Friday, December 30, 2011

Studio Ghibli: Kid-Approved Movies for a Night In

Just before the recent Christmas holiday, Jennifer at sent out a list of “Epic Nerd-Approved Movies for Kids.” It concluded a longer list of overall Nerd-Approved Movies (scroll to the bottom of their list for the kids movies). It included (in my opinion) some great movies like The Goonies, The Secret of Nimh, The Witches, and The Dark Crystal. It also included some questionable cinematic ventures like Mac and Me and Titan AE.

It left out all of the Hayao Miyazaki/Studio Ghibli movies that are my family’s favorites.

I’m the worst when it comes to “kid appropriate.” My rating system involves my guessing at what will and will not give my children nightmares.

I’ve already written about the time I read my eldest Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. But there is also the time my eldest and I watched Toby Maguire’s Spider-man. He might have been three. I didn’t see the harm. I was comfortable with the level of violence and there was no sexually suggestive nudity. The movie quickly became his favorite and he asked to watch it repeatedly.

Then one time, during one of the viewings he screamed for me to turn it off. But it wasn’t the depiction of the Green Goblin or the fighting that suddenly scared him – It was too early in the movie. The scene that frightened him despite his seeing it several times before was the scene where Peter is bitten by the spider! Somewhere between this current viewing and the last time he saw the movie, he became afraid of spider bites.

He can watch the entire Spider-man movie now but the incident has left me fearful. I have become acutely sensitive to every gasp and jerk he and his brother make when they watch a movie.

To be fair, Jennifer did include Princess Mononoke on her overall Nerd-Approved list. She put it in the “A Flair for the Dramatic” along with some of my favorite movies (Gattaca, The Man Who Fell to Earth, and Donnie Darko). I don’t know why Mac and Me beat out Kiki’s Delivery Service or Spirited Away for a spot on her Kids list.

I bought the Studio Ghibli Movie Collection on Ebay several years ago after watching Turner Classic Movies festival of Hayao Miyazaki movies. They showed both dubbed and subtitled versions of my favorite Studio Ghibli films like My Neighbor Tortoro -- my youngest used to refer to this as the “girl gòhgō (big brother)and me” movie -- Princess Mononoke -- my eldest calls this the “Bloody Movie” -- and Laputa: Castle in the Sky – my eldest says this is his favorite movie. The festival also introduced me to Pom Poko and Porco Rosso.

When the kids can’t decide which movie to watch, I tell them, “We’re watching Pom Poko.” They’ll whine about how they didn’t get their choice but 10 minutes into the movie – slack-jawed silence. They are enthralled by the antics and the chanting of the cutely drawn raccoons and are soon spellbound watching the raccoons fight the humans to maintain their land and fight among themselves to determine how to best fight the humans to protect their land. The movie is comic enough to make its message of conservation and environmentalism, mild violence, and raccoon “pouches” (testicles) that some found overbearing or outright offensive, kid appropriate.

Wikipedia provides a detailed summary of the story.

Pom Poko is not in the Studio Ghibli Movie Collection but can be bought separately. The movies included in the Collection are:

  1. Laputa: Castle in the Sky
  2. My Neighbor Tortoro
  3. Grave of the Fireflies
  4. Princess Mononoke
  5. Spirited Away
  6. Kiki’s Delivery Service
  7. Porco Rosso

Porco Rosso is about a “cursed” pilot who leaves the Italian Air Force to become a bounty hunter. It’s never explained outright why he is cursed but the curse gives him the face of a pig (which along with pieces of dialogue might help us guess at a cause). In the summary provided at Wikipedia, his guilt from losing his best friend in battle is cited as the cause of his curse.

The kids never ask about this. They never ask why Porco Rosso is a pig among humans. They take it for granted that cartoon animals and cartoon humans coexist on the same plane on screen. The aerial battle scenes and chases are enough to bait them into watching long enough to be engaged by the movie’s emotional themes like the sense of duty in conflict with the truth of the matter.

Another testament to Hayao Miyazaki’s talent and those at Studio Ghibli is of all the DVDs and Blu Rays I’ve bought since  the Studio Ghibli Movie Collection, it continues to have the highest “re-watch value” among my family. Whether its because we’re staying in due illness or short ill-conceived holiday or simple exhaustion, when there is nothing particularly engaging on Netflix and TV, a Studio Ghibli film is a surefire way for my kids and I to pass the time.

What’s your favorite Studio Ghibli movie? What movies have a high re-watch value at your house?

[Originally posted at]

Friday, December 23, 2011

Christmas, Santa, and Jesus

As a parent, two stories I would like to tell better are the story of 9/11 and the story of Christmas. With the former, I’m still trying to get it “just right.” Both my children were born after 9/11 (my older one just nine months after). They are also still very young and naïve. People are still “linear beings” to them. There is a distinct line between right and wrong, good and bad -- And good things happen to good people, and bad things to bad people.

The notion always reminds me of this article I read in the UTNE Reader a long time ago. It was called something like “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” It presented interesting thoughts about our perception of good behavior and reward and what happens when the rewards don’t pan out.

I’ve told them about 9/11 but only in vague isolated terms. To them it is just another chapter in a social studies textbook (and in many ways that is OK with me for now). I’ve told them that sometimes people want things so bad that they forget about who gets hurt in the process. And I’ve also told them not to give up so quickly on broken objects, sometimes the pieces can be brought together and put together into something just as great. But getting older, they will need more than my detached philosophizing.

Christmas is the other story I would like to tell better. The recent reaction to a teacher telling her students there is no Santa Claus, got me thinking about the importance people have placed on him as a symbol of What? Giving? Christmas? Innocence? Childhood?

That’s where I hit a snag. When that teacher said there is no Santa Claus, parents rushed to protect the belief they’ve nurtured in their children about Santa Claus – But what does Santa Claus mean? Or what is he supposed to mean to them?

Francis Church’s editorial comes to mind:

Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

Is this the “Santa” that the parents are protecting?

At the Manataka American Indian Council site there is an essay by Floyd Looks for Buffalo Hand on the history of Christmas among American Indians. It’s an interesting document of how a foreign faith appealed enough to the existing peoples to be adapted into their beliefs and customs.

It’s also a reminder that Christmas is a Christian holiday. It’s the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, who is believed by Christians to be the Son of God. My favorite retelling of the birth of Christ was done by Linus in A Charlie Brown Christmas:

I should probably have more issues than I actually do with the “modern spirit” of Christmas. In fact, part of the meaning of Christmas for me is its commercialization. I like the colored lights, mistletoe, and shopping mall Santas.

As for “Christ the Lord,” I’ve decided liking what the religion stands for (charity and goodwill) does not necessarily mean liking its followers and the harm they’ve caused in its name.

Jesus Christ Superstar is streaming on Netflix. Because it is set at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion, it’s usually referenced during Easter. I’m going to mention it here because it’s a well written story about a man whose celebrity gets the best of him and because it’s his birthday that inspired the holiday regardless of whether you choose to celebrate it as a religious occasion, a commercial event, or simply as a part of Western custom.

*Originally posted at

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Help inoculate our kids against bigotry...

My parents are against same sex marriage. At their advanced age, there's no convincing them otherwise. They are devout Catholics, and so they believe everything in the bible as it is interpreted by the Catholic church.

Most of the people I know who are against same-sex marriage are just like my parents: elderly, religious, set in their ways. Fortunately, their old age means that they'll be dead and gone in a decade or two. In the meantime, the best we can do is to inoculate our children from such bigotry.

Like many other parents our age, we've made it a point to be socially progressive in the upbringing of our kids. When gay marriage became legal in New York, my wife brought home the front page of a newspaper to show our daughter that two girls can marry each other (and one day you'll see two Disney princesses fall in love with each other, we hope).

After reading this post over at about a gay penguin couple in a Chinese zoo, my wife suggested getting a copy of And Tango Makes Three. This controversial children's book is based upon the real-life gay penguins Roy and Silo at the Central Park Zoo who were allowed to adopt and raise an abandoned baby penguin. Our four year old daughter loves and collects stuffed penguin toys. What better book to get her?

But why stop there? How about other people's children?

At our local Catholic church, there's a Christmas Giving Tree with postcards hanging on its branches. Parishioners are encouraged to take one of the hanging postcards and return it with whatever gift is requested on the card. All gifts are donated to needy children. Here's the card that we got:

Can you guess which "educational book" we'll be donating to the Christmas Giving Tree this year?

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Santa Cause Repost

For the holidays, Netflix is streaming Miracle on 34th Street with Edmund and Natalie.

With the recent brouhaha over kids being told by a teacher that there is no Santa, it felt OK to repost what I wrote last year around this time on my Cranial Gunk blog.

For the record, I believe in Santa Claus. Not the jolly red-suited man who breaks into homes to leave gifts instead of taking, but the spirit of giving that he represents to children and adults like me.

Two of my favorite holiday movies are Miracle on 34th Street and Bass and Rankin’s The Year Without a Santa Claus because they address questions of belief and faith. Not the religious interpretations of the words but the parental version: What we tell our children they are too old to do and believe in anymore.

My mother – Yes, my Tiger Mother -- once said to me with a sigh: “Don’t make the children grow up too fast.” I made a remark about her coddling my children too much. (A post of Tiger GrandMothers is coming).

Her comment reminded me of a chapter from the child development textbook I used at Bank Street. The chapter described how different cultures and societies had different expectations of their children throughout the process to maturity (from activities as fundamental as when children are expected to walk to when they are considered contributing members of society).

What the chapter didn’t address was imagination. When do other cultures expect their children to “grow up” and tether their imaginations? Is the imagination something other cultures indulge in?

One of my favorite scenes from Miracle on 34th Street is when Edmund Gwenn (Kris Kringle) teaches Natalie Wood (Susan Walker) how to imagine she is a monkey. It’s Susan’s desperate need to interpret the world beyond the realm of the seeable and concrete that is the catalyst for the Miracle story.

Not streaming on Netflix yet, though I wish it would. It’s among my kids and my favorite holiday movies.

In The Year Without a Santa Claus, Santa (Mickey Rooney) is the one who succumbs to the “real world.” After a visit from the doctor, he decides he needs a break from delivering presents panning the decision as: “Nobody really cares anymore.”

There is also a child who is “too grown up” to believe in Santa Claus in this story. His name is Ignatius Thistlewhite and he dismisses Santa as something for the “little kids.” However, he quickly changes his mind when he learns his father still believes. The story continues with Ignatius as Santa’s most enthused advocate.

The imagination is a very powerful resource. Like the song says: “ Imagine all the people sharing all the world.” It is a skill and like any other skill. It requires effort and practice in order to gain proficiency.

The Wright Brothers are a testament to the power of the imagination. They, “working essentially alone and with little formal scientific training,” imagined the possibility of flight and solved a problem that so called experts in their day could not.

This holiday – more so than the past two – it is important to nurture your imagination. The still poor economy has taken its toll on many people’s spirits and fostered among some a self-destructive cynicism. While it is easier said than done, a stab at imagining a solution to current problems must be attempted.

This holiday, Church’s words seem much more meaningful:

Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.