The last decade has seen a big shift in how families watch films. With a screen in every pocket, there’s now no need to gather round and watch something together on that big box in the living room. But while there is no need, it is still a lot of fun – sharing the experience makes it even better!
A family movie night can also be an educational opportunity for moms and dads to seize. There’s a lot of interesting and even important discussions that can be started by a good movie. So break out the popcorn, grab some good snuggly blankets, and gather the whole clan!
The five suggestions below are organized by “age-appropriateness,” starting first with The Peanuts Movie, which is an all-ages film. The last, The Giver, is only for teens and up, and the other three fall somewhere in between.
The Peanuts Movie
The comicstrip Peanuts was always a little hit and miss for me. I liked Linus and Snoopy and PigPen and Marcie, but found it downright depressing when once again Lucy would get good ol’ Charlie Brown to fall for her disappearing football trick.
That’s why the film was so much better than expected: it has all of the strip’s funny, minus the melancholy. Charlie Brown has his misfortunes, but he also has good friends – including a far more loyal version of Snoopy – to help pick him back up and push him to keep on trying.
Cautions are minor, but parents might want to note that Charlie Brown is silly to obsess about a girl he has never even talked to. At one point he offers up what might be a one-line prayer, and if so his “Don’t I deserve a break?” plea shows that Charles is no Calvinist. Highlights include how (SPOILER ALERT) when the often lonely Charles has to choose between popularity and honesty, he doesn’t even hesitate before doing the right thing. This boy is a man of character.
Our whole family enjoyed this, from two on up. A Charlie Brown who doesn’t have to wait 50 years for a little happiness is a wonderful improvement on the original!
Swiss Family Robinson
Based on the classic 1812 Johann Wyss book, Swiss Family Robinson tells the tale of a family of five that gets shipwrecked on a tropical island after being pursued by pirates.
Life on a tropical island can be fun, with ostrich and elephant races, but work is involved too. The family has to struggle together to build a treehouse that will keep them safe from the island’s tiger.
But what will keep them safe from the pirates, who are still looking for them?
The big concern in this film would be violence. While most of it is softened (a tiger, rather than maul its victims, sends them flying high into the air) there are intense scenes near the end of the film, as the pirates attack, that would scare young children.
This is a good old-fashioned classic with lots of gallantry on display – it’s a great film to teach boys to look out for girls. It’s also a good one to get your kids appreciating older films. Some of the acting is a little wooden, but as a family film that’s fine – this was never going to win an Oscar, but there is a reason it’s still being watched 50 years later. All in all a great film.
90 min/ 1981
When comic book creator Woody Wilkins gets the chance to help out the CIA he jumps at it. But he gets a little too into the role, telling his Russian contact – his beautiful Russian contact – that he is a long-time secret agent with the code name “Condorman.” He so impresses the Russian agent that when she later decides to defect she tells the CIA she’ll only go if they send their “top agent” Condorman to come pick her up. Woody is willing to help again…but with a few conditions. He’ll go, so long as the CIA agree to give him a few special tools he’s dreamed up, that come straight out of his superhero comics!
The only cautions are of a minor sort. The beautiful Russian agent wears a rather clingy dress on the DVD cover but that is more risqué than anything in the film. In one scene she changes clothes behind a dressing screen and is shown naked from the shoulders up. There are a lot of fistfights, car chases, and explosions, all of the comic variety, with no blood seen. Younger children, particularly those under 6, may find it too much.
This is an action adventure, romantic comedy, Cold War, spy, superhero parody. If you take it seriously this is dreadful…so don’t. As a parody it is hokey, cheesy, goofy, slapstick fun.
City of Ember
For humanity’s remnant to survive they have to hide deep underground for 200 years in a specially prepared city – the City of Ember. But when 200 years pass no one alive remembers there is another world out there. The only light they know is provided by light bulbs powered by their mighty generator. The bigger problem? The generator is starting to break down. The biggest problem? No one will admit what’s happening.
To the rescue comes Doon, and his friend Lina who uncover some long-lost and only partially intact instructions from the city’s original Builders that they need to piece together to save their family before all of Ember’s lights go dark.
The film has no language or sexuality concerns at all, but does have a mole the size of Volkswagen whose tentacles are a bit too squirmy for my tastes. The more notable caution would be that God is never mentioned, and His absence in a movie about a coming end to the world is glaring.
A post-apocalyptic tale is not your typical family fare, and a story in which the kids are smarter than the adults is all too common fare. So Ember is a film that shouldn’t be treated as simply mindless entertainment – it is entertaining, but it should be discussed.
97 minutes / 2014
My brother Jeff wrote a review of the book this film is based on that hits all the high points of the film too. So with his permission I’ve included it below with slight modification.
The Giver is a brilliant dystopia – a vision of the future where things have gone horribly wrong. What makes it so brilliant is that in the brief space of a couple hours, we’re shown, as dystopian story always do, that the desire to make a utopia always leads to disaster.
The original Utopia (which literally means “no-place”), by Thomas More (an English Catholic writing around the time of the Reformation), is a vision of an ideal, perfectly regulated society, where people live their lives with leisure and work balanced, an
d the wealth is fairly shared among all. All these features are appealing, but given human nature, any attempt to
build society through regulation will result in the stomping out of individuality and the oppressive power of whatever authority we trust to organize everything. Basically, there is a kind of idolatry of human systems and power. Of course, we know that idols always disappoint, and idols always demand horrible sacrifices.
That’s what’s going on in The Giver. The story begins with what looks like an ideal, well-organized society where everyone has his or her specific role set by 18 years old (in the book this all happens by 12). All the angst of adolescence in our society has been taken care of through this selection of each person’s career by the community, as well as by the suppression of the disruptive disturbance of teenage hormones. The result is a village in which there is no significant crime; in which each person is given a specific role and, in return, has all his or her needs are met from cradle to grave by the community; and in which both the physical storms and emotional storms have been subdued by technology.
This “sameness” has been maintained for generations. Even the memory of the relative chaos of our own society has been wiped out, but the elders of the village have ensured that the past is not entirely lost, so that in the event of crisis, the elders can learn from it. This is where the main character, Jonas, comes in. At eighteen years old, he is given the unique role of the Receiver of the community. What does he receive? The memories of the village before the “sameness” – from the Giver.
Jonas’s unique knowledge enables him to see what a terrible place our own world is – with war and other suffering – but also what emotional ties like family and romantic love were lost with the oncoming of the “sameness.” His own crisis comes when he sees what sacrifices his seemingly utopian village demands to keep its stability.
There are no language and sexual concerns, but some for violence. As the Giver shares his memories with Jonas, one of them is an image of “war” – it’s a brief look, but includes a man getting shot in the chest and bleeding, and another man getting shot repeatedly. The most disturbing scene in the film is one of a baby being euthanized by injection – we don’t see the actual injection…but we almost do. So no blood, but quite horrifying. I suspect it is this single scene that boosted this from a PG to PG-13 rating, and quite rightly.
One other concern would be the way God is portrayed. For the most part, He simply isn’t, but among the memories Jonas receives are ones showing the various religions of the world at worship. These are only brief glimpses, and not much is made of them, but neither is Christianity distinguished from any of the others – all religions are treated as equivalent.
This is a fantastic film, that hasn’t been rated all that highly by the critics. I think that’s because they are assessing it simply as entertainment. But this is meant to be a thought-provoking film, one to be discussed and not simply watched. And as such, it rates much higher. I’d recommend it as family viewing so long as the youngest viewers are at least in their teens.
Jon Dykstra blogs on movies at www.ReelConservative.com where longer versions of some of these reviews can be found