Ponyo

BR PonyoM. (3 years old) and I were both home sick today, so we decided to watch another Miyazaki film, Ponyo together. It’s the fastest-paced, most dramatic movie he’s watched yet, and if I had it to do over again, I might wait until he was 3 1/2 or 4. I don’t think M. thought it was too fast paced, but he did want me to keep reassuring him that everything in the film was just magic, and not real. Of course he also wanted to watch it again as soon as it was over. (Update: we started watching it for a second time several weeks later, and M. decided it was too scary, and he’d rather watch Totoro. I’ve updated my age rating to 4+.)

Ponyo is loosely based on the Hans Christian Anderson fairytale “The Little Mermaid,” and tells the story of Ponyo, a goldfish-girl, who wants to become a person, and her friend Sosuke, a 5-year old boy. (I’m a little bit confused how she can be a goldfish who comes from the ocean, but can be kept alive in a bucket of fresh water. I guess magical goldfish-people can live in both salt and fresh water?) Ponyo’s attempt to become a person unleashes both the intense worry of her father, the wizard Fujimoto, and all kinds of wild energies, which take the form of storms at sea, a great flood, and a sea full of Devonian-era fish. In order for Ponyo to become permanently a person, Sosuke must promise that he loves her, both as a fish and as a person. He does, she is permanently transformed, and order is restored to the world.

I’m generally not a huge fan of animated films, but this one is hand drawn, and has many very beautiful scenes. My favourites were all the underwater scenes. M. loved these too, and he especially loved recognizing copepods and other plankton in the introductory section, which are what his dad studies as an oceanographer.

I know that needing to be loved by a human (man) to become a human (woman) is a common fairy tale trope, and in this case comes directly from The Little Mermaid. But it does come across as a bit strange in the context of a modern retelling, which involves 5-year old children rather than adults. It’s the one place where this feels almost too much like this is a retelling of an existing story, transposed into a new setting, rather than an independent story in its own right.

In short, I would recommend this, and will be happy to watch it again with M., but it’s not quite as perfect as Totoro.

Age: 4+
Child rating: 10/10
Adult rating: 9/10
Running time: 101 minutes

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Synchromy

BR SynchromyThis is M.’s first abstract film, and despite his protests that he didn’t want to watch something abstract, he actually quite enjoyed it. Both the animation and the music are by Scottish/Canadian filmmaker Norman McLaren, with the music directly derived from the shapes on the film. M. kept saying: “It’s magic! It’s magic!” I asked him if the shapes made him think of anything, and he said the teeth on the shovel of a backhoe digger – though he’s particularly prone to thinking of backhoe diggers these days, so it may remind you and/or your child of something else! I’m suggesting this for ages 3+ because it is fairly fast-paced, but some people might enjoy it for younger kids too.

Age: 3+
Child rating: 8/10
Adult rating: 8/10
Running time: 7 minutes
Available free on the National Film Board of Canada website

Mr Benn

BR Mr BennWe enjoyed our first two episodes of Mr Benn last night, Mr Benn Zookeeper and Mr Benn Cook. There are several episodes we’ll have to postpone (Red Knight, Gladiator, Hunter, etc.) because we’re trying to keep M. from knowledge of swords and guns for as long as possible!

The character of Mr Benn was created by the English author David McKee (also of Elmer the Patchwork Elephant fame), and first appeared in four books. The books were turned into TV episodes (by McKee) in the early 1970s, and then more TV episodes were created which were later turned into books. The visuals are book-illustration style, with pleasingly minimalist cut-out animation, and the music is cheerful and well-composed.

Each episode takes a similar format, in which Mr Benn goes to a costume shop, tries on a costume, and has an adventure as whatever he is dressed as. The two episodes we saw were an interesting mix of subversive and maintaining the status quo. In Mr Benn Zookeeper, he gets the people to build larger cages for the animals (but doesn’t, for example, let all the animals go). In Mr Benn Cook, he gets the royal family to host a feast for poor children once a week (but doesn’t, for example, overthrow the monarchy!) I’ll be curious to see if there is a similar subversive/status quo balance in all of the episodes.

There are a few product-of-its-time-and-place elements: there’s an “Indian” costume in the costume shop, and so far it seems like most of the characters who do anything are men. This could be an interesting starting point for discussion for slightly older kids.

Age: 3+
Child rating: 9/10
Adult rating: 9/10
Running time: 15-minute episodes
Available free on Youtube

The Snowman

BR The SnowmanThis is a sweet, gentle adaptation of the book of the same name by British author and illustrator Raymond Briggs. The animation comes from the book illustrations and the music is pleasant. Great for cozy watching on a cold, dark winter afternoon. The Snowman and Snowdog is an equally pleasant sequel.

Age: 1 1/2+
Child rating: 9/10
Adult rating: 9/10
Running time: 26 minutes
Available free on Youtube

Mary Poppins

BR Mary PoppinsM. has really been enjoying songs recently, and Mary Poppins seemed like a good first musical to try. M. loved it. He said his favourite parts were the one-man-band, the penguins, and the tea party in the air. There are a few parts, especially towards the beginning, where adults are shouting at each other – if I were more organized, I might skip over them. The overall message is good — do fun things with your family, instead of trying to earn as much money as possible. The songs, by the Sherman Brothers, are enjoyable, though a bit ear-wormish. We watched it a week ago, and I’m still trying to get them out of my head! (Update: we watched this almost three weeks ago, and I still have Let’s Go Fly a Kite stuck in my head!)

Age: 3+
Child rating: 10/10
Adult rating: 10/10
Running time: 139 minutes

My Neighbour Totoro

This is the first feature film we watched with M. (aside from Babies, which put him to sleep), and he loved it. I was worried that the scene where the little sister is lost would be scary for him, but I think he was caught up in the moment to moment action, and not worried about her. My one criticism is that the kids are a bit shouty with each other.

Age: 2 1/2+
Child rating: 10/10
Adult rating: 9/10
Running time: 86 minutes

David Attenborough (various)

Only watch the episodes about smaller gentler animals – avoid the ones about large predators! When M. was a baby, we watched various Attenborough episodes, and they would sooth him to sleep. One of his first words was “A-bu-wa”! We haven’t tried them since he was older, but I’m sure he’d love them now too.

Age: 0+
Child rating: 10/10
Adult rating: 10/10
Running time: usually an hour
Some episodes available free on Youtube

Tchou-Tchou

Tchou-Tchou is another lovely Co Hoedemans/Normand Roger film from the National Film Board of Canada. This one features animated building blocks, and a dragon that gets turned into a train. It’s a bit faster paced than the Sand Castle.

Age: 2 1/2+
Child rating: 10/10
Adult rating: 10/10
Running time: 14 minutes
Available free on the NFB website

The Sand Castle

This was one of my favourite films when I was a kid, and I’m delighted that it’s one of M.’s favourite films too. It’s a National Film Board of Canada film, by Co Hoedemans, and features beautiful and imaginative stop-motion animated sand creatures. There are no words, and the soundtrack is a well-composed neo-renaissance-ish score by Normand Roger.

Age: 1+
Child rating: 10/10
Adult rating: 10/10
Running time: 14 minutes
Available free on the NFB website