Barry Norman on children’s films: Brits do it best

Behind the greatest children's films you'll find a British author, says Barry Norman


Christmas, as all but the most devout Christians among us have come to accept in this secular age, is about rather more than a bit of a pray-up and a sing-song at Midnight Mass. It is, by popular agreement, a time for children, a time when the junior members of the family must be particularly indulged and this applies on the telly as well as elsewhere.


Indeed, especially on the telly because as we enter our annual season of conspicuous over- indulgence and general bonhomie there are more films for children, or anyway families, on the box than for anyone else.

Some splendid classics among them, as well, including Mary Poppins, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, 101 Dalmations, Scrooge (the 1951) version with Alastair Sim), The Railway Children and four Harry Potter movies – The Order of the Phoenix, The Half-Blood Prince and The Deathly Hallows, parts one and two.

An interesting sidelight is that all the above, plus quite a few more, were based on books by British writers, which raises the admittedly debateable question of whether we Brits understand what children like better than anyone else. Non-British writers such as William Goldman (The Princess Bride), L Frank Baum (The Wizard of Oz) and Dr Seuss (The Cat in the Hat) might argue otherwise but it’s a subject worth discussing among yourselves.

Either way it raises another question: what exactly makes a good children’s film? The ingredients, I suggest, are many and varied but any movie that aspires to be a classic must feature several if not all of them. They include, of course, colour, spectacle, excitement and belly laughs.

And along with them go lovable characters such as, for the very young, cute little, anthropomorphised animals (a Disney speciality) and in the Toy Story series toys to die for like Woody and Buzz Lightyear – plus fear, the fear of peril for the characters the audience love and (perhaps every child’s dread) the fear of being separated from home, family and safety.

Kids like to be scared, especially if, at Christmas time, they have a slumbering parent’s leg to hang on to for reassurance. The White Witch in The Chronicles of Narnia makes them fear for the protagonists as does the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz, a film that also incorporates the second fear, of being whisked away from home, as Dorothy is transplanted from Kansas to the Land of Oz.

A look through the films on television this Christmas plus those in the cinema suggests that this is, if not a golden age, then at least a prolific age for children’s and family movies.

In the cinema right now is Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: the Desolation of Smaug and also Disney’s Saving Mr Banks, which stars Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks and tells of the row between the author of Mary Poppins, PL Travers, and Walt Disney, whom she accused of betraying her originally dark protagonist by turning her into the bundle of joy that was Julie Andrews.

No doubt one of the reasons why films for the young are so plentiful these days is the continuing huge advance in animation. Pixar, for example, with their Toy Story trilogy and WALL-E, the story of a little robot clearing up the detritus on an abandoned Earth, were among the pioneers in this field.

Dreamworks animation was quick to follow suit with Shrek, which wickedly poked fun at some of Disney’s most cherished characters, and let us not forget Britain’s Nick Park of Aardman Animations, who with films like Chicken Run and Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit showed what wonders could be done with plasticine and stop-motion.

And increasingly directors like Peter Jackson seem intent on stretching the bounds of what can be created on a computer to their limit.

Among other things that good films for the young (although, naturally, not all of them) can do is, first, to accustom children to the inevitability of death and bereavement. Disney accomplished that memorably with the shooting of Bambi’s mother and JK Rowling’s Harry Potter stories are not shy of killing off much-loved characters.

A second, and equally important, lesson is to be learned from films like ET the Extra- Terrestrial and Shrek. The eponymous characters in both are ugly blighters who turn out to be lovable and the moral is: never judge people solely by their appearance, although I guess you could be excused for making an exception in the case of the proboscially challenged Voldemort. Happy Christmas.