The early 1990s produced some great children’s movies: The Secret Garden (1993), Alfonso Cuarón’s A Little Princess, and, one I just recently saw for the first time, The Secret of Roan Inish (1994). Of course, you could claim that the early-mid 2000s have been even better: various Harry Potters, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, etc. I certainly like the fantasy books upon which the more recent movies were based better than I like Frances Hodgson Burnett (I do enjoy her books, but they can’t top well-done fantasy in my preferences). But what interests me is that the three 1990s movies I’ve mentioned actually have a greater sense of wonder and magic about them than the “fantasy” movies.
With the exception of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (also an Alfonso Cuarón film), recent “children’s” fantasy movies have been far more interested in special effects than in script or tone. These movies have been astonishingly literal, and, for me anyway, that actually detracts from the magic. Not that special effects aren’t important—when done well, they can add to the sense of wonder. And I do like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, despite its being more flat than I would have wished.
But in The Secret of Roan Inish, for example, animatronic seal puppets are the most advanced technology used, and these were used only because it’s hard to get a real seal to perch on a rock for a while if the perching isn’t its own idea. In some ways, Roan Inish is a realistic movie: it’s set in our world, on the west coast of Ireland, in the years after World War II. And yet the supernatural is integrated fluidly into this “realistic” framework.
Perhaps part of this is because Ireland and other Celtic lands have such a strong tradition of myths and folktales. The land itself looks magic, at least to those of us who don’t have to eke out a living there. Roan Inish certainly uses the green hills and mysterious fog of Ireland’s coast to its advantage. But the element that contributes most to the magic of the film is the power of the human voice, telling stories.
Each time a character in the film tells a story (in each case, a family history involving supernatural elements), the voice itself is so expressive that you could be drawn in even without accompanying images on the screen. Actors do appear in these stories-within-stories, but there’s a sort of vagueness (conciseness?) about them that elevates them to the level of myth and makes them much richer than a literal flashback scene.
In the film’s commentary, director John Sayles discusses how important it was to him that the movie be seen and heard from the perspective of Fiona, the ten-year-old protagonist. He has faith that her imagination will be the most powerful way of communicating the story to the audience. This means that he also has faith in the imagination of the audience, for the film places us in Fiona’s shoes.
And maybe that’s the problem with more recent children’s movies. The directors have too little faith and too little respect for the children in their audience. Everything has to be laid out for them as passive viewers. I think that’s why the first two Harry Potter movies were so mind-numbingly dull. In contrast, films like The Secret of Roan Inish and A Little Princess—and even Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban—invite viewers, children and adults alike, to participate in the world of the movie. That’s movie magic at its best.
2 comments June 1st, 2007