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Good Children’s Movies (1990-95): Dogs, Horses & Secret Gardens

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David Appleford itcherThe early nineties proved to be a landmark time for the Disney animated family-friendly feature. Because of the late eighties success of ‘The Little Mermaid’ and its theatrical, musical flare, three more animated features were released within a few years of each other with a similar approach, and their success was huge. It not only affected other studios and their children’s movie releases, it also changed the way voices were chosen and billed for an animated feature film. ~ David Appleford

A Whole New World

Think back to some of those Disney animated classics like ‘Pinocchio’ or ‘Sleeping Beauty.’ Can you recall the names of any of the voices? Probably not. They weren’t the stars. It was the film itself that was the real star. However, once ‘Beauty & the Beast,’ ‘Aladdin,’ and ‘The Lion King’ came out, the pedigree of talent, the Broadway styled scores and the large budgets involved were too much of a financial risk to hand over key roles to unknown names.  

In order to promote their new animated features, Disney needed big names for advertising. Thus, Robin Williams was suddenly an animated movie star as the genie in ‘Aladdin,’ so were Angela Lansbury and Robby Benson in ‘Beauty & the Beast.’ Matthew Broderick, Whoopie Goldberg and Nathan Lane, among many other big names, were used in ‘The Lion King.’ And the films no longer used the phrase “With the voice talents of…” They became billed as starring Robin Williams or starring Matthew Broderick as if they actually appeared in the film. In the words of ‘Aladdin,’ it was a whole new world.

In addition to those three biggies from Disney, other studios flooded the market with quality children’s films. Don Bluth, who was once an animator for Disney, opened his own studios and released ‘Fievel Goes West,’ a sequel to the successful ‘An American Tail.’ There was also ‘The Muppet’s Christmas Carol’ with Michael Caine, plus two ‘Home Alone’ films and a remake of ‘Miracle on 34th Street’ which had a great performance from Sir Richard Attenborough but fell short of the original.

The above are all worthy of watching again with the children, but, as always, there were a few during this period that might have passed you by. Check the following five films; they’re all for the family, they’re all good, and more importantly, they pass the repeat viewing tests. Let’s go.


Endearing Children’s Movie Recommendations

‘The Witches’ (Nicolas Roeg, 1990)

Witches spend their time plotting to kill children, stalking the wretched child like a hunter stalks a bird in the forest…

Author Roald Dahl had a habit of tapping into a child’s worst fear then creating an adventure out of it. Parents didn’t always get it, but Dahl knew how, and even though some of what made up his stories may have seemed to push the envelope on surreal, scary stuff, when it came to a child’s point of view, he got it right.

‘The Witches’ can be scary stuff, and while it’s aimed at younger viewers, this is one film you may want to watch with them. It’s about a young boy who, recently orphaned, travels to England with his grandmother. They stay at a hotel not realizing there’s a convention of witches who are also staying there and they’re planning something evil. They’ve gathered together to discuss a way of ridding all of England of its children, and it’s up to young orphan Luke and his grandmother to stop them.

After considering a long list of famous names, including Cher, Sigourney Weaver and Liza Minnelli to play the lead witch, the producers cast Angelica Houston, a decision met with the approval of author Dahl, a man famously picky when it came to big screen adaptations of his books. He didn’t care for most things connected with the big screen, but he liked Houston, and she makes one, mean witch.  

Her character took up to eight hours daily in the makeup chair before shooting began. And look closely at the other witches at the convention. There’s a reason why they look haggard; they’re really all men in witches’ clothing.

‘White Fang’ (Randal Kleiser, 1991)

Is there any good reason why we can’t just bury him here? I don’t think he’ll know the difference…

This is one of those old fashioned adventures that rarely makes it to the big screen these days. Based on the famous Jack London adventure novel of the same name, ‘White Fang’ tells of a friendship between man and dog.

Jack Conroy (Ethan Hawke) is a young Yukon gold hunter who befriends a mixed dogwolf after rescuing the animal from a cruel man. When criminals try to steal Jack’s gold, it’s up to White Fang, the gold hunter’s dog, to protect Jack and fight the criminals off.

There was a sequel, but this is the one to see. The cinematography is epic in scope and eye-catching, and the adventure is just the kind that should thrill children and keep them on the edge of their seats without making them peer at everything through fingers. And they’ll love the dog.  

His name is Jed and up until making ‘White Fang,’ Jed had appeared in a number of earlier films, including a fun eighties children’s adventure called ‘The Journey of Natty Gann.’ Like ‘The Witches,’ this is another film to watch with the kids. Not because it’s scary but because you’ll probably enjoy it as much as they will.

‘Into the West’ (Mike Newell, 1992)

When you through a stone in a lake, it’s not happy ’til it hits the bottom. Make sure he doesn’t drag us all down with him…

If there’s any children’s film that continuously falls under most people’s radar it’s this. ‘Into the West’ is an Irish adventure of two boys and the horse that comes their way.

The boys dream of being cowboys and love their new found white horse, though, because of their impoverished circumstances, the animal has to be kept in their north Dublin housing estate. It’s when the horse is stolen that the real adventure begins. The boys ride into the west and discover that their horse maybe something more magical than just a horse after all.

Like the best of children’s adventures, ‘Into the West’ can also be enjoyed by adults who will get just as much out of the film’s themes as children. Actor Gabriel Byrne, who plays the boys’ father, considered it to be among the finest scripts he’d ever read. It’s a hugely likeable film, though don’t look too closely at the horse. Several different animals were used, and there’s a distracting continuity issue.  

Sometimes the horse looks dark gray, sometimes a lighter gray, and sometimes white. Plus, you might notice a braid in the horse’s mane which seems to appear then disappear at will. It all depended on which horse was in front of the camera that day.

‘Cool Runnings’ (Jon Turtelaub, 1993)

The key elements to a successful sled team are a steady driver, and three strong runners to push off down the ice. Ice? Ice!

This is such an odd idea for a film that the only reason why it works is that it’s loosely based on a real event. If it was fiction it would just seem silly.  

Cool Runnings’ is the true story of a bobsleigh team competing in the 1988 Winter Olympics. What makes this different, not to mention very entertaining, is that the bobsled team is from tropical Jamaica, a country not exactly famous for its snow or for its champion bobsleigh teams.

Originally, the film was intended to be a serious sports movie with an unlikely setting, but it was that unlikely setting that made things change. How could you make a movie with this idea and not have it presented as a family adventure comedy? The studio wanted Kurt Russell to play the part of the coach who whips the four Jamaicans into Olympic shape, but he passed. John Candy lobbied hard for the role, and got it, but only with the agreement of taking a pay cut. On a bittersweet note, as much fun as Candy is in this role, it was his last; he passed away five months later.

And here’s something to look for. There’s a crash near the end of the movie. It’s not the actors – it’s real footage of the Jamaican bobsled team shot during the actual 1988 Winter Olympic Games in Calgary.

‘The Secret Garden’ (Agnieszka Holland, 1993)

The spell was broken. My uncle learned to laugh, and I learned to cry. The secret garden is always open now. Open, and awake, and alive. If you look the right way, you can see that the whole world is a garden…

There’s a successful Broadway musical based on the story, but this 1993 version is taken directly from the Frances Hodgson Burnett children’s book without the songs, and it’s a beauty.

Young Mary Lennox is recently orphaned and has to leave her home in India to live with her only living relative, Uncle Archibald Craven at his mansion in Yorkshire, England. It’s while living in this large and seemingly unfriendly house that Mary discovers a sickly relative who is hidden away in his bedroom, too ill to ever leave, and a secret garden that once belonged to her departed aunt. Once Mary finds the key that unlocks this hidden and neglected garden, a whole new world opens up to everyone, changing the lives of all who enter.

What strikes you most is the look of the film. ‘The Secret Garden’ boasts a good cast, including Maggie Smith, but the real star is the beautiful Yorkshire location which looks ravishing. Children will be naturally drawn to Mary’s mysterious adventure in the large and foreboding manor, but parents will admire the photography. And if the children are going to play a film several times, it might as well be this one. It’s a story with a heartwarming conclusion of which you’ll never tire.


Kids At Heart

Because of the mid-nineties success of ‘The Secret Garden’ and its intelligent storyline, not to mention its lush, visual beauty, Hollywood, always on the lookout to repeat something that worked, looked to anything else that might resemble the film. It didn’t have to look far.

There was another book by author Frances Hodgson Burnett that because of a weekly Sunday afternoon BBC TV series had already won the hearts and minds of British audiences.  

When it came to family entertainment at the movies, the latter half of the nineties presented even more choices for children than ever before, and none were finer than an adventure soon to come called ‘The Little Princess.’ And that was just the beginning of ’95.   

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