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!

 

Superheroes: Models of Christian Virtue?

This weekend, on Salt + Light Radio Hour, I talk about two of the latest theatrical superhero film releases: Wonder Woman and Spider-Man: Homecoming. Both are a return to the lighter superhero film and more in tune with what I had come to think of as a “comic book” movie. Perhaps this is a reaction to so many recent superhero films Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, Deadpool, Netflix’s The Defenders, Iron Fist, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, and Daredevil, that are so dark and grim. Both Wonder Woman and Spider-Man: Homecoming are true superheroes, not anti-heroes, following a classic hero’s journey arc. It was also refreshing to see that both films seemed to be less violent overall, and more focused on special effects.

A Closer Look ~ Wonder Woman

Wonder Woman is a comic book movie with a strong fantasy bent—more of a fairy tale than most comic book films. A mythical past (rather than a scientific “accident”), magical powers associated with magical objects, and a “love at first sight” kind of romance. My childhood partiality for fairy tales has carried into adulthood with a strong partiality for fantasy. (If a story has a dragon, wizards, magic, and a hero(ine) with a huge handicap, I’m in!) But that is not all I found appealing about Wonder Woman: the acting is superb, the romance is an important and integrated part of the story rather than just an obligatory minor plot line thrown in for convention’s sake, the characters are interesting and appealing, and the entire story—while there are probably some loopholes—is solid, if not-too-surprising. I really enjoyed the special effects because not only was I blown away, I could follow all the action.

Wonder Woman’s warrior costume alone probably deserves a whole blogpost. Her costume is one of the reasons my mother wouldn’t let us watch the TV show when I was growing up, and I have always disliked the Wonder Woman character because of it. Unfortunately, the costume is kept in the film, but it is more tasteful than I expected. (Some day, I hope we as a culture can get beyond this kind of superhero costume that oversexualizes heroic characters.) Some references to Diana’s physical attractiveness are made; most are clearly meant to be distasteful. (A couple comments meant to be humorous I found offensive.) These comments, in addition to some splendidly awkward dialogue between character Steve Trevor and Diana, plus an implied night spent together, make the film suitable for a slightly older teen (and could also open the door for dialogue about why certain comments are disrespectful). The comic book violence focuses more on the special effects, but there is still plenty of violence.

Windows to the Soul

Two points about the film I especially appreciated. Diana Prince (aka Wonder Woman) is an amazing warrior, but she is also a woman who embraces her femininity. Wonderfully self-confident, she accepts and uses her powers, but is still very womanly. Her compassion, her passion to to “save humanity” from the violence of war—seeing war (or the god of war) as the enemy are all gifts that women can bring to the world. Diana Prince is, in many ways, a wonderful role model for girls today. (I think it is very, very cool that the first film about a superhero directed by a woman is about a female superhero, and I think Patty Jenkins’ directorial influence shows here.)

The film addresses the problem of evil head-on, not in a theological sense, but in addressing the question: “With all of the evil that human beings do, is humanity really worth being saved?” And in this sense, it is her experience of being loved, not her super-powers, that enable her to make the right choice and be true to her mission.

In her choice to see humanity in the midst of war’s depravity through the lens of love, I find that Wonder Woman is a Christ-figure. And it is this lens of love that gives a lightness to the film, even amidst the tragic circumstances. This sense of hope—that love makes everything worthwhile—is also present in the other superhero summer release, Spider-Man: Homecoming.

A Closer Look: Spider-Man: Homecoming

Like Wonder Woman, Spider-Man was a character I heard about from others, but didn’t grow up with. I became a fan with the Tobey Maguire films. (Spider-Man 2 is still, I believe, one of the best superhero movies ever made.) Like many others, I also wondered, do we really need another Spider-Man movie?

I don’t know if we needed one. But Homecoming is a light, entertaining, and worthy addition to the growing comic book movie collection, and it is better directed to its primary audience of pre-teens and teens.

With excellent acting, Homecoming is a superhero film that looks at how a superhero develops—and not just his superpowers, but how he matures as an individual to responsibly use those powers. In this film, romance is not much of a storyline, which is appropriate to a story about a teenager who has plenty of other things he needs to focus on.

Peter Parker is a super-believable and accessible character. His personal growth/hero’s journey through the film is, I think, immediately identifiable to pre-teens and teens. He is going through typical teen struggles, whose consequences are magnified by his superpowers. The plot is quite predictable (and also a bit messy in wrapping up, with three endings), but as a whole, the film is still enjoyable–especially with Tony Stark mentoring (!) the young Peter Parker.

Windows to the Soul?

In Peter’s search for his true identity and how to live it, he must “harmonize” these two very different aspects of his life: the “ordinary teenager” and the “extraordinary superhero.” The title of the film really is the theme: Peter needs to be at home with himself, and all the different aspects of himself.

In our own lives, we are called to bring together the different aspects of ourselves, especially our ordinary life with the gift of grace, or the life of God. In a time when we can feel so fragmented by a demanding world that vies for our attention and participation in a variety of roles, Peter Parker’s journey of unifying his various identities or roles into one life in which he can be most truly himself, is a journey to integrity all of us can learn from. It is not a decision or journey made in a vacuum, either: Peter’s commitment to the people of New York is his guide in his final decision. In this, Peter can also be seen as a Christ-figure—of Christ, the Good Shepherd.

Note: The PG-13 rating seemed appropriate; comic book violence and spoken sexual innuendo. There are also plenty of “in-Marvel’s-universe” jokes, from earlier Spider-Man, Iron Man, and Avengers movies.

A Question for Today’s Superheroes

In many ways, watching these two films reminds me of the times in which these superheroes were created, when Judaeo-Christian values were still mainstream and woven into many stories of the culture. As desirable as it is to have these values in both films, a “story hole” arises. Where did Peter Parker learn humility and justice tempered with compassion? Where did Diana’s conviction to guard and protect humanity come from? And where did each of them find the strength to live these virtues? If, as seems to be implied, our two superheroes lack the religious faith that creates such values as self-sacrificing love, humility, integrity, generosity, and kindness (to name a few), where do our superheroes get their values from?

While there are certainly many good people who do not have faith yet live good lives, it is also true that faith in God and God’s grace—whether known or unknown—is what gives us the strength and ability to love in a way that transcends ordinary human love. To love the betrayer, the enemy, the unworthy, the nemesis, is not always seen as an ideal any more. In today’s entertainment culture, revenge is seen as a matter of justice, and forgiveness as weakness. In watching several recent teen movies, I have been shocked by the blatant narcissism and utilitarianism of the protagonists: the happy ending is when the protagonist gets what she or he wants, no matter how they got it or who is hurt along the way. There is no recognition of moral values at all—it is what you succeed at, what you get away with, that counts. And everyone is okay with the blatant selfishness.

Yet, Peter Parker’s idea of justice is deeply Christian, as is Diana Prince’s.

It seems to me that superhero movies are successful right now in great part because they give us heroes with these kinds of virtues. On the one hand, these virtues are admirably presented as an ideal: as good, desirable, heroic. But I would also love to see more films in which these kinds of virtues are upheld, as well as positive reference to God and to the practice of faith as the source or strength of these kinds of virtues. (This is one reason I enjoy aspects of the Netflix series Daredevil—his conscience-driven behavior, qualms, and guilt, as well as his confessions and ongoing dialogue with his pastor clearly reveal his faith and his values deriving from his faith.)

The superhero is not a perfectly Christian model, yet superhero portrayals that are faithful to the spirit of the originals are deeply based in Christian virtue. I am not sure that any other culture but the 20th century Western, Christian-based culture could have created Spider-Man, Wonder Woman, or Superman as entertainment.

Is it possible to have Christian virtue without Christianity? These movies seem to say, “yes.” But as we have watched our society becoming post-Christian, we also have witnessed a troubling uprise in a blatant disregard for the importance of each human life. Christian virtue becomes much rarer when society is not built on Christianity, where Christian values and even the golden rule are no longer commonly held. Perhaps it is enough that superhero movies remind us of the ideals and virtues, attract us to them, and show us how how being Christlike—even in the face of great suffering and self-sacrifice— can transform us and the lives of others.

Divergent: Choosing the Greatest (Social) Virtue

What’s your favorite virtue? What is the most important human virtue for society?

Dystopian films and novels of the young adult variety are really not something I enjoy, and with so many releasing lately, my antipathy has grown. But I’d heard some interesting things from young people about Divergent, so I decided to  read the novel and see the film. I was not disappointed.

For my five-minute take on the film, visit last week’s Salt + Light’s Radio Hour: http://saltandlighttv.org/radio/sl-hour/papal-agency-helps-christians-in-the-middle-east

THE FILM:

In Divergent, the civilized world of the future  is reduced to the city of Chicago, where its citizens are divided into five factions, each of which is based on a social virtue and has a particular role to carry out in society:

Dauntless (Courage) includes law enforcement and soldiers

Erudition (Knowledge or Wisdom) includes librarians, doctors, scientists and teachers

Abnegation (Selflessness) includes government leaders and workers

Amity (Kindness) includes farmers

Candor (Honesty, Truthfulness) includes lawyers.

So what I really loved about the Divergent world is not just that it’s based in Chicago (a city where I spent two wonderful years), but that the society is based on some of the virtues. Of course, what becomes clear pretty early on is that when the virtues are isolated, they can sometimes carried to an extreme: e.g. Candor’s symbol in the choosing system is glass—a symbol of transparency, but also a symbol of the ability to cut and divide. Without love, without the religious or Christian underpinnings of the virtues, the factions give in to an extremism that becomes destructive—especially Erudition, who seek to take over the government from Abnegation.

The film starts with the day before 16-year-old Beatrice Pryor takes the test in which the young people are told which faction they have an aptitude for. For viewers, it’s fairly obvious that some people would fit well into more than one faction. However, this comes as a surprise to Beatrice Pryor, who has aptitude for three factions—in other words, she is a “divergent.” She is told by the person who tests her that she needs to keep this a secret or she will be killed. Raised in Abnegation by devoted parents who serve in the government, Beatrice doubts her own selflessness and has always been drawn to Dauntless, eventually choosing Dauntless as her faction. But with her secret Divergent identity, the conspiracy/adventure is off to a fast start, and Beatrice has to learn who to trust in her new faction, including her mysterious mentor/teacher, Four.

Take the aptitude test for the five factions, and see where you come out strongest!

If, like me, you feel a bit “been there, done that,” because of the sheer number of YA dystopian stories and films, then the virtue backdrop of this action/adventure/coming of age/romance genre mix might make it one you choose to see. The fact that Beatrice Pryor is a strong, female heroine who lives in a violent world but doesn’t see violence as the primary solution, is another plus for this story.

Problems with the film are both artistic and age-appropriate content. The overemphasis on action in the film, and some of the battles/violence included in both book and film could be questionable for some teens. The film’s script oversimplifies the plot of the book, yet this is a plus for those who haven’t read the book because the plot is understandable, if it has a few holes that only the novel fills in. The greatest disappointment is that the film comes up quite short with regard to character development. In some ways, the film feels like an imitation Hunger Games, with just less quality all-around. Despite this, Divergent is a powerful coming-of-age story with sympathetic characters and a few story twists that are as dauntless as Beatrice herself. Acting, cinematography, and production values may not be extraordinary but contribute to a credible, solid, and well-done film. Not only did it feel quite credible to me, some of the scenes were exactly as I’d imagined them from the book.

WINDOWS TO THE SOUL

The World of the Story

It’s hard not to immediately compare Divergent to The Hunger Games, and there are many similarities—all the elements found in dystopian stories, with the addition of a strong heroine. While The Hunger Games has a lot to offer as social commentary on our culture, I don’t think its commentary is appropriate for children (tweens and younger teens) because the stories and films engage the imagination in a dark and disturbing way, rather than fostering a healthy moral imagination. (The Hunger Games uses morally abhorrent situations for its social commentary, such as entertainment that centers on children killing children that is generally accepted by society; or a society where everyone “uses” everyone else for their own ends). I find Divergent much healthier spiritually and morally for younger audiences. No one is all bad or all good; there are adults that can’t be trusted, but there are also good adults. And we don’t necessarily feel forced to participate in the moral depravity of the world we’re exploring. Divergent, while still taking place in a violent, morally challenged world, has some anchors; the world is not completely dark—we as viewers can find grace there, not just in Beatrice’s character, but in others as well.

Virtues As the Basis of Society

While the political and ultimately military struggle for power becomes the major plot of Divergent—as in any good dystopian story—the premise of building a society upon the virtues gives us as the audience the opportunity to reflect more on these particular virtues:

* As people strive to live them

* When the virtues (and the people who practice them) are isolated from each other

* How the virtues are needed together and the importance of moderation even in the practice of certain virtues.

The two virtues that are explored best get the most screen time, and reflect the factions Beatrice comes from—Abnegation (or selflessness), and goes to—Dauntless (or courage). As someone who has personally struggled a lot with fearfulness, I found the exploration of courage and fear intriguing.

This story—both the film and the book—can open a great discussion into the moral life for teenages and viewers: how do we practice virtue even in the most difficult of circumstances? Faithful to its virtue-driven themes, the protagonist Beatrice Pryor is, over and over again, put in very difficult or even seemingly impossible situations where she has to make moral choices.

Another reason I like this film is that it contrasts the virtual world—imagined simulations where the Dauntless are trained to overcome their fears by confronting their deepest fears—with the real world. Beatrice has several opportunities to practice so that, when she is finally put into the position of choosing whether or not to kill someone she loves, she makes an unexpected courageous choice.

The film’s violence gives it a deserved cautionary rating for young people: PG in Canada and PG-13 in the USA.

“The Song” Movie: Ambitious Attempt To Dramatize the Song of Songs for Today

One of my favorite (most-prayed-over) books of the Old Testament is the Song of Songs (also known as the Song of Solomon), a long poem about the love between a man and a woman. On one level, it’s a beautiful canticle to love which highlights the good and beautiful in human love, sexuality, and marriage. (St. John Paul uses this approach in Theology of the Body.) For many of the Fathers of the Church, the Song of Songs can also be read on the level of an allegory about the relationship between God and his People; or Christ and the Church; or the search for Wisdom. And for some spiritual writers, the allegory is about the relationship between God and the individual person. Not an easy book to understand in all its depth, yet it has inspired many, many people, including St. John of the Cross and those who have read his poems about mystical union with God.

It’s relatively easy to quote from the Song of Songs’s beautiful poetry; it’s another task altogether to try to reflect the meaning of this book in other forms. Three of my favorite works based on the Song of Songs are St. Bernard’s Commentary, Da Palestrina’s 29 intricate motets, and Michael Card’s song, “Arise My Love” from his album, The Way of Wisdom.

So it was with eager anticipation that I started to watch The Song, a film inspired by the Song of Solomon that is opening Friday, Sept. 26th. Unfortunately the film didn’t meet my expectations, but I have to laud the filmmakers for trying something so ambitious.

The Song is the story of Jed King, whose early life is haunted by the popularity and public mistakes of his musical father, David King. When he marries his wife Rose, a devout Christian, Jed’s musical career takes off and he eventually becomes very popular.  Life on the road isn’t easy, and as Jed’s success grows and he sees his wife and child less and less, he is tempted and eventually falls into drugs, alcohol abuse, and infidelity to his wife. The ending is predictable, but reinforces an important Gospel message. The film seems more of an attempt to give a modern take on the life of King Solomon than a dramatization of the Song of Songs.

While The Song has several good messages and some solid production values especially in its lighting and cinematography, overall it is not a solid film artistically. The lack of artistic merit starts with the heavy-handedness of the script, but carries through in many ways by being “a message movie.” The characters are not well-developed; it’s hard to understand their motivations and sympathize with them. Perhaps the filmmakers were trying to go with archetypes rather than characters, but the film really lost out with the lack of specificity. The lack of individuality made the characters feel generic, not universal. The women especially feel generic and stereotyped: they are either idealized as practically perfect or demonized as temptress. Jed’s and Rose’s relationship—the heart of the entire film—feels flat as well. The plot is predictable and the dialogue often obvious. I didn’t find the music engaging, but enjoyed the lyrics which have a number of references to the Song of Songs. The film was also a bit heavy-handed in its use of Scripture, though it was beautifully read throughout the film as part of the narration.

Despite my disappointment in the film’s artistry, The Song offers much for reflection on themes from Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs. The Song could be particularly helpful in a pastoral/educational setting, to reflect on and discuss such themes as the beauty of married love, building a strong and faithful marriage, finding meaning in life, and the power of forgiveness in relationships.

The LEGO Movie “Fits Together”

Snapshot

The LEGO Movie could be dismissed as a 100-minute commercial for LEGO toys, but it’s also true that the filmmakers went to a lot of extra trouble to make this film not just wholesome and fun entertainment, but to intertwine a couple of really good messages for kids into the story.

Strengths

The basic plot is your typical hero quest block-ified: an ordinary “LEGO” figure who finds a relic is mistaken as the prophesied “the Special” who will save the LEGO worlds.

Emmet is the most ordinary, generic LEGO personality you can imagine–a construction worker who follows his instruction manual to do everything, who fits so well into the LEGO world that he is practically invisible. Because he accidentally finds and becomes attached to a relic (a human artifact that is not a LEGO piece) Emmet is mistakenly identified as “the Special” who will save and bring freedom to the LEGO worlds.

Unknown to Emmet, the LEGO worlds need saving because President Business is really a mastermind criminal who seeks to control them, trying to bring perfection and order, rather than freedom and joy. After being captured for finding the relic, Emmet overhears that President Business is going to glue all the LEGO people/worlds in place, thus paralyzing everyone and everything. It will be the end of the world as he knows it. (And of course President Business doesn’t care who he has to eliminate to achieve his end.)

As Emmet is being rescued by WyldStyle from President Business, he discovers how uniquely unqualified he is to be “the Special” as she is repeatedly disappointed by his inability to build, to imagine, or to think for himself. As we explore the various LEGO worlds with Emmet, WyldStyle and the Master Builders (heroic LEGO figures like Batman and Robin Hood),  Emmet continues to be truly un-spectacular. Until almost the very end, when a new perspective helps Emmet believe that he truly is special. And not only has he discovered that he is special, he also discovers that everyone else is special too. Emmet reveals that we all have moments when our specific gifts are needed, when we are the special ones, when we can do amazing things. But our specialness can be lost if we don’t work together, if we don’t allow others to be special, too.

The plot in particular is outstanding: from the unexpected twist that reveals why everything doesn’t need to make sense, to the final resolution of dealing with President Business in a surprisingly beautiful way that “builds up” rather than tears down or destroys. Rich cultural references and great casting of well-known and familiar voices bring an extra richness to the animated characters.

On Saturday (June 28), the five-minute radio version of this commentary was broadcast on Salt + Light Radio. 

Limitations

I found an unnecessary amount of “LEGO” violence in the film–with the little brick figures falling, being smashed, hit, etc. Even though it’s so stylized–and honestly, what child hasn’t smashed a LEGO figure against something hard?–I wish there had been less, especially as this film will be seen by many very young eyes.

For the non-LEGO fan, especially the adults, the bright primary colors, constant transformation of LEGO constructions into other LEGO concoctions, and the various loud, unrelenting chases can be a bit much. However, for LEGO fans, I’m guessing the nostalgia value would be quite high. Several allusions to history and legends and many clever nods to the pop culture of the 80s and 90s–from Batman and Star Wars to Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter–add another level of enjoyment for adults and older kids.

A Window to the Soul

TheLEGOMoviecoverSome reviews have pointed out that Emmet’s self-sacrifice near the end could be an allusion to Christ. I agree, although I think that it’s better described as a powerful image of selfless, Christ-like love, rather than a great metaphor for Christ as our Savior. (Elements of a Christ-figure metaphor don’t carry through to other parts of the story.) However, where this film really stands out is its twofold message about yearning to be special. Being special is such a fundamental 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.

This film’s theme could be described in various ways:  the tension between creative types vs. organized types; individuality vs. conformity; that the balance between conformity and creativity is true teamwork where all are recognized for their unique specialness, etc. Overall, this film explores what it means to be both individual and part of the human community. For the more reflective viewer (or for a family discussion), The LEGO Movie could open a window to the beauty of what it means to be a member of a family, or what it means to be a member of the Church, belonging to the Body of Christ.

A great Scripture passage to reflect on after seeing this film is Saint Paul’s beautiful chapter from 1st Corinthians (1 Corinthians 12).

For Greater Glory: Film Commentary

Snapshot

For Greater Glory is a re-telling of the impressive story of the Cristeros, Mexican freedom fighters who fought for the freedom to practice their Catholic Faith during the period after the Mexican Revolution (1926-1928). For those who are not familiar with the true-life stories that are included in the film, this review will be a bit more general in the hope of avoiding spoilers.

Strengths

The filmmakers obviously have a profound understanding of Catholic spirituality, morality, and teaching, as these are all convincingly and naturally reflected in the film. For a Catholic, it’s a rare but heartening experience to see one’s Catholic worldview reflected so naturally and accurately in a film. For Greater Glory is a well-made, well-casted, well-acted, and beautifully lensed film. (In particular, the performances of Peter O’Toole, Andy Garcia, Oscar Isaac, and the luminous Mauricio Kuri, are a joy to watch.) The film follows several storylines to give the audience an understanding of the wide composition of the people who became Cristeros–not just soldiers and ranchers, but also ordinary people who took up arms, and the women who provided nursing care and supplies–including ammunition. Even priests became involved in the war effort, and the actions of one priest who chooses to fight provides us as the audience with the opportunity to mull over the role of the priest in the community. The Cristeros risked their lives to fight for the right to worship Christ freely. And the filmmakers chose well which figures to represent the fervor, conflicts, suffering, and heroism of the people who stood up for what they believed in, in many cases to the point of martyrdom.

Limitations

Yet, trying to tell a range of stories in one film is difficult to do. The film wanders in places and the stories are unevenly told. One story is so compelling that it outshines the others. This one character and storyline make the entire film worth watching, but in comparison, the rest of the film can seem a bit flat.

The violent nature of some scenes of the film restrict the audience of For Greater Glory to mature adults: there are scenes of battle, cruel executions of noncombatants, and torture. However, the violence is never sensationalized or glorified, and it is true to the actual events that happened. Its portrayal is necessary to understand the reactions of the pacifists, some of whom eventually take up arms to defend the rights of the Church. The way the violence towards religious figures and symbols is portrayed is clearly respectful of the faith that they represent.

Window to the Soul?

It’s not easy to capture or point to transcendence in film–many movies end up simply being “preachy.” But For Greater Glory begins and ends with moments which hint at or actually bring the audience to a moment of transcendent clarity: about the true purpose of life, about the greatness of God, about the nobility of laying down one’s life for Christ.

The movie loses some opportunities to explore more deeply some themes such as the mystery of faith, the problem of evil and human suffering, and the morality of using violence to defend one’s faith. Nevertheless, for Catholics today who must struggle for the right to witness to faith in a public arena, For Greater Glory is particularly relevant and thought-provoking. Even though this film may not be of the highest artistic merit, I highly recommend For Greater Glory  for the witness that it offers us today, and for seeking to re-tell an important part of our Catholic history in North America.

For those who are interested, themes included in the film are: 

  • Witness to Christ
  • Social justice
  • Use of violence to defend religious freedom
  • Faith (and the journey of coming to faith)
  • Religion in the public arena
  • Prayer & spirituality
  • Role of the priest in society and in the Church
  • Martyrdom

Mighty Macs Film Commentary

I write this blog during my free time, which is why when I’m traveling, not much blogging happens. Lately however, I haven’t been traveling, I’ve just been extra busy. I’m doing some pretty intense writing, and prepping for some wonderful upcoming events (our Lenten Discernment Retreat, and our upcoming Cinema Divina evening with the best Catholic film in recent memory, Of Gods and Men).

I have freed up a little chunk of time that I will try to fit in blogging more consistently–a couple evenings a week. Hopefully you’ll see the fruits of those efforts in the next few weeks.

One other writing update: the extra materials that I’ve prepared for the readers of See Yourself Through God’s Eyes have finally found an online home! The material I’ve already prepared is going to take a different format, so I’ll be working on that in the next couple of weeks as well. Right now, it looks like the new material will go up in May.

I know I’m behind on my blog when I have film commentaries ready to post and never actually put them up. Here’s my commentary on Mighty Macs, which recently released to DVD.

Mighty Macs is a light-hearted, worthwhile family film that deserves a wider viewing than provided by the limited theatrical release in the US and the total lack of a theatrical release in Canada. The story of Mary’s basketball team (“Mac” is short for  “Immaculata”), the small women’s college basketball team who amazingly won the first ever collegiate award for women’s basketball in 1972. At the time, both Immaculata College and its team were struggling to survive. The team had no gym—it had burned down the year before; no money—the school itself was struggling for survival; and horribly outdated uniforms. A typical sports movie, Mighty Macs is about a “little” team overcoming all odds.

Strengths

One of the reasons sports movies can be so enjoyable is their powerful themes of perseverance and following your dreams. Mighty Macs has those elements with a special twist: overcoming inequality.

Based on true events in 1972 where women’s collegiate basketball was just beginning to gain recognition, Mighty Macs highlights the many inequalities these young women were struggling against: family expectations, no money, lack of respect, societal pressures, and a history of losing. First time basketball coach Cathy Rush (abrasively but likably portrayed by Carla Gugino) faced the same pressures–even from her loving husband who at first didn’t support her goals. The Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary–the community running the college–seem to care more for the exercise than for the sport at first. Then we discover the sisters are desperately trying to ensure the college’s survival, in a world dominated by big universities and a primarily male board of directors. The sisters are also being told what to do, and the unexpected wins of the basketball team help to level the sides of the dialogue.

The strength of the film is that it’s about the team working together. With strong acting, a solid script,  and no “preachy” moments ringing false, Mighty Macs is an enjoyable family film and a must-see for fans of women’s basketball.

Mighty Macs is not a film about faith; rather, it’s a faith-friendly film where the characters work out their difficulties in an atmosphere of faith. The faith element is visibly present–two of the main characters are nuns in habits–but faith is not the focus of the film, it’s the context.

A personal side-note here: Often the portrayal of religious life in film is either negative or extremely superficial. While this film doesn’t have time to delve deeply into the characters of any of the sisters, I came away liking the image of religious life Mighty Macs offers. It’s obvious the screenwriter knows sisters: that they’re real people, who actually need to have a special spirit–a determined kind of courage–to live religious life.

Limitations

I’m not a huge fan of the sports movie genre. The sports arena can feel somewhat predictable, and thus the triumph of winning the game at the end can seem overly sentimental to me. While this is somewhat true for Mighty Macs, a couple of the games were dramatized so well that I was not sure if they would be wins or losses.

The “team” character of the film means that no one character is deeply developed; rather, there are many characters with smaller character growth. I found myself caring less about individual characters, but more for the team as a whole. I wanted to join the cheering nuns on the sidelines! With so many subplots, not all of them were resolved by the end of the film. This could be a flaw for some viewers, but I think it makes the film more realistic.

How is Mighty Macs a Window to the Soul?

While sports movies aren’t my personal favorites, they offer great metaphors for the spiritual life.

As portrayed in the film, the upstanding values of Coach Cathy Rush, as well as the selfless generosity of Mother Superior, are high notes. Both women–as well as the basketball team–are up against huge obstacles. Their strength, honesty, negotiating skills, and sheer grit in the face of overwhelming odds are inspiring. Just as moving are the efforts of Sister Sunday, a young sister discerning her call as a religious who gives the team and its coach unqualified support. Finally, the way the young women finally came together to become a team is inspiring as well. Equality—or the dignity and worth of each person—is the true “Catholic” note in the film: rich or poor, male or female, big university or small college.

Might Macs is a fascinating portrayal of the journey of this women’s team, who truly overcame impossible odds just to make it to the championship games.

Gospel Themes:

Equality–the dignity and worth of every person
Faith in difficulty
Perseverance
Team spirit (Community)
Discernment in Following Christ