Pixar is amazing...so is Nick Park...live-action adaptations of great children’s books are, with occasional exceptions, disappointing....)
But a recent conversation with a friend reminded me that while this may all be perfectly evident to me now, I was clueless when I first entered the world of parenthood. Yes, I had heard people praising Finding Nemo to the skies, and I knew of Wallace and Gromit’s existence (thanks, annual Oscar pools!), but I’d seen almost none of this stuff myself, and certainly had no inkling of, say, Nemo’s plot-establishing traumatic event.
So this one goes out to the first-time parents who are trying to figure out which are the best movies to watch with their young children, and what ages it might be best to watch them at: one family’s favorites over the last six or so years, all available on DVD. Since there’s quite a number of them, and a good chunk are from one studio, I’m going to break it into two posts—Pixar and non-Pixar divisions.
First, Pixar: Believe the hype, if you don’t already. Its films are uniformly excellent and often transcendent, head-and-shoulders above nearly every other animated film on the market. You can’t go wrong with any of them, but these have been our older son’s—and our—particular obsessions (so far):
Cars. This was one of Dash’s first favorite full-length movies. As city-dwelling (at the time) people unfamiliar with NASCAR, we weren’t really expecting much from the predictable-sounding story of a flashy race car who learns what’s important in life after he gets stranded in a small town. But the clever writing, along with great voiceover work from Owen Wilson, Bonnie Hunt, Larry the Cable Guy, Paul Newman, Tony Shalhoub, and many more, won us over quickly. Even if this is, in the end, one of Pixar’s less profound outings, that still puts it among the better animated-film options out there.
How Tall to Ride? The movie’s relative lack of depth is directly due to its having little in its plot that’s even potentially scary or disturbing to kids, so while I wouldn’t put Cars in the Pixar time capsule, it’s a perfect primer on the wonders of Pixar. (And yes, it’s a stereotype, but most of the young boys I know took to this film right away.)
The Incredibles. It was fated that this would be one of our family’s all-time faves. It came out the day after Dash was born, and one of the main characters is named Dash. But that’s not the only reason our son became obsessed with this movie (and remains so—it’s got the strongest staying power of any kids’ movie he’s seen). Brad Bird’s first masterpiece outshines most adult action movies by as cracklingly smart as it is fast-paced and exciting. And if its message—that it’s wrong for society to curb the abilities of the extraordinary out of notions of fairness—seems to veer uncomfortably into Ayn Rand territory at times, it’s in a way that confronts, rather than avoiding, a dilemma many parents will have to face sooner or later.
How Tall to Ride? There’s some scary stuff—the Parr family spends a good chunk of the movie in real mortal danger from a villain who has been killing off the world’s superheroes one by one. Kids generally don’t seem very fazed by that, though—most of the stressful scenes are probably harder for parents to watch (since they involve our primal anxiety about keeping their kids from harm) than for them.
Ratatouille. Bird’s second masterpiece will always hold a special place in our hearts, too, because it was the first movie Dash saw in a theater. Not that it needed that extra heartwarming aspect; this film is just stunning, probably my personal pick for Pixar’s very best work. (How does Bird follow these two?) The story of a Parisian rat with culinary aspirations is as entertaining, and as funny, as as any Pixar film, but it has a whole extra dimension: a beautiful, moving paean to creativity. The scene in which a taste of Remy’s signature dish sends Peter O’Toole’s icy food critic back to his childhood nearly brought me to tears the first time I saw it. As for Dash, he loved the movie so much that he actually tried ratatouille (well, once).
How Tall to Ride? Remy gets into some dangerous situations, as a rat in a kitchen will in our cruel world, but there’s nothing out-of-the-ordinary scary in this film.
WALL-E. I know, hackneyed, right? Everyone loves WALL-E. I remember seeing the previews and feeling a pang of disappointment that the next Pixar movie looked like an animated version of Short Circuit. (I was never much of a fan of the cute-robot genre, to be honest.) But the famous silent first half-hour of the movie is so brilliant, so wonderfully executed, that it melted my heart of stone—it’s worthy of the Chaplin films it’s a clear homage to. And from there on it had me, it had my wife, and it certainly had Dash, who was referring to himself as WALL-E for the next six months.
How Tall to Ride? The film’s premise is unrelentingly grim: Earth has been overrun by trash and abandoned by humanity, and the garbage-compactor robot hero (and his pet cockroach) are the only sentient beings left. That backdrop might give some parents a moment’s pause, but again, it seems to have much more effect on adults than on kids, for whom the upbeat but lonely robot’s cheerful actions are the focus. I haven’t heard of any kids bothered by anything in this movie one bit.
The Pixar shorts. You used to find these little gems only as extras on the various feature-film DVDs, but now you can get 13 of them on one DVD of their own. Each is its own crystallized version of what makes Pixar great. The shorts that are essentially little spinoffs from the company’s features, like the amusing Jack-Jack Attack (from The Incredibles), would be wonderful enough. But it’s the stand-alone shorts that are the most sublime: the lovely period-piece musical competition One-Man Band; the lightning-fast slapstick of Presto; and especially Bud Luckey’s little slice of instant happiness, Boundin’.
How Tall to Ride? There’s no reason not to show any of these shorts to kids of any age. Hurry up and Netflix the DVD already!
The fact that Finding Nemo isn’t even on the list just speaks to the overall quality of everything Pixar does. (We do love Nemo, too, for the record.) I admit I was momentarily perturbed that the studio seems hung up in sequel-land of late, with Toy Story 3 out this past year, and sequels to Cars and Monsters, Inc. in the pipeline. But Dash and Whitney really enjoyed TS3…and anyway, you’d think I’d have learned never to underestimate Pixar by now.
Coming soon: Part 2 of this post, the non-Pixar films.
[Photo: P.gobin, via Wikimedia Commons.]