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Good Children’s Movies (2005-10): Crossing Bridges and Dangerous Games

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David Appleford itcherThe first half of the new century proved to studios once and for all that the market for family films was huge. There was now such a demand for family entertainment that studios had to start a trend. Instead of creating a new character, making a film, then selling an accompanying toy based on the film, studios started to do things the other way around. They looked for already established toys upon which to base a story, then made a movie. All of a sudden, Barbie was no longer just a doll that little girls dressed and played with, she became a movie star. ~ David Appleford

Toys Becoming Film Stars

From 2005, families found themselves with more choices for entertainment than ever. Disney continued to deliver successes like ‘Cars,’ ‘Wall-E,’ and the wonderful ‘Enchanted,’ while animated competition from other studios continued with ‘Robots,’ “Ice Age: The Meltdown,’ and the hugely popular ‘Kung Fu Panda.’

The were also some great live-action films adapted from novels that captured imaginations, including ‘Nanny McPhee,’ ‘The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe,’ and a 3D remake of ‘Journey to the Center of the Earth,’ though technically that last one was a remake in name only; it had little to do with the Jules Verne original. If it had, it might have been a better film.

But it was those straight-to-video, home market movies that raised eyebrows. Once studios saw how well a toy like Barbie could transfer to film with such titles as ‘Barbie and the Magic of Pegasus,’ and ‘Barbie: Fairytopia,’ the Care Bears followed, and so did the ‘My Little Pony’ series. Admittedly, no fan of film wanted anything to do with them, but its intended audience loved them.

The following five suggestions for family entertainment have nothing to do with toys, and only one is animated, but they all have one thing in common: once they’re concluded, the lessons within the stories will give families plenty to discuss over the dinner table, and moments like that with your children are always priceless.


Thoughtful Children’s Movie Recommendations

‘Because of Winn-Dixie’ (Wayne Wang, 2005)

Everything that happened that summer happened because of… well, you know who…

Most within America know what Winn-Dixie is, but for the benefit of those unfamiliar with either the book upon which the film is based or the shopping habits of Americans, Winn-Dixie is the name of a famous Florida-based supermarket chain. In the film, Winn-Dixie is the name that a little girl gives to a stray dog because that’s where she finds him creating havoc, in a supermarket.

Young ten year-old Opal has just moved to Florida with her father. It’s while shopping that she comes across a scruffy little dog that befriends her. The dog, now called Winn-Dixie, is quite the handful, but it cures Opal’s loneliness, helps her make new friends in a strange town, and even rekindles the awkward relationship she was having with her father, an issue brought on by the absence of the little girl’s mother who abandoned the family seven years ago.

Stateside audiences had a good start, not only because of the supermarket name recognition but because the book by Kate DiCamillo was so beloved. Audiences outside of the U.S.A. had a more difficult time, and as a consequence, the film’s biggest audience remained within America. But don’t let any of that stop you from playing the film. It’s a heart-warmer.  

The little girl, AnnaSophia Robb – yes, the first name that sounds like two really does roll into one – is a delight, and you can’t go wrong with the lovable dog, a Picardy Shepherd that had to be brought in from France because none were available in the U.S. and the director insisted that the dog should look exactly the same as the one on the cover of the original novel.  

And pay attention to the mouse you’ll see in the film. It’s actually a rat. Evidently, the film crew discovered that while they would have preferred to work with a mouse, rats are easier to train on a movie set.

‘Bridge to Terabithia’ (Gabor Csupo, 2007)

You know, the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing. That’s Teddy Roosevelt said that, not me…

Coincidentally, our second choice on the list also stars AnnaSophia Robb, plus it’s also based on a beloved stateside children’s novel, this one written by Katherine Paterson.

Ten year-old Jesse Aarons (Josh Hutcherson) and Leslie Burke (AnnaSophia) are neighbors who between them allow their imaginations to run wild. They invent a fantasy world called Terabithia where trolls, ogres and various other monsters live, and even though there are major differences between Jesse and Leslie – he’s poor, she’s rich, he comes from the country, she’s a city girl – they get along famously.

Production took place in New Zealand, which caused a few unexpected challenges. The film crew discovered there are no squirrels in New Zealand, so all squirrel shots required for the scenes in the woods had to be digitally shoehorned in. Plus, New Zealanders drive on the left side of the road, so all the film’s negatives for the wide-angled roadway shots had to be physically reversed to make vehicles appear to be driving on the right.

The strength of ‘Bridge to Terabithia’ is that it not only does it inspire a child’s imagination to create fantasy worlds and cope with problems they may be having in their real life, but as a film, the visuals are exceptionally beautiful. It was also cinematographer Michael Chapman’s last film. He retired the day after filming was completed.

‘The Last Mimzy’ (Robert Shaye, 2007)

I showed the green glass thing to mom. She thought it was a paperweight. Maybe other people don’t see what we see…

‘The Last Mimzy’ is a sci-fi adventure for children. It has a plot which is surprisingly difficult to explain in a few, short sentences, but basically it’s about two children who discover a group of sophisticated high-tech devices sent back from the future that look like toys. Mimzy is the name given to one of the toys. It looks like a cuddly, stuffed rabbit but it’s actually a complicated device that helps the two children develop their intelligence and their ability to use telepathy and levitation.

There was a book. It was called ‘Mimsy Were the Borogroves’ by Lewis Padgett, which is about as clumsy a title as you can get. However, the film broke it down, shortened things and changed the spelling slightly; Mimsy became Mimzy with a ‘z.’ But that still didn’t satisfy director Robert Shaye. He later admitted that he never liked the title. He wanted to call it ‘The Gifted’ but the name change came too late. Production was already advanced and so was the promotion, so ‘Mimzy’ stayed.   

The great thing about the film is that it never talks down to its intended audience. ‘The Last Mimzy’ is both thoughtful and intelligent, plus it’s even exciting and occasionally very funny. In fact, when you think about all the elements required for an exciting sci-fi thriller for children, this one has it all. Despite that title, ‘Mimzy’ is a winner.

‘Ponyo’ (Hayao Miyazaki, 2008)

Ponyo loves Sosuke! I will be a human, too!

The original full English title to this Japanese animated fantasy adventure was ‘Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea,’ which sounds poetic but is hardly a box-office draw, so it was shortened to simply ‘Ponyo.’

The story revolves around the adventures of a five year-old boy who finds a goldfish trapped inside of a bottle. He names her Ponyo, but what the boy doesn’t know is that the goldfish is actually the daughter of a wizard and a sea goddess. Having fallen in love with her rescuer, Ponyo uses what magic she can and transforms herself into a young girl.

If the outline sounds like a somewhat loose adaptation of ‘The Little Mermaid,’ that’s not altogether a coincidence. Director and animator Miyazaki said he was inspired to make the film after watching the Disney version of the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale, though it’s the overall feeling of the classic that the director was going for, not a Japanese copy of the story.

Like many of Miyazaki’s animated work, ‘Ponyo’ is a thing of beauty. The hand-drawn animation is full of expressive splendor that should dazzle children. Plus, at a time where computer animation rules, it’s good to still be able to enjoy hand-drawn work. And in case you’ve forgotten just how much work goes into a hand-drawn animated feature, consider this; the first 12 seconds of the film that shows all kinds of fish and underwater creatures swimming about needed 1613 separate pages of sketches to complete.  

By the end of the film, more than 170, 000 individual pages were drawn to complete the 103 minute film, and they were all by hand.

‘Zathura: A Space Adventure’ (Jon Favreau, 2005)

You guys actually set the house on fire?

With a title like that, you’d think you’re in for a foreign language film, but you’re not. It’s a science-fiction adventure made hot on the heels of the success of Robin Williams’ ‘Jumanji’ and based on a book by the same author, Chris Van Allsburg.

Like that previous fantasy adventure where a board game came to life, two brothers and their sister (a young Kristen Stewart) play a different board game called Zathura, but problems begin as soon they start rolling the dice. The board thrusts the brothers, the sister and the whole house into space and the only way to get back to Earth is to finish the game.

Even though reviews were generally favorable, the film lost out at the box-office. While most remember ‘Jumanji,’ this unofficial sequel tends to be forgotten. Part of the problem might have been that it was simply too much like ‘Jumanji’ with the twist being that instead of being lost in a jungle, the kids are stuck in space.

As a result, no one went. But that was more than ten years ago. Today, without the baggage of the Robin Williams adventure hovering over it, finding ‘Zathura’ is more of a fun discovery. Watch it with your children; you’ll all be biting your nails.


Collect Your Thoughts

Even though none of the above five film suggestions had toys associated with them, the Pressman Toy Corporation actually created a board game based on ‘Zathura.’ All the elements of the film, its twists and turns and the creatures that appeared in the story were all there in the game.  

Unfortunately, like the film’s original release, no one was interested. Finding a copy of the film to enjoy today is one thing, but if you find a copy of the actual game tucked away in someone’s home, or you come across one in a garage sale, grab it; you’ve found a collector’s piece that can be enjoyed by the whole family.  

And admit it; if you’re a collector of movie memorabilia, even from children’s films, isn’t that more fun than playing with either a Barbie or a Care Bear?

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