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A-List: Live-Action Children’s Films

By Sean Collier

January 19, 2009

Julia Roberts looks...different.

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After watching Let the Right One In, the oddly beautiful Swedish film about a 12-year-old vampire, I got to thinking about how effective serious movies with child protagonists can be. It's very rare that a filmmaker has the courage to let children anchor a story, especially in America. Usually, a child star is paired with a grown-up veteran who can do most of the heavy lifting. But when the ultra-rare trifecta of the right director, the right script, and the right young performer comes together, the results are usually unique and engaging.

And, by and large, heartbreaking. Let the Right One In explores the beginnings of sexual curiosity via a doomed and violent friendship between 12-year-old Oskar and old-but-young-looking vampire Eli; it's moving and captivating, but bleak. I saw the film a week ago, and haven't been able to shake it. I think also of Twelve and Holding, which I recommended in my most recent A-List; that film puts its young cast through hell, trying to make kids deal with grown-up problems far too early.

Live-action children's movies, on the other hand, are often painfully saccharine. The usual crop of non-animated children's fare is formulaic and far too thrown together for adults to enjoy, to the dismay of parents everywhere. Somewhere along the way, animation became the only source for true "family" films, movies that could be enjoyed equally by all ages. High quality films for children that don't come from a computer are growing more and more rare.

Compiling a list of the best children's movies is, inevitably, going to have some personal choices on it. For many people, myself included, you discover films one at a time as a child, and want to watch nothing else; my earliest memory of having a favorite film was watching the 1960 Mary Martin version of Peter Pan quite literally every day between the ages of three and four. So, in compiling the list, I've tried to focus on the films I would gladly watch today, not those that captivated me the most as a child. Also, kids movies that are far more suited to adults – I'm thinking specifically of Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Pee Wee's Big Adventure, here – are out.




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With a reminder to parents that Netflix can provide many fine entertainment options, thus dispatching with any need to go see Hotel for Dogs, The A-List presents the best live action children's movies.

The Wizard of Oz

There really wasn't a way to not include The Wizard of Oz. Estimates on this kind of thing are rough, but due to the huge popularity of TV screenings of Victor Fleming's masterpiece, it's been credibly guessed that The Wizard of Oz is the most-seen film of all time. A full 70 years later, just about everything in the film is as effective as ever. Every child deserves to be introduced to Oz as early as possible, and there's plenty for adults to rediscover as well, particularly the still-impressive majesty of the Oz sets and the perfect vaudeville performances by Garland, Morgan, Bolger, Lahr and Haley. I'm not sure any movie has made more children fall in love with film than The Wizard of Oz.


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