A-List: Live-Action Children’s Films
By Sean Collier
January 19, 2009
The Swiss Family Robinson
To be honest, I can't separate what happened in The Swiss Family Robinson from my memories of wandering through the ridiculously awesome Robinson Tree House at Disney World. If I have kids, we're paying Disney whatever they want just so I can walk through that thing again. Anyway, the 1960 film, a loose adaptation of a 19th century German novel, is so imaginative as to remain engaging today, despite a somewhat rambling plot. Children will be hooked by the adventure and the exotic locales, while adults will be able to appreciate a true classic made with care and true artistry (sometimes rare in Disney's early live-action offerings.) Every kid's adventure movie aspires to the standard set here; very few hit it.
Alice in Wonderland (1985)
Lewis Carroll's work has inspired so many variations and interpretations, in every medium, that the story is almost a genre unto itself. (Among all of them, I'm partial to the Tom Waits album Alice, mostly about the life of Carroll but with bits of Wonderland thrown in; however, that is distinctly not a film, and thus not eligible for A-List inclusion.) This film, released in two parts as a TV special in December of 1985, was a dark, somewhat somber retelling of the story; I'd be hesitant to show it to children today, as I was personally haunted by a number of the sequences when I was young (somehow, the Jabberwocky shows up, and it's terrifying.) What makes the film especially worth tracking down, though, is the bizarre cast. Among others, Alice features Sammy Davis Jr., Red Buttons, Shelley Winters, Ringo Starr, Sid Caeser, Roddy MacDowall, Imogene Coca, Steve Allen, Ernest Borgnine, Merv Griffin...I'll stop there. Okay, one more: John Stamos.
A Muppet Christmas Carol
I had a tough time deciding which Henson effort to include: The Great Muppet Caper, The Muppet Movie, Christmas Carol, or Labyrinth. All are movies I'd watch right now, and all have their merits – great comedy, good music, David Bowie's crotch, whatever. If I had to pick the best film, though, I'd go with A Muppet Christmas Carol. It's hilarious, it's a solid musical with songs that'll stick in your head for a week, and it's an entirely respectable retelling of the story. Screw Ralphie – this is what should be playing for 24 hours on Christmas Day.
My favorite movie as a child, The Sandlot is, to me, the best kiddie sports film ever. Its heart is real, but it was ridiculous and funny enough to be irresistible, even to the tough kids. (Furthermore, it was vulgar enough to make kids think they were seeing something they weren't supposed to.) Much of its aesthetic and approach is borrowed from Stand By Me, but that's more homage than plagiarism. I have, very recently, blown off a full day because The Sandlot was on TV, and quotes from the film have so fully worked their way into my vocabulary that I sometimes forget I'm making a reference until someone calls me on it. I will always, always love The Sandlot.
If there's any children's story that's been adapted more than Alice in Wonderland, it's Peter Pan. Most every version of the classic story is pretty good; the aforementioned Mary Martin musical was certainly not the only telling of the story to captivate me as a child, and the 2003 version was a fine addition to the tale's history. Easily the best film adaptation, however, is Spielberg's 1991 effort. While the presentation and the film's title would have you believe that the villain is the focus, the true brilliance is the twist on the protagonist – how can you still tell the story of Peter Pan if Peter Pan has grown up? The performances are brilliant, the direction is perfect, and the story has never had so much depth. Peter Pan will be told forever, but never better.