Borderstan Movie Fan: Children’s Movies for Grandparents, Part 2/Older Kids

by November 18, 2009 at 7:00 am 2,577 0

by Mary Burgan

Other Reviews by Mary

Borderstan Movie Fan: Children’s Movies for Grandparents (Part 1)
High School Musicals
Movies for Foodies
Health Care Options at the Movies
My Favorite Sexy Movies
“Borderstan Movie Fan” Tells You What to Rent

This week Mary the Borderstan Movie Fan reviews and recommends movies for older children. Her column runs every two weeks.

Children’s Movies for Grandparents, Part 2/Older Kids

I’ve already offered some suggestions for movies that grownups could watch with their toddler friends and relatives over the holidays. I’ll now talk about movies for older kids, who can be harder to please.

In preparing for this exercise we went to see A Christmas Carol the other day. I think teenagers might like it, but it is not a movie for younger children. It may seem designed for them because the use of CGI animation gives a cartoon simulacrum of actors such as Jim Carrey, who overplays Scrooge. And the latest 3-D technology, which marks most of the current children’s releases, requires maximum soaring and swooping. Director Producer/Director Robert Zemeckis uses a lot of that in Scrooge’s visions in his movie.

All these special effects may be fun for kids who want to spend a lot of their time ducking and dodging, but the effects in A Christmas Carol are both scary and boring. There is a fair amount of Charles Dickens’ Victorian language in the film, but little of his humor or joy.

Like many other special effects in animated films, 3-D is overdone and destroys not only the story line but also the quieter features of films for children. And that may be why special effects have not quite taken over in films for older kids. Some may say that the temptations of special effects are at work in the series based on the Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe novels. I’ve seen most of these, and I will confess that I am not able to keep track of all the monsters, towers, and metaphysics in them–although I have some fun spotting famous British actors underneath the gruesome make-up.

I honor such films, though, because they create a bridge between reading and cinematic realization. And they help older children to think critically. When I took my two teenage grandchildren, and a boy and girl cousin, to see The Prisoner of Azkaban in 2006, they came out as literary critics, agreeing that it was “dark, very dark,” compared with the book.

The supreme children’s book that became a film was, of course, The Wizard of Oz. I have believed that it would still hold up, even though its soaring and swooping are not 3-D. It is on TV every year, and I thought that older kids might think of it as a link with their grandparents. My 17-year-old grandson tells me, though, that none of his friends have any time for that old movie. Only his mom remembers it.

But I still harbor some hope for other books into film that are equally old-fashioned and uplifting. I have yet to meet a man who has read or willingly seen Little Women, but ever since Katharine Hepburn played Jo in 1933, each generation seems to bring forth another version of the trials of the March sisters.

I would choose the 1994 version of Louisa May Alcott’s novel with Susan Sarandon as Marmee and Wynona Ryder as Jo. The 1949 version with the likes of Elizabeth Taylor and Peter Lawford in other roles is not all that bad either, but I wax nostalgic.

The Princess Diaries series has provided a more recent sure hit for girls, but I Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden also continues to inspire films. The 1994 version is charming and acknowledges the colonial origins of the heroine, Mary Lennox, in India. Many older “girls” swear by the 1949 version that features the famous child star, Margaret O’Brien. Nostalgia again.

For boys, the ever-recurring book-into-movie has been Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Versions were made in 1934, 1950, and 1990–with Long John Silver played with varying degrees of menace by Wallace Beery, Robert Newton and Charlton Heston. I haven’t seen them all, but I would bet that the best Jim Hawkins is Christian Bale in the 1990 version.

S. E. Hinton knew that it is difficult to get boys to read books about heroines or by women and so used her initials rather than her name (Susan Eloise) so that adolescent boys would read her gritty novels. Several of these have been turned into movies by Francis Ford Coppola: Rumble Fish in 1982 and The Outsiders in 1983. Both films have Coppola’s edge and gave a start to many of today’s major male actors–from Matt Dillon to Tom Cruise to Nicholas Cage.

Sounder (1972) was a gritty film made from a young adult novel. It renders the story of a rural black family in the South of the 1930s and has moving performances by Cicely Tyson and Paul Winfield. It really ought to be seen today. The Yearling (1946) was a predecessor, and could also bear watching again not only for the story but the acting of Gregory Peck and Jane Wyman. Middle school kids may recognize Peck because many of them have read, or pretended to read, To Kill a Mocking Bird in class, and some have seen the fine film made from it in 1962.

It is tempting but impossible to cover all the worthwhile versions of children’s books that have been turned into fine films. As a former teacher of children’s literature, though, I have to mention two of my own favorites. One is Katherine Paterson’s A Bridge to Terabithia, which was turned into a good movie in 2007. It is sad, and some kids resist that. But grownups should encounter Paterson’s work. Don’t watch the film until you’ve read the book, though. The mind makes better special effects than Hollywood can.

And, of course, there’s always Charlotte’s Web. No special effect can replace the voice of E. B. White in the novel, but the 2006 film, with real animals, comes close. The 1973 animated version has a blue-eyed, cute Wilbur singing a dumb song. Wilbur was “some pig,” ‘terrific,” “radiant,” and “humble,” but he was not a cartoon crooner. Charlotte would not be amused.

By the way, I’m going to the Twilight sequel this weekend as recommended by my teenaged granddaughter. The vampire series got her to plough through hundreds of pages, after all, and get a new respect for reading.


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