Pixar’s Picks: Family Films

You’re stuck inside, saving the world. So we asked a group of award-winning Pixar filmmakers to help self-isolating families plan the very best movie nights (and days, and nights, and days…). And we talked to children’s film specialist Nicola Marshall about the beauty of movies made for kids, especially now.

Children deserve to watch great films, but kids are famously honest viewers. They’ll tell you instantly when they don’t like something. And when they do, it pays off: in Academy Awards (this year, for Hair Love and Toy Story 4), in stone-cold cash (as Box Office Mojo’s Top Box Office Grosses by G-rating confirms), and in precious family memories.

But where to turn when you need a quality watchlist of family films? When you want a guaranteed banger that the whole family will love, or when you want to move your child to next-level-cinephile status with a choice that will floor them? The answer, to us at least, is obvious: Pixar to the rescue!

We asked a group of the renowned studio’s directors and story artists—the people behind WALL·E, Finding Nemo, Inside Out, Bao, La Luna, Toy Story 4 and moreto show up in your hour of need, and show up they have, with personal recommendations that we’ve split into three Letterboxd lists: All Ages, 7 to 12 Years and 12 Years and Over.

From two-minute shorts to the entire Harry Potter collection, there’s something for every viewing window. From Charlie Chaplin to Greta Gerwig, the films cover a century of cinema; and from slapstick to horror, a multitude of genres.

Our filmmakers were remarkably restrained, nominating more Studio Ghibli films than Pixar movies, though they collectively agreed that Toy Story should most definitely be there. So we’ll say it for them: please explore all the films of our contributing filmmakers: Angus MacLane, Domee Shi, Kristen Lester, Daniel Chong, Peter Sohn, Valerie LaPointe, Brian Fee, Enrico Casarosa and Andrew Stanton. Thanks, you wonderful people.

Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro (1988).
Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro (1988).

Since many of us at Letterboxd HQ are grateful parents, this feels like a good moment to reflect on the enormous importance of ‘family’ films—so we pulled in our friend Nicola Marshall for a chat. She’s the founder of the Square Eyes film foundation, a curator of children’s film festival content, and a friend of the Henson family (not long ago, she created a live show with The Muppets and Flight of the Conchords’ Bret McKenzie).

Like most of us, Nicola is currently in self-isolation, after the hasty wrap-up of the 23rd annual New York International Children’s Film Festival (of which she is an advisory board member).

We’re living in an extraordinary time. How do movies help kids work out what’s going on in and around their lives?
Nicola Marshall: Films are an essential way to unpack big feelings during big times. Like all of us, kids are expressing, and suppressing, all kinds of emotions right now, and are sponges for absorbing the emotions of the adults around them. Using a familiar medium to help unpack all we’re feeling, no matter how old we are, feels like a great plan to me. Art always supports processing and groundedness in uncertain times.

What’s your overall impression of the choices made by our Pixar friends for these lists?
These are brilliant, eclectic selections—what superb curators these remarkable Pixar creators are, right? An excellent mix of films made for young audiences, and titles bound to appeal to them.

I’m thrilled to see, alongside some beautiful surprises and unknown gems, a lot of long-time personal favorites (Ernest & Celestine, Millions, Ponyo, The Muppet Movie, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Red Balloon, My Neighbor Totoro, The Kid, Gerald McBoing-Boing, Wallace & Gromit, Modern Times, The Iron Giant, The Phantom Tollbooth, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, Yellow Submarine, Bicycle Thieves, Megan Follows as Anne of Green Gables… they go on!).

While the lists lean heavily on a canon of western-produced films, there are some terrific international cinema choices in the mix here (The World of Us, Good Morning), and a bunch of lesser-known historic titles I’m super eager to check out (Preston Sturges marathon, here I come!).

Yasujirō Ozu’s Good Morning (1959).
Yasujirō Ozu’s Good Morning (1959).

Some of the Pixar directors included horror films—Get Out, It—and some Hitchcock thrillers in their 12 Years and Over lists. These selections are for older teenagers, clearly. What are your thoughts on the role of scares in kids’ viewing experiences?
I’ve always been interested in the psychology of frightening films. Personally I’m too much of a big scaredy-cat for horror to be a genre that generally works for me (self-censorship all the way!), but there are a whole bunch of people out there who really love a good freak-out; kiddos included.

As a kid I think you’re always testing and readjusting your limits on where your fear boundaries are. One of the highly anticipated and super popular NYICFF collections each year is ‘Heebie Jeebies’—short films that go out of their way to freak and fright. Kids (and the adults who attend alongside them) adore this collection and the expectation of being spooked.

I think humans love experiencing extreme feelings in small doses, to feel alive, whether we have big sensation-seeking personalities or not—and seeing something terrifying on screen has a certain safety to it. I also think scary films in collectively tricky times offer catharsis and adrenal release, and give us permission to scream long and loud, when that’s all we really feel like doing!

The New York International Children’s Film Festival wrapped up suddenly as the coronavirus pandemic began its march into the United States, but you did manage to screen much of the program. Other film festivals weren’t so fortunate. Would you like to take a small moment to celebrate the main takeaways of this year’s fest?
NYICFF was so lucky to share three of the planned four collective viewing weekends, just ahead of a swift city-wide shutdown. I’m a tad biased, but I really do feel you only have to look to NYICFF’s annual programming to get a genuine sense of the state of the world for young people globally; the issues they face and what themes are currently resonating.

Our programming director Maria-Christina Villaseñor consistently curates a remarkable selection of films that speak to the experience of young people, valuing their views and voices, always insightful, and never condescending.

This year saw a number of films—feature and short—that depicted stories of kids determined to make a difference and taking self-guided steps into activism and action. My faith in our future is pretty darn solid right now thanks to the optimism and commitment of these kids—and the filmmakers giving voice to young audiences and speaking to big themes and shared cross-cultural truths.

Nicola Marshall.
Nicola Marshall.

What can the rest of the movie industry learn from all-ages creators and studios?
I wish that there was greater wider-industry acknowledgement of the massive contributions that content for family and kids audiences make in terms of moving the overall film industry forward, both artistically and societally. As well as showing us fresh, meaningful and authentic ways to tell stories, the genuine commitment to diversity and inclusion in this space is meaningful, often to the point where it feels completely natural, unforced and expected in content for this audience, rather than some kind of box-ticking effort.

What do you think this pandemic will offer the storytellers of the future?
I think we will come out of this time ready to offer stories with even greater connectedness and empathy. I think our collective slowing will allow, if we let it, an incredible development incubator. How we make our way through this uncertain time as adults and work through our relationship with fear and the unknown will hugely resonate with the kids we’re sharing our lives with. I think we can use art and story and myth and expression and feeling to navigate us all through.

For all those hunkered down with small people, what better time to share your favorite screen stories, and discover new films together. What we chose to watch and to share and to rewatch; to talk about and unpack our feelings around and distract ourselves with through this weird, big time will make a real difference to the kids in our lives, and their innate imaginative-storyteller selves, now and future.

Finally, what are your favorite Pixar movies?
Pixar has always excelled at making incredible films with grown-up sensibilities squarely aimed at young audiences—truly cross-generational cinema, my very favorite kind. I love WALL·E for its seamless mix of art and heart, Brave for its representation of girl-strength, and Inside Out for exploring the shared humanness of feeling things deeply, and for reassuring us how valid and essential sadness is.

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