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Children's Films

     "I can't think of a single good children's movie that adults can't enjoy," critic Pauline Kael opined in her excellent Kiss Kiss Bang Bang essay, "Movies for younger children." For the most part, I agree. However, E.T., Star Wars, Jurrasic Park come to mind as pictures that children sincerely adore, I, an adult, abhor.

     Still, most films which I loved passionately as a child I continue to savor in my creaky semi-maturity. Some ever-favorites (parents: all are available on video!) which grabbed me first when I was in elementary school: Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Boy With the Green Hair, The Thief of Baghdad, How Green Was My Valley, The Searchers, Rebel Without a Cause, Them!, Shane, National Velvet, The Man Who Knew Too Much.

     They all come from a pre-techno, pre-computer, pre-Ninja/Beavis/MTV age. There are no digitally created crashes or explosions; the emphasis in these films is on character.

     None are cartoons!

     Can movies improve on Charles Laughton's lovestruck hunchback swooping down from the Notre Dame rafters and rescuing Esmeralda from the madding Paris crowds? Or be more touching than when Brandon De Wilde chases after his gunfighter pal, imploring, "Come back, Shane! Come back!" Or be more frightening than when the Comanche, Scar, kidnaps little Debbie in The Searchers?

     Consider that 1944 masterpiece, National Velvet. It starts with one of the most lyrical, breathtaking, and yet zen-simple title shots in cinema: for several minutes, the camera follows behind Mickey Rooney as he saunters down a placid country road. There's true Technicolor green grass and a blue ocean, and Mickey whistles. That's all. But wow! The other excitement is violet-eyed Liz Taylor as the girl who loves horses with a holy adoration.

     "Frankly, I doubt I am qualified to arrive at any sensible assessment of Miss Elizabeth Taylor," wrote the great movie critic, James Agee. "I am choked with the same admiration I might have felt if we were both in the same grade of primary school."

     I'm similarly choked, because Boston film venues are suddenly, in early 1998, waking up to providing old-style children's movies.

     The Harvard Film Archive is showing Carroll Ballard's beautiful Never Cry Wolf (1987), a biologist among wolf packs in the Yukon, on Saturday, February 7, at 1 pm. The Museum of Fine Arts has scheduled Two Tales by Beatrix Potter for February 21 and 28 and a collection of youth-oriented shorts, Films for All Ages, for February 17-20.

     Most ambitious is "For the Young at Heart:Classic Children's Matinees," Saturdays and Sundays at the Coolidge Corner. Here's a rundown of this gift-of-a-series, in 35mm:

     Little Women(1933). I wish this early version of Louisa May Alcott held up better, but twenty-something Katharine Hepburn is impossibly hammy as Jo at this post-Bryn Mawr point of her career. The recent Winona Ryder version is far superior.

     The 5,000 Fingers of Dr.T (1953). This adaptation of Dr, Seuss is a must-see, eerie nightmare about a 9-year-old (the grand Tommy Rettig) trapped by the megalomania of his sadistic piano teacher, Dr. Terwilliker (Hans Conreid). Dr. T plots to have 500 boys practice piano 24 hours a day, tormented by his ruthless pedagogy. Meanwhile, Dr. T, jails musicians for daring to play other instruments than the sacred piano. Among the fine songs-and-dances: a musical parade of the incarcerated, including piccolo-playing prisoners!

     The Secret Garden (1949). Margaret O'Brien is the bratty British orphan shipped to a mordant castle estate in rural England. It's an effective mini-Gothic Jane Eyre for children, in which little Margaret unravels the secrets of the castle, among them, those of its intensely gloomy owner. In the middle of the estate grounds, under lock and key, is the titular garden. Why hasn't anyone entered it for ten years?

     The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn(1939). Mickey Rooney is a slightly flat Huck, but the great African-American actor, Rex Ingram, makes a wonderful Jim. This film is stripped-down Samuel Clemens: there's no feeling that here's an adaptation of one of America's handful of literary masterpieces. But it's interesting to see foregrounded 19th century racial attitudes: even such an anarchic spirit as Huck believes that slavery is sort-of-OK, and that abolitionists, not slaveholders, are the enemy.

(Januray, 1998)


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