OK, here’s what I’m not going to do. I’m not going to write a diatribe against Disney movies. There’s really nothing I can say about the Disneyfication of the American childhood that you haven’t read before. Disney does what it does, which is to make money selling stuff. Some of it is good and fun (I think the 1998 Mulan, for example, on balance, is a mostly positive thing). Some of it will rot our childrens’ precious souls. Over the past few years, they’ve gotten a little less egregious with the impossibility of their role-modeling, and that’s either a good thing or a bad thing depending on whether you think the message is changing, or just being made more subtle. The Disney depiction of the natural world just remains… remains… please.
But I’m not here to be a hater. I’m here to help. From time to time I’d like to offer up alternatives to Disney films for your young knucklehead. Not to suggest that Disney flicks are to be expunged from the video library. I’m not calling for a nationwide Disney defenestration.* But if you’re looking for creative movie choices for your kid, consider some of the ones I’ve used over the years.
First caveat. I’m not advocating further couch potato-age. Of course our kids should run out and play. Some structured, lots not. And write, and draw, and sing, and build, and work, and learn. But there’s also room in a healthy childhood for crashing and taking in a flick. Why not make those times count with really good flicks?
Second caveat. All of the films I’m going to suggest were originally marketed to adult audiences. Though times have changed, you will most likely not find many of these films in the “family” section in the DVD/BluRay department. As such, it would probably be a good idea if you did a little “parental recon” on these films first. That is, watch them by yourself, or with another adult before you expose your young knuckleheads to them. There may be scenes/words/images you don’t want to have to explain to your kid, even briefly. Remember, my “family values” will most certainly diverge from your “family values” in places, as certainly as they will overlap. In other words, these have been films that I have enjoyed with my knucklehead. Maybe you will, too.
OK. Here are the first three, in chronological order:
Duck Soup (1933) or A Night at the Opera (1935)
I can’t decide. Either one, probably both. If you haven’t introduced your knucklehead to the Marx Brothers, you really need to, and these are excellent places to start. These films have everything. Fantastic slapstick that is as roll-on-the-floor funny as anything that’s been done since. Zany/brilliant song and dance routines, and there ain’t nothing like Chico or Harpo to make instrument lessons look cool. But the biggest reason to start your youngling on the Marx Brothers is the writing. Half the dialogue will go over your kid’s head (at least initially), but half of it won’t, and the stuff that the Marx Brothers wrote (with the help of geniuses like George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind) is witty, sharp, and unrelenting. This is good, well-written comedy, and as such, it holds up today. I believe firmly that exposing children to quality, in whatever form it is presented, fosters quality. It’s never too early to set the bar high. Get ’em used to the Good Stuff.
A Hard Day’s Night (1964)
The Beatles. The freaking’ Beatles. Young, goofy, silly, and fun. Plot? We don’t need no stinking’ plot! Lots of running around, harmless hijinks, but with just the right tone of irreverence. (Snooty old dude on train: “I fought the war for your lot!” Ringo: “I’ll bet you’re sorry you won!”) The music is simple, catchy enough for a toddler, but it’s also Lennon/McCarthy, so your aspiring songwriter is going to pick up on some great basics here (see what I mean about quality?). It’s a celebration of youth, just the right amount of anarchy, and it’s The Beatles. The freaking’ Beatles. ‘Nuff said.
Stop Making Sense (1984)
Yup, you read me right. The Talking Heads’ concert movie. Directed by Jonathan Demme, who sets the bar for how concert movies ought to be shot. Great music, uptempo music, by musicians having fun. Does your knucklehead like silly things? Of course she does! Well, we’ve got David Byrne dancing with a lamp. Why? Because it’s fun! Wearing a giant suit. Why? Because it’s fun! Making silly noises instead of singing words. WHY?! BECAUSE IT’S FUN! But, wait, there’s more. Opening the concert, David Byrne walks out alone on a bare stage with an acoustic guitar, and sings us a song (OK, OK, it’s “Psycho Killer” but still). For the next song, he’s joined by Tina Weymouth on bass. Then Jerry Harrison comes out with his guitar for the next song. Then Chris Frantz with his drum kit. Gradually, the set is built up, and additional musicians and background singers join the party. The result is that your young knucklehead gets to hear the contribution each individual instrument makes to the band. It’s Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, only with art rock (my mother would have been so proud! Or horrified).
There’s a bigger world out there than Disney. We all know that. Why not share it with our kids?
*Look it up. It’s a really good word, and I’m geekishly proud of slipping it in here.