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Monday, June 29, 2009

Pixar's Predecessors (originally published 6/03)

Too often, taking a child to the movies proves to be a distasteful chore. Naturally, you want to avoid the violence and salaciousness of the R-rated fare, so you opt for the “kiddie films.” These are guaranteed to be free of blood, gore, and kinky sex, but, unfortunately, they are usually equally free of imagination, interesting characters, and ideas of any kind.

In recent years, however, a marvelous company called Pixar has demonstrated that films aimed at young audiences need not sacrifice storytelling excellence. From “Toy Story” (1995) to “Monsters, Inc.” (2001) to their most recent release, “Finding Nemo,” they have consistently shown a concern for telling engaging and coherent stories rather than simply allowing their animation virtuosity to carry their films.

Pixar didn’t invent the radical idea of employing talent and taste in the production of children’s films, however. They merely resurrected it after a long period of dormancy. For a sampling of earlier films that target young audiences without insulting their intelligence, look for these titles on home video.

“The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T” (1953). This was the only original film script written by Dr. Seuss (Theodore Geisel). It is a wonderful fantasy about a tyrannical piano teacher who enslaves 500 children to play for him on an enormous piano. The role of the nefarious Dr. Terwilliger is played by Hans Conried, a character actor whose name may not be familiar to you, but whose voice undoubtedly will be. If you love reading the Dr. Seuss books to your kids, and find that you keep on reading them after the kids are asleep, give this gem a try.

“The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao” (1964). Don’t be put off by the title. I know it sounds like a James Bond film, but in fact it is a charming and moving fantasy executed by masters of the genre. The producer-director was George Pal, who also produced “Destination Moon” (1950), “War of the Worlds” (1953), and “When Worlds Collide” (1951). I had the privilege of meeting and talking with Pal just a couple of years before his death. He told me that of all his films this one had most especially been a labor of love. He had gone to Charles Beaumont, one of the three principle scriptwriters for the original “Twilight Zone” television series, and asked him what script he would write if he could choose any subject at all. Beaumont replied that he had always wanted to adapt Charles Finney’s short novel, “The Circus of Dr. Lao,” for the screen. Pal commissioned the script on the spot and directed the picture himself. The story is about a little town in the old West that is dying. Its resources are drying up and its inhabitants are thinking of selling out to a crooked entrepreneur who has neglected to mention the railroad that will soon be built through the town. While they ponder their decision, a strange and wonderful circus comes to town, presided over by an enigmatic Chinaman named Dr. Lao. Tony Randall gives an astonishing performance, not only as Dr. Lao, but also as several of the attractions in his circus, including Merlin the Magician, the Medusa, Pan, and even the Abominable Snowman. Don’t miss this one. It will feed the kids’ imaginations and give them plenty of ideas to chew on without going over their heads. And by all means watch it with them – it offers plenty for grownups to chew on as well. Reproduced below, courtesy of Turner Classic movies, are a few clips from the film, along with excerpts from an interview with Tony Randall.

“Babes in Toyland” (1934). Please note the date on this one. If you pick up the 1961 version you will have missed the boat. The 1934 version of the classic Victor Herbert operetta has two things going for it that no other version can touch: Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. They play the Toymaker’s assistants in a Toyland that is terrorized by a villain named Barnaby and his army of bogeymen. Barnaby tries to force Bo-Peep to marry him until Laurel and Hardy enlist the aid of the wooden soldiers to save the day.

When the Pixar films begin to lose their edge after the hundredth viewing, don’t yield to the temptation to turn your kids’ entertainment over to the tender mercies of the Care Bears. Remember that the corner video store has plenty of worthwhile films to offer them if you’re willing to make a detour to the vintage section.

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