Christmas is a time for nostalgia, a time where even the most hardened cynics among us might reflect on our Christmases past with a certain warmth. And there’s no better way to set aside the slings and arrows of daily life than by shutting the curtains and snuggling up to watch a film.
This is not simply escapism or occupying the kids while the presents are wrapped. You shouldn’t need an excuse to encourage children to watch films but, in the spirit of the season, I offer you 12.
Those of us of a certain age will remember the delights of settling down to watch the afternoon Christmas film. We all watched Dorothy in her red shoes vanquish the wicked witch of the west and uncover the humbug Oz. We have all been invited to sing along to The Sound of Music or been delighted by The Snowman. These shared experiences act as a social glue—we may not all feel the same about each film, but we share a common experience of their place in our seasonal celebrations.
As a child my grandma used to tell me stories based on Hollywood melodramas as if they were fairy stories. This was my induction into the black and white world of the “weepy.” Soon I was an avid watcher of Bette Davies, Olivia de Havilland and Vivian Leigh films. Watching the films of our parents and grandparents connects us to their experiences and to their life histories. In doing so, children’s experiences of narrative are extended.
If we only ever watch films of the same genre we may end up in a cultural cul de sac. Watching unfamiliar films helps children to see what is distinct about the films they usually choose and importantly that there’s a world out there for them to discover. Hollywood musicals such as White Christmas or Westerns such as High Noon might take them out of their cultural comfort zones.
Children who watch lots of films are not goggle eyed, just as children who read books are not risking their sight. My own research suggests that when children have watched many diverse films they start to see the underlying film language or grammar and this helps them to develop their understanding of narrative more widely. If we said our children spent all day reading books no one would bat an eye.
Nostalgia needn’t have an exclusive hold over Christmas. In the films of Tim Burton such as A Nightmare Before Christmas, children can encounter a visceral, visual feast. Adaptations of Neil Gaiman’s Stardust and Mirrormask also challenge ideas about just how scary children’s stories can be, while Terry Gilliam’s Baron Munchhausen is full of grotesque, playful and Pythonesque quirks which offer children a break from the generic conventions of the Disney fairy tales.
As a child in the 1980s it was regularly possible to watch black and white films, musicals and even the odd short film just by turning on Channel 4 and BBC2 at the right times. This is trickier now, which is why film festivals are so important for promoting international films. At this year’s Leeds Young Film Festival, the film We Are The Best was screened. A truly joyous and uniquely Swedish film, this is the hilarious story of a teenage 1980s girl punk band.
Film festival websites are a great source of new ideas for films for children. Japanese Studio Ghibli films such as The Cat Returns, Arietty and My Neighbour Totoro offer children a distinct visual style, humor and narrative—and are great stocking fillers.
The Victorian era was a rich time for children’s literature. Now, the many adaptations of the work of Dickens make great festive treats, especially when combined with Jim Henson’s muppets. There are some other very powerful adaptations of children’s classics which deserve a particular mention. In Agnieszka Holland’s adaptation of The Secret Garden we see new life breathed into Mary Lennox, a character sidelined by previous screen versions. Similarly, Five Children and It, E Nesbit’s classic tale exploring the second war and loss in the midst of magic and myth is brought to life by Eddie Izzard’s sand fairy.
Film often physically presents the viewpoint of particular characters, asking the audience to imagine how it feels to see the world differently. ET explores the world from a child’s height as ET and Elliott see it, inviting us to laugh and weep with them. In the wealth of films about childhood from around the world, children can experience the world through the eyes of other children. Lad: A Yorkshire Story, which won the audience and jury prize at the Leeds festival, is that all too rare a thing—a British film for children.
Being able to put doubts and disbelief to one side and imagine the unknown or unlikely is a skill some find harder than others. The late Anna Craft described this crucial aspect of creativity as “possibility thinking.” Films, especially those created for children, complete with wizards, talking animals and magic portals to other lands may be fantasy but they helps us make the imaginative leaps that might just help us change the world. FairyTale: A True Story delightfully examines this dilemma.
Boredom is under-rated. Boredom is a precursor to creativity and induces resourcefulness. Being bored helps us focus on alternatives. So if your children find your film suggestion boring, it might be time to put digital technology to good use and help your child make their own film. See learnaboutfilm.com to help get you started. This is, after all, how Nick Park started on his journey to creating Wallace and Gromit and other Aardman classics, now staples of the British Christmas diet.
I once overheard a passenger on the train I was travelling to work in say “it’s not Christmas without the Die Hard films.” Much as I personally find this surprising, strong action and emotional impact are still key ingredients for the festive season. Perhaps this is the time to introduce older children to films such as Zulu or The Great Escape, which provide these qualities in a very different way. For older children films such as Tsotsi and Rabbit Proof Fence explore the extreme circumstances children are so often exposed to. We should not be afraid to let our children encounter sorrow on film—they need to see their own lives represented on the screen and to know that, yes, sometimes bad things happen.
The sheer joy of a funny film—what better gift is there at Christmas? The antics of Laurel and Hardy, Monsieur Hulot, Chaplain or the Marx brothers feature the sort of physical humor which is almost universally funny. But we have our own proud tradition of comedy in Britain, no better represented than by the Ealing Comedies. Kind Hearts and Coronets and The Ladykillers are great favorites in our house, but for me Hue and Cry uniquely combines the Ealing humor with a story in which the children are at the heart of the narrative—solving crimes and putting adults in their place.
And if the adults are behaving badly over the Christmas period, children, make them sit and watch Pollyanna or Scrooge while you treat yourself to Son of Rambow, The Girl with Brains in her Feet or, a personal favorite, Into the West.