The Wind in the Willows (1983)

br-wind-in-the-willowsThis is a very nicely done stop-motion animated version, which sticks closely to the book. We watched about half an hour of it, and then M. (4 years old) complained that it was “boring.” I tried to convince him that there’s no such thing as boring, that this was a very nice film, and that he should give it a chance. And then I burst out laughing because I realized that I had always found The Wind in the Willows (whether as a book or a movie) boring too. I include this here because it is good, and I wish we liked it – but we just do not seem to be a Wind in the Willows family. (It’s not that we’re immune to the charms of early 20th century anthropomorphic British animals – we just seem to prefer the Beatrix Potter tales!)

Age: 1+
Child rating: N/A (we’re not the right ones to judge)
Adult rating: N/A
Running time: 79 minutes
Available: there are various free versions online

All Aboard! The Sleigh Ride

BR All Aboard! The Sleigh RideIf you are looking for an extremely slow-paced, meditative film for a wintery or Christmasy night, this is it. All Aboard! The Sleigh Ride consists of nothing but two hours of footage of Sami reindeer herders following an ancient postal route through the taiga forest of Northern Norway, beautifully filmed by BBC Four. The soundtrack is simply a recording of the journey, with no music or voiceover. Occasional written texts provide some contextual information. M. was entranced for the first hour, which is really quite a long time for a toddler to watch nothing but a couple people and a couple reindeer moving through the snow. Then he was ready to move on to something else (though he continued to ask questions about reindeer for several days afterwards).

Age: 0+
Child rating: 8/10
Adult rating: 8/10
Running time: 2 hours
Available for free on the BBC Four 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

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

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