My Neighbor Totoro

totoro

Rating: G

Themes:
• Siblings
• Play
• Exploration
• Being Grown Up

Plot Synopsis:
Two sisters move to the country with their father. Their mother is hospitalized with some unidentified illness, and Satsuki, the older sister, takes on a more grown-up role with her sister. The girls quickly discover there’s something special about their home. Mei, the four year-old younger sister, finds a spirit of the woods living nearby and calls it Totoro. Satsuki soon gets to meet the creature while waiting at the bus stop. The Totoro gives them some acorns and then helps them grow.

A telegram arrives one day from the hospital and the girls fear the worst. Satsuki snaps under the pressure and has a fight with Mei, which causes Mei to wander off seeking the hospital on her own. She gets lost and soon the whole village is looking for her to no avail. Satsuki asks Totoro for help and the sisters are soon reunited.

Review:
This movie is a Japanese import. With all the sparkle and shine of Disney movies it would be easy to overlook this film. It’s not brightly colored or flashy, it has no song and dance numbers, no princesses and no talking animals (Totoro and his kin don’t really speak). That said, this film is amazing. I showed it to my 2.5 year-old and it was all she wanted to watch for two weeks straight (we’re talking 1-2 viewings per DAY).

The film feels incredibly real, and I think that really captured her imagination. Yes, it has mystical creatures, but the majority of the film is just kids being kids: exploring a new house, finding random stuff to do in the countryside, meeting new neighbors, walking to school, etc. Satsuki has to deal with the responsibilities that come with being an older sibling, and she does a wonderful job caring for her little sister. But you also get to see the other side of the coin, when she breaks down in front of their neighbor and confesses her fear that their mother might never come home. Mei acts just like a kid her age would. She doesn’t understand fully what is going on. Most of the time she is carefree and plays, but when the news comes that her mother won’t be home for the weekend as promised, she flips out.

None of this seems heavy-handed or overly dramatic. It’s just life. This is a look into the life of a family living in the country, with a few cool mystical creatures to boot.

Teaching Points:
Japanese culture– I found it interesting how the father “always wanted to live in a haunted house.” This would be a good opportunity to look into Japanese culture, folklore and mythology.
Olden Days– The movie takes place after WW2 in the Japanese countryside. Water is drawn from a well, people communicate via telegrams and very few people in the town own phones. Great time to discuss how people used to live.

Potential Pitfalls:
Mei follows strange animals with no cause for concern. I would just make sure your own children know not to interact with strange animals that closely.

Links:
IMdB
Wikipedia

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Finding Nemo

nemo

Rating: G

Themes:
• Parenting
• Loss
• Letting Your Kids Go
• Optimism
• Disabilities

Plot Synopsis:
After Marlin loses his wife and all but one of his eggs to a barracuda, he becomes overly protective of his last surviving son, Nemo. It doesn’t help that one of Nemo’s fins is undersized. When Nemo tries to push back against his father he is captured by a scuba diver and taken to a tank in a dentist’s office. Marlin must traverse the ocean to find his son. He meets an extremely optimistic, happy-go-lucky fish named Dory who has no long term memory. During his journey to find Nemo, Marlin learns that you can’t always prevent bad things from happening, and that he needs to let his son take some risks and try new things. Nemo, temporarily free from his father’s protection, gains the confidence to push his physical limits.

Review:
Pixar has a pretty good track record for making good movies, and Finding Nemo doesn’t disappoint. Marlin is a great portrayal of an overprotective parent. Considering his loss and his son’s disability, you can see where he’s coming from, but at some point you have to let your kid have some freedom. Dory is an outstanding character. Despite her own disability, she always remains cheery and serves as a great counter to Marlin’s constant doom and gloom.

Teaching Points:
Fish– Pixar made employees learn all about fish in preparation for this film. Use Nemo to get kids interested in fish or the ocean.
Fish as Pets– Fish care is actually pretty complex. Just look up the Nitrogen Cycle.
DisabilitiesFinding Nemo has both mental and physical disabilities. Dory’s condition is actually an accurate depiction.

Potential Pitfalls:
The sharks who don’t eat fish (so what do they eat?) kinda bothers me.

Links:
IMdB
National Geographic

Marry Poppins

Marry Poppins

Rating: G

Themes:
• Family
• Music
• Enjoy Life

Plot Synopsis:
The Banks family is in need of a nanny who can handle their two children. Mr. Banks is very proper and thinks that work is the most important thing in life. His wife is busy crusading to get suffrage for women and has no time for the children. There’s nothing particularly bad about these children, they simply want to laugh and play and be kids. Enter Marry Poppins, a magical nanny who shows the whole family that all they really need is each other and a positive outlook.

Review:
Marry Poppins is a Disney classic with wonderful songs. In one section it blends together real actors with cartoon characters, something I loved to see as a kid. The story works well for both adults and children.

Teaching Points:
Chimney Sweeps– The movie portrays this profession as wonderful and carefree, but it was actually quite dangerous and often utilized child labor (kids could fit up the chimneys better).

Banking– This is something many parents may want to learn about themselves, particularly if you don’t understand the iconic Savings & Loan scene in It’s a Wonderful Life. When I first saw Marry Poppins my dad had to explain to me what a run on the bank was, and you probably will too.

Vocabulary– There is probably going to be a lot of new words for your children in this movie.

Potential Pitfalls:
None.

Links:
IMDb
Chimney Sweeps

Babes in Toyland

Toymaker: We are gathered here today to witness this young lady making her first step toward unhappiness. She’s gonna marry you.
Barnaby: What?

Rating: Not Rated

Themes:
• Love
• Friendship
• Responsibility

Plot Synopsis:
This is the Disney 1961 version. The movie starts out in Mother Goose’s village. All the main characters are from nursery rhymes. Mary Contrary and Tom Piper are about to be married. Unbeknown to Mary, she’s going to inherit a fortune when she weds. The town villain, Barnaby, hatches a plan to get Tom out of the picture and steal Mary’s sheep so that she’ll have no income, forcing her to marry him. He hires two not-so-bright henchmen to take care of things, but instead of dumping Tom in the sea they sell him to gypsies.

Mary declines Barnaby several times, but he threatens to foreclose on her home. After trying to find a way to pay the bills, she decides that she must marry Barnaby. When her siblings hear of this they run off to try to locate the missing sheep in the Forest of No Return. Meanwhile, Barnaby hires the gypsies to entertain at his engagement party and Tom reappears with them. Barnaby is foiled, but now Tom and Mary must head into the woods after the children. The woods literally hold the family captive, and tell them they must report to the toymaker in Toyland.

The toymaker is frantically trying to make enough toys to fill the Christmas quota. His brilliant assistant creates a machine that can make endless toys, but the dimwitted and arrogant toymaker breaks the machine. Mary, Tom and the kids decide to help out. Meanwhile, Barnaby and his henchmen are following the group. When Barnaby discovers that the toymaker’s assistant has created a shrinking gun he uses it to shrink the toymaker and Tom (and his henchmen who revolt). He threatens to kill Tom unless Mary weds him. Tom breaks free and enlists the help of toys to stop the wedding ceremony.

Review:
Growing up, my sisters and I listened to the soundtrack of this movie before we ever saw it. When we did see the film it became one of those movies that gets watched and rewatched endlessly. I hadn’t seen it in probably 20 years, so I was curious what my reaction would be now as an adult.

It’s good. Very good. The songs are memorable, even though some are extremely short. It has a ton of physical humor, usually between Barnaby and his henchmen. The choreographed dance numbers are good (my sisters and I tried without success to imitate some of the harder gypsy moves). It’s simple but very goofy and funny. The couple is lovable and you really root for them. Mary does the best she can to care for her five younger siblings, and Tom is quite witty and romantic. I really like the fact that the couple isn’t just thrown together like you see in most Disney princess movies.

Teaching Points:
None.

Potential Pitfalls:
Gypsies– The henchmen claim that gypsies “buy babies.” It’s a simple plot device and there’s nothing wrong with the on-screen gypsies, but I’m sure actual gypsies wouldn’t like this claim.
Just a Toy– This song has a whoooooooole different meaning as an adult. Mary starts singing to a doll about how pretty she is and how she’ll bring joy to some little girl when she’s found under the Christmas tree. Tom picks up the song and starts singing to Mary about how much joy she brings him. It’s really very sweet, except for the chorus.
Women– Mary has issues with math, and is basically useless during the final showdown when Tom is fighting Barnaby and both are about six inches high (while Mary is full size).

Links:
Babes in Toyland
Nursery Rhymes

Robin Hood


Little John: You know somethin’, Robin. I was just wonderin’, are we good guys or bad guys? You know, I mean, uh? Our robbin’ the rich to feed the poor.
Robin Hood: Rob? Tsk tsk tsk. That’s a naughty word. We never rob. We just sort of borrow a bit from those who can afford it.
Little John: Borrow? Boy, are we in debt.

Rating: G

Themes:
• Adventure
• Working Together
• Injustice
• Love

Plot Synopsis:
This is the 1973 animated Disney version of Robin Hood. The king is on a crusade and in his absence his younger brother is taxing the nation in order to increase his personal wealth. Robin Hood and Little John attempt to steal back as much of this as they can in order to help the poor.

Review:
This was always my favorite version of Robin Hood. Robin is my type of hero- one that outsmarts the bad guys rather than relying on brute force. He tricks Prince John using a variety of disguises and never seems to lose his confidence or cool (even proposing to his beloved in the middle of a sword fight). There is a solid love story, catchy tunes and a lot of silly humor that kids will enjoy. Prince John’s interactions with his adviser, Sir Hiss, are priceless.

Teaching Points:
Taxes– Everyone hates taxes, and this movie makes it pretty clear that taxes are evil. This might be a good time to point out that taxes go to pay for all kinds of things we need, like schools, policemen and roads. There is a huge difference between the reality of taxes and the kind of blatant robbery that Prince John is doing here.

Potential Pitfalls:
None.

Links:
Robin Hood

Watership Down

All the world will be your enemy, Prince of a Thousand enemies. And when they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you; digger, listener, runner, Prince with the swift warning. Be cunning, and full of tricks, and your people will never be destroyed.

Rating: PG

Themes:
• Adventure
• Survival
• Politics

Plot Synopsis:
There is so much here that I can hardly do it justice with a simple summary. It’s like The Odyssey with rabbits. This film is about a group of rabbits that leave their warren to avoid impending destruction. They face many challenges along the way, the least of which is determining a pecking order amongst themselves. Once they reach their destination they must find more rabbits to help populate it or risk extinction. This leads to their most dangerous task yet- infiltrating a militant warren and escaping it with as many refugees as possible.

Review:
I watched this movie frequently as a child. When I reached high school I decided to read the book and it quickly became one of my favorites. Watership Down, along with The Princess Bride, is now one of my filler books (someone I will read again when I’m between new books). The characters are all very strong and memorable. The rabbits have their own culture, complete with language and folk hero, El-ahrairah. The band of rabbits starts out as a group cobbled together from various social ranks. They don’t know where they are going or how they are going to get there- just that they must leave. Eventually they learn to work together and trust one another. Each rabbit has strengths that help support the group. You watch them grow from a rat-tag group to a fully functioning team that can overcome adversity.

Teaching Points:
Government Systems– The other warrens the rabbits interact with mimic different political systems. One warren seems like a paradise until the rabbits find there is a huge cost of living there. Efrafa, the militant warren, was built on the idea of concealing itself from mankind. It does this so well that the population explodes, but rabbits are not permitted to leave. Rabbits pay for security with their freedom.

Potential Pitfalls:
This film is much more graphic than what you’re probably used to. As prey animals, the rabbits face constant elimination by other species. Rabbits die, both on and off camera, and blood is shown. Some people might be concerned about the blood or the scenes when the rabbits must fight other rabbits. As a child none of that bothered me (why is it that people focus on blood and violence?). The scenes that did make me feel uncomfortable were usually when the film switched from its standard animation to something with more stylistic imagery and intense sound. Fiver’s visions of destruction and Holly’s description of the actual event were far more horrific than simple blood on-screen. That said, I still strongly recommend this film. The world itself is not sugar-coated.

Links:
Watership Down (Novel)
Watership Down (Film)

Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer

Yukon Cornelius: This fog’s as thick as peanut butter!
Hermey: You mean pea soup.
Yukon Cornelius: You eat what you like, and I’ll eat what I like!

Rating: G

Themes:
• Friendship
• Fitting In/Being True to Yourself
• Confidence
• Coming of Age

Plot Synopsis:
This is the story of Rudolph and how he came to pull Santa’s sleigh. Rudolph is born with a red nose and his father tries to cover it up. When the other reindeer find out about the nose they make fun of Rudolph and exclude him. Rudolph meets and elf named Hermey that doesn’t fit in either, as he wants to be a dentist instead of a toymaker. The two decide to run away together. Through their travels they meet an odd prospector (Yukon), travel to an island of misfit toys and flee from the Abominable Snowman. Rudolph’s nose always gives their location away to the Abominable, so he decides to leave the group to spare his friends. Eventually he realizes that he can’t run away from his problems and returns home, only to find that his family was captured by the Abominable when they went to search for him. Rudolph tries to save his family but Yukon and Hermey end up saving the day. Everyone returns home to celebrate, but a blizzard threatens to keep Santa from flying. Rudolph’s nose solves that problem.

Review:
This is a holiday classic. The songs are wonderful, the characters memorable, and the lessons excellent.

Teaching Points:
I can’t think of anything really with this movie, except to emphasize the lessons within (having confidence in yourself, not making fun of others, being yourself).

Potential Pitfalls:
This was made in 1964 and there’s one line in it that irks me. When Rudolph’s father goes to look for him his mother wants to come along, but the father says “No, that’s man’s work.” The point of the line is to split up father and mother (the mother goes searching separately with Rudolph’s girlfriend), but it’s still out of date.

Links:
Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer

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