Please, may we have some more?

Aditya Mani Jha | Updated on November 13, 2020

Bubble and squeak: If you’re lucky, you get a really well-made film that also prompts kids to ask the right questions. A prime example of this is the film Children of Heaven (directed by Majid Majidi)   -  K BHAGYA PRAKASH

A good children’s film is like comfort food — it makes you go back for seconds

The Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, founder of Studio Ghibli and director of classics such as Howl’s Moving Castle, My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away, isn’t particularly fond of interviews. But when he does open up, he usually has interesting insights into children, who are, after all, his core audience. In a 2008 interview with CommonWealth magazine, Miyazaki said, “Children, especially children at the tender kindergarten age — feel that they’re not normal humans, but have a strong spiritual or divine streak. I don’t have any expectations for children, because I don’t think that children should grow up matching the expectations of adults.”

Japanese connection: My Neighbor Totoro, a Hayao Miyazaki classic


The two strands — the idea of children having a ‘divine’ streak and that of children ‘defying’ the norms of growing up — are essential parts of the Miyazaki universe. The children in his films fight authority figures but are not caricatures. By the end of the narrative, the ‘antagonist’ often ends up understanding the opposite point of view, recalibrating their world view. Yes, this feels contrary to the confrontational mantra of the social media era, but these are fantasies, after all.

Having first watched it as a teenager, I’ve since revisited Howl’s Moving Castle (the English dubbed version stars Lauren Bacall and Christian Bale in voice roles) a dozen times. To that extent, it is the AV equivalent of comfort food for me. And as is generally the case with classics, the film seems to teach me something new every time, or makes me laugh at something I had forgotten about or overlooked previously. What, then, are the qualities one looks for in a good children’s film?

The checklist

For me, repeat value — as in comfort food — is a big factor. I’m always up for a Kung Fu Panda re-watch, for example. Parents of young children, I am sure, have subconsciously memorised lines from Moana or Frozen because of the sheer number of repeat watches (I don’t blame them, these are both future classics). It’s difficult to say why we watch certain films multiple times, but it is definitely a ‘you know it when you see it’ scenario. The Toy Story films — about toys that are alive, every child’s fantasy — also score quite high on this parameter.

Equally important, at least for me, would be the film’s politics. Are vulnerable groups represented in an insensitive manner? Does the film normalise or subtly reinforce societal prejudices? These are the kinds of questions I’d be asking (among other things) if I were putting together a module of movies for children.

For example, I would, in all probability, still watch Annie (1982) with my hypothetical nephews and nieces. But I would also talk to them about why the character ‘Punjab’ (yes, named after his birthplace) is a racist caricature, and why exactly an African-American actor is playing an Indian character. Similarly, if the kids wanted to watch Peter Pan (1953), I’d watch it with them. But I would also talk to them about the racist characterisation of indigenous Americans in the film, exemplified by the song-and-dance numberWhat Makes a Man Red?

The third important question I would ask is: Is this movie a catalyst? By which I mean: Will it make children think, ask questions, debate and read more? It’s here that the discussion starts getting a little murky because sometimes mediocre films are better catalysts than impeccably crafted, big-budget, mainstream blockbusters. But if you’re lucky, you get a really well-made film that also prompts kids to ask the right questions. A couple of prime examples are the Iranian films Children of Heaven (directed by Majid Majidi) and Where Is The Friend’s Home? (directed by Abbas Kiarostami). These are both deceptively simple morality tales involving children, but, by the end, both narratives end up exploring some decidedly fundamental questions: What is ‘cheating’? Who decides if I’m being ‘unfair’? Why is it okay for some people to be born with more money than others?

I believe that a good children’s film makes kids ask difficult questions; so, if you’re planning to watch any of these any time soon, make sure you’ve set some time aside for question hour.

The Pixar method

Based on these criteria, if I were to recall the outstanding children’s movies I’ve seen this last decade, Pixar — the American animation studio — would inevitably dominate the list. Happy Feet, Finding Nemo, Ratatouille, Wall-E, Toy Story 3 — the list goes on and on. There is no doubt that Pixar has hit upon a reliable ‘house style’, one that’s identifiable enough to consolidate its brand and broad enough to distinguish individual products and creators.

Among the Pixar lot, Inside Out is the clear winner for me, a beautifully written and superbly produced film about an 11-year-old girl’s brain and the five personified emotions that control it (Anger, Joy, Sadness, Fear and Disgust). Not to devolve into clichés, but the script really will make you laugh and cry, and it really does hit the sweet spot between education and entertainment. The voices of some of the best-known comedic talents in Hollywood — Bill Hader, Mindy Kaling, Amy Poehler et al — are a bonus.

British animator Nick Park is another hall-of-fame candidate when it comes to children’s movies. The day I watched my first Wallace and Gromit movie was also the day I watched my third; that stuff is addictive, believe me. Park makes whimsical ‘claymation’ films that feature generally cheerful characters and some very, very smart writing. Wallace and Gromit are a scientist and his dog, respectively, but in a somewhat self-conscious ‘flipping’, we are told in no uncertain terms that the dog is considerably smarter than his master.

If you’ve ever watched any Scooby-Doo, you know that in a man-dog pairing of protagonists, the man generally has to do the running around, fixing problems of the dog’s making. Here it’s the incurably clumsy, absent-minded Wallace who messes up every few minutes and Gromit who has to do the rescuing — three bagfuls of fun, trust me. The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, an 85-minute film featuring the duo, is probably the pick of the series. Shaun the Sheep is another very enjoyable Nick Park film, although it never quite hits the peaks of the Wallace and Gromit stories.

Among the golden oldies that still tug at your heartstrings, I’d pick two movies from different decades; 1965’s The Sound of Music and 1998’s The Parent Trap (which was a remake of a ’60s movie, so it’s the best of both worlds). The former because it’s a pop cultural colossus I would not want children-under-my-care to miss out on, and the latter because it’s one of those rare remakes that improves upon what was already a classic. Plus there’s Lindsay Lohan playing twins, in a performance of a lifetime. Oh, and it’ll make you cry and cry and hug your kids tight.

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India isn’t known for producing a great many children’s movies, to be honest. But over the last 20 years or so, there have been dozens of very worthy films in this segment. Perhaps the most high-profile of these was Aamir Khan’s Taare Zameen Par, written and conceptualised by writer-director Amol Gupte. After Khan’s vision started diverging from Gupte’s original story, the latter gave up the director’s role to the Bollywood superstar. Till date, it remains the only film Khan has directed.

In bits and puzzles: Taare Zameen Par is the story of a dyslexic boy and his art teacher


How good was it? In my opinion, despite its melodrama and its many flaws, despite Khan’s penchant for spelling out every little thing via expository dialogue, I find Taare Zameen Par to be an outstanding film — and it has aged reasonably well, too, since its 2007 release. This story of a dyslexic boy’s (Darsheel Safary) coming of age, aided and abetted by his empathetic art teacher (Khan), is an unabashed tearjerker, it’s true. But it is also one of the outstanding Bollywood films of the 21st century, and evidence of what Khan can achieve (both as an actor and a film-maker) on the rare occasion he does not make himself the whole story.

Gupte’s own directorial debut, Stanley Ka Dabba (2011), is a must-watch. Starring his real-life son Partho in the titular role, this is the story of Stanley, a charming and creative fourth-grader who starts fearing school because of his gluttonous, bullying Hindi teacher, Mr Verma (Gupte himself, playing a cartoonish villain with visible pleasure). It is worth noting that following the release of this film, Gupte served as chairperson of the Children’s Film Society India from 2012-15.

Santosh Sivan’s stylishly shot, achingly beautiful Tahaan (2008) is unforgettable, a heart-warming story shot amidst cold climes (Pahalgam in Kashmir). This is the story of Tahaan, a young boy who wants to reclaim his donkey Birbal at any cost.

At the beginning of the film, we see Birbal being bought by a moneylender, Subhan (Anupam Kher). The rest of the story involves, somewhat predictably for Kashmir, a missing parent and a terrorism sub-plot. But it’s all done so brilliantly that you’ll barely notice the odd broad stroke or the occasional clichés.

Childhood, through a lens: A still from M Manikandan’s Kaaka Muttai


Honourable mentions go to Nila Madhab Panda’s I Am Kalam (2011), M Manikandan’s Tamil-language film Kaaka Muttai (2015) and, of course, Nagraj Manjule’s Marathi film Fandry (2013). I’d urge parents and children to watch the last two, especially. I say this because they are not feel-good stories. Fandry, for example, is about the caste system’s vice grip upon this country. It is absolutely imperative that our children don’t make the same mistakes that we did, after all.

Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based freelance writer

Published on November 13, 2020

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