Films for the Pre-Literate

Which new movies for kids are worth buying on video?

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“Honestly,” asks the movie version of J.K. Rowling’s know-it-all heroine, Hermione, “don’t you two read?” If your kids are much younger than Harry and Ron and don’t, in fact, read, you should probably keep them away from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Running well over two hours yet choppy enough to require some previous familiarity with its characters and magical worlds, the film is filled with fast-moving special effects that might overwhelm preschool and kindergarten sensibilities. Most parents of the youngest movie-viewing audience will have to look elsewhere for great new films.

With two children under the age of 6 at home, the movies that have become classics for my family have, at various points, given me and my husband the breaks we crave. Instead of being purportedly evil electronic baby sitters, these favorite videos have proved to be complex, entertaining, and exciting enough to withstand the multiple viewings of which children are so fond. A classic movie approaches the pleasures of a great picture book: You cuddle before it, wrapped up together in a visual and auditory adventure.

Plus, parents get to sneak away. While the kids watch Woody and his friends ride the baggage belts behind-the-scenes at the airport for the seventh time in Toy Story 2, or follow Ginger, the plucky heroine of Chicken Run, tossing that Brussels sprout at the side of her Dumpster prison to mark time between attempted escapes from the chicken farm, parents can cook dinner, pick the movie merchandise off the floor, or even read. This is where the classic movie beats the classic book for parents of the pre-literate: It stands up to dozens of viewings but does not require your presence for every one of them. So we keep a close eye on each new crop of children’s movies, asking ourselves not only “Which are worth seeing?” but “Which will be worth buying on video?”

So, how do recent film and video releases stack up? My kids and I all managed to sit through Cats & Dogs, Shrek, and Monsters, Inc. But only Spy Kids will be luring both generations of my family into the living room more than once. The latest Pixar flick, Monsters, Inc., is a captivating love story between a blue monster named James P. Sullivan and the runny-nosed toddler he calls Boo. But it doesn’t reach the standard set by Toy Story and later surpassed by Toy Story 2. It’s sweet but, like many books for kids, it seems like an elaborate way to lull children to sleep, in this case by suggesting that the monsters they imagine under their beds tremble in fear of … the children themselves. “I don’t know but it’s been said: I love scary kids in bed” chants an ad for Monsters Inc., the company facing the ugly and strangely apropos reality that “human kids are harder to scare” than ever before (which should also help us get them to bed).

Monsters, Inc., like both the Toy Story s, does catch you up in its computer-generated world. (I found the less fluidly animated characters in Shrek a jarring distraction.) The elaborate machinations of the workers and machines at Monsters Inc. and the agents of the CDA (Child Detection Agency) almost rival the campier special effects in Spy Kids. But the spy kids have an edge: Their antics amount to something more than a moving bedtime story. Boo’s runny nose and songs on the potty in the men’s room add a touch of realism to Monsters, Inc. for beleaguered, Kleenex- and wipe-wielding parents. But despite our glimmers of recognition, the adults watching Boo’s movie leave it complaining. The plot feels familiar: Sully the hero reminds us of Horton the elephant or countless other creatures who frolic with children before sending them back to bed.

As we watch Spy Kids, however, the whole family begins to believe that like Carmen, Juni, and their aging spy parents, even we can put on sexy leather clothes, meet our favorite TV stars, and play with all sorts of neat gadgets while saving the world from evil adults and robotic children. Robert Rodriguez brings us action in bright colors, exciting enough to give us a thrill without disturbing the young ones. When a ceiling fan hacks at the hands of a man threatening the Cortez children, he falls to the ground, thwarted but with fingers intact. This gives Carmen and Juni time to strap tanklike contraptions to their backs, ignite them, and zoom off through the air to save their parents.

One mistake that many purveyors of kid-cinema make is to assume that families watch films on two planes: that of the savvy, witty adult sailing over that of the naive, scatological child. In many films, cultural and historical allusions abound, aiming to please the parents. We are to chuckle when we hear Shrek’s donkey friend say “Wake up and smell the pheromones” or claim that his new eye-twitch will send him into therapy. The children are left simply to follow the narrative, feeling frustrated that Shrek doesn’t declare his love or that the princess doesn’t trust him enough to show him her fat, green face.

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Certain films indulge in these audience-splitting maneuvers more than others. The opening music in Cats & Dogs (like that of Spy Kids) evokes memories of James Bond, while the unseen dog leader’s voice reminds us of Charlie and his angels (again playing on conventions only grown-ups will recognize). Children giggle at all the cute animals whose lips stretch grotesquely as they talk each other into forming alliances against members of other species. We are to recall the Cold War when a Russian cat attempts to infiltrate Jeff Goldblum’s lab. The kids just see a scary bad guy, gradually being foiled, flattened, and apparently tortured by the puppy-faced good guys. The grown-ups’ world meets the movie’s when Wolf Blitzer reports on the doings of the World Dog Council and the canines all slobber to attention at the sound of an electric can opener. The kids’ world supposedly collides with the movie’s as the human father spends more and more time in the lab and less and less helping his son learn to play soccer. Somewhere in the midst of all of this there may be a story, but it’s not well-developed enough to really hold kids’ attention. It often seems beside the point, simply an excuse to poke grown-up fun at cat lovers.

A clearer narrative runs through Shrek. Sadly, it bears no resemblance to the gnarled adventures of the ogre in William Steig’s book of the same name. In the book, Shrek steals, murders, and stomps his way through a story that revels in ugliness. Steig merges the satirical with the silly, writing bizarre tales that amuse Disney-weary readers of all ages.

Surely the author had very little to do with making the movie version of Shrek. In it, the ogre befriends a donkey, who asks mindless questions such as “What’s the point of being able to talk if you gotta keep secrets?” Judging from his books (including the fabulous Sylvester and the Magic Pebble and Solomon and the Rusty Nail), Steig understood that secrets and other illicit uses of language are the main reasons children bother learning to speak. I can’t imagine a child asking the donkey’s question or finding it anything but “dumb.” With secrets, violence, and all that might prove troublesome removed from the book, the movie’s no onion (as the ogre claims to be) and not even the slice of layer cake the donkey suggests instead. It’s sheet cake: good enough to please a birthday party of 5-year-olds but not to tempt their parents to bring it home.

The move beyond Disney-style animated and live-action goofy musicals into more adventurous genres for children must be applauded. Pixar’s computer animation, Peter Lord and Nick Park’s claymation, and most recently Rodriguez’s gift of an action movie to the Blue’s Clues crowd have created all sorts of possibilities for family movies. So have the excellent animated movies coming from outside the United States, such as Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro and Michel Ocelot’s Kirikou and the Sorceress. But what makes these films great remains what made the old classics so satisfying: their stories. Take them home. Leave the cats, dogs, and prettified ogres in the theater.