First, a mini-rant.
I hate, hate, hate, when all children's movies (and books, for that matter) must have a bad guy.
Sure, this is more dramatic -- Jafar (Aladdin), Gaston (Beauty and the Beast), Lord Farquaad (Shrek) were sure fun to despise -- there's no denying that. However, real life usually doesn't have such clean-cut good guys and bad guys, and it does a disservice to children to teach them to think in such "good/evil" terms. Most people who make your life miserable aren't being spiteful or evil; they're just not thinking about the consequences of their actions, or they have some other thing that's more important to them than your happiness. He didn't rip you off to make you unhappy; he ripped you off because he needs to put food on his kids' plates, and the loan collectors came by again last night. In movies for grown ups, I don't mind bad guys -- grown-ups have enough life experience to know this is fiction, while that over there is reality, and let's be honest -- a good bad guy makes a good movie, especially (mostly) in action films. (That's why Spiderman 2 was better than Spiderman 3, Batman 1 was better than Batman 4, why Hook was so much fun and Superman Returns was so lame. In each of those movies, the measure of the villain is the measure of the movie (to some extent). For a case in point, just look at which James Bond movies are memorable, and which ones are just limp. Everything else from one movie to the next is the same (other than the inventiveness of the chase scenes), so the villain is really the measure of the movie.) But with kids' movies. . . first of all, villains scare kids. Second of all, does it really help Billy to start thinking of Tommy in third grade as a villain, who's evil, and whom he must therefore vanquish (rather than just trying to make peace)? I don't think so.
That's why, especially for children's movies and stories, I really, really respect and admire the ones that have no bad guys. To me, Winnie the Pooh is the best example of this. Every character in Winnie the Pooh is unique, they're all friends, they usually get along, and they sometimes clash. The conflicts come out of their respective personalities -- Piglet gets scared on a windy night, Rabbit doesn't want to share his food with Pooh, Owl's tree blows down, Eeyore lost his tail, Piglet discovers a new game. There's no "snatcher" who comes out of the woods and kidnaps one of them from time to time, they just act like normal groups of friends in normal situations, like the ones their readers (kids) experience.
Well, I have another one.
Everybody, if you get the chance get your hands on Hayao Miyazaki's movie "My Neighbour Totoro" (Tonari no Totoro). Miyazaki is one of the best animators working right now -- his drawings and style and animation quality, as well as his sheer storytelling inventiveness and sense of wonder, all set wonderful standards for Japanese animation. Add to that the fact his stories are actually ABOUT stuff, rather than just being "evil alien robots (that are really well animated) invade earth, so humans have to invent new (really cool-looking) fighting styles, and wear (really neat) robot suits, to defeat them in really nifty fighting sequences with amazing explosions and dialogue shouted over kewl sound effects". A major theme in Princess Mononke was exploitation of the environment (rather than just cool mecha robot suits and schoolgirls in impossibly short skirts, common themes in some anime movies). All his movies are suitable for kids, though there are senses of whimsy and mystery that might be haunting, in the same way the book "Where the wild things are" haunted me, and stuck in my mind, when I was little.
The movie begins with a father and his two daughters moving into a quiet country house, a more relaxed place, where the girls can be a little more at ease than in the city. They need to do this because their mother is sick. She is in the hospital, with some unspecified but worrisome sickness that means she can't be with her daughters, and requires a lot of bedrest.
***spoiler warning*** I'm about to give away plot details, so if knowing a movie's plot points ruins the watching experience for you, then skip to the spot where it says ***spoiler warning over***
The younger sister wanders off one day and meets Totoro, a big, behemoth-sized creature of the woods, who happens to have magical powers. He has a huge, terrifyingly large mouth, but the teeth of an herbivore and a cute smile. He's a gentle, content monster, who often seems to smile like a Buddha. The little girl's first reaction, rather than abject terror at seeing this sleeping beast (we first meet him when he's asleep) is to fall asleep herself, right on his chest. Implicit trust.
The older sister meets him too, and, while they don't really have adventures per se, they have encounters with him that show he has a funny, quirky way, he has a few magical friends, and, most of all, he's looking out for them. During these girls' missing mother anxiety, a magical woodland beast happens to show up, to make them feel a little safer again.
The climax of the story, rather than being about a bully, a monster or some other such antagonist, comes with a letter from their mother's hospital, which brings the girls' anxiety about their missing mother to a head.
***spoiler warning over***
In all the situations, especially in the crisis at the end, both the girls' reactions are totally true to life, and show the storyteller's deep compassion for their anxiety, and the way Totoro and his magical friend resolve the crisis is sweet, gentle, and heart-breakingly true.
Sure, in part it's because I saw my own mother sick, so I intimately know and understand the anxiety these girls feel, but the ending, quite frankly, had me in a puddle, sobbing at the purity of the girls' love and concern for their mom. It's amazing that a filmmaker could catch such a primal emotion and strike right to the heart of it, in such a simple resolution.
And I thought, why ISN'T a child's love for its mother enough to be the main dramatic impetus for a movie? Why DON'T we see movies like this more often? That connection is so profound and deep, how shallow is it that we prefer watching a movie about some guys planning to rob a casino, where the main emotion and impulse is greed, rather than seeing tender films like this more often? How often are movies made about greed, revenge, or sheer survival, rather than being about love, loyalty, or commitment? Even when there's a "worthy cause" movie like Braveheart, where everybody's fighting for (let's all say it together) FREEEEEEEEEEEEDOOOOOOOOOMMMMMMM!, they have to add his own, lower (clicheed) impulse (revenge: they killed his wife), and make it personal. (Have I ever mentioned how much I hate Braveheart? Another post. Another post.) Sure, there's nothing heroic or superhuman about the emotional journey these girls go through in "My Neighbour Totoro", but dammit, it's TRUE. The superhuman stuff highlights the human stuff, and draws it into sharper focus, rather than subsuming or even replacing it. The other problem, I suppose, is that it's so easy to take those emotions -- love, commitment, loyalty, dedication, doing right, redemption, etc., and make something sentimental and tawdry and manipulative with them, which sells real life short just as much as an oversimplified good guy/bad guy matrix.
Here's my favourite minute and a half in any animated film, ever. It perfectly shows Totoro's character, and the way he enjoys his life, and it made me think that Miyazaki must be a poet, to notice something like this, and then to put it into his movie.
He's roaring in delight. If you can find another ninety second clip that shows innocence and joy that purely, I wanna see it.
I'd rather read a book like that, I'd rather watch a movie like that. . .
Movies and books that are about those kinds of topics, that are compassionate and also true, that don't sell short their subjects, that respect their characters, that never lapse into sentimentality:
The Little Prince
A Complicated Kindness
(for its other flaws) Changing Lanes (with Ben Affleck and Samuel L. Jackson)
(if you look carefully enough)
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf -- ugly behaviour, but there are diamonds in that mud!
(even Jonathan Livingston Seagull let me down at the end, by becoming too mystical, and losing its moorings)
Please tell me: what else should I be reading or seeing?