After a long day of work, school, and day care, a good movie might be just the thing. Snuggle down on the couch with the little ones, and watch a picture that will amuse and enlighten both children and adults.
By choosing a good video selection instead of a standard evening of the tube, parents have more control over what their children see. And, since the best children's films, like the best kiddie literature, offer ideas to explore, they can spark meaningful discussions between parent and child.
In fact, many of the best videos are based on children's books. For example, films like Little Women (both the 1933 and the 1994 versions), The Secret Garden, The Little Princess (Shirley Temple was terrific in 1939), and Carol Ballard's magnificent The Black Stallion can inspire children to read the original stories.
A parent can enhance the viewing experience by helping a child compare the books they read with the films made from them: What in the original story has been changed in the film? Does the film show the hero or heroine the way you expected? Does the film say the same things as the book? Which did you like better?
One of the loveliest films ever created for young children is The Snowman, based on the book by Raymond Briggs. The delicately drawn animated film has almost no dialogue, but a gorgeous score and a sweet story about a one-day-only magical friendship. There is such a sense of wonder at childhood itself and the inherent goodness of a small boy that children and parents will be tenderly touched.
The Secret of Roan Inish is a fantastic Irish story about a little girl who goes to live with her grandparents after her mother dies. A marvelous folk tale about the silkie (part woman, part seal) runs like a satin thread through the film, but the story's real sweetness lies in the return to the ancestral family shores on a private island.
James and the Giant Peach is a delightful adaptation of a Roald Dahl story, which begins in live action and switches to fabulous animation when James escapes his dreadful aunts in England and hightails it to New York inside a magical giant peach. The film celebrates courage and kindness with intelligence and charm.
Oddly enough, this story, like so many children's stories (including some of the films named above), concerns orphans: One parent or both pass on, leaving the child to fend for him or herself, establish a relationship with a surviving parent or surrogate, or find a haven with peers. Sometimes the loss is only a device to set the little hero on a journey - an excuse for autonomy. Other times the stories seem to be an assurance that no matter what, kids can survive and find happiness. But children may question, and parents may need to offer reassurances on the subject.
Even a charmer like Fly Away Home begins with a car crash in which a mother is taken from her daughter (Anna Paquin) and the girl must bond with her estranged father. Based on a true story, the elegant adventure concerns the beneficent effect of caring for animals. The film ultimately transcends its clich opening, and its fresh spirit, fine acting, and engagingly quirky details satisfy a variety of ages and tastes.
And speaking of children and animals: Andre, based on a true story, is one of the best to come along in years. Conflicts arise among siblings when dad rescues an orphaned baby seal. A crack cast, fine writing, and a raspberry-blowing seal make this unpretentious film a marvelous bet for a cold winter's night and a cup of cocoa.
Other Children's Films Worth Sharing
Several series done for Canadian and British television are really illustrations of children's stories: The Chronicles of Narnia, based on the books by C.S. Lewis; a terrific series based on the works of Beatrix Potter, The World of Peter Rabbit and Friends; and the gripping Anne of Green Gables and Anne of Avonlea series offer kids bright versions of their favorite books.
On the commercial front: Harriet the Spy takes on the "bullies at school" theme with insight and integrity. Harriet learns to apologize for her own nastiness, cope with peer disapproval, and make amends - all very moral and oddly real.
Jason and the Argonauts (1963) may look a bit dated, but it holds up remarkably well as an introduction to adventure and Greek mythology.