Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Source Material

We first instituted Friday Night Movie Night in our home when Ian was deployed the second time.  I found it easier to keep the kids (and myself) distracted from his absence if we always had short term goals to look forward to.  Having Movie Night never be more than a week away helped more than you can imagine.

The challenge has always been finding movies for all of us to enjoy; nothing too scary or complicated for the youngest and nothing that will annoy or bore the adults to death.  So far we've done pretty well (and I will list suggestions for family movies at the end of this post if anyone's interested).

In the past year or so, we've decided to focus on what Ian and I term "Source Material."  Our kids are old enough that they've been exposed to a ton of media, and they constantly take in references to older movies and shows without realizing it.  We find ourselves regularly trying to explain certain jokes that go right over their heads during programs like Futurama, the Simpsons, and Phineas and Ferb.  (Thank goodness for YouTube.  I have paused episodes of Phineas and Ferb just to show the kids the opening themes to The Love Boat and Gilligan's Island--among other things--so they would appreciate the spoofs.)

But explaining things only goes so far.  Why not go right to the source and let them see for themselves?

For instance, we watched the original King Kong over Thanksgiving weekend.  Having just seen Jurassic Park a few weeks before, my kids spotted all kinds of visual references that were obviously lifted from the earlier film which made both of them more interesting simply because it's fun to be in the know.

The Three Stooges did not go over well, but seemed kind of necessary to my mind.  (References to the Stooges are EVERYWHERE.)  I didn't like the Stooges either when I was a kid because the fake violence was just too mean.  It's funnier to me now, but still not something I like.  My husband and brother laughed up a storm while my kids looked disturbed, but they at least had lots of light bulb moments such as, "So that's what Homer Simpson was doing" or "That's where that sound Zoidberg makes comes from."

This weekend we watched (over two nights) 2001: A Space Odyssey.  It holds up surprisingly well.  There are really no space movies or shows that don't owe something to 2001, so the references the kids were seeing just kept coming.  When the dramatic music Also Sprach Zarathustra opens the movie my kids laughed because they felt it gets overused in space shows, and we had to explain that this was where all the other shows got it from, that they wanted people to think of this specific movie.  The moment they were introduced to HAL they said, "Hey!  That's like the co-pilot in Wall-E!" and we said that was exactly what they were going for, and why every adult in the theater who had seen 2001 knew right then that the computer had gone bad.  The look of the model ships in Star Wars, the precursors to flat screens and tablets, whole parodies on the Simpsons.... They all go right back to that film.

The visual impact of 2001 is still stupendous, and my kids were deeply impressed that it was all done before CGI and thought the models looked more realistic.  The pacing is slow for kids, but we explained that some directors strive to produce art over entertainment, and once they accepted it in that light they settled in and enjoyed it just fine.  Although we did tell them not to ask us what's going on in the ending because it wins the prize for weird.  (Which is part of what makes it memorable.)  My kids all said they appreciated seeing it, but they did not want to see it again, and it did haunt them a bit when they were trying to fall asleep.  (I didn't really think of it as a scary movie, but I've also had more than 30 years to absorb it, and hearing HAL tell Dave he's not going to open the pod bay doors is different when you're expecting it.)

The other thing we've been watching a lot of, but not for Movie Night, is Star Trek reruns.  Star Trek is kind of my go-to comfort viewing and I've watched all the series at least once.  Aden recently became interested in it because she was hearing a lot of references on geeky websites she follows and wanted to know what the Borg were, etc.  We've jumped around in the various series a bit because I didn't want to blow my opportunity to convert one of my kids into a Trekkie by having her watch something too clunky or dopey and scare her off.  I showed her some of my favorite Next Generation episodes ("Darmok" and "Brothers" and "Q Who?" and both parts of "The Best of Both Worlds") and the pilot episode of Deep Space Nine.  When we started skipping around in the original series Aden discovered the origin of "Quatloos" (which makes the joke about the show "Bowling for Quatloos" on Futurama much funnier), among many, many other references that now make sense.

Here's something that really bothers me, though:  All 79 episodes of the original Star Trek have been given a digital facelift.  Part of what I wanted my kids to see when we watched those old programs was how special effects used to look.  I hadn't specifically noticed the changes until we watched "The Doomsday Machine."  That story is well-written enough to withstand the clunky effects which, frankly, highlight how effective all the other elements of the show can be.  But they "improved" the look of the planet-killing machine and made it boring.  I managed to find some still images online for Aden to see what it used to look like, and she agreed with me that the weird laser effects of the original were more interesting.

Once I realized the look of the show had been altered, I started to notice changes all over the place.  It's all been smoothed over and enhanced and cleaned up to appeal to modern audiences apparently.  But why?  Part of what I want to see when I look at something from the past is how they did things back then.  I don't think George Lucas should have gone back and "improved" the original Star Wars movies either.  I hate that I can't show those films to my kids the way I first saw them.  It's like taking pictures of my grandmother and photo-shopping them so her hairstyle is up to date and the backgrounds are more modern.  To what purpose?  I think once a piece of artistic expression is done it should be done.  It becomes part of a historical timeline.  If you want to spruce something up make something new. 

So our adventures in Source Material have been interesting.  I'm hoping at some point to get to Eward Scissorhands, The African Queen, and possibly Gone With the Wind (which they've seen the Carol Burnett parody of, so maybe that's enough).

In any case, if you are looking for movies to watch as a family, here are some of the things that worked for us:


These work well for all ages, with exaggerated behaviors that little kids can follow and stories and stunts clever enough to amuse adults.  My kids love Charlie Chaplain, Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton.  These movies also provide the opportunity to talk about life in America a century ago, and how technology has (or hasn't) changed story telling.  Among our favorites have been:

Modern Times

The Gold Rush

The General

Safety Last   (Years later my kids are still talking about "the movie with they guy hanging off the clock")


The fast talking often goes over some of the kids' heads, but there is enough silliness that it doesn't matter in the end.  Aden is old enough that she catches a lot of the jokes in The Marx Brothers now, but Mona and Quinn just hang in there for Harpo acting wacky or playing music.

A Night at the Opera

Duck Soup

Animal Crackers

Bringing Up Baby (I figured any movie with a jaguar in it would make the kids happy, and I just like watching Cary Grant.)

King Kong (Some weird sexist and racist stuff you have to explain along with this, but I was surprised how intense the stop animation dinosaur fight scene still is.)

80s (and early 90s) MOVIES

Better Off Dead (I love this movie.  I love that now my kids can quote "It has raisins in it" and "Two Dollars!")

Back to the Future trilogy (My kids loved all of these.  The only awkward things I had to explain were some of the more sexual scenes, and an unfortunate moment in the second movie when they use an African-American family as shorthand for the neighborhood going bad which I told the kids made me angry.)

War Games  (We watched this recently because Aden had questions about Russia and Ukraine and it got us talking about the cold war.  This movie holds up much better than I expected.)

Ferris Bueller's Day Off  (This had a lot more swearing in it than I remembered, but we're not too concerned about that in our house.  As long as my kids know what words not to repeat in front of unsuspecting people we don't censor much.  We had to preface this film by explaining to our kids that some people don't like going to school.  They were stunned by this idea, and for weeks afterward Mona kept asking me, "But if there aren't good schools why don't people fix them?"  Excellent question.  I just feel very lucky that my kids have a school they enjoy so much.  I also told my kids if they ever wanted to take a day off and do all those cool things in Chicago I would happily take them myself.  They all looked excited, and then said, "But can we do it on a day we don't have school?")

Jurassic Park  (A little scary, but my kids got through it.)

Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure  (Works surprisingly well as a kids' movie, including sort of a history lesson.  Some awkward sexual stuff here and there, and one obnoxious anti-gay slur that I paused the movie to condemn, but otherwise pretty tame.)

The Princess Bride

Ghostbusters (Again with the sexual stuff which is annoying, but overall not bad.)



We went on a real Miyazaki kick for a long time when Ian was deployed and we've seen most of them.  The only one that didn't work well when they were smaller (but that they love now) was Nausicaa.  The beautiful animation never gets old, and it's nice to see fantastic stories centered so often around female protagonists.  (I must mention, though, that there is more than one version of many of these films dubbed into English, and not only are the translations sometimes different but some of the music as well.  This matters to children who will watch things a million times and notice the differences if you switch.  My kids are still unhappy that the DVD I bought them of Kiki's Delivery Service is not the same as the version we originally rented from Netflix that they became attached to.)

Spirited Away (SO good.)

My Neighbor Totoro

Princess Mononoke (Hands down Aden's favorite)

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind

Porco Rosso

Castle in the Sky

Howl's Moving Castle (My favorite.  This one always sucks me in if the kids have it on.)

Ponyo (This movie makes less sense to me the more I see it, but still a good movie.)

Kiki's Delivery Service


Monsters Vs Aliens (Our first official Movie Night movie.)


The Cat Returns (Feels like a Miyazaki movie but was directed by someone else in the same studio.)

The Secret of Kells (Gorgeous and really interesting.)

The Iron Giant

Madagascar trilogy

Who Framed Roger Rabbit (My kids were impressed this was done before CGI.)

The Animaniacs (Those Marx brothers references come in handy here.)

Looney Tunes (Startling to see all the guns in those old cartoons when you don't see them much in kids' shows anymore.)

School House Rock (The one about counting in base 12 makes as little sense to me as it ever did, but No More Kings sometimes makes me tear up.)


Nobody really needs to be reminded that Pixar movies are awesome.  We have about everything except the Cars movies (which may be the only clunkers).  Up was a bit intense when we saw it in a theater, as was the third Toy Story movie and Brave, but all of them are okay now.  I never get tired of The Incredibles or Wall-E.  I am so pleased that such remarkable films are what my children will be able to identify as being the defining films for their generation growing up.  Lucky kids.


I have mixed feelings about the old Disney movies.  Snow White was too scary for my kids for a long time.  I was surprised at how much I approved of Cinderella when I watched it with them as an adult.  I have not suggested we see The Little Mermaid which I loathe (Really?  You're going to give up your VOICE for a man you don't even know?).  The racist parts of Peter Pan are disturbing to explain.  My kids love Dumbo, but the racist elements of that are confusing (because the crows are clearly stereotyped black characters, but they are also the cleverest and most compassionate characters in the film, so how do I explain that on some level it's wrong?)  Pete's Dragon had lots of things that were hard to explain, too.  Pretty much any movie made prior to the 90s involved drunks and drinking, which has confused the hell out of my kids and makes them nervous if grandma has a glass of wine with dinner when she visits.  Anyway, not particularly big Disney fans in this house (unless you want to include Pixar under that umbrella).  When it's good it's fine, but when it's bad it's painful, and I'm always left with a sense of manufactured nostalgia that touches anything Disney that makes me wary.  That said, the modern movies are on a good track.  We liked Tangled, and along with everyone else at this point we have seen Frozen eight million times.


My husband can't stand musicals.  I'm a fan of only a select few.  But there are some things you really should see as a child first, so whenever Ian is away on drill weekends I try to pick out a movie he wouldn't want to watch with us anyway.

The Wizard of Oz

Singin' in the Rain

The Sound of Music (Although when we first watched this I found myself having to explain both Nuns and Nazis, which was way more involved than a typical side discussion during a movie.)

Mary Poppins (Notable for being one of the few old movies with a story but no bad guy.)

The Muppet Movie (Either old or new!  We loved them both.  Hilarious the kinds of things they borrowed from the old movie to put into the new one that we wouldn't have noticed had we not watched them back to back.)

And maybe this is a good point to mention that my kids are happy to sit through an unusual amount of opera.  We have watched both The Enchanted Island and Satyagraha performances by the Metropolitan Opera for movie nights and the kids enjoyed them.  I'd like to take them to a performance of The Magic Flute if our local company ever does it again.  Anyway, I think a lot of parents would be surprised how many kids would be enthralled by opera given the opportunity to watch one.


We own a lot of kids' movies (both on DVD and video tape) that the kids watch but that don't make the cut for Movie Night.  We have a lot of Signing Time episodes and Pokemon and Hamtaro.  My kids would like me to mention in this list the video "Don't Eat the Pictures" which is an OLD Sesame Street tape with a story that takes place inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art (which was extra exciting to visit after seeing Bert and Ernie and Cookie Monster there).  They wanted one thing on our movie list that was too obscure for anyone to find, but if you do come across it, little kids will probably like it.

Anyway, the number of movies we own that are actually for me is very small.  Like, count on one hand small.  But of those movies there are two we've had repeat performances of for Movie Night:

Groundhog Day (Which has one of my favorite lessons of any movie, that striving to be our best selves while making the world better for others is its own reward.)

Big Fish  (Which I find both highly entertaining and ultimately moving.  I cry every time.  Aden cries every time but admits it's a good cry.)


My kids HATED the Red Balloon and may never forgive me for showing it to them.  I remember seeing it at our elementary school and thought they might find it interesting, but my kids are sensitive and they find bullying terribly upsetting.  They also become deeply attached to inanimate objects, so they did not do well with people harming the balloon.

Last time Ian was away we watched Grease.  I told the kids they would enjoy the music but little else.  They agreed the tunes were catchy, and as source material it's a good movie to see because it gets referenced a lot.  But the story is awful.  My kids couldn't figure out why we were following the stories of greasers who were just disrespectful bullies, and girls who were either mean or lost.  There was no one to respect but Sandy, and when she shows up at the end smoking and dressed all kind of slutty their jaws dropped and they all asked me why she would do that.  Why was it good for her to change in negative ways to be with a guy?  Well, it wasn't.  I told them the saddest part of that movie for me was Danny taking off the sweater he earned from running track once he realized he didn't have to try to be anything to earn Sandy since she was willing to come down to his unambitious level.  And the whole movie is about sex, which confused the kids and made them uncomfortable at times.  I had to explain what an abortion was in the middle of it because they asked.  Guh.  Catchy tunes, though!  (And I told Aden the next day when she had Summer Lovin' stuck in her head that they only way I knew to get it out was to replace it with the jingle to the local Menard's commercial.  She was impressed that that worked!)

The only Charlie Chaplain film I regretted showing for Movie Night was The Kid.  Again, bullies, people being mean for no reason, a mom separated from her child....  My kids don't do well with any of that stuff.  I made them stick it out for the happy ending, but they asked me several times during the movie if we could shut it off.

There's probably tons more I've forgotten, and a bunch of movies that didn't make enough of an impact to mention, but I know I love suggestions for things to show on Movie Night so I figured sharing our list might inspire others if there is something here they haven't tried.

What other Source Material would you include?  What are movies that work for the whole family in your home?


  1. Great list! I haven't seen dumbo since I was a dk and only remember it vaguely, but maybe explaining that the person who wrote the crows' dialogue probably had good intentions, but sometimes that's not enough. And/or that times change and what's acceptable now might not be okay in 50 years' time.

  2. p.s. I spotted my typo and I am capable of writing complete sentences, but couldn't go back and edit for some reason.

    1. Don't you hate spotting typos too late? Ugh.

      I try not to shy away from material that is good except for an occasional racist/sexist/etc. flaw and usually use those as teaching moments about how times have (or haven't) changed. But some things are harder to explain than others. Dumbo and Song of the South are complicated--embarrassing without anything blatantly bad to point to. I'm still puzzling it out. Dumbo is a well made movie, though. We watched it not long ago, and I was impressed all over again how well it's paced and animated, and oh my gosh when Dumbo's mom rocks her baby through the bars of the holding cell still cry.

  3. Don't even talk about Dumbo, I can't even hear about it without tearing up, same with Fox and the Hound.

    I think some good source material in no particular order, Gone With The Wind, Star Wars (original trilogy, forget the new stuff) Arsenic and Old Lace (might be a little disturbing once I think about it but I always thought the aunts were so funny) Swing Time, My Fair Lady, Gentleman Prefer Blondes ( I think Some Like It Hot is better but the cross dressing might be a complex side conversation) Gidget Goes Hawaiian.

    1. Oh, The Fox and the Hound. We like that one, too.

      I think we tried Arsenic and Old Lace once, but the kids were too young for it. I bet they would like it now if we can get them past, you know, the dead people. Actually, that reminds me. They really need to see Boris Karloff in something. Because the whole joke of Boris Karloff playing that part of the scary brother is lost if you haven't seen Frankenstein. (But Aden found the movie Airplane scary and we had to shut it off after ten minutes, so that may take time. We're never going to get to watch The Shining or 28 Days Later at this rate.)

    2. Yeah, that joke is hard to get without it's own source material :)

  4. No Star Wars? The weather gets a little too nice for movies, but thanks for the recommendations. ET went well with my kids and I! Even if I remember crying a little too much. I liked watching Airplane with my oldest (10) and Moonrise Kingdom.

    1. We will get to Star Wars! Ian watched the first one (Episode 4) with the kids once when I was gone and it didn't go over well with Quinn and Mona, but Aden wants to see more. I'm looking forward to watching all of that with them when they are ready

      E.T. we watched last summer and was interesting to see after so many years. My kids seemed to like it but have never asked to see it again. I wonder if they'd like Close Encounters?

  5. The Red Balloon...GAH!!!! I LOATHED it in elementary school. How COULD you?!?!?? :oP But, you did "Better Off Dead", so I suppose I can forgive you. ;o) Oh how I love that one in all it's weirdness.

    We've been working on source material here as well, but we're still in a tricky place with Bean only having just turned four and all.

    I think your list is nice and comprehensive and at the moment I can't think of anything to add to it.

    1. I should add, I meant that the other commenters added my thoughts to your list. Sorry to not be more accurate there.

    2. The hard part with 4-year-olds is they like reruns and prefer to see one thing over and over. Has she seen Gilligan's Island? Those were kind of fun for us to rewatch, and they feel repetitious even when you watch new ones.

      Your kids also might like Safety Last if you do a running commentary. On the rare occasions we get stuck watching commercials I tend to talk over them and point out silly things and my kids love that. They often request I "do the silly words." The dull or drawn out parts of a silent film I tend to treat the same way to keep the kids entertained. But in Safety Last it's remarkable once it gets rolling because Harol Lloyd did all his own stunts without a net. He really was hanging from that clock, and he scales buildings like a monkey. Makes an impression on a little kid even if they don't follow all of it.

      Yeah, The Red Balloon. I was distracted by it's Academy Award and good reviews. Oh well. If that's the worst thing I ever expose them to then I'm doing okay.

  6. Okay this is awesome and must have taken you forever to write. I'd add a few more kids movies...bedknobs and broomsticks, chitty chitty bang bang, and the original parent trap.

    Also I like all the indiana jones, original star wars, and gone with the wind.

  7. Oh and we have a rule in our house you can't watch the harry potter till you read the book, but I think those are great movies too

    1. The musicals I'll have to wait until Ian's out of town again, but those are good ones to keep in mind!

      We tried Indiana Jones in the fall when they had a showing in the park, but it was too intense for my kids and we had to leave very early into it. Maybe I can talk them into trying it again. (You know how some parents worry about their kids seeking out age inappropriate material to view when unsupervised? We're the opposite. I'm always trying to get them to watch something slightly more dangerous and my kids will have none of it. At the moment I feel like we will never get to Kill Bill or Evil Dead 2. I once sat through a 24 hour horror movie festival where they would deliver pizza to your seats in the theater, so where did these hyper-innocent-squeamish children come from? Weird.)

      I may pick up Gone with the Wind for Movie Night when my dad visits next month, because he might like explaining a bunch of it to the kids. (As long as I warn them in advance about the amputation scene they should be okay.)

      We are almost done reading the first Harry Potter book and the kids are really enjoying it. Looking forward to the second, although I warned them the stories get more intense the further into the series we go. I have an irritating predisposition to not liking movies based on books. I can do one or the other, so I haven't seen the Harry Potter movies. (I made the mistake of watching the first Hunger Games movie on Netflix not too long ago and I really regret it. I was just deeply annoyed the whole way through. I'm curious about how they changed the ending to Gone Girl in the movie version, but I liked that book and think I'm safer just avoiding the film when it comes out.)

  8. I never tire of Wallace and Gromit! I love Howl's Moving Castle also because the book by Diana Wynne Jones is so great. I tolerate 101 Dalmatians because the book by Dodie Smith is a delight.

    1. Oh, Wallace and Gromit! This post is kind of long but I actually dashed it off in one sitting and I knew I'd forget something good. We LOVE Wallace and Gromit. And Shaun the Sheep. (Rach--your 4-year-old would adore Shaun the Sheep if she hasn't seen any of those yet!)

      I didn't know there was a 101 Dalmatians book. We'll have to check that out when we're done with Harry Potter.

  9. Some of my favorites are ones I watched as a kid. Movies like 'How The West Was Won', 'Around The World in 80 Days', 'It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World', the Pink Panther series, 'Adventures of Robin Hood','Ben Hur', 'Spartacus', 'The Great Escape', and 'A Hard Days Night' are just a few.

    1. Ooh, those are good suggestions! It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World even has Buster Keaton (as an old man) in it if I remember right. The Great Escape would be fun to show back to back with Chicken Run. They liked Yellow Submarine, but they haven't seen A Hard Day's Night (and my dad is a big Beatles collector, so that might be great to show with him here sometime). I've never seen Ben Hur or How the West Was Won, so we may need to see those just for me. We read Around the World in 80 Days as a family recently, and I may not be keen on seeing books in movie form, but if the kids wanted to I might try it. I suspect Spartacus would currently freak them out. (They have a hard enough time seeing just Jesus on a cross when we spot that around town--the whole lineup of crucified people could give them nightmares.)

  10. Well you know how I feel about Star Trek :) I've been occasionally watching it if the kids are playing, but then realized it was freaking Toby out: he calls Worf "The Mean Scary Guy." But he's pretty little still, and like you said, I don't want to ruin it for him! So now I only watch it when they are not around.

    Good list. I haven't thought much about Source Material since they're still so little, but that will be fun in a few years :)

    1. My kids were won over by Worf when they found out he drinks prune juice.