Hello… yes, I know it’s been a week or three. (Switzerland and Burgundy, thank you, very nice although not exactly an exercise in self-denial. Home now… and time to diet.) So we’re half-way through the summer holidays, and let’s face it, in the present day no child will take themselves off to a window-seat and curl up with a book from breakfast-time to supper, nor fill up a knapsack with seed-cake and ginger beer and take themselves off to discover lost continents. Nor can parents be on hand at all times to dispense books, projects and mediation services. Sometimes, a conflict-free hour and a half is beyond price, and sometimes the simplest way to achieve that is a DVD.
You don’t, of course, need me to direct you to Disney’s finest, or the latest fresh-out-of-cinema releases. I’m taking the opportunity to share with you some of my favourite obscure, foreign (mostly), arthouse (probably) and wholly delightful (definitely) children’s DVDs, and point out that they are more easily available online or through libraries than you might imagine.
Lost and Found is a beautifully-produced picture book by Oliver Jeffers that translates into an even more enchanting animated film, narrated by Jim Broadbent (who could surely give warmth and depth to a straight reading of the railway timetable). A penguin arrives in a sleepy English seaside town. A small boy takes it upon himself to return the penguin… oh, I can’t begin to tell you, but the DVD is currently available from the mighty one-that-pays-no-tax for less than the price of a sandwich, and I do not think you will regret it. Just to say that a little over half way through, there is a significant encounter with an octopus that looks quite scary for the very young – stand by if you think they might be spooked – but turns out not to be.
I don’t know why no UK provider has taken up Minuscule (La vie privée des insectes) – my three aged 10-7 and assorted younger cousins have all loved it. You’ll find the full four seasons at the Institut Français children’s library in South Kensington (wonderful library, but you’ll need to pay a subscription), or individual episodes on YouTube. There’s no dialogue as such, so the French production doesn’t matter in the least to our mainly monoglot children, but the 15-minute episodes are clever and compelling and all-ages hilarious.
There are some truly wonderful French animations for children. A Cat in Paris has a little girl’s cat leading a secret second life, befriending a cat burglar and on the trail of the notorious gangster who killed his owner’s father: lovely stylised drawing and night-time rooftop sequences and a nice jazz-inflected soundtrack. Eleanor’s Secret is as bookish as a film could be: elderly Aunt Eleanor lives in a large clapboard house by the sea, where Nathaniel’s family spend happy holidays. When Eleanor dies, she leaves her library of children’s classics to Nathaniel; a strange bequest since Nathaniel can’t, and doesn’t want to, read. However, when the characters in the books start coming to life, and Nathaniel’s parents consider selling the library to a book dealer, there is one way for Nathaniel to save them. It’s perhaps a slightly worthy story, but lifted by exquisite backgrounds by cult French illustrator Rébecca Dautremer.
Most beautiful of all is Michel Ocelot’s Tales of the Night, in which three friends meet in a disused cinema to trade stories from around the world – which are brought to life as exquisite silhouettes with jewel-bright backgrounds. All three are widely available in library DVD collections, as is the Irish-French co-production The Secret of Kells which has a boy monk hoping to learn the secret of illuminating manuscripts in defiance of his forbidding uncle abbot. Once again the backdrops are especially stunning, incorporating beautiful textured watercolour and Celtic motifs, and there is some nice incorporation of Irish traditional music in the soundtrack.
Probably the world masters of non-Disney-style animation (although ironically now brought into the Disney distribution fold by Pixar founder John Lasseter, a longtime fan) are Hayao Miyazaki and his acolytes at Studio Ghibli in Japan. Spooky Spirited Away brought Ghibli to the world’s and the Oscars’ attention, but many critics’ favourite is the gentler My Neighbour Totoro in which two young sisters move to the country while their mother is ill in hospital, and are befriended not only by their human neighbours but also by the bear-like wood spirit Totoro. The realistic and fantastic are brilliantly combined: the drama when little Mei goes missing, and the irresistible catbus, a giant tabby with headlamp eyes that leaps across the countryside. Kiki’s Delivery Service is another heartwarmer, in which young witch Kiki gains broomstick experience and new friends as a courier in a pretty Mediterranean-looking seaside town; and Ponyo, an eco-fable with more than a nod to Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, has an irrepressible heroine and extraordinary painterly scenes of a flooded world. (Be warned: the final theme in its US-sung version is dementingly catchy – I would mute or switch off the moment it starts up.)
Ghibli also produced some brilliant adaptations of Western writers’ work: Howl’s Moving Castle proved a true meeting of minds with Diana Wynne Jones (who has a lovely story of meeting Miyazaki to discuss the movie, over a large chocolate cake: writer and director had so much to say to each other that they effectively demolished the cake between them, giving their interpreter so much to relay that he didn’t get even a slice), and Arrietty is a captivating adaptation of Mary Norton’s The Borrowers. Princess Mononoke, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and Laputa, Castle in the Sky are more fantastical original stories, also with a strong eco theme and Ghibli’s characteristically strong and independent heroines. I’d hesitate only over Grave of the Fireflies, recently re-released – not because it’s in any way a lesser film; I’ve not seen it but I’ve heard it’s both beautiful and moving, but its Second World War setting and story of two orphaned children trying to survive bombings and food shortages is necessarily harrowing. Most libraries with good DVD collections (certainly all those locally) have a range of Ghibli titles.
Another beautiful film with sadness at its heart – less harrowing than Grave of the Fireflies, although my daughter was in tears when the magician set his rabbit free – is The Illusionist, the story of a stage magician who finds his livelihood threatened by the rise of television and rock and roll bands. Brought to the Western Isles by an eccentric laird, he finds a friend in the put-upon chambermaid, who stows away when he leaves the islands and becomes an adopted daughter to him, living hand-to-mouth in theatrical lodgings in Edinburgh. It’s a late sunlit spell in a disappointed life, and even as you watch, you know it can’t last; but the times and places are wonderfully evoked, an especial pleasure for this expat Scot and onetime Edinburgher. Not a film for younger children, but my children enjoyed it from 8+ (liberated rabbit aside) and I loved it.