Taking the kids to the movies used to be an exercise incharitable, selfless parenting. But lately it could be considered a selfishpursuit.
Films directed at kids and families are doing better business than ever—four of 2016’s top 10 movies are rated PG, with Disney’s Moana also falling just outside the top. But we’re no longer just flies drawn to the popcorn stand only to get zapped once the cineplex takes our dollars.
While there’s a deserved groaning at the gross commercialismof the film industry—the assault of superheroconflagrations and umpteenfranchise sequels supports that—it’s been a remarkable year for familyfilms. They weren’t just “good for kids’ movies.” They were among the bestfilms of 2016.
It’s not a new thing, of course, for family-friendly filmsto be critically hailed. Wall-E, Toy Story 3, and Inside Out are three recent examples. But few years have featured such awealth of creatively rich, poignant, and entertaining family releases(live-action ones, too) as this past one—all capping off with this weekend’srelease of the gorgeous, emotional, and inventive A Monster Calls.
A Monster Calls, atleast by description, is not the kind of film you’d immediately think of as“fun for the whole family.” But “fun” is no longer the only attraction, and forthe best family films, from E.T. to the Harry Potter films to even Frozen, it’s never been.
Now we expect a full range of emotional experience—fromwonder to fear, joy to heartbreak—with as much respect for the emotionalintelligence of children as it does for their ticket-buying guardians.
Part fantasy, part brutally real, the film centers on12-year-old Conor (Lewis MacDougall), an artistic loner with a vividimagination, who is bullied mercilessly at school and struggles to deal in areal way with his mother’s (FelicityJones) terminal cancer battle, while facing the prospect of having to livewith his cold grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) whom he hates. Oodles of fun!
He is, as the narration at the beginning of the film says,“too old to be a kid, yet too young to be a man,” and therefore at that placein his coming-of-age where he is unable to shoulder all of this. And so hesummons a monster.
Is the monster a dream? It doesn’t matter, as he is there to help Conor navigate the reality he won’t face. The monster tells Connor three stories, each a fable that will help Conor toward an ultimate goal: finding the courage to let his mother go.
The fables play out in spectacular watercolor animation, aspellbinding fairy tale reprieve that only refocuses the bleakness andunfairness of the real world once we return to Connor and his circumstances.
As a visual feast, it’s breathtaking. As a morality tale, its invaluable. As an emotional experience, it’s a specific story about one boy and his pain that is achingly universal.
Unlike so many kids’ films that seek to make you feel likeeverything will be OK, A Monster Callsgrants permission to feel anger and frustration, emotions that are so oftenfrantically hushed when children exhibit them. There’s value in feeling angryand annoyed and helpless and mad at the world for not being fair. That crueltyand injustice can’t and won’t always be punished is a hard pill for Conor toswallow, as it is for anyone watching the film, of any age.
There’s sweeping dialogue that could seem overly moralizingif the film’s grand ambition and beating heart did not support it. “There isnot always a good guy, Connor O’Malley, nor is there always a bad one,” themonster says. “Most people fall in between.” Or Conor’s dad: “Sometimes, youget messily ever after. And that’s alright.”
It’s the kind of movie you almost can’t believe ismarketable. A family drama about a boy waiting for his mom to die? But that’swhat makes it so special. It’s a movie about wanting to end pain, how it can beselfish and also human. While death looms through the entire film, it’s notabout loss, but the bravery it takes to say goodbye.
The film delicately dances with these dark topics, infusingthem with the whimsy and nostalgia of a possibly imaginary friend and theescapism of fairy tales. But its biggest triumph is in the way it treats itsaudience, from the adults who will be sobbing through the film’s entire finalact (seriously, bring tissues) to the children who will be exposed to life’shard lessons, with dignity.
“Dignity” is not often a word we associate with the filmindustry, especially when it comes to the cash-grab of the family market.
Yet take The Jungle Book, which bucked thetrend of simply transfixing audiences with meaningless CGI. Disney’slive-action remake broke new ground with its visual effects while rememberingthat effects should still be effectivein storytelling.
Every spectacular scene was rooted in Mowgli’s emotionaljourney, which was just familiar enough to appease those who grew up on the1967 animated Jungle Book musicaland restaged with enough confidence to transport you on a new, surprisinglyaffecting journey.
Pete’s Dragon shocked critics when it announced itself as one of the summer’s best movies. A live-action reimagination of one of the worst examples of how Disney can exploit sweetness and sentimentality, the 2016 version is surprisingly meditative. It’s about companionship and community, and, like A Monster Calls, the reality of loss. Most admirable is how a film featuring a CGI dragon manages to feel restrained and quietly emotional, which ends up being its grandest spectacle.
Even films that don’t normally get branded as “for kids”offer much in the way of family entertainment. Hidden Figures is crowd-pleasing andinspiring, and proof that neither thing should be a film’s liability. Rogue One is good enough to rekindleany Star Wars-related bonding afamily might have. My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 wasjoyous, nostalgic fun—nothing more, and that’s perfectly OK.
The BFG certainlywasn’t perfect. But it was ambitious and was lovingly adapted, and it did,at a time when we desperately needed it, resurface Steven Spielberg’s singularunderstanding of the loneliness of childhood and how imagination can be yourgreatest companion.
And while originality continues to be Hollywood’s scarcestresource—as Ice Age: Collison Course,Kung Fu Panda 3, and Trolls certainly proved—the world ofanimation continues to be a haven for it.
Take the revolutionary Moana,which, asThe Daily Beast’s Jen Yamato wrote, offered, “a Disney princess moviein which there are no princes hanging around, no boys to really think about atall, no girly hang-ups or thingamabobs to fritter over, and no romanticsubplots to distract from what’s truly important: survival, independence,identity, self-belief.”
Or Zootopia, which is rightfully making its way onto critics’ top 10 lists. Reminding audiences from the get-go that, as bunny protagonist Judy Hopps quickly learns, “Life isn’t some cartoon musical where you sing a little song and your insipid dreams magically come true,” Zootopia quickly becomes an allegory for the racial animus of our current culture.
Grand themes like prejudice, feminism, and opportunity arenimbly juggled alongside laugh-out-loud wit. It’s wonderful, and, it turns out,essential.
There are always great animated films each year, and oftenthey’re not made by Disney, Dreamworks, or Pixar and therefore audiences don’tflock to see them. (The House of Mouse is a powerful force.)
This year there was Kuboand the Two Strings, The Red Turtle,My Life as a Zucchini, and The Little Prince, serving as anantidote to the likes of Sing, Trolls,The Angry Birds Movie, Storks, or SecretLife of Pets—each of which deserves a shameful finger wag for shamelesslytaking advantage of your desire to entertain your kids for 90 minutes withmediocre entertainment.
But it’s worth celebrating that the year’s highest-grossingfilm, Finding Dory, a sequel that wouldhave made truckloads of money no matter its quality, actually set on a missionto not just be good, but to be great.
Did it succeed? We’d argue that by the time a seven-legged octopus was driving a truck down the freeway, it took a detour from its path to greatness. But the film’s subtle emotional depth and deft handling of so-called adult subject matter without being reductive or patronizing, fitting to the plot, helps it find its way home again.
Dory’s recognition of her mental condition, the limitationsit places on her, and the challenges she will have in overcoming it isheartbreaking, poignant, and even profound. The requisite Pixar tearjerkerthemes are all there—What makes a family? Where do I belong? What am I capableof? What is home?—and get solid two-Kleenex endorsements.
The level of imagination and emotion and nuance in thisyear’s best family movies, from FindingDory on down, bring to mind a line a bully uses to tease Conor in A Monster Calls.
“You’re always off in your own little dream world,” thebully says. “What’s there that’s so interesting?”
Turns out, a lot.