Now that three of our children are between ages six and nine, we've seen many children's movies. Of course, you have to be discerning. Even G-rated films contain a lot of potty mouth, back talk, and rebellion that is unhelpful to be pouring into the tender souls of little people. There was a lot of gutter humor in Cars, and in The Little Mermaid Ariel defies her father and she is neither reproved nor suffers unhappy consequences for it.
There are also social and political messages that Hollywood wants children to internalize. They are generally the self-congratulating themes of that spoilt and irresponsible 1960s generation--wise in their own eyes--with which they continue to indoctrinate the rest of us. Essentially, they tell us that families are hopelessly dysfunctional, children are wise, and parents are foolish, and so children must save their parents and the world.
But there are films, even recently made films, that teach children in artful and entertaining ways that family is good, parents are wise, and children have a lot to learn. They teach that there are worthy objects of striving, and that obtaining them requires great effort, moral self-restraint, and even sacrifice.
Here are some examples.
The Sound of Music (1965; Dir. Robert Wise) - Both the children and the nanny learn self-control. On the other hand, the uberdisciplinarian and distant father learns humanity. Together, led by the father, an Austrian army officer, they defy and eventually flee the inhumane and tyrannically disciplinarian Nazi occupiers. The film is about love, charitable discipline, and healthy relationships in both the family and the political community.
The Incredibles (2004; dir. and screenplay, Brad Bird) and Meet The Robinsons (2007; dir. Stephen Anderson) - Both films celebrate the irreplaceable value of a loving, traditional family.
Pinocchio (1940; Disney Studios) - The wooden boy has a conscience! He disobeys his father and gets into trouble! He goes to an island where children get to indulge their selfish desires, but they end up enslaved. Sin does that. Notice how he gets to be a real boy.
Peter Pan (2003; dir. and screenplay, P.J. Hogan) - Peter can indulge all his childhood fantasies forever, but he has no family, no mother and father to love him and care for him. His freedom is premature, stunting, and unsatisfying. The children see this and head home to their parents. The end of the film is touching.
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971; screenplay by Roald Dahl) and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005; dir. Tim Burton) - Both these films set bad children in contrast with a good child who loves his family and sacrifices his pleasures for the sake of his moral obligations.
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968; Disney Studios; screenplay by Roald Dahl and Ken Hughes) - The father is an oddball inventor who ekes out a living, but he works hard to provide for his children. It is he who must save them from Baron Bomburst after they disobey their father and succumb to temptation. The baron's vice is not fundamentally that he hates children, but that he is altogether childish himself, which would be fine except that he is not a child.
Mary Poppins (1964; Disney Studios) - In this film, the parents are foolish, but it is not the children who save them. It is a nanny named Mary Poppins, a gracious, otherworldly woman who is full of adult wisdom. Clearly, a father should not be so devoted to his work that he neglects his family which is the more important responsibility. If you save the company but lose your children in the process, you are a failure. But the film drives the lesson too far. In the end, all the elders of British banking have learned to be childish and silly. They have cut back their hours at the bank and are flying kites instead.
Wolf in Sheep's Clothing category:
Nanny McPhee (2005; screenplay by Emma Thompson) - One lesson we learn in this film is a good one. Well-mannered children are a blessing both to themselves and to others, and that begins with simple habits such as saying please and thank-you, and going to bed without complaining when one is told. What mars this otherwise edifying film is that it presents the little boy as wiser than his father who, he says, "never listens." So it is not surprising that it is the children (in their suddenly discovered wisdom) who save the day in the end.
There is also one very regrettable line near the end of the film when Evangeline, the girl whom the family has employed as a maid, tells old Aunt Adelaide to "Sod off, you old trout." Regardless of old auntie's behavior, this rebuke is appallingly disrespectful on account of both its content and its source. But the film holds it up for admiration. That alone would be enough to disqualify this film for recommendation to your children.
Though there is a good lesson at the beginning, the end of the film undermines it. Through firm but wise discipline (albeit magical), Nanny McFee swiftly trains the children to be self-controlled and obedient, and thus frees them to be happy and sweet (but, alas, also wiser than the adults). In the end, however, they save the day through the same wild, ill-mannered, childishly destructive behavior--although now put to a "good" purpose--and all the good adults join in the fun. The children learn a degree of self-control from Nanny McFee, but only enough to know how to use terrorism selectively for socially constructive ends, and the adults learn to be more like the children. While this film is styled after Mary Poppins, it is no Mary Poppins.
A few other great children's films:
Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (2005; dir. Andrew Adamson) - This is C. S. Lewis's great allegory of the gospel. In Edmund, we see repentance, and in the great lion, Aslan, we see redemption through Christ's substitutionary atonement.
Narnia: Prince Caspian (2008; dir. Andrew Adamson) - Peter brings disaster upon himself and others when he follows his own wisdom and trusts in his own strength rather than waiting for Aslan and trusting in his wise, almighty and gracious provision. Aslan, of course, represents Christ.
Anne of Green Gables and The Sequel (1985 and 1987; dir. Kevin Sullivan) - Simply one of the most delightful films ever made, and a fitting tribute to the classic of Canadian literature.