Saturday, November 26, 2011

7 Kids' Movies by Great Directors Who Don't Make Kids' Movies

In honor of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (which I’ll probably get to writing about one of these days), and also because I feel guilty about not having posted as much this month, here’s a quick list I thought up: Great kids’ movies made by great directors not known for making kids’ movies.

There are some willful omissions, so here's the obligatory disclaimer: I didn’t include Tim Burton or Terry Gilliam because so many of their films hover somewhere close to the genre, even when they’re being irredeemably adult and dark. I thought about including studio workman Roy Rowland, he of 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T fame, except that he had a lucrative career helming Margaret O’Brien pics so kids’ movies don't seem like they were particularly out of his wheelhouse. I also thought about including Fritz Lang and Moonfleet, but I don't know that Moonfleet is a kids' movie, strictly speaking.

And I know some folks will gripe about my not including Alfonso Cuaron and his Harry Potter entry here, but I first got introduced to Cuaron as the director of 1995’s A Little Princess (which I still think is his best film, believe it or not), so he always seemed to have one foot in this world.

Popeye (duh)

Popeye (Robert Altman)
The first thing I made my mom do when she and I arrived in the U.S. was take me to see Popeye and The Empire Strikes Back. I didn’t speak English so she had to whisper-translate the movies for me. Being seven, I decided both of them were awesome. I still recall the wonder of seeing the Popeye comics brought into the “real” world and given heft and dimension. (Remember, all this was before CGI.) Many view this as a dark spot on Altman's career, but, well, they’re wrong. The director once claimed that the film made a great babysitter, and he was right – kids really do respond to it, because it's just so damn fun. And despite all that, it’s still so clearly Altman's – that's his generous framing; his reflective, bemused outrage at the world; his attention to the little gestures that make a character a person; etc. Plus, it wasn’t even the flop many claim; it made it into the Box Office Top Ten of its year.

The Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson)
To be fair, Anderson’s style always seemed like it’d be well-suited to the children’s movie genre, so most folks didn’t blink upon hearing he was going to make an animated version of the Roald Dahl classic. But I think very few of us were prepared for how terrific this one turned out to be – blending Dahl’s flair for the macabre with Anderson’s fondness for invention and for tales of families under strain.

The Witches
The Witches (Nicolas Roeg)
For all his deranged stylization and irreverent sensibilities, Roeg has always had a certain innocent streak running through his films. (I once considered the idea that many of his films -- The Man Who Fell to EarthInsignificance, even Don’t Look Now – were best understood as being told through the eyes of a child.) So perhaps it wasn’t surprising when he took a Roald Dahl story (him again, go figure) and turned it into something unhinged, both freewheeling and terrifying.

The Secret Garden (Agnieszka Holland)
Those five minutes when Holland briefly went from being a well-liked festival mainstay to a major Hollywood director (before apparently being exiled to TV and cable) was an interesting time, not least because it yielded this lovely little adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic, which was perfect for this director: Holland was always a master of atmosphere, and The Secret Garden is essentially a story all about atmosphere. Also, here's a thought: Most kids’ movies could benefit from a score by Zbigniew Preisner.

Millions (Danny Boyle)
Dark, perhaps, but in a nightmarish way that really feels like childhood to me. In tackling this twisted little tale of two brothers who stumble upon a bag of stolen British pounds on the eve of the country’s switchover to the Euro, Boyle and his go-to writer Frank Cottrell Boyce re-imagine a standard crime drama as an exuberant fairy-tale-cum-meditation on loss, luck, ethics, kinship, and charity.

Secret of Roan Inish (John Sayles)
I suppose this stretches the definition of “kids’ movie” a little, but not much. True, Sayles’s trademark cynicism isn’t really in evidence here. His matter-of-fact approach to storytelling is, however -- and it serves him surprisingly well, given that this is all about a young girl discovering the existence of mythical seal-like creatures on a wind- and sea-swept corner of Ireland. That’s not to suggest that it’s dry. On the contrary, Sayles takes great care to foreground the elements (wind, waves, seagulls, etc.) so that you feel like what’s onscreen is just another force of nature -- both organic and magical, fantastical and very, very real.

Little Buddha
Little Buddha (Bernardo Bertolucci)
No, screw you. We’ve probably been through this before, but I consider Bertolucci’s strange hybrid of children’s adventure and Siddhartha biopic to be one of the greatest films about death ever made -- a gorgeous storybook about impermanence and mortality. So, uh, will kids enjoy it? Who knows. Check back with me when my son is nine or something.

Honorable Mention (Maybe):

Bugsy Malone (Alan Parker)
Why is this gangster movie acted by kids (Jodie Foster, Scott Baio, etc.) not a part of the main list? For starters, I can’t decide if I actually consider Alan Parker a “great director”; unlike some of my fellow movie nerd friends I have little love for Angel Heart; indeed, the only reason I’m inclined to give him the benefit of a doubt is because he did make the awesome film version of Pink Floyd’s The Wall. But the real reason it’s not part of the main list is simple: I haven’t seen it. Everyone assures me that it’s terrific, though. 


  1. Matt Prigge did a similar list last week ( and you only have one overlap, not counting Cuaron, so maybe these things are more ubiquitous than we thought. Speaking of which: how could you, of all people, not include Jack Clayton's "Something Wicked This Way Comes"?!

    I'm also baffled, and a little concerned, to discover that a film exists which you haven't seen. Though "Bugsy Malone" ain't all that imvho.

  2. Hmm, didn't see Matt's piece. Odd. I actually did a brief google search before I posted to see if others had done a similar list. It seemed inconceivable that they hadn't.

    Yeah, forgetting SOMETHING WICKED was a major brainfart (which I acknowledged on Twitter, BTW).

    As for BUGSY MALONE, it fell through the cracks for two reasons: 1.) Back when I was younger (in my teens) and actually kind of liked Alan Parker, it sounded like a stupid idea for a movie; 2.) By the time I was older and had some curiosity in the concept (funny how that works), I'd pretty much given up on Parker. Now that I maybe have a bit more distance, it still sounds kind of stupid.

  3. I'd go with John Ford's Shirley Temple film Wee Willie Winkie.

  4. On "Bugsy Malone," you can't beat a "gangster film" where pies and tommy guns firing whipped cream are the weapons of choice. Great supporting role by Jodie Foster too. I watched this movie a thousand times as a kid.

  5. I refuse to do a Top Ten Films list. First, I haven't seen enough solarmovies only a few dozen of the films that were released this year to be quite honest. Second, when you start micromanaging things to that level it is so subjective as to be meaningless.

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