“We’re kids, not monsters,” Carmen Cortez declares in Robert Rodriguez’s family friendly epic Spy Kids 2. But crazy scientist Dr Romero just doesn’t get it: “What’s the difference?” he replies.
Children’s movies aren’t supposed to be worth watching. There’s “something for the parents”, critics will often reassure audiences looking to drag their offspring to the pictures, presumably dreading the brain-numbing adventure awash with primary colours that awaits them. So when eminent directors drift into ‘Universal’ territory, apprehension is understandable. How does their work hold up when directed towards young minds? Surely, the assumption goes, the power of their work must be diminished by the need to simplify and soften.
King of Profanity Martin Scorsese went family friendly in 2011 with Hugo. He spoke at the time of his desire to make a film that his daughter could watch. “I have to thank my wife Helen,” he explained at the Golden Globes, “because we have a 12-year-old daughter Francesca, [and] she said to me, ‘Why don’t you make a film our daughter can see for once?’ So we did!”
Hugo is a love letter to George Méliès and his silent film contemporaries. Orphaned film lover, Hugo, works in secret to repair his father’s last project – a clockwork automaton. When it turns out to be Méliès’ lost project, Hugo finds himself setting off on a cinematic adventure, finding friends and family along the way. The film is Scorsese’s own personal declaration of his love of film and film history but by framing it around the character of Hugo and his heartfelt appreciation of Méliès, there’s little risk of pretension.
From its beginnings, cinema was meant as a spectacle and Hugo’s brilliance is that it not only shows this without preaching, but it also recognises the baggage that each of us bring along to the cinema, hoping to find catharsis. Hugo may want to fix the automaton, but truly he wants to reconnect with his dead father and find a family. Scorsese delivers even when the violence and obscenity of his previous work is gone by treating the human story at the heart of Hugo with sincerity and respect.
Much like Hugo, Alfonso Cuarón’s incredible 1995 film A Little Princess manages to hold the heaviest of themes in its child-size palm: loss, abandonment, family and imagination are all up for discussion in this adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic book. Though Pixar has long been dismantling any idea we might have that children’s films should shy away from the sad and the painful, it is a point worth repeating: however much we wish to shield children from sadness and pain, very rarely is a childhood untouched by both. The beauty of A Little Princess is the willingness of Cuarón to show poor Sara Crewe at her very lowest, the Cinderella to Miss Minchin’s wicked stepmother.
Cuarón’s visual style is hard to define but easy to recognise; he favours long takes, dedicating time to the classic poetic imagery that he and long-time collaborator cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki have become known for. This delicately considered style is perfectly employed in A Little Princess, allowing Cuarón the freedom to work on a level with a child’s limitless imagination. An exquisite scene sees Sara emerge from her dark, attic bedroom into the light of her balcony as she dances in the snow. The solitude, desperation and hope that threads throughout his work from Children of Men to Gravity to even Prisoner of Azkaban is present in A Little Princess and in this one simple moment of joy, the best of Cuarón’s ability to examine humanity is captured. That it is meant for a child audience in no way lessens its impact.
For all the po-faced pontificating about the importance of dealing with the tough stuff, comedy deserves a mention too. Famous for his black comedy and multiple collaborations with gore-loving Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez managed to create a successful noughties children’s franchise with Spy Kids. In classic Bugsy Malone/Little Rascals style, the power is handed back to the kids: “Never send a grown-up to do a kid’s job” the wise-cracking Carmen says in the first movie. As with Scorsese, Rodriguez was motivated by his own children to make movies that they could watch. The Sin City director proved that he could let loose and have fun: most importantly, Spy Kids gave him a chance to simply play. It borrows from a range of genres – most obviously spy movies, but also noir, mystery and sci-fi, allowing Rodriguez to indulge his inner film fan without taking himself too seriously.
While Cuarón and Scorsese both gave the same weight and depth to these stories as they have done with their more mature work, it is no less important that by delving into children’s cinema, Rodriguez was able to show the exact opposite: that he was able to lighten up. For each director, a sense of play was evident, whether that be playing away from their usual genre, or simply playing with the imaginative approaches they could take. The incredible storytelling sequences in A Little Princess truly capture the transportive way a story used to once affect us, before our brains were battered by taxes, washing up and the daily commute.
What’s more, from Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, to Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to even Mike Newell’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, there is clearly no need for the stylistic elements that define each director to be compromised simply because they’re aiming at children. Besides – ultimately, the most important element of a film is always its story and what it means to the audience. While the practical details of a story may need simplifying, what has been shown by Cuarón and Scorsese – and will be shown time and time again – is that children’s movies never need the themes and emotions at the core of the tale being told to be simplified. And sometimes, it is this that gives a film ‘supposedly made for children’ its most powerful moments.