April 16, 2012

Top Five Movies/TV Shows to Watch With My Kids

M watching a movie with the girls and PB&J sandwiches
As you've probably picked up in a few other posts, I have a bit of a problem when it comes to children's entertainment.  By which I mean, I can't stand most of it.  For well over a year, I've been meaning to write a long diatribe about the sexism inherent in such current children's favorites as LeapFrog's Scout and Violet.  (We have a Scout and a Violet toy- but those movies?  They are officially BANNED.)

This doesn't mean that I ban my children from watching all of the kids-oriented schlock that I detest, it means that I'm always trying to figure out which of my own childhood favorites are actually anything resembling quality entertainment, and which I loved because they held my attention and I simply didn't know any better.

I discovered very early on to in this exercise that there was a very simple system I could use to figure out what was a good distraction for my children, movies and shows in particular.  That system?  Watch it with them.

Then, simply ask myself three questions.

1) Did it hold their attention?
2.) Did it hold mine?
3.) Did it infuriate me, annoy me, or offend me?

If the answer to the first two is "yes," and to the last question, "no," I know I've got a keeper.

I have a few favorite movies/shows for distracting my children now.  Ones that I don't feel the need to watch with my kids every time, but that I can feel good about leaving them alone with for a few moments in order to, say, go to the bathroom.  Or scarf down a sandwich.  Or do a few loads of laundry.

So here are my top five favorite films to watch with my kids (or for them to watch without me), and why.  And most importantly, what my children are taking away from these movies.

1. Fantasia
Something that the last few generations of Disney filmmakers completely fail to understand is that you don't have to make a movie for children in order for children to love it and relate to it. Pixar understands this a lot better- but more on Pixar later.  Jim Henson was also a master in this department.  (Ever tried watching any of the Muppet movies (or the Muppet Show) from before his death in the company of a child?  They're hilarious.  Some of the jokes fly right over kids' heads (Janice is a veritable mine of these), but that doesn't matter.  It's fun for everybody.)

Fantasia is like that.  But there's something more to it- it is 100% an educational experience every single time. As an adult, or as a child.

What do you learn from Fantasia?  You learn to think abstractly, whether you know it or now.  You learn to appreciate sitting down and listening.  You learn patience- sometimes it feels that the narrator drones on forever between vignettes, but you wait.  Because that's how the movie goes.

The abstract thinking- this comes from the very beginning.  The first time I sat down and watched this movie with the girls, during all the vague, moving images of Toccata in Fugue, I asked them what they saw.  What things looked like.  And I answered them if they asked me.  Now, during the opening sequence, SI will tell you that the abstracted violin bows look like rain.  DD says they look like fish.  I think they look like birds.  But that doesn't matter.  My children are learning to use their imaginations to interpret the world around them with the aid of their own ideas.  In short, they are learning to think critically.

It's an utterly invaluable skill.

Fantasia also helps them with their memory.  They learn to follow events regardless of plot.

It introduces them to a wide range of musical instruments to different sounds, and at the same time it has excitement and whimsy.  If you've never seen a small child react to the mushrooms during the Nutcracker Ballet, you're missing out.

Fantasia 2000 is almost as good in a lot of these ways, but those modern movie makers are too concerned with "child friendliness," so every single vignette- even the allegedly "abstract" one- all have plots.  They all tell a "definite story."  But children still learn to appreciate music for its own sake- for its ability to create a mood, to stimulate their minds.

2. Wall-E
Ah, Pixar.  How I love thee.

Wall-E is one of a several movies created by Pixar that you would think is simply too mature for small children.  And you would be wrong.

Wall-E is, first of all, nearly entirely non-verbal for the first two thirds.  This is great for little kids.  Pantomime, as clowns across the world know, is funny.  It's engaging.  And unlike forms of entertainment that rely on bombarding your senses over and over again, it requires that you pay attention in order to get the joke.

While as an adult, I might find large portions of Wall-E incredibly depressing and bleak, kids miss that.  They don't understand the complex emotions being silently exhibited in the movie's opening moments.  But they do see that Wall-E is kind, funny, accident prone, and good at making friends.

Even better?  Wall-E cleans up garbage.

This is great.  He teaches us that we don't just leave trash lying around.  And he keeps things that are valuable to him- his toys- neatly put away and organized.

In this house, whenever I need the girls to clean up a room, all I have to do is suggest that we play "Wall-E."  Will that work forever?  No.  But it sets a precedent, and Wall-E is an excellent role model when it comes to stewardship of your home- be that your bedroom, your back yard, or the world at large.

Best part about this movie?  Thanks to the lack of dialogue, you can watch this thing every day for a week and it doesn't get nearly as irritating as pretty much anything else.  Except Fantasia, which just sounds like music most of the time.

3. Yo Gabba Gabba
I know.  I drank the Yo Gabba Gabba kool aid.

What I love about Yo Gabba Gabba is that encourages kids to move.  There's dancing, there's jumping, there's stomping around... this is great.  If I need a whole day where I park my kids in front of a television so I can accomplish some major task, like writing a grant proposal or finally putting away the six loads of laundry that have been sitting in my hallway for four days, I go with Yo Gabba Gabba.

...which has a few seasons for instant streaming on NetFlix.

Yo Gabba Gabba comes in handy in some other ways, too.  Because it tackles such a wide variety of subjects, it arms you with a vast number of catchy little songs to encourage good behavior.  Songs about the doctor, songs about washing your hair, songs about trying new foods, songs about going to sleep... and for some reason the favorite in this house, "Don't Bite Your Friends."

Now, Yo Gabba Gabba *can* be maddening.  But for parents of my own generation at least, it's also a huge hoot to see the constant guests that appeal to you.  Guests like Mos Def, Jack Black, Amy Sedaris, Sarah Silverman, and Weezer.

As I've described this show many times...

When I was a kid, we had Pee Wee's Playhouse, which could entertain our parents- thanks to their exposure to hallucinogenic drugs and the prevalent associated culture during the 70s.  Now?  Yo Gabba Gabba is particularly entertaining when you've had exposure to the club drugs and surrounding culture of the 90's.  It's basically a friendly monster filled rave for small children.

4. Follow That Bird
A Jim Henson masterpiece.  Follow That Bird has a lot of characteristics that I like.

It doesn't constantly shock, awe, or otherwise stimulate intense reaction.  This is something that really bothers me about newer children's movies- it's constant hyper-stimulation.  You never have to wait for anything- you never get to enjoy the moments between action.  It's just... action.  And more action.  And more action.

Now, Follow That Bird is constantly entertaining.  But it accomplishes this feat almost entirely without violence or loud noises or jump cuts.  It does this by being a constantly moving and interesting story- starring Big Bird.

Plus, it's another movie filled with good morals.  That a family is made of people who care for each other.  That perseverance and determination will take you pretty much anywhere that you want to go, that we have to listen to other people in order to understand them.

On top of that, it is a scathing indictment of a certain brand of homogeneous popular American culture.   Subtle, but biting.  The movie cleverly portrays a culture of fitting in and keeping up with the Joneses as... well... idiotic.  It emphasizes individuality and creativity.  And I am always behind that kind of moral.

5. Dr. Seuss TV Specials from the 1960s and 1970s
Did you know that Ted Geisel was friends with Chuck Jones when they were in the war together?

Well, they were.  So when Chuck Jones was an up-and-coming animator, he asked if his friend Dr. Seuss would allow him to adapt a few of his best loved books for the screen.

What I love about these classic cartoons is, first of all, they are true to the books.  What makes Dr. Seuss books so lovable remains intact in these cartoons.  Unlike modern adaptations of his books, almost nothing is changed.  It is simply animated.

Yes, Thing One and Thing Two are a little more malicious in the cartoon than in the book.  Yes, the Onceler is a little more aggressive.  But these adaptations are as close to word-for-word as it comes.  Any any words that were changed?  Ted Geisel did that.  It's his own adaptation.

So the animation is just as charming as the original illustrations.  And the morals are just as good.  The "Green Eggs and Ham" special is actually a collection of three stories- it includes The Sneetches and The Zax.  Lessons about compromise, about racism and accepting people for who they are, lessons about caring for the environment, lessons about compassion...  Dr. Seuss was a genius.

And the Cat in the Hat?  He's voiced by Allen Sherman.  The "Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah" guy.  He was one of my grandfather's favorites.

You can buy collections of these movies- like the one pictured above.  M and I have burned our own discs though, pairing our favorites together.  We have a whole Grinch disc- complete with "Halloween is Grinch Night."  If you've never seen that one, it's a bit of a trip.

Honorable Mentions:

Sesame Street All-Star Alphabet
It's a collection of some of the best of the best "Letter of the Day" bits from the last few decades of Sesame Street.  And it's hosted by Stephen Colbert, playing a very neurotic letter Z opposite Nicole Sullivan's type A character- the letter A.  It's great because it puts the alphabet in context, but also because it's just full of silliness and fun.

And there is no better way to learn, in my opinion, than in a situation filled with silliness and fun.  It makes all those lessons much more memorable.  Plus, it has a few of my personal favorite ABC songs in it.

Free To Be You And Me
Such good lessons.  So dated.  The entertainment is entirely different for parents than it is for children.  For children, it's a collection of fun stories and cartoons and songs.  For parents?  It's a never ceasing "Holy cow- is that MICHAEL JACKSON?"

Yes, yes it is.  And Mel Brooks.  And Shel Silverstein.  And Alan Alda.

It has lots of messages regarding embracing the differences in different people, feminism, loving yourself as you are, helping others...

All in all, good values.  Good entertainment.

Milo and Otis
We watch this on every long car ride.  Why?  Because its soporific powers are undeniable.

That's and it's really cute.

And those are my favorite five things to watch.

What would you add to the list?


  1. Oh we need those Dr Seuss ones!

  2. Love this list. I'm very choosy when it comes to tv too. There's only a handful of shows on Netflix they can watch. (We don't have cable) I rarely let them watch yo gabba gabba cause I feel like its sensory overload.

    Our favorite is Fresh Beat Band. It's entertaining and positive. My 20 month old twins dance along with it and sing the ending song randomly through the day when its not even on. Just wondering what u thought of that one and why it didn't make the list. Thanks

  3. @lovebeingmom I've never seen Fresh Beat Band! I'll have to look into it! :)

  4. Thanks for sharing! I must admit, when you listed YO GABBA GABBA I had such a negative vocal reaction that my husband asked me what was wrong. I said, 'Yo Gabba Gabba?! He listed Yo Gabba Gabba! I hate that show!' He then proceeded to ask me who you were and I said, 'Oh I'm reading his blog. I don't actually KNOW him.' My husband rolled his eyes.

    Thanks for the laughs!

  5. I feel the same way about Yo Gabba Gabba as Sonia does but I also HATE Pee Wee (was okay with it when I was young but oh man drives me nuts now; I still think that actor's best role was as a vampire in the movie Buffy the Vampire Slayer--the one who takes forever dying at the end).

    Here the big one is The Backyardigans. My youngest got into that and the music is fun to listen to, I think, plus there's some good lessons in their play.

    Wall-E is a favorite around here, got into it while we were in Korea (yes, you can get English channels in Korea though I will saying listening to Finding Nemo in Korean is rather interesting to say the least...) and my older daughter DID pick up on the sad scenes. She's a lot like me in that way, VERY sensitive to sad faces, music, parts of movies, etc.

    Milo and Otis was a favorite when my sister and I were kids and one I still enjoy and we have a copy of that.

    The Care Bears Movie 2 is another favorite from when I was a kid that my older daughter has picked up on. Can be a little scary (Dark Heart was pretty scary) but the lessons in that movie are good, caring about people and in the end, because the bad guy cared about someone, his evilness went away.

    I really need to see Fantasia again though. It's been WAY too long since I've had a chance to watch it.

  6. have you tried super why on pbs? Diana loves it and it's really teaching her phonics, spelling and reading. I think it's a good one!

  7. I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often. princess party



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