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Good Children’s Movies (1995-00): Pigs, Princesses & Schoolyard Revenge

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David Appleford itcherSince that time when a certain black and white mouse with a high-pitched voice was first seen and heard on the big screen, the Walt Disney organization dominated family entertainment. If a children’s film began without a Disney logo, then somehow the perception was that the film couldn’t be particularly good, at least, not for the kids. And it continued to be like that for decades, until the nineties. That’s when it all changed, particularly during the last five years. ~ David Appleford

Family Entertainment Is Big Business

When it came to children’s films, the difference between the nineties and all previous decades was the sudden volume of product. The late eighties and the early nineties proved to the studios that family entertainment was big business. But there was no period of output more overwhelming than those few years leading up to the new millennium. And it wasn’t just the amount from which families could chose, it was the quality.

Those Disney animated musicals made all the difference. The organization responsible for filling the imaginations of children continued to thrive, not only with its Broadway bound products but with other fun features such as “Hercules,’ ‘Pocahontas,’ and ‘Mulan.’ It even got into the straight-to-video market using the success of its big screen characters and sent them direct to the small screen. That’s why you might see ‘The Lion King ll: Simba’s Pride’ on the shelves, or ‘Pocahontas ll: Journey to a New World.’ Being Disney, the quality for TV Only films was high, even if they lost part of the charm of the originals. Plus there was the wonderful ‘Toy Story’ that revolutionized computer animation, followed by ‘A Bug’s Life,’ then ‘Toy Story 2,’ which was arguably better than the first.

…what might be nostalgia for you is unknown to your child…

Even though other studios released animated features, their best work came with live-action. Here’s what you need to know: the high level of production values, performances and overall quality of children’s live-action film thrived between ’95 and ’99. That’s not to say that everything released was worthy of attention – ‘The Wiggles Movie’ wasn’t exactly a high point – but there were some films so good they should never be forgotten. 

Perhaps when you were younger you may have personally enjoyed some or maybe all of the following five suggestions, but keep this in mind: what might be nostalgia for you is unknown to your child. Treat the following as a reminder more than a discovery of something new. After all, to your children, they’re all brand new.


Live-action Children’s Movie Recommendations

‘A Little Princess’ (Alfonso Cuarón, 1995)

Sometimes when I dream, I sense a part of me that’s missing. It’s a strange feeling having your heart remember something your mind can not…

After the success of ‘The Secret Garden,’ the studios looked to a second book by author Frances Hodgson Burnett as a follow up, and even though both the quality and the critical reception was high, audiences stayed away, which is odd considering just how great this film really is.

Fans of the original story will notice big differences, and perhaps this had something to do with its commercial failure. A delightful Liesel Matthews plays young Sara Crew who leaves her home in India and moves to an expensive boarding school in New York while her father fights overseas in World War 1. When her father is killed in combat and the fees for Sara’s education suddenly stop, the school’s headmistress takes Sara out of the classroom, forces her into a life of servitude and makes her sleep in the cold attic.

The book has young Sara back in a London school for girls, plus the roles of the adult characters in the exciting climax were changed dramatically. By moving the story from London over to New York and giving the little English girl an American accent, a little of that Dickensian flavor of the novel suddenly went missing. But the film is a genuine work of beauty, even if locales were altered and plot points changed, plus the conclusion may have simplified characters and events, but your child will be thrilled as the tables for Sara finally turn in her favor.

And for movie buff parents watching the film with their child, take note of the titles of the stores on Main Street. They’re all named after the film’s crew members. In particular, look close and you should see a store named A.C. Blomquist & Co. That’s the name of the film’s executive producer; Alan C. Blomquist.

‘Fly Away Home’ (Carroll Ballard, 1996)

I promise you, nothing is going to happen to those geese. I won’t let it and neither will your dad…

This adventure/drama is based on real events. In reality, a man called Bill Lishman aided stranded geese to learn how to fly and to follow his ultralight aircraft in order to show the birds their migratory routes. ‘Fly Away Home’ takes this theme and builds a new fictional adventure around the event, and it’s a solid charmer.

Anna Paquin plays a thirteen year-old from New Zealand now living with her father, Jeff Daniels, in Ontario, Canada. Having found a nest of goose eggs, the young girl looks after the birds once the eggs hatch. She becomes their mother. But there’s a problem. She can keep them as pets, but the law states that she has to have their wings clipped so that they can no longer fly. Believing this to be cruel, the girl and her father use an ultralight aircraft to teach the birds not only how to fly but how to migrate. It’s an edge of your seat ride once Anna Paquin takes to the sky.

The film was well received at the time, but it’s one that tends to be forgotten when looking back for fun films for families. The photography is occasionally a thing of rare cinematic beauty as Anna and her geese take to the skies. Plus, for fans of trivia, here’s something fun to know: The character that a young Anna Pacquin plays is a girl born and raised in New Zealand who moves to Canada to be with her father. In real life, Pacquin was born in Canada and moved to New Zealand.

‘Matilda’ (Danny DeVito, 1996)

Most parents believe their children are the most beautiful creatures ever to grace the planet. Others take a less emotional approach…

Another film based on a Roald Dahl book, and true to its origins, the humor is dark, the villains are nasty, and while there’ll be moments to make a parent squirm, the childten will love it.

The plot is easy to explain and can be summed up this way; Matilda is a bright, wonderful little girl with an equally wonderful teacher who also happens to have the worst parents and the worst high-school headmistress in the world. And to make things interesting, she also has magical powers.

The musical version continues to wow audiences on both sides of the Atlantic, but many tend to forget that between the Roald Dahl book and the big-budget theatrical musical, there was a movie. Actor Danny DeVito not only directed the film, he also stars as one of the neglectful parents, plus he’s the narrator. For DeVito, making Matilda was a labor of love and he does a great job. The film looks like a live-action cartoon and it’s bursting with energy. Plus, it’s funny, exciting, and young Mara Wilson who plays the title role was simply perfect. The timing of the film found Mara at just the right age.

During filming, actress Pam Ferris stayed in character as the horrendous headmistress so that the children would continue to be scared of her. That fear you see on screen is for real. And look closely at the scene where an FBI car passes Matilda in the street. The music coming from the car’s radio is the theme from ‘Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.’ And if you look even closer, you’ll notice that one of the FBI agents is actor Paul Reubens. He was Pee-wee Herman.

Check out this article for more movies like ‘Matilda’.

‘George of the Jungle’ (Sam Weisman, 1997)

Stay here? George is king of the jungle. No four walls built by modern man can contain him…

It may have received mixed reviews, but forget ‘em. ‘George of the Jungle’ is a hoot, a laugh-out-loud comedy that will have both parents and childten in fits, though probably for different reasons.

Based on the American cartoon series, George is a Tarzan-like character who was raised in the jungle, swings on the vines and has a habit of bashing into the trees. He’s an overgrown, lovable doofus played with just the right amount of benign clueless cheeriness by Brendan Fraser.

There are also nice turns from the supporting cast, including an equally clueless but likable heroine, Leslie Mann as the wealthy heiress exploring darkest Africa, her wealthy but conniving fiancee played by a continually funny Thomas Haden Church, and the voice talent of John Cleese as the ageing though highly educated gorilla with an upper-class English accent who lives with George in the tree-house.

The Disney studios owned the rights to George which was why scriptwriter Dana Olsen’s orignal screenplay was called ‘Gorilla Boy.’ He shopped it to all the major studios but avoided Disney because he thought the studio would have its own story. Coincidentally, Disney had nothing. When an exec found the script, he liked it, bought it and changed the title to shape everything around the sudio product. And for the fun of it, take a close look at a certain lady who spies George after he’s brought over to America. The woman wishes out loud that one day maybe even she could find a man like a George of the Jungle. In real-life, at the time, that was Brendan Fraser’s wife, actress Afton Smith.

‘Babe’ (Chris Noonan, 1995)

The fact is that pigs don’t have a purpose. Just like, ducks don’t have a purpose…

We save the best until last, and ‘Babe’ is truly the best. Yes, it’s a children’s film, and, yes, children will have the time of their lives, but ‘Babe’ is so much more. Producer George Miller waited ten years until he started putting the elements together, and it was all to do with film technology. He waited for movie special effects to improve because he wanted nothing on film until he could be sure it was going to work.

Babe is the name of a pig who thinks and acts like a sheep dog. Because the animals communicate with each other, as long as Babe asks the sheep nicely when trying to round them up, the sheep obey. They all like Babe. There was a sequel called ‘Babe: Pig in the City,’ and it’s a fine film on its own terms, but it’s this ’95 original that stands out. It’s also the film considered to be the pioneering factor in showing animals talking to each other via authentic looking mouth movements courtesy of CGI.

The pig is really a combination of several pigs. Because baby pigs grow so fast, the film had to use not only a total of 48 pigs before the film’s conclusion but also an animatronic version. Actor James Cromwell as the farmer who sees Babe’s potential as a sheep-pig is said to have taken the role only after finding he had a maximum of 171 words in the whole film. He thought it would be small enough that he could enjoy his location time filming down in Australia. What he didn’t realize was that he had more screen time than any other film he had previously made. But it obviously had an effect on him. After starring in the film and befriending several of the farm animals, he became a vegetarian.


Lights, Camera…

Unlike any other movie genre, a children’s film is unique. It’s intended audience grows older, and often its memory fades with age. A young adult now with a child of their own may kind of remember ‘A Little Princess’ or ‘Babe’ but it’s good to rediscover them again.

Watching a film a second time but years later is always fun when watching it with someone who has never seen it before, particularly a child; we now see it through a prism of experience but with their eyes. There are plenty of good children’s films throughout the ages, but with only a few exceptions, none achieved the same level of quality as the above-mentioned five films in late nineties.

Once the nineties passed and a new century arrived, the volume of family entertainment continued, but for whatever reason, that high quality of story and production didn’t always repeat itself in the way the last few years of the nineties did. Looking for the right film was like separating the wheat from the chaff. But that’s what we’ll do as we look next at the year 2000 onwards.

Is your favourite missing from this list? Let us know in the comments.

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