Adventures in mini moviegoing

Films made for children are too often the poor, neglected orphans in critical discussions of cinema, treated as an inevitably candy-coloured, emotionally simplified toy version of the real thing. But the best filmmakers know that children are quick-witted, dark and complicated creatures – and they make movies to match.

8 April 2024

By Isabel Stevens

Robot Dreams (2023)
Sight and Sound

The films we watch as children cast their spell on us and watching them as adults, exiled from our childhoods, gives us a brief interlude back there.

To adapt the author Katherine Rundell, on the joys of children’s books, “You are given space to… [watch] again as a child: to find your way back, back to the time when new discoveries came daily and when the world was colossal, before your imagination was trimmed and neatened, as if it were an optional extra.” 

But where are children’s films in critical conversations about cinema? There is much discussion of childishness – popular cinema is often described as ‘infantilised’ – but how often do we consider what children want and need from films, and what they are watching and where (outside the usual narrow, artificial controversies about the dangers film poses to their innocent minds)? How are their critical faculties and understanding of cinema being nurtured, or not…? Are we perhaps, rather like the father in My Neighbour Totoro (1988): conscious that the soot sprites exist but too busy and distracted to delve into that fantasy world? Do we underestimate the intricate craft that goes into making a film that is both simple and sophisticated? 

Films for children of primary and pre-school age are rarely accorded the same degree of critical inspection or esteem as ‘our’ films, except sometimes when they are the handiwork of a lone auteur such as Miyazaki. How visible are good, adventurous children’s films? Where are the prizes for them? At last year’s Bafta ceremony Guillermo del Toro complained about the existence of a separate category for animation, saying “[It] is not a genre for kids.” I don’t think making films for kids is a lesser art (and I don’t believe del Toro, maker of the 2022 Pinocchio, really thinks so either). But since children’s films never come into contention for the big awards, maybe they deserve a category of their own? For don’t children deserve as rich and rewarding a cinema as adults? 

In 1977, Wolf Donner, director of the Berlinale, was asked by a group of young reporters from a children’s radio station why they couldn’t attend the festival, which was restricted to those aged 18 and over. He didn’t have an answer. The following year, the Berlinale included the programme ‘Cinema for People Six and up’ which drew an audience of over 12,000. But 45 years later, Berlin remains the only A-list festival to have a children’s strand: Generation has two competition programmes spanning different age ranges, it has its own prizes and is presided over by its own juries consisting of children of the relevant ages. Some festivals – including London – have family strands; but for the most part, adventurous children’s films exist in their own underworld, in children’s film festivals, of which there are many around the world, if you are willing to go down the rabbit hole to find them. 

Satyajit Ray was, as well as one of the great masters of cinema for grown-ups, the author of children’s cinema classics such as the 1969 fantasy musical Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (with its surreal six-minute ghost dance sequence), as well as 21 novels and numerous short stories aimed at children. Speaking to Filmfare magazine in 1980, he lamented the paucity of children’s films: “The trouble is that here children are so deprived that whatever you give them they’ll start by accepting it. It may be once in three years you have a children’s film. They’ll come out happy because something has been made for them.” He wished for a future where children had more choice and could become more discerning audience members: “If they were given twenty films to choose from, then the question of quality would become important. They would start comparing, reject a few, accept others. That situation has not come and is not likely to come as far as I can see.” 

ParaNorman (2012)

What would Ray make of the choice of films available to today’s children? Up to a point, his dream has been realised. Over the last 40 years we have witnessed what has been in many ways a golden age of cinema made for children which has also charmed adults: Studio Ghibli emerged in the 80s, Aardman and Pixar in the 90s, Cartoon Saloon and Laika in the 2000s, and notable directors have made forays into cinema’s Neverland: Wes Anderson with Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) and Isle of Dogs (2018), Spike Jonze with Where the Wild Things Are (2009), Martin Scorsese with Hugo (2011), David Lowery with Pete’s Dragon (2016) – not to mention Céline Sciamma’s screenplay for My Life as a Courgette (2016). Children’s films have struck a nerve in wider cultural conversations, most notably the two Paddington films (2014 and 2017), which confronted issues around immigration and Brexit; more recently, the animations Turning Red (2022) – in which a giant red panda becomes a metaphor for menstruation – and Nimona (2023), an epic science fiction fantasy with LGBTQ+ undercurrents, are proof that Western kids’ films have started to diversify. 

These films are for the most part readily available online within a few clicks, but if Ray went to a cinema today, what would he see? A lot of high-speed syrupy slush, but very few independent or daring children’s films made with the impulse Ray cherished: “to instil a sense of good taste”.

Love, dogs and robots

In this sorry landscape, Pablo Berger’s Robot Dreams is an outlier. An adaptation of American illustrator Sara Varon’s 2007 graphic novel about a dog who builds himself a robot friend, the film was released in cinemas in March. In a fractured theatrical landscape where films are designed and marketed to different groups, Robot Dreams is, in Berger’s words, “a film for everyone… Of all my films, this is the most open. I’m very happy that in the cinema, you have people from different backgrounds and ages, sharing the same experience”. 

The Spanish director bought Varon’s slender novel for his daughter before she could read. A decade ago, after finishing work on Blancanieves (2012), his silent, monochrome reimagining of Snow White in 1920s bullfighting Spain, he plucked it randomly from his bookshelf and was ­surprised by the grip its 82 pages still had on him. 

The “melancholy comedy” that Berger crafts from Varon’s pictures, keeping her hand-drawn 2D style, is a perfect example of a film that is both simple and highly sophisticated. The film sticks to the book’s straightforward, dialogue-free story about the dog and the robot’s mutual joy in their new-found friendship, and subsequent sorrow at their accidental parting, but it adds deeper stabs of loneliness and despair. These are balanced by a delight in the capacity of music and dance to forge bonds, and the creation of a wondrous comic backdrop for this emotional epic that is both real and unreal – a grungy 1980s Manhattan, a fantasia filled with different animal citizens. “The audience can project themselves,” Berger says. “They don’t really see the animals. It’s like a fable.” Introducing the film to an audience of children, Berger asked them what their favourite animals were: his saga contains so many different species – including a drum-playing octopus – that he felt able to promise that, whatever they said, they would see up on screen. 

Berger didn’t intend the film for children (“I am selfish… I made it for myself and also for an imaginary cinema”), but he talks about its conception in the universal language of make-believe: “I’m an old-school director; for me, the script is the treasure map.” He likes the idea of parents or guardians bringing youngsters to it: “Parents who have suffered so much watching films that the kids have pushed them towards because they’ve seen commercials. And it’s not the kids’ fault that they see commercials everywhere. The fast-food chains are promoting them. Robot Dreams could be one of those rare times that the parent chooses the film and says, ‘Maybe you haven’t seen the commercial. There’s no toys of [the characters]’… and afterwards it could spark a conversation between the parent and the child about relationships, about loss and overcoming loss…”

The Breadwinner (2017)

Although Robot Dreams is suitable for any child who can sit through its 102 minutes, it’s also demanding of its audience, little or large. It doesn’t hurtle along, like so many children’s films: “Very few animation films deal with emotion. Most are comedies or action… with more fireworks and roller-coaster rides than storytelling. Drama needs a little more time. That’s why Miyazaki’s films are longer.” The sense of abandonment and cruelty in the film is acute, particularly when the forlorn, rusting robot endures a winter alone on a fenced-off beach, his parts gradually harvested by passers-by. “We are treating children with respect. We are ­treating them like adults. We know that they can relate to the characters and understand the story.”

The film offers plenty for adults to reflect on too: romantic disappointment looms large in films and our inner emotional lives but for Berger, “We talk less about the break-ups between friends or best friends and the mourning of friends.” And yet, that is a universal emotional experience, from childhood onwards. What adults bring to the film are more of their own memories of faded relationships and Berger seems to deliberately draw on those, notably with his recurring use of Earth Wind and Fire’s toe-tapping direct address to our hippocampus: “Do you remember / The twenty-first night of September?” – the song tinged with sadness when rendered by the robot’s metallic whistle. Perhaps, too, adults will bring an awareness of the situation in 1980s New York, of the relationships decimated by the Aids crisis. What appears a very simple story is actually emotionally and intellectually complex. 

And at times eccentric. In one dazzling sequence, the snowy, beach-ridden robot dreams and climbs out of the film’s frame, like Buster Keaton in Sherlock Jr. (1924), but is stopped short at the screen’s edge; so he flips the action 180 degrees to reveal a radiant yellow brick road wonderland, into which he vaults. Here, a chorus field of giant daisies tap dances in geometric formation, as if growing in a Busby Berkeley musical. Following the rainbow, the robot comes to the dog’s home – but when he presses the doorbell, the façade collapses on him like the house in Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) and our hero is back on the snowy beach. “This scene starts and ends with a homage to Buster Keaton,” Berger says. “The film is always looking to silent cinema… the one that has probably most influenced it in terms of tone is Chaplin’s City Lights [1931].” Berger reconnects the cinephile with their inner child – “in this scene they can really grab a lot of Easter eggs” – and in doing so rekindles a sense of awe at cinema’s magic powers, while reminding us that any great children’s film stretches its audience’s imagination. 

Robot Dreams raises the question: do we underestimate what children can handle? The children’s author and illustrator Tomi Ungerer, who died in 2019, believed so: “I think children are thrilled with fear, and they have to be taught how to get over it.” Cartoon Saloon director Nora Twomey, who worked on a 2012 adaptation of Ungerer’s Moon Man, concurs: “That whole idea of, not really conquering, but growing bigger than your fear is something that I’m really interested in, and giving children the tools to learn how to deal with things. If you try to wrap children in cotton wool, you’re not doing them any service.” When making films, Twomey says, she always tries to hold on to the child within herself and memories of running down the stairs of her childhood home, convinced monsters were running after her. 

And so there is no small amount of peril in her films. In My Father’s Dragon (2022), a fantasy buddy movie where one half of the friendship happens to be a dragon, the financial situation that faces nine-year-old Elmer and his mother is scary. Even more terrifying are the threats facing 11-year-old Parvana and her family in The Breadwinner, Twomey’s 2017 adaptation of Deborah Ellis’s novel set in modern Afghanistan: while Parvana escapes through cut-out animation into Afghan folklore, the cartoon’s depiction of the brutality of the Taliban regime and its treatment of women and young girls is unflinching. 

Halfway through production of The Breadwinner, the studio had a test screening to make sure audiences aged eight and up could handle it, inviting children, parents and teachers. “I stood in the lobby afterwards to just try and get a sense of how people were feeling coming out. And the young people just bounded out, chatting to each other, talking about different characters… It didn’t seem to deeply affect them. But the parents and the teachers were red-eyed, and a lot of them came up and said that we wanted to be careful what the age group was. What upset them most was thinking about how a young person who was the age of Parvana, the central character, would react to it.”

Chicken for Linda (2023)

When the film received a 12A certificate Twomey argued for a broader PG classification: “I felt that children younger than that are able to decide for themselves. Since then, though, I’ve looked at it and said, ‘OK, it is a signal to parents and children as to what they can expect.’ It’s been interesting hearing how children and parents have made those decisions for themselves.

“I’m not personally interested in telling stories where somebody has got superpowers or has something more than any of the rest of us have,” she continues. “I love films that show the vulnerability of life because I think there’s greater strength and greater bravery needed when you don’t have superpowers. You have to face things that might be much, much bigger than you. In my own lifetime I’ve had to have really difficult conversations with young children about the fact that at one point I was going to lose my hair and my eyebrows and how we were going to deal with that as a family and what I could hang on to, what they could hang on to, what promises I could make, what promises I couldn’t make.” 

Another filmmaker well versed in fear, and trusting of children’s ability to digest it, is Chris Butler of Laika studios, the stop-motion expressionists behind films such as Coraline (2009) and ParaNorman (2012) – he directed the latter, and describes it delightfully as “a gateway horror movie”. Norman sees and talks to dead people and this ‘weirdness’ makes him an outcast in his town. For Butler, it’s about maintaining a balance – “whenever you have something that is very intense, being sure to burst the bubble by having a moment of levity or comedy. I have a love of horror movies: if I was making a horror movie for adults, I wouldn’t worry about constantly giving them an out.” 

He considers most children’s movie-making in the streaming, multi-screen era too anodyne: “I don’t like the idea of animated movies as a babysitting device. I hate it. I understand why it’s necessary but I hate the idea of making something that is so safe, so put through a filter, that you can just plunk a child down in front of it and they’re fine for an hour and a half. I want to make something that challenges a child to think. If I go back to my childhood, the books, the TV shows and certainly the movies that I liked most were the ones that pushed me a bit.

“I’m all for complexity in kids’ movies today, I do think sometimes we get a little bit too caught up about explaining why a bad guy is bad, or, ‘Maybe they’re not so bad after all.’ And I’ve even done that myself in ParaNorman. I do think there’s a danger there that you start to even everything out. If you go back to traditional folk and fairy­tales, and their purpose in the socialisation of children, part of it was to present something that was frightening. Sometimes we move away from that in order to make things safer. I don’t want to get into didactic filmmaking, but I do think part of a kids’ movie is imparting some kind of emotional truth which is a lesson. It needn’t be as on the nose as a moral, but it should make a child think about who they are and what they’re doing.” 

Butler welcomes the way that streaming has ushered in more inclusivity and diversity but worries about the industry’s reluctance to make kids’ movies that break the mould: “I’m starting to notice that everything feels the same, everything is following that same structure. There’s numerous reasons, but a big one is that it’s parents who choose, particularly with films at the cinema”. Of concern, too, is that streaming has changed the way movies are conceived – it’s all about grabbing and maintaining attention. He remains hopeful, though: “When I got into the industry, there was nothing. I was working on straight-to-video Disney sequels. If you were looking for quality, complex, sophisticated animated movies for kids, they were few and far between. And now, in the past 10 years, there’s thousands of them. In fact, the challenge is probably more to get people to know that they exist, rather than to get them made.”

The treasure seekers

Raising the profile of independent and adventurous children’s films – not just animated ones – is the onerous and little-heralded work of family film programmers. Mike Tait has spent the last 12 years at Discovery Film Festival in Dundee showing fiction and documentary films from around world that don’t have UK distribution – “Not the ones you’ll see advertised on the side of a bus”– alongside programmes of short films for preschool kids (with related craft activities) and relaxed screenings; recently, they have introduced a ‘pay what you can’ model to encourage parents to take a punt on the unknown. Foreign-language films, in particular, present a challenge: convincing parents that kids are capable of ‘different ways of watching’ when dubbed versions either aren’t available or aren’t desirable, because of the way they drain away cultural specificity (Tait: “Hey, there’s people your age in this other part of the world… with American accents”). He always introduces a film by reassuring audiences, “It doesn’t matter if you don’t catch everything, you’ll get the idea. Because cinema is a visual medium!” Appreciating that subtitles are a barrier to many, not just non-readers, Discovery has on occasion employed live readers, but that costs: the readers have to watch the film to get an idea of how it works and then read subtitles aloud for every showing – you get some idea why children’s films that aren’t in English find it so hard to get a footing in UK cinemas.

Kensuke’s Kingdom (2023)

There are though so many excellent unsung films out there: from last year’s Discovery programme Tait picks out two Norwegian gems: Titina, about an Italian dog who accompanied Roald Amundsen’s 1926 flight over the North Pole, the animation interlaced with archive footage; and Dancing Queen, a live-action film tackling issues such as death and body image, which Tait describes as “Rocky set in a middle school in Norway, but about dancing not boxing”. 

Death haunts another of the best films I’ve watched this year, one that is currently on the kids’ film festival circuit: Chicken for Linda!, a Franco-Italian animation directed by Chiara Malta and Sébastien Laudenbach. If it was live-action, you might call it neorealist: it tells the story of a single mother determined to make up for treating her daughter Linda badly by getting her the chicken she wants to eat, but being thwarted as the city shuts down for a 24-hour strike. The film is rooted in children’s psychology and delves into the mind of a bereaved child but is told in a delirious Fauvist style, broad, bright brushstrokes dancing before our eyes. “It all starts with an injustice,” the filmmakers told the website Zippy Frames, “because it is something that concerns children a lot, that they experience very regularly. We want to make a film very close to them, which is itself like a child. A turbulent, not well-behaved child, the most disruptive for a class, a group, a society, but also the most touching one.”

France and Scandinavia are where interesting children’s films are most reliably found but a new adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s novel Kensuke’s Kingdom, about a shipwrecked boy and his dog, shows that the UK can make them too. The timely ecological fable is an adventure yarn which doesn’t talk down to children as it dwells on topics such as humans’ impact on the world and even nuclear war.

The children’s cinema 

In 1958, Amos and Marcia Vogel’s New York-based Cinema 16, one of the most daring and influential of all film societies, mounted an experiment: The Children’s Cinema, “for youngsters four to eight”, introduced an alternative approach to children’s film programming. “Most of the stuff that was considered good children’s films we knocked out,” Vogel said in an interview years later. “We would take films that weren’t considered children’s films; we made them into children’s films.” Lotte Reiniger’s cut-out fable The Grasshopper and the Ant (1954) joined Buster Keaton’s aeronautical antics in The Balloonatic (1923) and Shirley Clarke’s study of children at play in In Paris Parks (1954). I learned of this through the New York alternative cinematheque Light Industry, which recently reassembled the eclectic line-up of shorts as a homage. Light Industry’s Thomas Beard summed up the experience: “It really affirmed for us what Amos and Marcia Vogel maintained with their own children’s programmes – that these little moviegoers have much more adventurous sensibilities than they’re often given credit for.” He adds: “They also really loved when we opened up our booth to show them how the 16mm projector works, which is of course a kind of fascinating alien technology to them.” 

The highest-profile programme carrying on the Vogels’ legacy is the Berlinale. The Generation competitions, head programmer Sebastian Markt tells me, aim “to broaden the idea of what cinema for young audiences can be. That often means we go beyond what would be considered family or children’s [films] as a genre.” Markt and the programmers will consider “any film that concerns the realities of children or young people”. He points to The Quiet Girl, Colm Bairéad’s 2022 adaptation of a Claire Keegan novella about a neglected nine-year old girl, which had its world premiere in the Generation strand for under-14s. “Often filmmakers are surprised being invited to this section, and that’s the most satisfying experience, to be able to accompany them through the festival and see how amazed they are by how a young audience engages with their films and sees things that they wouldn’t have expected them to see.” This year, Wang Xiaoshuai presented the second part of his ‘Homeland trilogy’, chronicling China’s recent history, which began with his epic melodrama So Long, My Son (2019). Above the Dust (Wo Tu) explores the country’s land reforms and rapid urbanisation from the perspective of a young boy in a village who doesn’t understand what’s going on. 

Whether it’s in films explicitly made for children or those that can be reappropriated for them, more than 60 years later the Vogels’ artistic statement for their programme sets out a simple but still relevant guiding principle for anyone wondering why a robust, daring and wild children’s cinema is worth fighting for: to offer a  view of the worlds of reality and fantasy,  as only cinema can reveal them.