Are you sitting comfortably? Then we shall begin. Making films for children requires a very specific skill-set. To be effective and successful, the story must be told in a way that engages the young mind, without condescending. It must contain enough action to hold the attention, without being too violent or frightening. It must involve characters that are relatable, as well as those that capture the imagination. Crucially, it must also appeal to grown-ups, since they are ones paying for the theatre tickets. This is a very fine line to walk, and many fall by the wayside. On the other hand, walking this fine line can lead to stagnation. As with any movie genre, it is easy to fall into the trap of predictability and worn-out narrative tropes. Rare is the children’s film that achieves the necessary balance, while offering something fresh and original. Rarer still are the children’s movies that actually break the mould.
They are vitally important, though. First of all, children’s films are big business. These days, every time school vacations swing around, a tent-pole movie hits the theatres, aimed at children. They generally arrive with accompanying merchandise and promotional tie-ins with fast-food restaurants, and are practically inescapable in cultural terms for the few weeks beforehand. Secondly, they are influential. Young minds are impressionable and the themes reflected in the movies children watch impact upon them greatly. For these reasons, it is important to celebrate those that think outside the box, and approach the task not with the intention of making a good kids’ movie, but with the intention of making a ground-breaking, mind-blowing children’s film.
The category of children’s film has many examples of these creative endeavours. The Children’s Film Foundation, for instance, funded a vast range of interesting titles for over thirty years, from 1951 – including the final collaboration of legendary filmmakers Powell and Pressburger, The Boy Who Turned Yellow. While these semi-short films are well-worth seeking out, it is the feature-length ground-breakers we now turn our attentions to, in light of the recent release of The Book Of Life.
The animated film from writer-director Jorge R. Gutierrez, renders a moving story of romance, passion and ambition, in a stylized, visually stunning world, that encompasses legend and faith not usually celebrated in mainstream children’s studio fare. It stands as the latest in a range of productions that have taken the idea of children’s film and delivered something that far exceeds expectation.
Inspired by The Book Of Life, here is a look at nine other children’s films that broke the mould.