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By David O'Grady
On the dog days of summer--or a cool, fog-swept night in Noe Valley--sometimes the best escape is a good movie. Family films offer a great way for parents and kids to share an adventure and talk about it afterward.
Unfortunately, a lot of family movies -- especially summer fare--avoid anything that might spark the synapses or prompt a child to turn to a parent and ask the dreaded question "Why?" But the following films, suitable for most ages and available for rent in Noe Valley video stores, tickle the funny bone, feed inquiring minds, and sometimes even stir the soul.
Money Problems of a Different Kind
What would you do if a bag of money suddenly dropped out of the sky and landed right on top of you? In the 2004 film Millions, this is the dilemma faced by brothers Damian and Anthony, the newest residents of a commuter-rail suburb in the English countryside.
For younger brother Damian, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of the lives (and deaths) of the saints, the money is a miracle to be shared with others. But for older brother Anthony, it's a chance to buy status and influence with the kids at his new school. Soon the brothers' personal conflict gives way to bigger problems, as Damian's startling--and often humorously misplaced--generosity begins to attract the attention of charity workers, their father, and a thief who's looking for a missing bag of money.
Images that mix reality with fantasy--including various saintly visitors who counsel Damian--give Millions a storybook quality. Director Danny Boyle, better known for dark adult movies like Trainspotting and 28 Days Later, has a gift for viewing the world through a child's hopes and fears. Though Millions is a bit overstuffed with storylines--a mother's death, a move to a new neighborhood, an intricate heist, sacrifice versus self-reward, and England's monetary conversion from the pound to the euro(!)--its excess of riches should stimulate great family conversations.
Rats in the Rosebush
In the early 1980s a group of animators led by Don Bluth broke away from Disney and started concocting a new kind of animated film. Their first experiment, released in 1982, was The Secret of NIMH. Adapted from the acclaimed children's book Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, the movie rechristens Mrs. Frisby--a widowed field mouse with a family of four--as Mrs. Brisby, but otherwise follows the book's plot: In order to save her family from the farmer's plow, Mrs. Brisby must enlist the aid of her friends, including the loveable but literally bird-brained crow Jeremy, voiced by comic actor Dom DeLuise.
Mrs. Brisby and her comrades face a wise but menacing Owl and the farmer's evil cat, Dragon, as they make their way to the lair of some very smart rats. The rats harbor a nest of secrets, including the answer to the mysterious death of Mrs. Brisby's husband.
The Secret of NIMH is dark in places, and the movie doesn't shrink from exposing the cruelties of animal testing. But its secret charm is its ability to transform an ordinary landscape--like a farmer's humble rosebush--into an extraordinary universe.
Heart of Gold, With an Appetite For Iron
Before animator Brad Bird joined Pixar and made the smash hit The Incredibles in 2004, he created an arguably more enduring and more soulful story in The Iron Giant, released in 1999. Based on a bedtime story that poet Ted Hughes told to his children, The Iron Giant is about a fatherless boy named Hogarth growing up in a small town in Maine in the 1950s. Home alone one night when the TV goes out, Hogarth grabs his gun and goes outside to investigate, only to find that a massive mechanical man has fallen from the sky. Innocent and inquisitive, the Iron Giant is soon befriended by Hogarth, who hides him in a scrap yard where he can feast on his favorite food--metal.
With Sputnik orbiting above and a Cold War chill in the air, it's only a matter of time before the giant's peaceful idyll on earth is threatened by a paranoid government, hell-bent on sending its soldiers to find and destroy him. But an army attack, especially if it endangers Hogarth, may only provoke the giant to unleash the firepower lurking beneath his steel skin, with dire consequences for the entire town.
The Iron Giant is not too subtle in conveying its violence-begets-violence theme. (Note the scene where the giant laments a deer killed by hunters--a direct homage to Bambi.) Still, the movie makes a strong case for peace, love, and understanding. Made before Sept. 11, The Iron Giant is especially relevant today and is on its way to becoming a classic.
A Doggone Good Story
Disney's first live-action film, The Shaggy Dog, has been a model for family farce since it bounded onto the silver screen in 1959. Movie audiences still find it huggable and lovable after all these years. Some even consider it better than the film's many remakes and knockoffs.
Wilby, a geeky teenager, has all the usual problems--a strict father, a mooching friend, trouble getting the girl--until one day he finds an ancient ring, one that carries a curse. Before long, Wilby falls under the ring's spell, turning into the neighbor's sheepdog at the most awkward moments.
Only an act of bravery can undo the curse, and Wilby may get his chance when he learns that the new neighbors are up to something. But he'd better do it quick, before his dog-hating dad (played by Fred MacMurray, in a role that presages My Three Sons) finds out that a "dog" is living under his roof.
Adults will find amusement--and a few groans--in the 1950s sensibility of this movie, especially its undercurrent of suburban conformity and anti-intellectualism. But it's best not to make too much of the simpletons celebrated by The Shaggy Dog. Instead, enjoy its uncynical comedy--and marvel at how hard it seems these days to make silly yet well-crafted family entertainment.
Life in a Bathhouse for Spirits
Stylized Japanese animation can be an adjustment for older eyes raised on Disney, but adults and kids alike will be swept up by the engrossing beauty of the 2001 Japanese film Spirited Away. Directed by acclaimed animator Hayao Miyazaki, Spirited Away tells the story of Chihiro, a timid, bad-tempered girl who is moving with her parents to a new home. On the way, the family encounters a strange tunnel that leads to an abandoned amusement park--or so they think. Dragged into the park by her parents, Chihiro watches in horror as her mom and dad are captured and turned into pigs by the spirits who live there, leaving Chihiro to fend for herself.
With the help of a young spirit boy named Haku, Chihiro discovers that survival means working as a servant in a bathhouse for spirits. There she meets a variety of characters, from a smelly, blob-like river spirit contaminated by pollution, to the curiously charming balls of soot who carry coal to heat the bathhouse. By helping the spirits, Chihiro gathers the wisdom and strength to confront the sinister keeper of the bathhouse, who has the power to restore Chihiro's parents--or serve them up as the next meal.
At just over two hours, Spirited Away may strain younger attention spans; so kids might want to watch this movie in small doses, savoring each frame. But even those adults who think animated films are only for kids should pull up a chair for Spirited Away (and The Iron Giant). Like silent films, these animated adventures speak in their own magical language--and weave a spell to enchant your summer days and nights.