Family 5: Our Top Live-Action Animal Films
Today's parents are slaves to their children's DVD obsessions, which usually consist of anything Pixar, the Disney Family Channel, "Dora the Explorer," etc. But we grew up with classics of our own, and many are worth another look as heirlooms to be passed down for a new generation to love. It's a great way to revisit your own memories while sharing them anew with your own children.
"Fly Away Home"
Filmed in 1996, this is a classic in the true sense of the word, and a poignant, beautifully crafted story of healing and rebirth. A young girl loses her mother in a car accident (a scene which is a marvel of both power and subtlety) and goes to live with her eccentric inventor father. Events lead them to finding a clutch of abandoned goose eggs, which they then raise and teach how to fly. The life lessons dramatized in this tale -- acceptance, forgiveness, hope, awareness -- are invaluable for any child (and adult, for that matter).
This is a charming tale from early Disney, circa 1961. Set in 1865, it's the story of Bobby, a Skye terrier who refuses to leave the churchyard grave of his beloved master. He becomes the joy of the neighborhood, and when officials want to cart him away because he has no owner and no license, the cast of characters come together to save him. An endearing exemplar of devotion, loyalty and love, Bobby will win the heart of any viewer.
The '70s sensation is still a sweet, safe, commercial bet for children. The clothes, hair and retro-ness will make parents laugh, but the story itself still works: Plucky stray Benji helps the cops and the sour father who never liked him find his two kidnapped children. Your child will enjoy the dramatic tension and you'll enjoy the lessons of compassion, tolerance and "doing the right thing" that exist on all levels of the tale. And yes, the poodle getting kicked by the robbers will still get you in a big indignant huff.
"The Three Lives of Thomasina"
From the director of "Greyfriar's Bobby." Another heartwarming tale of animal affection, this time revolving around a saucy little cat named Thomasina. Like "Bobby," it's set in the Scotland of yesteryear and tells the story of little Mary and her widowed, grief-hardened father, who works as the local veterinarian. The plot revolves around Thomasina's disappearance and return, but it's really the father's story, as he overcomes his bitterness and loss of faith in the goodness of life.
"Where the Red Fern Grows"
Hands-down the real weeper of the five. A classic book that many parents will remember from grade school, the film is a bit more clumsily executed than the others listed here. (The version reviewed here is from 1974; there's a newer one filmed in 2003 if the kids complain about the lack of CGI.) It's told in narrative flashback by Will, a young boy in the Depression-era Ozarks who dreams of having two hunting dogs. He works hard to earn the money for them, then, when they come, trains them to be the best coon-hunting dogs in the area. (Some parents may have an issue with the hunting aspect of the plot.) The waterworks will come on towards the end, when one of the dogs dies defending Will from a mountain lion, and the surviving dog dies of grief. Filled with valuable lessons on patience, devotion and acceptance of loss.