy named Alec and an incredibly fast black Arabian stallion are shipwrecked together and swim to a deserted island. Together, they learn to survive and forge an incomparable bond of friendship, loyalty, and trust on the sands and shores of nowhere. The challenge after being rescued is surviving and staying together amidst human civilization.
10. The Iron Giant (Warner Bros. Animation). This is an animated film set in the early '80s (same era as Stranger Things) and hints at a top secret type of adventure taken on by Hogarth Hughes a young boy living in a town where a gentle, crash-landed robot makes his way through. Struggling to keep his newfound friend a secret from his mom and the authorities Hogarth meets the owner of a scrap metal junkyard and asks for his help.
Children's minds are, suffice it to say, not shallow. Their wells are deep and aren't clogged with boulders or baggage. Lots of the characters here, I find, are courageous and also do not lack their share of real life fears, family difficulties, and challenges. Through these stories, the characters are given opportunities to meet problems head on and step up and create their own magic.
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