Arrietty

This is a lovely feature-length animation from Studio Ghibli, based on the story The Borrowers by Mary Norton. It tells the story of the growing friendship between Arrietty, a mouse-sized “borrower” girl, and a human boy, Sho. When the Arrietty’s borrower family is discovered by the unfriendly housekeeper Haru, Sho helps them escape to safety. As in most Studio Ghibli films, there is lots of beautiful natural imagery, including some cute potato bugs (giant in comparison to Arrietty), lush greenery, and evocative rainstorms. The music is, by contemporary movie standards, pleasingly sparse, and I appreciated that there were long passages with no music at all. The story is intended for kids 4 or 5 and up, but there is nothing too scary for younger kids, and my 22 month old enjoys it as much as my almost-5 year old.

Age: 2+
Child rating: 9/10
Adult rating: 9/10
Running time: 94 minutes
Available: only on DVD, so far as I know

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Pretty Big Dig

BR Pretty Big DigHere is a special treat if you have a toddler who loves construction equipment! Canadian filmmaker Anne Troake has choreographed three backhoe diggers into a surprisingly elegant ballet. M. was delighted.

Age: 2+
Child rating: 10/10 (if the child is into construction equipment!)
Adult rating: 8/10
Running time: 4 minutes
Available for free on Youtube

Frog and Toad are Friends; Frog and Toad Together

BR Frog ad ToadWe’ve been postponing watching the film versions of many of the books we like (such as the Moomintrolls and the Gruffalo) so that M. has the book version in his mind first, but we’ve already been reading Frog and Toad to him for two years, and since this movie version is voiced by the author, Arnold Lobel, we figured it wouldn’t stray too far from the original spirit or aesthetic of the books. Each of these movies consists of several short, gently humorous vignettes, reenacted in claymation. The humour is often on several levels – some silliness (eg. Frog pouring water on his head) that appeals to toddlers, and some subtler, more philosophical humour that only older children and adults would get. The claymation is generally lovely, though occasionally falls into a bit of an “uncanny valley” (if one can call it that for frogs and toads).

Age: 2+
Adult rating: 8/10
Child rating: 8/10
Running time: each movie 18 minutes
Available free on Youtube

Lines Horizontal

BR Lines HorizontalThis is another collaboration between Norman McLaren and Evelyn Lambart, with a soundtrack composed and performed by Pete Seeger. As the name suggests, the visuals consist almost entirely of horizontal lines (and a handful of slightly vertical ones), moving up and down in different configurations and speeds. The visual effect is mesmerizing, and it’s great hearing a slightly more experimental side of Pete Seeger’s music.

Age: 2+
Child rating: 8/10
Adult rating: 9/10
Running time: 6 minutes
Available free on the Nation Film Board of Canada website

Microcosmos

BR MicrocosmosThis is a great whole-family film, which consists entirely of stunningly beautiful close-up footage of insects and other invertebrates. We always watch videos on the computer, but this made me wish for a larger screen.

There is nothing scary, and the level of drama is appropriate for a toddler: a dung beetle trying to push a ball of dung which gets caught on a thorn, a crow eating ants, stag beetles fighting, etc. There’s a famous scene of two snails having sex, about which M. asked “are they hugging?” We said yes. (We would have answered more if he had asked more, but that was all he wanted to know). M. was particularly captivated by the moths, the rhinoceros beetle, and of course the dung beetle.

The soundtrack is by French composer Bruno Coulais, and contains a nice balance of recorded insect sounds and insect-inspired instrumental sounds, with occasional more typical movie-style music for the dramatic sections. The film contains very few words, so don’t worry if you can’t find the English version. I’m rating it as age 2+, because I think a younger child wouldn’t appreciate it as much, but there would certainly be no harm in watching it with younger kids around.

Age: 2+
Child rating: 9/10 (M. did get restless at one point, but I think it was because he wanted to eat dessert).
Adult rating: 10/10
Running time: 80 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

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

Ivor the Engine

If your child likes trains, and you’re trying to keep Thomas the Tank Engine out of the house, I’d highly recommend Ivor the Engine instead! This is another great Oliver Postgate/Peter Firmin production from the 70’, set in Wales. It features lots of sweet stories of village life. The music, by Vernon Elliot, is pleasant and well-composed, and features bassoon.

Age: 2 1/2+
Child rating: 10/10
Adult rating: 10/10
Running time: 1950s episodes are 10 minutes, 1970s episodes are 5 minutes
Some episodes available free on Youtube

Daniel Tiger

Daniel Tiger is produced by the Fred Rogers company (after Fred Rogers passed away in 2003). Each episode deals with a very specific problem (separation anxiety, safety, going to school, etc.) in a way that toddlers really relate to. And each episode has a little song about the issue, which can be helpful to sing to your kid. M. loves it, but unfortunately I find the cartooning overly cutesy and lacking in artistic merit, the pacing unnecessarily frenetic, and the music annoying. (I suspect Mr. Rogers would have felt the same thing). We only watch it when there is a particular issue we want to address, and it has been very helpful for that. For example, when M. was about 28 months, he suddenly started feeling really upset when we went out to work (after 2 years of having no problem with it.) We watched the episode about “Grown-ups Come Back” about 8 times, and within two days he was back to not feeling upset when we went out.

Age: 2+
Child rating: 10/10
Adult rating: 10/10 for helping your kid deal with specific issues, 3/10 for aesthetics
Running time: Each topic has two 15-minute back-to-back episodes

Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood

This is a great US show: 895 episodes were made from the late 1960’s through 2000. I think most American and Canadian kids who grew up in the 70’s, 80’s or 90’s watched it, but we’ve just moved to Scotland, and we’ve been surprised to find that no one here has heard of it! Most episodes consist of some very honest, gentle discussion of things young children might be thinking about, a visit somewhere (a fire station, an orange grove, a string quartet, etc.), and the Land of Make Believe, where characters work through more complex emotions and story lines. It’s a bit slow-paced for parents, but provides lots of good material for discussion with your kid afterwards. Mr. Rogers has a real gift talking to children about things that matter to them, but without talking down to them. M. found the Land of Make-Believe a bit intense at first, so we used to have to skip that part. Fred Rogers was also trained as a musician, and wrote all the music. In addition to the regular episodes, there are 8 mini-operas, with well-composed, serious music, and storylines that young kids find very engaging.

Age: 2+
Child rating: 10/10
Parent rating: 7/10 for watching enjoyment, 10/10 for values imparted and post-show discussion with kids
Running time: 30-minute episodes
Some episodes available free on Youtube