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Good Children’s Movies (2000-05): Everlasting and Enchanted

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David Appleford itcherIf the early nineties was a burst of new energy for big screen family entertainment and the latter years were a plus for live-action quality, then the new century brought along a virtual free-for-all. Having discovered there was now such a huge market for children’s movies, every studio, big or small, wanted in. In terms of choice, that was a boon – in terms of something worthwhile, things were different. But look closely and you can always discover a gem here and there. ~ David Appleford

Never Out Of Fashion

If you look down from above and scan the landscape, you can see the trend building. It was the same for both the big screen and the TV; no other decade produced as much material for family entertainment quite like the beginning of the new century. From the highest to the lowest budget, from the highest to the lowest quality, all studios raced to get their product released as soon as possible, either for the home or the theatres. The fear was that at any moment in a market as fickle as the Family Film, the trend could turn; best get in there while you can.

The ‘Wallace & Gromit’ team went to the cinema in 2000 and delivered the hilarious and oh, so British ‘Chicken Run.’ Disney continued to thrill children with ‘The Emperor’s New Groove,’ and ‘Monsters Inc.’ while their animated competition came in the shape of a green ogre with a Scottish accent called ‘Shrek.’ These were all well known and successful films, and being family entertainment, there’s a timeless quality to them that means they never really go out of fashion.

But for every good film, there were somewhere around five or six stinkers. As much as we all love Thomas the Tank Engine, he was sadly the little engine that couldn’t in the lackluster ‘Thomas and the Magic Railroad.’ Then there’s ‘Mom’s Got a Date with a Vampire,’ which is just as suspect as it sounds. Pokemon and Digimon may have been wildly popular when it came to video games but their big screen, factory level counterparts did little to further the art of animation.  

From that same period come the following five suggestions. They’re very different films but they all have one thing in common. Perhaps it was because of the glut of product out there, but upon their initial theatrical release they almost went by unnoticed.


Overlooked Children’s Movie Recommendations

‘Spirited Away’ (Hayao Miyazaki, 2001)

I’d like to help you, dear, but there’s nothing I can do. It’s one of our rules here. You’ve got to take care of your parents and that dragon boyfriend of yours, on your own…

Think of it as a Japanese update of ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and you’ve got the idea. A somewhat unhappy ten-year old girl is moving to a new home with her parents. Along the way the family mistakenly enters a spirit world where the parents are magically turned into pigs by a witch. The little girl, alone and lost, does what she can to free her parents from the spell and return them back to the real world.  

This Japanese animated fantasy may have been a huge success on its home turf, but things were much slower in English speaking countries. It was Disney who took the film and re-dubbed an English speaking soundtrack. Adults may enjoy watching the film in its original language with subtitles, but children may want something they don’t have to read for two hours. But however you play the film, it remains terrific.

Director/animator Hayao Miyazaki had already made many animated features featuring children, but ‘Spirited Away’ was the first of his films where a child character was voiced by an actual child. Unlike most western animated features where voices are recorded first, Japan works the other way around; the film was completed, then the voices followed.  

Pixar’s John Lasseter, himself a huge fan of Miyazaki’s work, was given the duty of supervising the English language version. The dialog was re-written from the original Japanese to whatever worked best for the movements of the character’s lips to make the sound and movement match as best as possible. It would also be the final film for actress Suzanne Pleshette who voiced the parts of the witches Yubaba and Zeniba.

‘Holes’ (Andrew Davis, 2003)

You take a bad boy, make him dig holes all day in the hot sun, it turns him into a good boy. That’s our philosophy here at camp green lake…

Based on an American school class favourite, ‘Holes’ is the story of young Stanley Yelnats (Shia LaBeouf in his first film). Stanley comes from a family with a history of suffering from bad luck. When the boy is wrongly accused of theft, he’s sent to Camp Green Lake, a desert detention camp for boys where his punishment is to dig holes in the desert grounds. Why he and the other boys have to dig is unknown, but he’ll soon find out.

The film has a surprisingly large cast of famous names, including Jon Voight, Henry Winkler, Patricia Arquette, and Sigourney Weaver who wanted to play the role of the evil Warden for one reason – ‘Holes’ was her daughter’s favorite book.

There was a different screenplay originally written for the film by Richard Kelly, but his version veered away from a children’s adventure into something much more violent and nasty. However, that was not what the studio wanted. Instead the execs went directly back to the book’s author, Louis Sachar, and asked him to write the screenplay, which he did. The finished product is much closer in spirit to the novel, which was exactly what the studio was looking for. There’s a scene where young Stanley is selling onion juice. Look closely at the man standing around with his wife and daughter. That’s the author, Louis Sachar.

‘Titan A.E.’ (Don Bluth, Gary Goldman, 2000)

Everyday I wake up and it’s still the present. The same grimy, boring present. I don’t think this “future” thing of yours exists…

For the record, the A.E. of the title means After Earth. When an alien species attacks the Earth, a professor sends his son out into space on an evacuation space ship. Once the Earth is destroyed, those on the escaping craft became the nomads of space.

This animated science-fiction adventure for children cost a fortune and lost a fortune, which was a shame because ‘Titan A.E.’ is actually a fun movie. The voices used were of a high Hollywood pedigree, including Matt Damon, Drew Barrymore, Nathan Lane and rapper Tone Loc. The reason why it failed at the box-office had nothing to do with the quality of the animation nor the talent involved. In fact, it’s hard to pin point exactly what went wrong; the film looks and sounds great.

Two things for movie-buffs to know. This was the first film ever to be transmitted as a digital projection. The signal left the 20th Century Fox studios via the Internet and was beamed to two screens at the same time, one in Atlanta and the other in Los Angeles. It never once touched film. The second thing to know is that because it failed to draw a theatrical audience, 20th Century Fox closed its animation department in Arizona and moved on.

But what’s really important is that despite all of the behind-the-scenes headaches and financial losses, children won’t care. From their point of view, ‘Titan A.E.’ will be a giant, widescreen nail-biter with laughs and space-age spectacle. Make sure to watch it with them.

‘Tuck Everlasting’ (Jay Russell, 2002)

Do not fear death, but rather the unlived life. You don’t have to live forever. You just have to live…

This is another classroom favourite.  ‘Tuck Everlasting’ is a fantasy romantic drama by author Natalie Babbitt that was beloved by American children for nearly twenty-seven years before it found its way to the big screen.

The age of the characters in the book plus the story’s setting were changed for the movie, but the plot remains the same.  Young fifteen year-old Winnie – she’s ten in the book – meets and falls in love with a boy called Jesse Tuck.  Jesse appears to be the same age as Winnie, but he’s actually an immortal, and so is all of his family.  Winnie has to decide whether she’ll drink from the water spring that gives eternal life or remain to live a full, though ageing, life.

The film is visually beautiful plus its themes of whether to live forever or live a life of normalcy is a good one for children to ponder.  The film’s title was going to be ‘The Everlasting Tucks,’ but director Jay Russell preferred the original, so the film was released with the title most stateside children already knew.  One thing for adults to think about.  Considering the 1975 plot was about a young girl who falls in love with a young boy who only looks the same age but is in fact a much older man, do you think the author of the ‘Twilight’ series, Stephenie Meyer, read the same novel when she was at school?  Just a thought.

‘Ella Enchanted’ (Tommy O’Haver, 2004)

In spite of the spell, Ella grew up strong of mind. Her gift made her obedient, but her heart made her kind…

Yet another children’s film based on an American classroom favorite, ‘Ella Enchanted’ is a comedy adventure based on a novel of the same name, though things were considerably changed when it leapt from page to screen.

Young Ella (Anne Hathaway) lives in the fairytale kingdom of Frell and she’s cursed. A magical fairy named Lucinda (Vivica A Fox) intended the spell as a gift, but now Ella is forced into obedience; she has to literally obey anything anyone tells her to do.

With a lot of off-beat comedy, unusual but fun musical moments, and a glowing, fairytale look to the whole thing, ‘Ella Enchanted’ comes across as the family edition of a Monty Python film aimed at children, enhanced further by the fact that it’s Python’s Eric Idle who narrates. And even though this is not technically a musical, Anne Hathaway gets to sing a couple of songs, including Queen’s ‘Somebody to Love’ and Elton John’s ‘Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.’ The choreographer to all the musical sequences is a name TV viewers may recognize. It’s Bruno Tonioli. In America, Bruno is a judge on ‘Dancing with the Stars.’ In Britain it’s called ‘Strictly Come Dancing.’ You have to wonder how many points fellow judge Len Goodman would have given Bruno for his technique and twirls.


Child’s Play

The above five are all good films to keep in mind when looking for something for the family to watch together, but because of the sheer volume of children’s entertainment from 2000 onwards, there are still a few others to keep in mind. ‘My Dog Skip’ might bring a few tears, but it’s certainly worth your time, plus Disney’s straight-to-video animated comedy ‘An Extremely Goofy Movie’ is surprisingly funny.  
But as previously mentioned, for every good one there’s a slew to avoid. For example, we know that just about every child laughs at a fart joke, and if we’re honest, so do many gown-ups, but when you know there’s a film released in 2002 about a boy with a dream of being an astronaut who has a problem with flatulence and it’s called ‘Thunderpants,’ the word stinker takes on a more literal meaning.
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