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Good Children’s Movies (1970-75): Golden Eggs, Pirates & Three Magic Nuts
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Good Children’s Movies (1970-75): Golden Eggs, Pirates & Three Magic Nuts

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David Appleford itcherLook to the first half of the seventies and you’ll see: when it comes to children’s movies and family entertainment, it was the U.K. that delivered the quality. EMI Films was a British studio and film distributor that, for a short while, could claim to have raised the bar for big screen family entertainment. The success didn’t last, but there were some extraordinarily good works that emerged among the under-performing productions, including one certain children’s movie that even today, is still considered to be one of the greatest British films ever made. ~ David Appleford

The British Are Coming… Again

‘The Railway Children’ was both an artistic and a huge commercial success; families loved it, and they continue to do so today. Despite several TV showings, you can never see this film enough – it’s a total charmer! When you show it to the family, pay attention to the closing moments as the whole cast gather and wave goodbye to the camera. You’ll hear a voice shout, “Thank you, Mr. Forbes”. It’s a reference to filmmaker Bryan Forbes who personally volunteered the security for the film to be completed.

Because of the success of ‘The Railway Children,’ director Lionel Jeffries made two more family entertainment movies in the first half of the seventies. In 1972, there was ‘Baxter!’ and later in the same year, he released the highly entertaining children’s ghost story, ‘The Amazing Mr. Blunden.’ But there were several other British family films released at the same time.

Having scored success as Oliver Twist in the popular Lionel Bart musical version, child actor, Mark Lester, went back in front of the camera in 1971 for a remake of the classic adventure ‘Black Beauty’. Plus, later that same year, his ‘Oliver!’ co-stars, Jack Wild and Ron Moody teamed up for ‘The Flight of the Doves.’ ‘Tales of Beatrix Potter’ proved that ballet could keep young children entertained, and in 1974, hoping to repeat the same success enjoyed by ‘The Railway Children,’ EMI Films released ‘Swallows and Amazons.’ 

All of the above are worthy of repeat viewings, but while you get ready for a living room British film festival of the seventies, here are five other family films from the early part of that same decade you may also want to consider.

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Charming Children’s Movie Recommendations

‘The Phantom Tollbooth’ (Chuck Jones, Abe Levitow & Dave Monahan, 1970)

Things which are just as bad also are equally good. Try to look at the bright side of things Milo…

Known also by the longer title, ‘The Adventures of Milo in the Phantom Tollbooth,’ this comic adventure for children mixes live action with animation. Even though it attracted little attention at the box-office when it first opened, reviews were positive – with good reason!

Milo (Butch Patrick) is a young boy who one day receives a large, gift-wrapped package. Inside is a tollbooth, which, as Milo discovers when he drives through it in his toy car, is really a gateway to a magical alternate world. Each new kingdom he visits is full of colorful adventure with a few life lessons for young Milo to learn.

Completed in 1968 but not exhibited by MGM until 1970, Milo’s adventures was the last film the studio released with animation. It received little to no promotion, which is why so many families missed it when it initially opened. Plus, the author of the book upon which the film was based, Norton Juster, was annoyed by the movie. He publicly stated his hatred, claiming he had no input in the finished product.

When the reviews were surprisingly positive, the author became even angrier. But children know nothing of the behind-the-scenes politics, and years later, they should be thrilled to watch Milo’s adventures. Moreover, older parents who remember the sixties sit-com ‘The Munsters’ might remember child actor Butch Patrick; he played the werewolf, Eddie Munster.

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‘The Million Dollar Duck’ (Vincent McEveety, 1971)

I didn’t want a duck! I wanted a puppy!

There could hardly be a children’s movie list without the inclusion of at least one Walt Disney family comedy, and if you’re looking for one during the early seventies that probably slipped you by, this is the one.

The popular sixties hero of Disney family features, Dean Jones, plays a scientist called Albert. His wife, Katie (Sandy Duncan), gets her apple sauce recipe wrong – the sauce is eventually fed to a duck in Albert’s lab. After an accidental dose of radiation, the apple sauce creates a chemical change in the duck, resulting in the laying of solid gold eggs, not to mention the interest of some greedy government agents.

Culminating in a very funny chase sequence, this movies will keep the children entertained. The overall silliness may have adults rolling their eyes – Sandy Duncan’s character is so ditzy, she may even annoy – but remember the target audience: this is for children, and they’ll love it.

Here’s something fun to ponder: even before The Watergate Scandal broke, Hollywood still portrayed President Nixon as a villain. He’s the one who calls his greedy agents to kidnap the duck.

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‘Sounder’ (Martin Ritt, 1972)

You lose some of the time what you always go after, but you lose all the time what you don’t go after…

This is a terrific movie of a boy and his dog that older children should enjoy. American audiences return to the film from time to time, mostly due to the famous 1969 novel often introduced in schools, but elsewhere, the story of ‘Sounder’ is less well-known. What a thrill it will be when families discover this for the first time.

It’s the time of the Great Depression in Louisiana, 1933. The father of a poor, black family, Nathan (Paul Winfield), is convicted of a petty crime and sent to away to a prison camp. Months later, the mother of the family (Cicely Tyson), sends her oldest boy and the family dog, Sounder, on a long trip to visit the father. The story concentrates on that trip across the country.

Even though the film is faithful to the overall feel of the book, there are differences. One important difference is the portrayal of white people. Given its time and location, the book is more realistic in presenting white characters as cruel and most definitely racist, but the film tones those elements down and makes things more agreeable for a family audience. Also, the film gives characters names; the book did not.

But be warned when looking for the film. There was a Disney remake in 2003 of the same name which also starred Paul Winfield, but it’s the ’72 original you want to see. The pedigree is altogether different. Even though it didn’t win, the original was nominated for four Academy Awards.

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‘Swallows and Amazons’ (Claude Whatham, 1974)

l challenge you to capture my boat at 3pm tomorrow afternoon…

In an article that sings the praises of British family films during the early seventies, it would be remiss of us not to include at least one of those films in our recommended list. Hoping to achieve the same success enjoyed by ‘The Railway Children’, EMI Films produced ‘Swallows and Amazons’. Even though box-office sales dipped, the film itself remains captivating in that innocent, middle-class, naive English way. The world outside may be a dangerous place, but within the world of ‘Swallows and Amazons,’ life is jolly good fun and children rule.

In the way that ‘Sounder’ is more famous in America, ‘Swallows and Amazons’ is about as English as you can get and not that well-known outside of the United Kingdom.

The Walker children are enjoying their holidays in the Lake District. They camp, fish and enjoy sailing in their dinghy named Swallow. The Blackett children are doing the same thing, only their dinghy is called Amazon. Together, the two families engage in rivalry on imagined high seas, and it all involves fireworks, piracy and even a character walking the plank because of crimes committed.

The film was shot in the Lake District on the very locations that author Arthur Ransome describes in his book. One fun thing to do is see the film then take a family holiday and look for some of those location spots; consider it something like a movie scavenger hunt. There’s a new version just completed and set for release in 2016 which was also filmed in the beautiful Lake District. Here’s what you do. See the delightful ’74 film, read the book, go on a Lake District family holiday, then get ready for the release of the new, big screen remake. You’ll be fully prepared.

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‘Three Wishes for Cinderella’ (Vaclav Vorlicek, 1973)

Your word is my command, Highness!

Here’s a twist on the Cinderella story starring actors from both Germany and Czechoslovakia. The film has several different titles depending on where it happens to be showing. The original title is ‘Tři oříšky pro Popelku’. The German title is ‘Drei Haselnüsse für Aschenbrödel’. In English it’s ‘Three Wishes for Cinderella.’

In this telling, Cinderella is a feisty, skilled sharpshooter who is actively pursued by the prince. The twist in this one is instead of having a fairy godmother to grant her wishes, Cinders has three magic hazelnuts.

The cast consisted of such a mixed bag of languages that the director had everyone speak their lines in their own tongue and then had the film fully dubbed into separate editions, depending upon which country happened to be showing the film. At Christmas, in most continental European areas like Norway, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Germany, and occasionally even Russia, the film still enjoys a regular TV showing, but British and American audiences may have never heard of it. This is your chance to see how family films are portrayed outside the Brit and American mainstream.

The original English title was ‘Three Nuts for Cinderella,’ but that was soon changed to ‘Wishes’. Evidently, the marketing department found that referencing ‘Nuts’ was giving audiences a somewhat different impression of the kind of film it was and they scrambled to make the change.

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Look to the Skies

The seventies remains – arguably – one of the most interesting decades for the film industry, and that is certainly true for family films. Even though the U.K. never achieved that same level of artistic and commercial success it did in the first half of the decade, family films in general continued to develop in large, successful numbers in the second.

The charm and innocence of ‘The Railway Children’ and ‘Swallows and Amazons’ was gone. Instead, the industry looked to the skies. All of a sudden, everything turned to outer space and it all began because of a certain galaxy, far, far away. Tighten your seat belts and be ready to read on.

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