By the time in Where the Wild Things Are when Alexander the Goat (voiced, appropriately, by Paul Dano) asks Max if he can make the sadness go away and I nearly shouted, “Dear God, I hope so!”, my patience had been pretty much exhausted. I didn’t hate the movie. I came away respecting its effort and ambition (as well as its eloquent defenders, who are welcome to argue otherwise here); I just didn’t feel the kind of pleasure watching it that I’ve felt while watching my favorite films about childhood. Where the Wild Things Are doesn’t condescend to its protagonist; but it does seem to regard his universe with a distinctly adult sense of ennui. My selections below, on the other hand, evoke for me what it’s like to be a kid. All five movies—even at their saddest and scariest moments—give their young characters complete ownership of their respective worlds.
1. The Secret Garden (1993): Many prefer the original 1949 adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel, directed by Fred M. Wilcox and featuring a twelve-year-old Dean Stockwell as one of the central trio of kids living on a vast yet foreboding English estate. I’m going with Agnieszka Holland’s gorgeous 1993 version, starring a remarkably assured Kate Maberly as the spoiled, prickly Mary Lennox, whose neglectful parents perish in an earthquake in India. Mary’s arrival at her wealthy uncle’s estate restores health and reunites an estranged family. Roger Deakins’ cinematography plays a pivotal role in transforming a fallow region into a fertile landscape. Yet it’s Holland’s emphasis on Mary’s negative energy as a vital lifeforce that fascinates me most. When her sickly cousin says matter-of-factly that everyone believes he’s going to die, Mary scoffs back with, “If everyone told me I was going to do something, I wouldn’t do it.”
2. King of the Hill (1993): Early in his career, Steven Soderbergh made this forgotten classic (if ever it was remembered in the first place), adapted from A.E. Hotchner’s memoir about a boy’s coming-of-age in Depression-era St. Louis. Prepubescent Aaron (Jesse Bradford), left to his own devices after his traveling-salesman father hits the road and his troubled mother is committed to a mental institution, defends his rent-overdue room in a run-down hotel with mounting desperation and resourcefulness. Adrien Brody, Amber Benson, Katherine Heigl and the late Spalding Gray round out the cast of Soderbergh’s most graceful and touching picture, never more affecting than when Aaron and his little brother try to fend off starvation by eating drawings of their favorite meals sketched on paper. Any idea why this isn’t out on DVD yet?
3. E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982): When I was twelve, I thought this was a movie about a friendship between an alien from another planet and a little boy. Seeing it again, years later, as more or less an adult, I was surprised to discover a film about the effects of a parents’ divorce on their children. E.T. is the purest distillation of Spielberg’s recurring theme of paternal abandonment: for three-quarters of the film nearly all of the adult characters—most notably Peter Coyote’s “Keys” and save for Elliott’s well-meaning yet distracted mother (Dee Wallace)—are framed without their faces visible. Choices like these keep the focus on Henry Thomas’s wonderfully natural performance (Harrison Ford’s cameo as a school principal was wisely left on the cutting-room floor). All throughout this charming fantasy he makes Elliott wholly credible—whether tormenting his kid sister, sharing with the alien his passion for Star Wars toys, or commenting on the lingering scent of his father’s jacket. In the greatest scene, the extra-terrestrial’s psychic link with Elliott leads to the latter’s first kiss, as a tender moment from The Quiet Man is reenacted in a chaotic classroom with frogs hopping on the floor and another boy used as a stepping stool.
4. A Little Princess (1995): Another splendid adaptation of a Burnett book, one featuring a more unambiguously likable protagonist. Affluent yet unassuming Sara Crewe (Liesel Matthews) is put in an American boarding school as her father goes off to fight in the First World War. When he is presumed dead, the iron-fisted headmistress Miss Minchin (Eleanor Bron) makes Sara an indentured servant. Alfonso Cuarón recalls Spielberg’s theme of abandonment, but also deepens it by forging the bond between father and daughter: visual motifs, like the girls’ green-colored school attire, are echoed by images of poison gas on the battlefield. Visions of India from The Secret Garden are recalled via Sara’s bedtime stories and her relationship with the mystic native next door. As in King of the Hill, starvation is staved off in an imaginary feast, only here a child’s imagination renders it real.
5. Hope and Glory (1987): John Boorman’s semi-autobiographical comedy about growing up during the London Blitz has a thrillingly dual perspective: we share a boy’s excitement from playing in the rubble left by falling bombs even as we’re made aware of the devastation involved. Eight-year-old Bill (Sebastian Rice-Edwards) sees the war as a vast playground—one kid’s barrage-balloon is another one’s monkey-bars. The upheaval caused to his family and country may be the fullest realization of Boorman’s theme of creation through destruction. Hope and Glory shows a notoriously erratic director in complete control of some audacious effects, as when the bombing of a school earns for an infamous dictator a child’s giddy expression of gratitude.