A film guide for kids

The Easter holidays are here again, and the children must be entertaine d. But which films should parents be encouraging their offspring to watch? Rosemary Bailey asks the experts
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The Independent Culture
WHO CAN forget the classic moment in The Wizard of Oz where the world is transformed from black and white Kansas into glorious Technicolor Oz? Watching the film with my four-year-old son I realised that it is as important for children to see film classics as it is for them to read classic children's books.

Books like Alice in Wonderland, The Water Babies, Wind in the Willows and the Narnia series have influenced generations of writers and references to them are a part of the language. Children now need to appreciate film references too. My son's current favourite video, Biker Mice from Mars, is liberally injected with cinematic references. The Mice heroes appear on Earth at the door of a spaceship to the music of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. (The Biker Mice also make rude cracks about Mutant Turtles: "You were expecting turtles, maybe?")

The following selection of films, chosen by a broad spectrum of experts specialising in film and children's subjects, will make a good start for rookie film buffs. Many of the films recommended here date from the golden years of film-making. Disney is here, of course, and several people claimed Snow White and Bambi as formative influences. Some are book adaptations, but the very best are those that present the world from a child's point of view, conveying the child's experience in a way that perhaps only film can. It would be good to see a lot more cherished classics put onto video so we could value historic films alongside new releases.

The writer and critic David Thomson points out that many of the classics that children can enjoy today were not made specially for children. They were meant to have universal appeal and at their best can be watched by children and parents together, enjoyed at different levels. Thomson laments the tendency to divide film into separate categories for adults and children, and says that today there are very few adult films he would want his children to see.

And Peter Wollen, a professor of film studies, argues that some films that are suitable for children are not really made for them. "Steven Spielberg misses it, he doesn't really make children's films. Even ET is essentially an exercise in nostalgia. It's made for the child in the adult."

For many people the first film they see re-mains etched in the memory. Even today when children watch so much video at home, the first film they see on a big screen is likely to have a powerful impact. So which are the movies that can make that first cinema visit really significant?

Deborah Moggach. Novelist and TV scriptwriter. She has children of 19 and 17.

THE RAILWAY CHILDREN (Lionel Jeffries, from E Nesbit's novel, 1970). Funnily enough I saw The Railway Children on my first date with the man I later married . . . It touches on something profound as good children's films do, conveying proper grown-up feelings of alarm and so on. The children's father is imprisoned as a spy, and they try to prove his innocence. It's really about the loss of a father, and it is so important that the children themselves are a force for change. It makes them feel powerful, not helpless, and helps them realise they can alter things. It means a great deal for grown-ups too, particularly now when so many children suffer the loss of a father.

David Thomson. `IoS' film writer and author of `The Biographical Dictionary of Film'. He has a child of five and a baby of four months.

MEET ME IN ST LOUIS (Vincente Minnelli, 1944). This is a great film because it is a complex study of family life. You see how all the different children of various ages really feel, and you also see how the partners feel. The whole notion of home is introduced in a very interesting way. A special moment which impresses on children the power of film is the Hallowe'en sequence. The young children decide to play Trick or Treat on the local "ogre". This is built up as a very frightening event - you really feel the child's fear. Then suddenly you see the ogre as a decent, reasonable, albeit ugly man. The speed with which the film can show the contrast, the change from fear, is very dramatic. It would make a deep impression on a child.

Christina Hardyment. Writer and author of `Dream Babies', a history of childcare. Her four children are 15, 17, 19 and 21.

THE PRINCESS BRIDE (Rob Reiner, from the novel by William Goldman, 1987). Whenever something horrible happens we always sit down and watch The Princess Bride. I love it for its sheer zaniness. Good does prevail, as it should, but not in a sugary way at all. It starts with a grandfather reading a story to his grandson and it keeps coming back to that so you are always reminded that it is only a story. It embraces all the fairy-story clichs: it has everything, a princess and pirates, kidnappings and sword flights, even an Errol Flynn take off. But it's all very camped up and the script is hilarious. And children know all the clichs - they'll shout, "She can't marry him, he's a baddie". Peter Cook and Mel Gibson make cameo appearances, Billy Crystal is the mad wizard and it even has a Dire Straits soundtrack.

Nicolas Kent. Producer of the TV series `Naked Hollywood'. He has a daughter of four.

THE RED SHOES. (Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger, 1948). I think this was a first film for a lot of people. It's my favourite film of all time. It is about the production of a ballet, very romantic and tragic, based on the Hans Christ-ian Andersen story of the dancer who dances herself to death. It is about artistic commitment, and the dangers of going too far, balanced with the rewards of throwing yourself into something. It is a cautionary tale without being heavy-handed. You can imagine having a conversation about it.

It was also very innovatory and influential - the way the dance sequences are shot is breathtaking. You see the ballerina performing her pirouette and the camera takes her point of view. Then there is the performance of the ballet, which starts off very realistic and then becomes increasingly surreal, until suddenly the conductor is conducting waves onto the stage. It was very influential for a whole generation of Hollywood directors like Martin Scorsese.

Peter Wollen. Professor of Film Studies, UCLA. He has children of 25 and three.

THE THREE CABALLEROS (Walt Disney, 1945). This film was made in support of the Good Neighbour policy, just when we had to bring Latin America into the war. The heroes are three tourists, with Donald Duck representing the USA. They travel through South America from Antartica to the US border. You get the songs and dances and folklore from the countries they go through: Argentina, Mexico, Acapulco. It features Disney's most dazzling animation, combining live action with cartoons. There is a real convergence of kitsch and the avant garde.

David Pirie. Screenwriter, ex-film critic and gothic horror specialist. His children are 10 and eight.

THE PARENT TRAP (Walt Disney, 1961). This was the first film that portrayed children in a real and spontaneous way. It was an enormous hit. It's amazing it's not easily available. Hayley Mills plays identical twins, split at birth, who meet by chance at summer camp. One of them is very proper, and one is rock'n'roll; one is from Boston, the other from Los Angeles. At first they hate each other but when they realise the truth they scheme to get their parents back together and impersonate each other. It shows two sides of childhood behaviour. And It has a dazzlingly energetic performance by Hayley Mills.

Colin McCabe. Head of Research, British Film Institute. His children are 21, 19 and seven.

FLASH GORDON (Alex Raymond, 1936). Flash Gordon is one of the few films I know that works successfully on two levels. There is one film for children and another for adults. You can see it again and find there are lots of jokes you didn't get first time around. And it is just packed out with all that wonderful Flash Gor-don paraphernalia of birdmen and rockets and all that. It is much under-rated and was certainly the film that my elder children most enjoyed.

Penelope Leach. Childcare guru, author of `Baby and Child'. Her children are 29 and 26.

LASSIE COME HOME (Fred M Wilcox, 1943). Saturday-morning cinema was a rich source in the Fifties and Sixties - there was a real commitment to childrens' film in those days. I remember the Lassie series as being particularly good. The first film, Lassie Come Home, did all those classic things that film does better than anything else. It is about good and evil and of course the power of love. It sounds sentimental but it isn't. It is a true tragedy. I recall seven- and eight-year-olds being virtually destroyed by it! Perhaps 10 or 11 is a better age.

Tony Robinson. Actor, writer and TV presenter. He has children of 18 and 15.

SPARTACUS (Stanley Kubrick, 1960). I don't really like the idea of films for children. And I don't accept that there are issues that are not suitable for children, although it may well be that some things need to be contextualised by an adult. I would recommend Spartacus, an epic about the revolt of slaves in ancient Rome. It is a rattling good adventure with a great narrative and very funny too. It is about human idealism, about ordinary people who become very brave and unite together, basically the same narrative as Robin Hood. It is a moral struggle that can really seize kids' imaginations. I'm old fashioned enough to want them to struggle for what they believe to be good - to believe in society.

Marc Baker. Production manager of Children's Film Unit, London. Aged 17.

DANNY THE CHAMPION OF THE WORLD. (Gavin Miller, from Roald Dahl's story, 1989). I like this because it was a really well-made film, and all British. It has Jeremy Irons, Robbie Coltrane, Jimmy Nail. The story revolves around a small boy who gets up to a lot of mischief. I felt really attached to him - you really get to know the characters. I think children want more grown-up films, stronger stuff that helps them understand life.

! All films except `The Parent Trap' and `Lassie Come Home' are available on video.

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