It's that time again. It's getting cold out and the days are getting shorter and shorter. With this dark and cold weather, our thoughts turn towards spending time with the family: gathering for meals and celebration, and spending the long nights together to keep warm--both physically and mentally. One of the many great activities to do with the family is to watch a good movie.
I, for one, like watching movies with other people. I tend to find that everyone takes away something different from every film, and hearing their perspective enriches the whole process. I believe everyone, regardless of age, taste in or familiarity with film, has something to say, and that these observations each have a lot of value. I love talking about movies with friends and family, and learning what others have seen that I may have missed.
So here's a list of some movies that are great--and appropriate--for the whole family. Obviously, each family is different and has different needs when it comes to entertainment, but here are some of my favorites from childhood that have carried through to become favorites in adulthood, and have something to offer at every age.
1) Spirited Away, Hayao Miyazaki, 2001. Spirited Away tells the story of young Chihiro (voiced in the English-language version by Dakota Fanning), whose family is moving to a new city. Chihiro is reluctant to leave her friends and her school, but her family promises it will just be a new adventure. The adventure turns pretty literal when the family stops at an abandoned fairground for a lunch break. Before Chihiro knows it, her parents have been turned into pigs and she's been employed at a bathhouse for the gods, scrubbing tubs and staying out of the way of such mysterious entities as the Radish Spirit. She now must navigate her way through a capricious group of deities, her fellow coworkers and the despotic boss: a powerful witch called Yubaga. Along the way, she learns the real meaning of friendship, how to stand up for herself, and how to meet life's challenges head on. In the meantime, Miyazaki makes his characteristic statements about environmentalism (one of the main characters is a river god who has lost his memory because his river has been dammed up) and the importance of helping one another.
Ages: 7+. Some of the imagery may be lost on the vey young. Also, some images may be frightening to them as well.
2) The Secret of Roan Innish. John Sayles. 1994. This sweet tale draws inspiration from the traditional Irish legend of the selkies, seals who can shed their seal-skins and become humans. In this story, a young man marries a selkie woman, but there are consequences. Many generations later Fiona, their plucky young descendant, determines to bring her baby brother, who has been living with his seal side of the family, back to his human brethren. The story is touching without getting sappy, and tells of a family's downfall and redemption. The cool thing is that the seals, who have been raising Fiona's little brother, are treated with just as much respect as the humans; one of Fiona's cousins refers to them as "just another branch of the family." The film touches on themes of family, loyalty and tradition. Plus there are a lot of adorable seals!
Ages: All. This is a very gentle movie, and suitable for little ones. Warning: if you're a softie like me, it might make you mist up.
3) Wreck-It Ralph. Rich Moore. 2012. Still in theaters, if you're looking for an outing. Wreck-It Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) is the villain from a fictional video game in an arcade, and stands in opposition to "good guy" Fix-It Felix. However, Ralph longs to be the hero, and, in his wish to do so, unwittingly unleashes a villain that threatens every character in every game in the arcade. It takes the council of a "glitch," Vanellope (voiced by Sarah Silverman), to teach him what it really means to be a good guy. This movie features "cameos" from beloved video game characters like Bowser, Bison, Pac-Man, Sonic, and more, and packs visual punches as well as a well-thought-out story about how to have fun while understanding responsibility.
Ages: All. Video game enthusiasts will love the references, and may have to explain them to parents, as well.
4) Fantasia. 1940. This Disney classic features various pieces of classical music set to animations that capture their feelings and the stories they tell. Conducted by Leopold Stokowski, the music takes on a life of itself, and the visuals feature everything from abstract visualizations to fully-formed stories, including the iconic narrative of Mickey Mouse in the musical adaptation of The Sorcerer's Apprentice. It's a great way to introduce kids to the magic of classical music, and features well-known compositions like Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker Suite, Beethoven's Pastoral and Bach's Toccata and Fugue, while providing entertainment through imaginative visuals.
Ages: I watched this as a little kid, but my mom would always turn it off before the last episode, which featured Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain. This segment featured topless female imps, which my mother (I think rightly) thought inappropriate. But that's the cool thing about DVDs: you can stop them whenever. I still feel squicked out by those images, and while I think the earlier animations are acceptable, I would be hesitant to show that segment to young children. In addition, the animation for the Pastoral shows some shirtless female centaurs, but is far less sexualized than what's seen in the Bald Mountain segment. I would advise that this be shown with discretion. At the very least, the early segments are suitable for everyone.
5) Raising Arizona. The Coen Brothers. 1987. Okay, so this is definitely not a movie for the young'uns. I first saw this movie at about ten or eleven, and it's been a favorite of mine ever since. It tells the story of a childless couple (Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter) who are so desperate to have a child that they kidnap one from a local furniture tycoon who has recently produced quintuplets. Hilarity ensures. Like I said, this isn't a film for the very young, but if you have teenagers in the house, it's a great film for them. The movie has a fantastic amount of surreal one-liners and situations, and is ultimately a story about well-meaning folks who take a few wrong turns on their way. It has enough suspense and the occasional cuss word to make it exciting for younger teens, but isn't violent or explicit enough to be upsetting. It's also a great way to introduce older kids to cinema and get them acquainted with the Coen brothers' repertoire in an accessible way.
Ages: 12+. I advise parents to screen this beforehand to make sure it's appropriate for their kids. Some will be okay with it, some will not. Either way, it's fun for parents.
in conclusion, I will say that it's up to each and every family individually to determine what is and is not appropriate for their kids. I advise watching movies before screening them with the family, and making the judgment about whether or not the films are something you want your kids seeing. Only you can make this decision, as you know your kids and their limits the best. So trust your instincts. And after watching any movies together, ask your kids what they think. They may have some responses that surprise you.