Walt Disney and The Knucklehead, Part 3: Action Edition!

It’s summer! Not really, but this weekend marks the beginning of the summer movie season in the US, so I thought this would be an opportune time to continue my series on alternatives to Walt Disney movies. You know, if you need a break from Frozen or Tangled or whatnot. And this being the summer movie season, an action-movie themed essay seems called for.

But before I offer up my three selections, in preparing for this week’s post, I was reminded of the first rule of vetting films for children, and it is this: don’t rely on your warm and fuzzy memories of movies you grew up with. They might be your guide, but they can also get you into a lot of trouble. Before I write about a film, I always pop it in the DVD player to refresh my memory, and I was embarrassed to discover that two films I was really excited to write about turned out to be not as suitable as I remembered, at least not for very young children. The first was the 1939 desert adventure classic Beau Geste, starring Gary Cooper, Robert Preston, and Ray Milland. A truly ripping yarn, with one of the great openings in film history, and seasoned with themes of family loyalty and love. Unfortunately, it also opens on a fort mysteriously guarded by a bunch of visibly dead soldiers. Oops, forgot about that, and I’d be lying if I told you that was this film’s darkest moment.

The other DVD was the 1941 serial The Adventures of Captain Marvel, which had all the earmarks of a great choice for kids: lots of non-bloody action, a superhero and his young alter ego, the historical value of movie serials, and the benefit of each episode running 20 minutes long, thus not committing you to an hour and a half of couch time. And when you watch this particular serial, you start to see exactly where Raiders of the Lost Ark found its pedigree, so that’s kind of cool. But as I re-ran the first installment, a couple things rang discordant. To begin with, there was the Malcolm Expedition, our heroes, white archaeologists in Siam. They were threatened by attack from hordes – hordes, I say! – of natives just because they were planning on digging up and making off with their buried treasures. As if these native peoples had any right to their own artifacts! It’s not like they were even properly exploiting the treasure’s value! Savages!

You can see where I’m going with this; being the premise of the series and all, it was kind of in your face. Great for when they’re older and ready to recognize imperialism for what it is, but not a serial to start with. That plus Captain Marvel at one point (who’s basically Superman, mind you), deals with a bunch of locals by shooting them in the back with a machine gun. And that’s when they’re already fleeing from him in terror. Catch you in a few years, Cap.

It’s not that you have to shield your knucklehead from all unpleasantness. But as a parent, you’d rather not be ambushed by something you weren’t ready to discuss with your kid on the fly. So the lesson I re-learned this week was to pre-screen, and that goes double for when you have fond memories of a youthful favorite. Memory does tend to be more selective than we realize. Also, some movies, much like your humble blogger, tend not to age as gracefully as fine wines and Martin guitars. For example:

When The Knucklehead was about five, I picked up a collection of Ultraman episodes on DVD. If you’re not familiar with Ultraman, it was a Japanese TV series that featured a Godzilla-type monster each week fought off by Hayata, who could transform into Ultraman with his Beta capsule.  It was cheesy, it was guys in suits with zippers up the back, and it was awesome. As a kid, I would run home from school to catch the latest episode, as would my buddies. I told Knucks that this was the coolest TV show ever, and how much fun it was. I was sure he would eat it right up. I couldn’t wait to share it with him.

I have to say, he was very polite when we watched the first episode. But he kept looking from me to the television with a look that unmistakably said, Seriously? This is the dumbest damn thing I’ve ever seen. Were you a moron when you were a child? Clearly I will think twice before ever trusting your judgment again. Ditto for Speed Racer cartoons.* In both cases, had I simply previewed these DVDs before showing them to The Knucklehead, I could have saved myself a ton of embarrassment. Because it turns out Knucks was right. Memory had taken to dorkiness like a chisel to grout. No wonder my mother looked at me funny.

But I digress. Onto our improved lineup:

The Thief of Bagdad (1924)

I always like to start with a film from the silent era, and this one’s a classic. This is a story that kids will recognize as evolving into the Disney film Aladdin, but in the pre-sanitized version, it’s actually better. Douglas Fairbanks plays the titular character, and he’s worth the price of admission alone. You get the idea that Fairbanks himself was a lot like the character he portrays: vain, rascally, and irresistible. There is nothing in his performance he doesn’t do exuberantly and extravagantly, and he spends half the movie with his shirt off just to be sure you’re not missing anything. Fairbanks and his Thief are both showoffs, and they’re a hoot to watch. But as you marvel at Fairbanks’ athleticism in doing all his own stunts, make sure you notice his skill at pantomime; the silent actor had to be able to express himself without words, so watch with your knucklehead for places where his gestures or body language tell his story when dialogue cannot.

Another reason I picked this is it’s laden with special effects, surely a marvel to audiences of its time. But to you and your knucklehead, not only should you be able to guess how each effect was done, you’ll probably be able to replicate them with a video camera you may already have. In fact, if you have a smart phone and some imagination, you can probably recreate some of these scenes on your own on a rainy afternoon. All of a sudden, time that was lost to the couch becomes invested in turning your knucklehead into a scientist and a filmmaker.

One caveat: at two and a half hours, it’s a long flick, and may try the patience of a young one. But it also contains some natural scene breaks, so you can certainly view it over the course of several evenings.

The Sea Hawk (1940)

I kept going back and forth between this and the 1938 The Adventures of Robin Hood, but I decided on The Sea Hawk only because I think it’s slightly less known. Besides, you can bet we’ll get to Robin Hood in a future post. And in this film, Errol Flynn is a pirate! How cool are pirates?! He’s even a patriotic pirate to boot!

This film is loaded with adventure, romance, humor, and classic bad guys played by Claude Rains and Donald Crisp. Errol Flynn’s Geoffrey Thorpe is gallant, rakish, bold, impertinent, and fiercely loyal. The Sea Hawk opens with a naval battle, closes with a swordfight, and doesn’t much flag in between. All Flynn’s heroism and charm translate well across the decades, and young audiences today are as caught up in his films as audiences were in his time. It doesn’t hurt that Michael Curtiz, one of the great directors of the studio era, knew how to keep a story moving. As well as directing the aforementioned Robin Hood, he would go on to helm Casablanca two years later (rumor has it Curtiz couldn’t stand Flynn, but that seemingly didn’t prevent them from getting great work out of each other). And lest Captain Thorpe get too carried away with himself, there’s Flora Robson’s excellent Queen Elizabeth as perhaps the only woman in any Errol Flynn movie that can keep him in line. If your knucklehead is a fan of Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow (“That’s Captain Jack Sparrow!”) she’ll likely enjoy getting to know one of his predecessors.

The Adventures of Tintin (2011)

It’s a mystery to me why an animated film, directed by Steven Spielberg and produced by Peter Jackson, should have gone so relatively unseen in this country. The only explanation I can think of is that Tintin, the central character of a European comic penned by Herge, a one-named Belgian, is largely unknown in the United States. And that’s ridiculous, because this is one of the best adventure films, animated or not, that I’ve ever seen. It’s insane how good this movie is. Everything that Spielberg couldn’t do in Raiders of the Lost Ark due to the constraints of real-world filmmaking, he poured into Tintin, until it is bursting at the seams with jaw-dropping adventure.

One of my guiding principles in raising my Knucklehead was to expose him to quality wherever I could, be it in movies, music, art, or grilled cheese sandwiches. If your kid is going to demonstrate a passion for “low” entertainments like action movies, then at least expose her to good action movies. And this one is at the top of the pyramid.

There is not a frame of this film that is not an absolute feast for the eyes. It’s overwhelming the amount of visual information in every scene. No part of this movie is lit without loving care. I lost count of how much of the story is unfolded through mirrors, lenses, windows, and bottles. For an artist at play, this movie is Carnegie Hall and Fenway Park combined. I’ve never seen water rendered with such care or character, which helps when much of the story takes place at sea. No detail – none, not one! – is beneath attention. And if your knucklehead is going to want to watch a movie over and over (which means you will have to watch it over and over), why not show him one in which a new surprise pops up every time he sees it?

That same attention is invested into the “stuntwork” and action pieces of the movie. Spielberg, unleashed from the shackles of filming in the real world, let his imagination go to play. Having said that, every fight, every chase remains true to the logic of the scene and tells its own story within the larger tale of the film. A problem I believe many filmmakers have with action scenes is an inability to shape and control the mayhem they’re filming into a story. Spielberg is a master at controlling chaos. You never lose track of any character or prop in a Spielberg action scene. You never lose sight of where the scene is headed.

And there’s a dog! A really cool dog! Kind of like Nick and Nora Charles’ Asta, only braver. Do you know what this film’s got? It all. That’s what this film’s got. The hell with the knuckleheads, cue this flick up for yourself right now.

This won’t be the last of this series, but until next time, I don’t want to hear anybody whining about how their kids won’t watch anything but Disney. Be the parent! Seize (the remote) control! That’s nine suggestions I’ve given you so far to spring on your knuckleheads. Happy viewing!


*The Monkees on the other hand, apparently never gets old.

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