Cookie Magazine recently did a list of their twenty five favourite family films. And while I agree with many of their choices (who can argue with The Wizard of Oz or Singin' in the Rain?), I do disagree with many of them (The Sound of Music has always seemed like a sure fire cure for insomnia to me, while The Goonies is just plain bad). I also have to say that the list Cookie made has far too many recent films in my opinion to be reliable--too many of them have yet to survive the test of time (although I have no doubt that everything from Pixar will). For those reasons, and with Thanksgiving right around the corner (at least for those of us in the States), I thought it would be a good idea to come up with my own Top Ten Best Family Films (only ten, because twenty five would occupy too much space in this blog).
Of course, I suppose what is and is not a family film is debatable. My personal definition of a family film is that it is any film that the whole family can enjoy. It is for that reason that none of the Star Wars movies made the list. As much as I love them, I don't regard them as family films. As often as the first film makes such lists, however, I am sure that there are those who would disagree with me. Another concern is that while this list is being compiled the week of Thanksgiving, I would not consider every film on this list to be Thanksgiving fare (if you're like me, you prefer to celebrate the Yuletide at the Yuletide and Thanksgiving at Thanksgiving).
I must point out that I am doing this list in alphabetical order, rather than ranking them from number one to number ten (or vice versa). For me, choosing my favourite movies is something akin like trying to choose one's favourite child. I love all of them, so I can't really rank them. That having been said, if I absolutely had to rank them, It's a Wonderful Life and The Wizard of Oz would occupy the top spots.
So without further ado, here are my Top Ten Best Family Films....
Babe (1995): Although you'll often find it in the children's sections of video stores, Babe is actually a very sophisticated film. Through the tale of a young pig who learns to herd sheep, the movie explores such timeless subjects as the importance of being one's self (even if it means not conforming to other's expectations), the importance of family, the foolishness of bigotry, and the power of love. This is rather more than one gets from the average "children's" film. In fact, I daresay that not only will much of the film's humour be lost on younger children, but I doubt that they will catch many of the movie's finer nuances as well. It is definitely one of those "children's" movies that adults will enjoy more than the kids.
A Christmas Story (1983): For most of the Twentieth Century, at least up to the Nineties, there existed a sort of juvenile society in the United States, when children could roam about their neighbourhoods without fear and the year of most kids centred around that one, singular event--Christmas. Set sometime in the past (I always figured the year must be 1939), A Christmas Story is a celebration not only of Christmases past, but of childhood past as well. Ralphie is going through something many of us between the ages of thirty and ninety have at one point or another in our childhoods. He wants what seems to be absolutely the most unattainable Yuletide gift; in his case, an Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle. The fact that adults keep telling him "You'll shoot eye out" does nothing to detour his quest to get this Holy Grail of all Christmas presents. It is easy to identify with Ralphie, as all of us as kids wanting something it seemed we could not possibly get. And A Christmas Story perfectly captures the Yuletide as it was celebrated in the States for much of the Twentieth Century. Of course, the fact that it is one of the most hilarious comedies of all time certainly helps.
The Iron Giant (1999): Not only is this one of the greatest family films of all time, but in my humble opinion it is the greatest animated feature film of all time and one of Brad Bird's best movies (even The Incredibles doesn't match up to this, and I have yet to see Ratatouille). Set in the Fifties, the movie centres around a young boy who befriends a giant robot from outer space. With that premise The Iron Giant addresses such timeless issues as the nature of good and evil, the futility of violence, the twin evils of bigotry and paranoia, and the importance of friendship. Not only is its animation lavish, but The Iron Giant is both well written and intelligent, with some of the best developed character ever in an animated feature. The fact is that I think that this is one of those family films that adults will enjoy more than children. At any rate, it is one of those very few movies which has actually made me cry!
It's a Wonderful Life (1946): What more can I say about It's a Wonderful Life? It is quite simply perhaps the greatest family film of all time, not to mention the greatest Yuletide movie of all time. It is definitely Frank Capra's best piece of work. I very seriously doubt that there are many adults who have never seen this film, in which George Bailey is bent on suicide, only to learn from the angel Clarence the difference his life has made in the lives of others. And this is where the film derives its power--in the not so simple demonstration of the importance that an individual can make in the lives of others. In fact, the movie is perhaps best summed up by two lines from the angel Clarence, one spoken and one written. Addressing the extreme differences in the world in which George Bailey was never born and the one in which he was, Clarence tells George, "Strange, isn't it? Each man's life touches so many other lives. When he isn't around he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?" And in the end, in the front page of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer he leaves to George, Clarence writes, "Remember no man is a failure who has friends." It is perhaps the most central message the movie has to offer.
Mary Poppins (1964): Okay, forget that Dick Van Dyke couldn't do a Cockney accent if his life depended upon it. Forget that Julie Andrews is technically much younger than the Mary Poppins of P. L. Travers' books. this is one of the funnest family films ever made. Not only does it feature some of the best songs ever to appear in a Disney feature ("Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" is familiar even to those who have not seen the film), but it also features some of Disney's best work, combining live action with animation, as in the sequence in which Mary and Bert dance with animated penguins. The movie goes beyond mere movie magic, however, to address some rather timeless issues--family, having fun, charity, and seeing the magic in the world around us. And it does all of this without being overly sweet or sentimental. Like Disney's best films, this is not a children's movie, it is an adult film masquerading as one.
Miracle on 34th Street (1947): As amazing as it might seem now, 20th Century Fox had no real faith in this film. To this end, they released it on May 2, 1947, hardly the Yuletide, expecting it to die at the box office. Instead, the film became one of the box office winners of that year, doing well throughout the summer clear into the Yuletide season. It has since become a classic, and there can be no doubt of why it did so. Miracle on 34th Street is not simply a movie about an old man who may or may not be Santa Claus. It is not even simply a film protesting the commercialisation of Yule. Instead it deals with some of those "lovely intangibles (as co-protagonist Fred Gailey calls them in the film)" most important to our society--friendship, love, loyalty, belief, and faith. These issues are driven home and the story made convincing by some truly great performances, from Maureen O'Hara as cold, cynical Doris Walker to Ed Gwynn as Kris Kringle himself (can there be any doubt that he is Santa Claus?). It also boasts one of the best screenplays ever written for a Christmas movie--it knows not to take itself too seriously and in doing so drives home the seriousness of those "lovely intangibles" it addresses. If the 1994 remake was so wretched, it is because it failed where this movie, the one, the only, the original, succeeded.
Pinocchio (1940): Technically, even a top ten list of the best family films should boast more Disney films than this one does. After all, I can see arguments being made for such films as Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Bambi, and Sleeping Beauty. That having been said, I wanted to be fair to those other great filmmakers out there and not fill the list with Disney titles. Regardless, Pinocchio was perhaps Disney's finest moment. Aside from The Iron Giant, it is in my opinion simply the greatest animated feature of all time. It features some of the best animation ever seen on film, with very fine detail and a rich array of colours. It also features some of the best voice work ever done in a Disney film, from Mel Blanc (who played characters ranging from Figaro to Gideon) to Cliff Edwards as Jiminy Cricket. As to the songs, they are perhaps the best to ever appear in a Disney film (indeed, "When You Wish Upon a Star" has gone on to become the company's unofficial theme song). This adaptation of Carlo Collodi's novel succeeds where others have failed in that it goes beyond simply capturing the essence of the book to become a creature all its own. Disney's Pinocchio goes beyond telling the tale of a puppet who wanted to be a real boy and focuses on such issues as hope, surviving adversity, courage, honesty, friendship, responsibility, and belief. I have heard that children are sometimes frightened by this film, and I must admit it is perhaps the darkest animated film Disney ever made, but I still feel this movie is one every child must see. Forget that it is a classic of American animation. Pinocchio has the power to teach what is important in life without being overly sweet, sentimental, or preachy.
Singin' in the Rain (1952): Not only was this Gene Kelly's finest moment, but it is quite simply the second greatest musical of all time (after, well, The Wizard of Oz). Arguably it has one of the best soundtracks of any musical, with songs compiled from the best of composers Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed. And it has some of the greatest dance sequences ever seen on film. Gene Kelly's "Singin' in the Rain" sequence would have been enough, but the movie also boasts Donald O'Connor's astounding "Make 'Em Laugh" sequence (which was so demanding that O'Connor suffered from exhaustion for a week afterwards). Even without the song and dance sequences, however, Singin' in the Rain would be a great film. Set in the period when the studios were making the transition from silents to talkies, the movie centres around the fact that film star Lina Lamont's voice is so horrible that it must be dubbed by ingenue Kathy Selden. This simple premise leads to some of the most hilarious complications in the history of movies. Indeed, Singin' in the Rain is not a great film simply because of the quality of it soundtrack or its outstanding dance sequences, but because it is one of the funniest, wittiest films ever made. Snubbed at the Oscars, it is one of the those movies that should have swept the awards, from Best Director for Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen to Best Original Screenplay for Adolph Green and Betty Comden.
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971): The first adaptation of Roald Dahl's classic book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was conceived in part as a means for the Quaker Oats Company to promote a new candy bar (it is for this reason it is titled Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and not Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). Furthermore, Roald Dahl hated the film so much so that he refused to let the filmmakers adapt the book's literary sequel, Charlie and the Glass Elevator. Despite these facts, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory has become regarded as a classic among children's films. Much of this is due to the fact that, despite Roald Dahl's dislike for the movie, the film only strays from the book in a few respects. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory still centres upon poor Charlie Bucket, who had the enormous fortune to get one of the Golden Tickets contained in a Wonka Bar, winning a guided tour of Willie Wonka's fabulous chocolate factory. And like the book, the movie still features the bizarre comeuppances that the various spoiled brats incur while touring the factory (although, unlike the book, Veruca Salt falls victim to an egg sorting machine rather than Willie Wonka's trained squirrels). Even the themes inherent in the book are still present in the movie: the dangers of too much wealth, the idea that in the end evil will get its just desserts, the dangers of instant gratification, and the monolithic importance of family. What makes Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory so effective is not that it is loyal to a large degree to its source material, but that it is simply a well done film. Gene Wilder gives his best performance ever as Willie Wonka. And the movie features one of the best soundtracks ever for a family film. Tim Burton would adapt the book once more as 2005's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and while Burton's movie is a very fine adaptation (it includes Veruca's comeuppance at the hands of Wonka's squirrels), it somehow lacks much of the magic of the 1971 adaptation.
The Wizard of Oz (1939): There are those who would rank this the greatest single family film of all time. And I really can't argue with them, even though I would put it in second place (after It's a Wonderful Life). After all, it is an undisputed classic. At the time it was released, this adaptation of L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was an incredible technical achievement. To adapt the classic book to film took innovative special effects (from the tornado which sweeps Dorothy's house off to Oz to the flying monkeys) and lavish sets of the sort never seen on film. In fact, the movie's budget was so great that, despite the fact that it was the second highest grossing film of 1939 (after a movie called Gone with the Wind), it was not exactly considered profitable. Since then it has more than made a profit--when adjusted for inflation, The Wizard of Oz is still among the highest grossing films of all time. And there is little wonder that it should be. The movie's screenplay (one of the best ever written) and the performances of its talented cast helped create some of the most memorable characters on the big screen. From Dorothy Gale (given how convincing Judy Garland is in the role, it was hard to believe Shirley Temple was also considered for the part....) to the Wicked Witch of the West (played with gusto by Margaret Hamilton), the film gave the world some of the most beloved characters of any motion picture. The movie also creates one of the most convincing fantasy worlds ever seen on screen. Oz is a place of wonderment, where scarecrows and tin men can walk and talk and monkeys can fly. The Wizard of Oz also has one of the best movie soundtracks of all time. Indeed, "Somewhere over the Rainbow" has become a standard. Ultimately, what makes the film, like so many others on this list so great, is that it is essentially timeless in addressing those things most important to humanity. The movie's message is more than "There is no place like home," as it also addresses the importance of believing in oneself, the importance of friends and family, and the strength of good against evil. If The Wizard of Oz has survived all these years, it is because it goes well beyond simple entertainment.
Those are my top ten favourite family films of all time. I am sure that I could list many others, but I don't want this blog taken over by what could be a very long list. I am also sure that many will not agree with many of my choices on the list, as I am also sure that I will probably look over this list tomorrow and think that there are some movies I should have included. Regardless, I think that the films listed here are truly among the very best and truly worth the whole family watching.