In our Roundtable this week, we look at some of our favorite fantasy films made for children. What were your favorites when you were young? Which ones still hold up to rewatching as an adult?
M. Enois Duarte
I was at the perfect age demographic for Wolfgang Petersen’s ‘The NeverEnding Story‘. It worked on me so well that, to this day, I revisit the movie with an incredible nostalgia that too easily forgives the mawkish corniness and queasy dialogue. In the late 1970s and into the early ’80s, these children’s fantasy productions were hugely popular, and I loved watching them. Something about Petersen’s film stood out, primarily how crazily imaginative it is and how batshit bonkers the special effects are. I was also a heavy reader at that age, so the plot about the power of imagination and the joy of reading was surely another reason for my love of ‘The NeverEnding Story’.
When I was a kid, we had a copy of ‘Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory‘ on VHS. The origins of that tape are unknown to me; it was likely taped off of TV, but it was without commercials. I thought it was fantastic and marvelous. That wonderful world of the chocolate factory and the self-destructive nature of those rotten seeds always appealed to me. Gene Wilder’s performance as Wonka never falters, and the tempo of the contest and the factory is happily brisk. The songs are excellent as well, with the sole exception of the treacly, fast-forward-worthy “Cheer up, Charlie.” I think I purchased a DVD copy around the same time as the release of the unwanted remake fail-boat produced by Tim Burton and Johnny Depp.
Nowadays, I can enjoy ‘Willy Wonka’ with my wife and son on Blu-ray and even streaming. I’m thinking once a year should be good, or at least until he gets old enough to have some kind of vote.
My pick is a bit unusual given that, while the movie was around when I was young, I never saw it until I had kids of my own. Considering how much my family loved ‘Hook’ and anything with Robin Williams, I’m surprised that we never got around to seeing the original ‘Jumanji‘. My wife watched it with my oldest daughters five or six years ago and they immediately took to it, so I, naturally, followed. Aside from some CGI that probably looked amazing in its time but has since aged poorly, I couldn’t find a bad aspect to it. For a simple kids’ movie, it establishes an original fantasy concept and builds a perfectly contained story that’s fun, exciting and surprisingly heartfelt and sweet. What more can you ask for from a kids’ movie? The fact that its recent sequel was able to follow suit is a miracle in itself.
Adam Tyner (DVDTalk)
It took me a long while to circle back to ‘Labyrinth‘, I have to admit. That I found Jim Henson’s 1986 musical/fantasy borderline-unwatchable for ages has nothing to do with the film itself. My younger sister watched it literally every single day for a year or two straight, and by the time that oversaturation finally wore off, I was a full-grown adult. Despite the fact that I’m pushing 40, the magic of ‘Labyrinth’ entrances me as much now as it did my sister all those decades ago.
I can’t help but be enthralled by ‘Labyrinth’, and it’s such an experience that a quick recap in a Roundtable like this really can’t do it justice. It’s a waking dream of a fairy tale, bursting at the seams with the sort of boundless talent and imagination that only Henson and his crew could hope to deliver. It strikes a perfect balance between the whimsical and the dark. David Bowie and Jennifer Connelly are, as ever, wonderful. Its visual wizardry – largely achieved in-camera – continues to astonish, and musical numbers like “Magic Dance” ensure that the film is as much a treat for the ears as it is for the eyes. I also can’t shake the feeling that ‘Labyrinth’ is more respectful of its audience’s intelligence than many kids’ movies are these days. It’s a timeless marvel that I relish introducing to friends and family whenever the opportunity presents itself.
How can we discuss children’s fantasy movies without mentioning the granddaddy of them all, ‘The Wizard of Oz‘? Truth be told, the movie never really connected with me as a child (too much singing, which wasn’t my bag). However, as an adult, I can appreciate the film’s artistry and ambition. The power that it has held over pop culture for eight decades and generations of movie watchers is also impossible to ignore.
I originally conceived this topic to focus on live-action movies rather than animation, but I won’t be a stickler for that. Feel free to give your picks for either type of movie in the Comments below.
I always liked Zathura. And Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker was really entertaining as well.
The Dark Crystal and Clash of the Titans, although Clash may not qualify as a kid’s fantasy, I watched it a hell of a lot as a kid.
While not as good as the Wilder version, I quite like Tim Burton’s adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It’s far from perfect, but fits the dark tone of the book much more closely. The big fail in that movie for me was the boat ride. The playful nature of the original slowly turning manic and dark is amazing. Depp and Burton just missed on that scene. Otherwise count me in as a fan. Both movies deserve a regular rewatch for me.
I’m with the suggestion of “Clash Of The Titans”. Early teens are kids too, right? I watched that movie and and over and over as a kid and still love it.
I always enjoyed Return to Oz more than the original. Fairuza Balk was a far better Dorothy than Judy Garland. Balk was an actual kid and she didn’t cry all the time. She was smart and brave and didn’t need a dog to hide behind.
All the staff picks are good movies, and hold up today, even the bizarre Labyrinth.
Since animated movies are on the table, I’m throwing in Flight of Dragons.
‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit?’ isn’t pure fantasy in the sense of wizards and magic, but it does create a fantasy world in which cartoons are real and many work as actors for a human-run studio system. This movie really captured my imagination by mixing fun original characters with established Disney and Looney Tunes characters in cameos.
I think it holds up in that it is still a great movie, but I don’t really know if young people today would connect with it. A lot of what it’s referencing is maybe not so well-known anymore. Are kids today familiar with the Looney Tunes characters? Also, the whole thing is done as a film noir detective joint, a genre that is probably less revisited than westerns these days.
‘The Goonies’ and ‘The Land Before Time’ for me. I watched them religiously on Betamax (yes) at least once a month.
And keep Dragonheart in your rotation. Don’t bend to Josh’s will.
For me my go toos were The Secret of NIHM and The Dark Crystal. I adore them to this day.
I’ll also throw in the ‘Muppet Christmas Carol’, an excellent retelling of Charles Dickens’s often-told tale. Michael Caine’s committed performance carries it well. He doesn’t use that he’s acting opposite felt frog and pig puppets as an excuse to phone it in. He’s great as Scrooge. The various Muppets are all well cast in their roles and the songs are quite good.
Live action: Tron.
Animated: Rock & Rule, a crazy Canadian psychedelic futuristic musical fantasy with singing from Debby Harry, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed and Robin Zander. From the studio that brought you Boba Fett’s first appearance in the Star Wars Holiday Special and that other classic, A Cosmic Christmas.
I’m surprised no one mentioned Willow. That film is definitely underrated IMO. I enjoyed it as a child and also later as an adult.