Summer Watch: Top Ten Animated Family Films of the Century!

Compiling this year’s list, Top Ten Animated Family Features of the Century for this week’s episode of Salt + Light Radio Hour has been the most fun I’ve ever had creating a movie list! (You can listen here or look for the June 30, 2018 episode here.)  A few years ago, I wouldn’t have said that animated features were a genre I particularly enjoyed, but as I put together a list of contenders to consider, review, and in some cases to see for the first time, I realized that the number of quality animated films being made (or being made available) has grown exponentially.  I will always be grateful to Disney for the wholesome animated films I grew up with (and for their continuing commitment to children’s entertainment, although sometimes widely varying in quality and value), but now there are a lot of other wonderfully gifted animators producing intriguing animated features. And due to the Motion Picture Academy creating a “Best Animated Feature” category in 2001, more animated films have become more easily available.

As readers familiar with my blog know, I use specific criteria when I offer a commentary on films. To make this top ten list, I especially considered these factors:

  • great artistry as an animated film, including animation, plot, voices, music, etc.
  • authentic, meaningful, multilayered story that offers insight into he human experience of being created in the image of God; thus I chose films that specifically explore the dignity of the human person and the giftedness of life
  • solid entertainment and/or engagement so that the whole family (or in some cases most members of the family) can watch, enjoy, and perhaps discover something more.

Another reason many of these films made it onto this list is that they deal with the universal theme of family, and the importance of family in our lives—a theme that can be appreciated by everyone at every age. However, the films on this list do more than highlight the importance of family; they also show the great beauty of a loving family life and even offer us models of what a loving family can look like—in the midst of difficulty and misunderstanding—and how that love we experience in our family becomes the foundation upon which we build our lives.

I could easily have written a “top 20” list instead! Someday I’ll write a post about all the honorable mentions that are well worth seeing but for various reasons didn’t meet the criteria for viewing by the whole family.

So, check out the countdown! I hope the list helps you pick out a couple of films to watch with your family this summer. I’d love to hear your thoughts on these top ten—please vote in the poll below!

 

10. Kubo and the Two Strings (2016; PG)

directed by Travis Knight, from Laika Entertainment.

Kubo and the Two Strings is the magical quest of young Kubo, a young boy who supports himself and his fragile mother by entertaining the nearby villagers with his musical stories that literally come to life as animated origami figures when he plays his three-stringed shamisen. Kubo has only one eye and has grown up listening to the fantastical stories that his mother tells him about his past, especially that he must hide from the evil spirit of his grandfather (also known as the Moon King), who stole one of Kubo’s eye when he was a baby, and who wants to steal his other eye. Kubo doesn’t know what is real and what is not, but when he accidentally stays out after dark, his mother gives her life protecting Kubo—both physically and magically.

In his adventurous quest to overcome his grandfather, Kubo is joined by two unusual companions, who help him to find a magical suit of armor that his mother hoped would protect him. Eventually Kubo returns to the village to confront his grandfather. The beauty of the ending is how Kubo is able to escape his grandfather’s evil plan.

Reasons to Watch: Darker than your typical Disney film, Kubo and the Two Strings unerringly weaves together the light and dark motifs of the story: both Kubo’s resilience and ability to play (even in the midst of a life-and-death chase), and his sorrow at the loss of his parents. Incredible animation by the Laika Entertainment Studio, a compelling and brave protagonist, origami figures that fly to life, and a lighthearted tone that balances its approach to the deeper themes of family and loss of loved ones, Kubo and the Two Strings has something for everyone in the family. The importance of family, the respect due to elders and those who have gone before us, the power of stories and the importance of memories, all lead to a wonderful resolution to the story that doesn’t rely on physical violence or “winning.”

9. The Breadwinner (2017; PG-13; based on the children’s novel by Deborah Ellis)

Directed by Norah Twomey, from Cartoon Saloon.

The Breadwinner is about eleven year old Parvana who becomes determined to help her family survive under the oppression of Taliban control after her father is unjustly imprisoned. (Her worn-out mother, her older sister and Parvana herself are not legally allowed to go out without a male accompanying them, so when Parvana’s father is arrested in retaliation for protecting Parvana, their family—including Parvana’s toddler younger brother—are in real danger of starving to death.) The dramatic tension of this film never lets up, and yet, the gentle animation style, Parvana’s unselfish love for her family, her stories for her little brother, and the kindness that she finds—both in her father and in unexpected places—broadens the film’s power, appeal, and accessibility for audiences young and old.

Cartoon Saloon is a relatively new but gifted animation studio that has its own unique style and consistently produces masterpieces, all visually delightful and extraordinarily engaging in their storytelling. The Breadwinner is their third feature. (Their first feature is higher on this list.)

Reasons to Watch: An honest and troubling depiction of life under Taliban control, this is not a film for young children. Parents would do well to watch the film alone first, to evaluate if their youngsters are ready for such a true-to-life story. Watching and then discussing The Breadwinner together as a family would be especially helpful. (This important story should be disturbing for audiences of all ages, as it is worthy to note that, though the film is set in the 1990s when the Taliban first took power, today Taliban presence is once again growing rapidly and controls or influences a large part of the country of Afghanistan.)

Parvana’s loving commitment to family, her courage in both seeking work and providing for her family, and her refusal to give up on seeing her father again, are beautiful and hopeful qualities that show the true heart of Afghan mothers and daughters. My favorite parts of the film were the specially-animated sequences of the story that Parvana tells her younger brother. Though Parvana does not seem aware of it, her story becomes a metaphor for her own life, and her storytelling is how she fights the despair and hopelessness of living in such a dire situation.

(Honorable mention goes to Cartoon Saloon’s second animated feature, Song of the Sea, a much lighter, delightful Selkie fairytale about the magical quest of Ben and his little sister Saiorse, who never speaks. Having lost their mother to the sea when Saiorse was born, Ben treasures the seashell his mother left him. When Saiorse blows into it, the children begin a quest to unlock the mystery of their mother’s whereabouts and Saiorse’s silence.)

8. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013; PG)

Directed by Isao Takahata, from Studio Ghibli.

An ancient Japanese folktale about a tiny princess who is sent to earth as a punishment. An elderly bamboo cutter discovers her magically growing in a bamboo plant. He brings her home and raises her with his wife in the idyllic country side where she happily plays, but the little princess grows too rapidly from a tiny girl into a lovely young woman.

Despite their happy country existence, her father feels his lovely daughter deserves the best money can buy. He finds a rich home in the city for his daughter, and has her trained in the ways of wealthy society. The princess unwillingly obeys her father, torn by her love for her previous life in the forest with her friends, and her desire to obey and make her father happy. But the inhuman process of choosing a husband merely for appearance and status becomes  greatly distressing to the princess. The ending is not a “happily ever after,” but it offers hope and also mystery.

Reasons to Watch: I have not yet found a Studio Ghibli film I didn’t like (here is a list of some of the best Studio Ghibli films I have enjoyed), but The Tale of Princess Kaguya is the studio’s most visually exquisite  film. With all the hallmarks of a great Studio Ghibli film, there is every reason to watch: a beautifully told story, complex characters, incredibly symbolism in the visuals, and deep themes, including:

  • choices have consequences
  • the nurturing and love important for a child in the family
  • a critique of living by appearances and seeking social status
  • the value of a simple life of harmony and love
  • the incredible beauty and gift of nature

The Tale of Princess Kaguya is a gentle, delightful film for the whole family.

7. The Incredibles (2004; PG)

Directed by Brad Bird, from Walt Disney/Pixar Animation.

In some ways, this entire list could be made up of animation giants Disney & Pixar, and it was hard to choose which of their films to highlight. The Incredibles makes it onto the list because it is truly a story for families: a more-than-fun story about a family of superheroes who hide their abilities and try to live a “normal” life.  The Incredibles is a coming of age story, but not just for one child or teen. Rather, it’s an entire family’s “coming of age” story, as each family member has his or her own special gift and each member must “grow into” and value their own gifts and those of the other members of their family. Today, The Incredibles is an unusual portrait of a family that has problems and is far from perfect, but is ultimately quite healthy and loving, and who grow closer together—both with their special abilities and simply as the persons they are.

Reasons to Watch: A lighter choice on our list, nevertheless this “family coming-of-age” story offers insights for every member in the family—both animated characters and the flesh-and-blood viewers—all in the context of a loving family with a father and mother who are not only great parents, but understand that their family (not just themselves as individuals) has an important role in the mission of saving the world. (Plus, the sequel is in theaters right now!)

6. Coco (2017; PG)

Directed by Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina, from Walt Disney/Pixar Animation.

Disney/Pixar has made many outstanding films, and it was hard to choose which to include (see #2 on the list for my top Disney/Pixar pick!) (A couple of excellent runners-up: Finding Nemo, Moana, and Wall-E were serious contendors.) Coco is here on the list because of its wonderful homage to Mexican families. Authentic cultural touches include the Mexican music; the tradition of celebrating the Day of the Dead that, while certainly not a Catholic tradition, does point to the importance of honoring our ancestry; the bright colors and artistic design; and even small gestures of the characters, such as the grandmother throwing her shoe to rebuke her stubborn grandson.

The film centers around young boy Miguel’s dream to become a musician, which is a problem because his large, loving family has a generations-old ban on music. Miguel is a well-drawn, recognizable figure of a young boy who is torn between family and his dream. Well-developed characters, the magic of interacting with family ancestors who are already deceased, all create a wonderfully well-rounded picture of family and highlight the importance of family—even in following one’s dreams.

Reasons to Watch: In addition to the great music, fun, and family themes, Coco’s emphasis on the importance of both love and forgiveness in one’s family is beautifully drawn here.

* The Book of Life (2014; PG) was a runner-up for this spot, and deserves recognition for being the first animated feature film to bring Mexican culture to the mainstream big screen. (I suspect that The Book of Life’s release and DVD sleeper hit status helped Coco’s success.) A refreshingly entertaining and wholesome story with deeply Christian themes, The Book of Life has an astonishing, original, and vivid style of animation; a not-very-predictable plot with unexpected twists and turns, and a few emotional moments that completely hushed a theater full of families with young children. Yet, The Book of Life wobbles a bit in overall quality and seems to lack some of the authentic touches that made Coco such a moving expression of  Mexican culture (perhaps partly due to the choice of music).

Both The Book of Life and Coco are amazing films with remarkably similar themes, but they each carry those themes through their stories in entirely different ways. One feature of The Book of Life that I especially appreciated was the ending—a great ending, but not the “perfectly happily ever after” that is so problematic to find in all Disney films. (If you need more reasons to watch The Book of Life, check out my original review here.)

5. How To Train Your Dragon 1 & 2 (2010, 2014; PG)

Directed by Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders (How To Train Your Dragon 2 directed by Dean DeBlois), from Dreamworks Animation

(based on the book series by Cressida Cowell)

Son of a fearless Viking chief, Hiccup doesn’t fit the Viking mold. He should be learning how to fight dragons. But when he accidentally befriends a powerful Night Fury dragon that he injured, Hiccup discovers that the dragon-fighting Vikings have misjudged their greatest enemy. Instead of being their enemies, dragons could become precious allies—if only he and his Night Fury can overcome the prejudice and fears of the Viking  people.

How To Train Your Dragon 2 begins with Hiccup still not “fitting in” to his village or his father’s expectations.  Hiccup prefers to go exploring rather than preparing to become the new village chief, but on his explorations, Hiccup discovers both terrible threats and wonderful new discoveries that will change his village forever. But his greatest discovery is how he needs his family to deal with both.

I take secret delight in all stories with great dragon characters, and both of these films are personal favorites of mine, despite some of the films’ weaknesses (for example, some of the dragons get more character development than the stereotypical secondary characters).  Above all, these films are unbeatable in the depth and realism with which they explore Hiccup’s character development and the key relationships in his life— above all with his father. I couldn’t choose between these two films is that the first one is really great, but the second film is not just a worthy sequel, but in some ways tops the first film.

The adventure and visual delight of vicariously flying on the back of a dragon, and the stunning attention to the world of dragons make both films artistic masterpieces.

Reasons To Watch: If you are not a dragon-story lover, these films are both profound coming-of-age stories that will resonate with both children and adults. They also delve realistically and deeply into parent-child relationships, the preservation and cultivation of the natural world, and the realistic consequences of dealing with danger, including loss. Although the films also include a good bit of fighting (because the protagonists are Vikings and dragons, after all), the resolution of each film’s major conflict comes not from physical strength or violence but rather by authentic leadership.

Both films are chockfull of fun and strong community and family values.

Note for parents: In addition to the fighting scenes and life-and-death danger of the animated characters, How To Train Your Dragon 2 specifically deals with loss of a beloved major character, and the influence of that loss on Hiccup.

4. The Secret of Kells (2009; PG)

Directed by Tom Moore & Nora Twomey (co-director), from Cartoon Saloon

The story of Brendan, the young nephew of the Abbot of the monastery at Kells, who is entrusted with a series of tasks to help save the Book of Kells from the destruction of Viking invaders (who did indeed attack the monastery several times. In the year 806, 68 monks were murdered at the monastery by the invaders). The film is an imaginative, fantastical fairytale that weaves together Celtic myth and legend and a delightfully playful imagination, centered around the Word of God and set within the context of actual historical events. Note to parents: as imaginative and playful as this film is, some of the animated sequences of the invasion could be very scary for younger children.

Reasons to watch: The Book of Kells is a real, ancient illuminated manuscript of the four Gospels with commentary and exquisite illustrations—thought to be completed by the monks at Iona or Kells around 800 A.D.  (The Book of Kells has been called the greatest medieval treasure of Europe.) In the film, the Book of Kells is treated as much more than an artistic treasure. It was one of the precious copies of the Sacred Word of God, and the holy manuscript represents the light of the Gospel that transformed Western civilization. The focus of the film is the urgency of saving this precious copy of the Gospel from destruction. The playful, imaginative spirit of the film resonates well with the playful, imaginative illustrations found in the Book of Kells, such as the film’s mysterious white cat character, whose image is found in the illustrations of the Book of Kells. (I have always found monasteries and convents some of the most joyful places on earth.) The hand-drawn, exquisite style of animation draws on the illuminated art in the Book of Kells itself.

Themes include: art and the imagination, the Bible (especially the Gospel), the Gospel as a light of civilization and the importance of allowing it to continue to shine—in reading the Bible, in sharing Word of God with others, in trying to live the Word of God in the choices we make.

A possible family activity after watching the film would be to look online at some of the exquisite pages of the Book of Kells here or here (or other illuminated manuscripts such as the Lindisfarne Gospels), and invite each member of the family to choose a story from the Gospel to “illuminate.” Then, either create the illuminated story with text and image, or invite each member to talk about how they would illuminate that story—what symbols would they use, which words from the Gospel text would they emphasize, and how.

3. The LEGO Movie (2014; PG)

Directed by Phil Lord, Christopher Miller, from Warner Brothers.

This bright, primary-colored, youngster-friendly story is about ordinary LEGO construction worker Emmet Brickowoski, who accidentally discovers an important artifact (the Piece of Resistance) prophesied about at the beginning of the film. Emmet is identified as the “Special,” a Messiah-like figure who is expected to defeat President Business, who threatens to paralyze all in the LEGO worlds with superglue (the “Krackle”). Emmet’s ordinariness AND specialness are ultimately what will save the LEGO worlds and reinforce the truth that all of us are both ordinary and special.

For a film based on a bunch of interlocking block toys, The LEGO Movie is not just watchable by the whole family, but is truly engaging and has a deeper “something” for kids of all ages, throughout its sometimes zany, often unexpected twists and turns.

Reasons To Watch: Always true to its initial inspiration, The LEGO Movie is brilliantly written and masterfully executed, all with an uncompromising fidelity to primary colors and its young audience. A “spoof” of the popular superhero stories we have been inundated with lately, The LEGO Movie takes us on a journey with a block-like, ordinary construction worker who, by the end, grows into not only recognizing his own specialness, but by recognizing that every “person” (or LEGO character) is uniquely special. As a screenwriter, I am awed each time I see how The LEGO Movie filmmakers accomplish such deeply felt, surprising, and insightful moments, all in a fun way. For more reasons to watch, check out my initial review:

From my initial review:

Emmet’s self-sacrifice near the end is a powerful image of selfless, Christ-like love. Where The LEGO Movie really stands out is its twofold message about yearning to be special. Being special is such a fundamental human desire that even grown-ups can resonate with Emmet’s pain when he’s harshly told that he’s not special. But Emmet doesn’t just discover that he’s special (an important message in itself for young viewers). He also discovers how his “specialness” fits with his being part of a community, part of a team. We are all special and unique, and yet we best express how special we are when we “fit” together and work with each other. This second message is delightfully reinforced by the ending, which is refreshingly nonviolent.

2. Up (2009; PG)

Directed by Pete Docter, Bob Peterson (co-director) from Walt Disney/Pixar Animation.

The first eleven minutes of this film make a powerful stand-alone film all by itself—not just a poignant introduction to the protagonist and a backstory that captures our hearts and imaginations, but also a touching tribute to the beauty of married life and an introduction to the themes of the rest of the film.

But those first eleven minutes are also the perfect set-up for a fantastic story about elderly Carl Frederickson, who, still grieving after the loss of his beloved wife Ellie, decides to carry out their childhood dream of following in the footsteps of a famed explorer and flying to the mysterious Paradise Falls in South America. On his fantastical flight (helium balloons lift his house and take him to South America), Carl unknowingly takes along a “stowaway,” young neighbor Russell, who challenges him to go beyond his grief to live a new adventure. And they truly do have a wonderful adventure—not just reaching Paradise Falls and meeting its mysterious inhabitants, but then growing beyond grief and fear.

Reasons to Watch: With its gentleness, spirit of adventure, poignance, laugh-out-loud humor, and talking dogs, there is no reason not to watch this uplifting film! At every moment, we are lifted up with the film’s positive, hopeful view of life—in all its beauty, meaning, and dignity, even at times of grief or sorrow. A gentle, genuinely affecting film made for viewers of all ages, Up is truly the perfect family summer film.

1. Spirited Away (PG, 2001)

Directed (and written) by Hayao Miyazaki, from Studio Ghibli

Spirited Away is considered by many to be the masterpiece of Studio Ghibli and of its most famous director, Hayao Miyazaki. Spirited Away is the story of 10 year-old Chichiro, who is driving with her parents to their new home. A despondent Chichiro already misses her friends, but becomes uneasy when her parents get lost and decide to explore an old building they come upon: an entrance to a seemingly abandoned amusement park, where they find abundant, delicious fresh food. Her parents dig in without question to the food…and eat so greedily that they lose their humanity and become pigs. Chichiro then discovers that she and her parents are trapped in a magical bathhouse for spirits. A seemingly friendly boy named Haku warns her that if she doesn’t leave immediately without her parents, she won’t survive unless she gets a job. So Chichiro signs a contract with the witch in charge, Yubaba, who steals Chichiro’s name and thus traps her there as well.

This short description of the first few minutes of the film doesn’t do it justice. The film is truly a magically animated adventure, filled with an incredibly variety of creatures and settings, wondrously animated with incredible and generous attention to detail.

Reasons to Watch: A truly fantastical adventure filled with strange creatures, Spirited Away is a sheer delight to watch, both for its lavish animation and the deftly developed plot which allows us to truly enter into Chichiro’s journey. And it is this magical, realistic journey of young Chichiro that makes this film resonate with viewers young and old, for it is the journey of a young, practically helpless ten-year-old girl whose pluck, determination, and persistence help her both to survive and to mature into a lovely young woman with intelligence, resilience, strength, and goodness. Both fable and fairy tale, every moment in this adventure is much more than it seems, just as each character is much more than they seem. Themes include: the respect that everyone deserves, the virtue of loyalty, the importance of balance, the consequences of gluttony, freedom, the importance of memory, and the reality that the choices we make have consequences.

(All of Studio Ghibli’s films are well worth exploring. Fun note: My personal favorite Studio Ghibli film is Howl’s Moving Castle, which has all the elements of the Spirited Away, plus a strong anti-war theme; the story is lighter, has a smaller cast of characters, and the entire film is more whimsical. Both films have somewhat similar plots, but are handled quite differently. For me, Howl’s Moving Castle is even more delightful that Spirited Away, but I had to give Spirited Away first place due its sheer scope, visual magnificence, and theme of family. Here is a previous post with a quick look at some of the other Studio Ghibli films.

 

What do you think? Agree? Disagree? Is one of your family’s favorite animated features (from this century) missing? Please vote for your top three below…and write-ins are welcome!

 

“To Seek God’s Face: Theological Approaches to Film”

Sister Rose Pacatte, FSP, is a sister of my community whose name you might recognize, either from the many times I have referred to her on this blog, or simply from  her wonderful and insightful film reviews. She just graduated from the Graduate Theological Foundation and received their 2018 Mother Teresa Prize in Spirituality and Community Service.

She is a pioneer in the area of Media Literacy Education, founding our Pauline Center for Media Studies, and also in her work of integrating media consumption with Catholic values—especially social justice in the teaching of the Catholic Church. Here is a short version of her acceptance of the award and her explanation of her doctoral project:

The Artist is an “apostle of beauty”

In the new film, Pope Francis: A Man of His Word  (directed by one of my favorite filmmakers, Wim Wenders), Pope Francis calls the artist an apostle of beauty. And then he goes on to say that all of us are–or can be–apostles of simple, everyday beauty. He highlights two ways in which that is so…

…but really, you have to watch the movie to find out the rest of what he said (or you can guess in the comments below)!

I’ll be posting a full review of the film shortly, but I just wanted to get a quick word out there about two things:

  1.  Pope Francis: A Man of His Word should be seen by the whole world. It is a father’s video-letter to his children, encouraging us, challenging us, and urging us to be more. We catch a real glimpse of the heart of this Pope: personal, warm, direct, hope-filled and yet full of pathos. In the beautifully filmed segments where Pope Francis speaks directly to us, we can see the pain in his eyes–the pain of a father who sees the suffering that some of his children cause his other children.The film will be available in fewer theaters this week, but it is so worth seeing on the big screen. If, however, you miss it, we will certainly be carrying it at our Pauline Book & Media Centers!You can see the trailer here:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MOmY8i-uBcYz

  2. This quote from the film (and the entire film) is totally appropriate and fitting for the first-ever “National Creativity Day,” sponsored by ScreenwritingU, which I have found offers quality classes on writing great screenplays. Some great ideas for the day (and beyond), when we struggle with moving forward in our writing/artistic/creative projects!   https://www.facebook.com/NationalCreativityDay/

 

Forever My Girl – More Than a Romantic Comedy

Forever My Girl, released this week on DVD, is a film adaptation of the best-selling novel. Forever My Girl is a sweet, second-chance romance that, despite some genre-typical set-ups and pay-offs, and a too-neat ending, has an endearing warmth and depth.

For my commentary on the Salt + Light Radio Hour (and to find out if Deacon Pedro watches romantic comedies-starting April 28), listen in here.

The storyline starts with an all-too-obvious heartbreak that totally fits the genre: on the day of their wedding, up-and-coming local Southern singer Liam Page abandons his bride Josie to pursue a career in country music. Eight years later, Liam is a famous country music star who, when he hears about the death of his friend, returns to his long-neglected past in his hometown in Louisiana for the funeral. Although he hovers around the edges of the service and burial, not really reconnecting, he ends up extending his visit, perhaps seeking to recover what he lost.

The story continues with obvious ploys which, while predictable for the genre, seem to work for this film:

  • On Liam’s return, Josie knocks him over with a punch
  • Josie is a single mom with a daughter, Billy
  • At first, Billy is a very cute, lovable brat, who keeps Liam at a distance, but she gradually lets down her walls 
  • Josie’s brother Jake taunts Liam with his abandonment and accuses him of being unfit for Josie and Billy
  • Liam’s father provides an explanation of why Liam ran away

Anyone who has watched a few rom-coms has seen all of these before—many of them together in similar films. But a couple earnest, understated choices of the filmmakers make all the difference:

  • When Liam decides to stay in his hometown, he doesn’t try to explain or defend himself to Josie, to Josie’s brother Jake, or to his father (who is also a pastor and is realistically struggling to deal with his disappointment in his son).
  • The film uses one telling detail to show not only that Liam has been unable to forget Josie, but that he is desperate for a connection with her
  • Despite Liam’s inner anguish, he has enough self-respect, courage, and respect for the people he left behind to seek reconciliation by simply being present, with no expectations.
  • Josie’s feisty response to Liam’s reappearance—he never contacted her after abandoning her at the church—rings true and reveals a maturity in her character. It takes time before she decides to see him or spend time with him.
  • While Liam’s father initially struggles with Liam’s return, he both encourages Liam and lets Liam find his own way.
  • Another nice touch in the film is how Liam’s isolation and brokenness is portrayed visually: he is constantly on the outside of the community/family, looking in.
  • Alex Roe’s understated performance as Liam really gives depth to this film. Rather than coming back with a “Here I am!” attitude, he simply accepts the criticism, blame, and doubts he receives. He doesn’t expect anything from the people he hurt and left behind. But he constantly tries to show—with his actions—what his intentions and desires are. His admirable quiet restraint, even humility, in several situations that are emotionally difficult for everyone is quite striking.

 

A Window to the Soul: into the Virtues of Humility, Reconciliation, Forgiveness, Starting Over, Christian Community, Family

Forever My Girl is not an overtly Christian movie (and there are definitely non-Christian ideas and behavior in the film about living together, language, modesty, etc.). Rather, it is a mainstream genre film that contrasts a fame-driven, self-centered lifestyle with an other-centered, Christian lifestyle. Forever My Girl offers a refreshing view of a Christian community that is neither perfect nor hypocritical: real disciples of Christ who struggle to live the healing love of forgiveness Jesus calls us to. In today’s revenge-hungry, self-entitled culture, forgiveness can be unimaginable. But this film—without preaching—shows the power and beauty of these most important Christian virtues: forgiveness and true reconciliation.

For those who love romantic comedies, Forever My Girl is not to be missed. Forever My Girl is also a good choice for a teen or YA “Meeting Jesus at the Movies Night.” The film is rated PG, appropriate for families with older tweens and up (depending on the maturity of the child).

A Wrinkle in Time Movie (& Novel) Guides Available Now!

It’s a delight to be able to offer this little Easter gift for my blog readers!

Here are some guides for reflection and discussion for A Wrinkle in Time, available individually or all in one downloadable PDF. Eventually, these guides will move to the website for the Pauline Center for Media Studies, so if you’re interested in discussing the film or the book, or comparing the two, or simply praying with themes (and Scriptures) from the novel, you might want to download them from here today. Enjoy!

A Wrinkle in Time Movie has “wrinkles” but is worth seeing if…

The beloved, classic YA novel A Wrinkle of Time influenced countless young people who read it during their formative years. The 2018 film reminds us of the differences between books and movies—and that one doesn’t always translate well to the other—but it still offers insight into aspects of Madeleine L’Engle’s original story.

The Story

A Wrinkle in Time is the story of young teen Meg Murry, whose parents are brilliant scientists who research the universe in a microcosmic and macrocosmic way. Meg’s father disappeared without a trace four years ago, and while Meg and her family desperately miss him and believe his disappearance has to do with his research, they have to put up with their neighbors’ and classmates’ snide remarks that their father purposely abandoned them.

Meg has an exceptionally brilliant brother she is very close to, five-year-old Charles Wallace. Charles Wallace often seems to know things without being told—including Meg’s often unspoken feelings of inadequacy and her struggle to fit in.

Several strange ladies, “fallen stars” (who are really angel-like figures) befriend Charles Wallace and take him, Meg, and Meg’s new friend from school, Calvin, on an inter-dimensional journey to other planets in the galaxy to find Meg’s father and rescue him.

The above description fits both film and novel, but doesn’t capture the emotional impact that the novel had on countless young people since its publication in 1962. This summary might seem a bit formulaic, but at the time, A Wrinkle in Time defied both categorization and expectations. (Eventually, it would help to define the YA genre, and in my mind it remains one of the first—and the best—YA books read today.)

Christian Themes

The author, Madeleine L’Engle brings a unique Christian sensibility to fantasy in her book, A Wrinkle in Time:

* the sense of wonder at and gratitude for the marvels of the universe

* an attitude of praise toward the Creator of the universe, who has created everyone (and everything) with a purpose to fulfill

* a solidly Christian foundation for the story, especially evident (but unstated?) in its approach to the universe, to life, the dignity of the human person, and to the struggle of good vs. evil

* a fascination with paradox and humility

* a deep respect for the reader: L’Engle is not afraid to challenge the reader’s ability to grasp scientific theory and to stretch our imagination to its limits

* an integrated way of seeing reality, the human person, and spiritual growth

Unfortunately, very little of this is carried through into the film.

The Film

But the film has some strengths and adaptations that make it well worth viewing: Strong acting, inclusive casting, some wonderful lines from the book are included in the dialogue, the fact that it is family-friendy, some delightful touches that nuance certain characters to show that it is their woundedness that gives an entryway to sin. The portrayal of the angelic characters, the Mrs. W’s, totally challenge the traditional image of angels. In the novel and in the film, the angels keep Meg and viewers off-balance and slightly uncomfortable—the way we are supposed to be when in the presence of angels.

Some of the important themes that are explored in the movie are:

* the tyranny of conformity vs. the the gift of individuality

* importance of free will

* the gift (or grace) of our weakness

* forgiveness

* growth in self-confidence and integrity

* the struggle between good and evil/light and darkness

* love, especially under the aspect that love is the strongest power in the universe and is the best way to overcome evil

The film also addresses the wonder of creation, but in this aspect, we see lots of special effects, which are dazzling visually, but less of experience of wonder.

The film got a lot right, and is worth seeing on its own. However, it could have been so much more. As a novel, A Wrinkle in Time is practically perfect; the film’s artistry doesn’t measure up to the book, nor is it a great film on its own.

My second biggest disappointment in the film is that, although the characters are likable, we never get to “feel” with them. Somehow, this movie leaves us on the surface. None of the characters get the just development they deserve. As the protagonist, Meg has a credible character arc, but it never makes us feel with her. (And it’s certainly not the wonderful character arc of the book.)  Too much time is spent on the visual effects, but again, we experience them from the surface. In L’Engle’s book, creation itself is a character, but in the book, it is simply a colorful background. Choices are consistently made that pull us away from the deeper story of the characters. A chase scene that doesn’t even exist in the book was added in…and it doesn’t even make sense. Unfortunately, this emphasis on the special effects means that we don’t have enough time to go deeper into the characters.

The pacing of the plot was uneven. The film jumps between places and flashbacks in time, but too often the jumps didn’t serve the story.

Translation from Novel into Film

CAUTION: BOOK SPOILERS AHEAD

My first disappointment in the film is that so many of the themes inherent in L’Engle’s novel don’t make it into the film. In the novel, L’Engle’s characters directly quote the Bible at least five times: from Isaiah, the Gospel of John, 1 & 2 Corinthians. (I would have to reread the book just for Scripture citations to be sure how many; I probably missed one or two or more!)  I don’t believe that the film used any of those quotes, even though several of them capture these deeper themes so well. By eliminating the reference to these quotes and removing those themes, the filmmakers are removing the major part of the depth and magic of the story.

One of my favorite events which is key in Meg’s character development, is completely left out. Instead, the movie shows her father trying to tesser Meg out and failing, because of Meg’s strength of will (and maybe her temper). From there, the film moves right to the climax of the story. (In the novel, of course Meg has a temper, but after almost dying from her father’s effort to tesser her home, she goes through an inner journey on the planet of Ixchel, which prepares her for the final encounter with It. Her choice to go back to get Charles Wallace comes not from fear, but is a choice of love and trust, even in the blindness of her fear and the knowledge that she isn’t strong enough. By leaving out this journey to Ixchel—one of the most important events of the book and a key event in Meg’s character development—the film reduces the novel’s incredibly rich thesis to a flat journey to self-esteem, with a generic message about the power of love.

My disappointment in the film was made all the greater by the filmmakers claiming to know L’Engle deeply. Madeleine L’Engle wrote, “I wrote A Wrinkle in Time as a hymn of praise to God, so I must let it stand as it is and not be fearful when it is misunderstood.” In taking out many of the specifically Christian elements from the film, the filmmakers also took away the universal elements: the film has a weaker storyline, a generic message that lacks depth and specificity, flat themes, and characters that don’t emotionally engage the audience.

The Foolish and the Weak

The film’s biggest theme — Meg gaining enough self-esteem to learn to trust herself —is a worthy theme that resonates with kids. But in the novel, Meg doesn’t save herself by her own power, just because she believes in herself. Her learning to trust in herself is only a part of one of the book’s main themes: the Christian paradox of weakness and strength, of failure and victory—all of which, of course, refers to the paradox of the cross. This is a far cry from the tagline of the film, “Be a warrior.” I assume that the tagline (and the line repeated in the film) is about being a warrior of love, and having courage. But that is really not the theme–not even of the film.

The novel’s last chapter is titled “The Foolish and the Weak,” and directly quotes 1 Corinthians: “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.” Meg doesn’t just learn that the power of this world—the power we can see—is not the greatest power in the universe. She learns that love is. But it’s a mutual love. It is in her faults, in her weakness and neediness, that she “grows into” accepting the truth about herself. And that truth, that humility, enables her to receive the love that transforms her into Love for others—to forgive her father and to rescue Charles Wallace no matter the risk to herself.  It is Meg’s remembering that she is loved by Mrs. Whatsit (an angelic stand-in for God) that enables her to love Charles Wallace who has lost himself, even as he is fighting her. Meg’s greatest adventure in A Wrinkle in Time is not external, but spiritual.

Is A Wrinkle in Time a “Must-See” Film?

This film got a lot wrong, leaving out: some of the best scenes, all of the biblical references apart from Jesus’ name; the Pauline theme of the foolishness of God being wiser than human wisdom; the sense of divine design in the universe—even the lovely example that human life is like a sonnet. (Our lives have a certain structure, but we are free to say whatever we want to say, as long as we stay within that poetic design.) However, in all fairness, perhaps A Wrinkle in Time is just too great of a novel to do a great film adaptation today. Perhaps in the future, the right filmmaker will come along and do this novel justice.

At the same time, the film does a good job visualizing and dramatizing parts of this great story. If you like fantasy, or if you’d like a fun family movie that has a little more depth to it, or if you loved the book but also like film adaptations, you will probably enjoy this movie. If you haven’t read the book, or you haven’t read the book in a while, then I highly recommend reading the book first, or plan to read it soon afterwards. The movie needs the book to complete it. And the story is more timely today than ever. However, if you are a book purist, then I regretfully caution you that you might not enjoy the film.

A Final Note

Madeleine L’Engle is one of my favorite authors—both her fiction (A Wrinkle in Time) and nonfiction (Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art). I suspect this is part of the reason why:

“We do not draw people to Christ by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.” – Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art

A discussion guide for the film and the novel highlighting some of these themes will be available in shortly—check back here on my blog or email me if you’d like to be notified when you can download it!

Make this Holy Week one-of-a-kind with Cinema Novena: PAUL, APOSTLE OF CHRIST

A “COOL PRAYER” FOR HOLY WEEK: A CINEMA NOVENA!

Join us in praying this nine-day Cinema Novena: PAUL, APOSTLE OF CHRIST

Let St. Paul lead you closer to Christ through nine days of prayer,
 using

  • a film clip from the new movie,PAUL, APOSTLE OF CHRIST
  • a reading from the Letters of Saint Paul
  • a reflection
  • old and new prayers to Saint Paul
  • listen to James Faulkner, the actor who portrays St. Paul, reading from the Letters of St. Paul

This cinema novena will make this year’s Holy Week unlike any other!

Sign up for the novena here. (The Novena is available for free, beginning on March 23.)

Then, check here to find the showing of Paul, Apostle of Christ nearest you.

 

 

MORE ABOUT THE CINEMA NOVENA:

Paul, Apostle of Christ is nine unique days of prayer, supported by powerful, living depictions from the life of Paul, the great evangelizer and lover of Christ. This online novena will help you live in communion with Christ, for whom Paul preached, prayed, suffered, and ultimately gave his life. No other apostle preached, taught, and suffered as much as Paul, who did all for the sake of love. It is a way of drawing closer to Christ in your daily life.

You can begin the Novena any day you’d like, but you can join with the sisters praying it starting March 23 or March 24, 2018.

Sign Up for the Novena Today!