Monday, August 09, 2004

Unsung Children's Film Festival (for Adults) 

There are so many children's movies that serve that audience well, such as The Lion King, et. al. There are also children's movies that please an adult audience at the same time such as the Pixar hegemony of Toy Story I & II, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, etc.

There is another category of children's film, however, which serves both audiences extremely well but does not necessarily find mainstream success. These films are "unsung", if you will and I am going to sing them here.

The Iron Giant
This was based on one of the most unlikely sources ever, a children's book by Ted Hughes, aka Mr. Sylvia Plath. Now given their famously stormy relationship and Sylvia's gas-tly end, one might not naturally associate the name "Hughes" and "children's books". Nonetheless, Ted Hughes crafted a terrific Cold War cautionary tale - relevant once again - about a boy who finds a giant robot from outer space which is suffering from amnesia. It does not remember that it is a weapon.

The animation in this film is terrific, not at all the CGI glitz-fest of recent memory and it admirably suits the tone of the storytelling. Lots of unexpected voice actors including Jennifer Aniston, Harry Connick Jr., John Mahoney. Not to mention that it also contains by far the best performance EVER given by Vin Diesel. I know that doesn't give us much to go on, but trust me as a giant amnesiac robot, Vin Diesel acquits himself brilliantly.

[Tangent: OK. So after you see it, go buy yourself one of these Iron Giants on eBay. I did. And, although she didn't mean it, it's kind of Meg's fault. She doesn't even know me, nor what happened because of her, but now I'm coming clean. So years ago, Charles Warren told me to read an article about Pyra and Blogger in The New Yorker. He knew this chick Meg and she'd started it all. So I went and started reading Meg's site. She had a webcam in those days. And in the back of a bunch of pix was this Ultimate Iron Giant toy.

This image unleashed something locked away in me since childhood. My first love (as far as I can recall) was a cartoon called Gigantor. I now know that this was a Japanese import, although at the time all I knew was that this boy had a relationship with a giant robot which served the general good and was in all ways heroic. Seeing the Ultimate Iron Giant let loose my first eBay-abetted obsession. I used a technique called "coverage" in the commercial industry. When you're propping the set of a commercial and you need say an umbrella, you buy every single umbrella that looks remotely right and then bring them to the director. S/he chooses one and you run off to return the rest. So I went on a "coverage" shopping spree on eBay. Only I didn't return any of them. And so began a rather peculiar collection that has ballooned to include a bunch of rekindled childhood obsessions, including a Gigantor and the rocket from Destination Moon.]

James and the Giant Peach
Henry Selick directed this pitch perfect Roald Dahl adaptation. It features a terrific cast of actors and voice actors. While I'm touting this as a children's film that's great for adults, I might have to own up to the fact that the film makes the unusual choice of moving between live action and stop motion animation, which requires something special of the audience in order to stay with the film. And perhaps children can make that transition more easily than adults. Nonetheless, if you can stay with the film, it's as quirky as only (unexpurgated) Dahl can be.

Lilo & Stitch
How the heck did this film ever get released by Disney? It's got hardly any songs, it's got a completely dysfunctional broken-home family, a kid obsessed with Elvis, and the most bizarre "adorable alien" character ever.

Apparently the inspiration for the film was the question, "What if ET was destructive?". As a result, it has similar plot elements to The Iron Giant in that Stitch was created as the ultimate weapon and during his time on earth finds a more peaceful identity. Beyond that, it's one freakin' oddball movie! It's packed with offbeat Star Wars, Star Trek, and ET references that its target audience won't get - and which only the *geekiest* of mainstream parents would get.

Somehow, this melange of components ends up delivering an hilarious and touching movie. I defy you not to come unhinged when Stitch learns to play records with his fingernail.

A Little Princess
Long before he made the best Harry Potter film, Alfonso Cuaron's first English language film was based on another children's classic by Frances Hodgson Burnett and featured a terrific script by Richard LaGravenese. Somehow this film seems to have escaped the attention of both critics and audiences, and what a shame that is. A tale of a father and daughter separated by war, it is by turns heartbreaking, funny and moving.

(Tangent: When will child actor Liesl Matthews re-emerge as the new Anna Paquin? She more or less disappeared after making this film and is reportedly at Columbia (where Paquin matriculated as well. I wonder if they're friends?)

A lost Danny DeVito film, very much in the same twisted sensibility of "Throw Mama from the Train" and "The War of the Roses" and hence, a very odd children's film. People get regularly defenestrated by the mean teacher and the nice teacher is continually abused until the final plot reversal that makes the world right again. But given the Dahl source material, how surprising is that? Dahl was a very dark writer indeed. And this film reflects that sensibility quite well.

I must also confess to having a horrible crush on Embeth Davidtz.

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