Messages from the Movies

March 20, 2023

My mom called me up some years ago to praise a movie about a pig. As she began to mimic the pig’s squeaky little voice, I started to wonder what this meant and worried my mother was losing her mind. But that wasn’t the case. The critics were going crazy over Babe, and I did, too, when I went to see it at my local theater. The tale of a pig who learns to herd sheep tickled my funny bone and touched my heart as it laid out Babe’s path to success. Babe overcomes bias and earns respect by facing challenges, seizing opportunities and being polite to everyone he meets. He becomes a champion herder who uses kindness instead of coercion to keep the sheep moving to the finish line, an approach that also works in real life. And like the best movies for kids, Babe imparts life lessons for people of every age.

The great children’s movies are the ones grownups love, too. They strike a chord by making you laugh, cry and see the world in a different way. And they can touch on serious themes. Children, like adults, might feel undervalued and be the victims of violence, experience loneliness and the loss of someone they loved—dark parts of life that great kids’ films show in a way young viewers can grasp. And many children especially fear being separated from family members, so they understand how Babe feels when his mom leaves the stockyard and ascends to “pig heaven.”

Unlike his mom, Babe escapes the butcher’s knife after winding up at a country fair where Farmer Hoggett wins him as a prize. There are no other pigs on Hoggett’s farm, so Babe is lonely until a kind, motherly sheepdog adopts him. Her protection, love and support give Babe the chance he needs to show the farmer his amazing way with sheep. And the turning point arrives when Babe befriends an older sheep named Maa who tells him biting, like the sheepdogs do, doesn’t really sit well with sheep. The flock will do whatever Babe wants, she explains, as long as he’s polite—a lesson that allows Babe to become a sheep herding star.

Friends and mentors like Maa play an important role in children’s lives since all young folks need someone in their corner. Caring adults promote equity by helping all children fulfill their promise and feel good about who they are—something early childhood teachers do every day by giving young learners the support and skills they need to advance in school and life. And that begins by teaching children how they can communicate their thoughts, ideas, experiences and feelings to others. “Early educators play a pivotal role in helping children develop a strong foundation of literacy and language,” as the Council explains in Essentials for Working with Young Children. They read books to children. They teach them new words. And the right words can move hearts and minds, as they did for Wilbur, another pig who finds a witty, literate friend in the movie Charlotte’s Web.

The book on which it’s based is by the great author, E.B. White, who wrote the book on writing style. He worked for the New Yorker, a magazine I love for its clear, concise, compelling prose. And I loved how White showed the power of words in Charlotte’s Web. They shimmer across the movie screen in gossamer threads as a spider named Charlotte spins a scheme to save Wilbur’s bacon from the knife. Charlotte has no friends in the barn since all the other animals think she’s ugly and stay away. Wilbur, on other hand, thinks that Charlotte is lovely and fills a crucial role as she keeps the fly population down in the barn.

She’s also unique, as White famously wrote. “It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer,” words that are repeated in the film. “Charlotte was both.” And she makes a promise to save the pig after learning he’s doomed to be served up as Christmas dinner. True to her vow, Charlotte weaves words into her web describing Wilbur as “Some Pig,” “Terrific,” “Radiant” and “Humble”—making Wilbur too famous to be killed.

Sadly, Charlotte dies after going with Wilbur to a state fair, and the loss of a loved one also sets the stage for Nanny McPhee, a film about Mr. Brown and his seven unruly children. When his wife dies, Mr. Brown goes through 17 nannies to care for his children. The nannies all throw up their hands at the children’s misbehavior, and just as the last one quits, Mr. Brown hears an eerie voice telling him he should hire Nanny McPhee. When she shows up one dark night, Mr. Brown is taken aback by her bulbous nose, jutting front tooth and warts, making her a distant cry from Mary Poppins.

Still, Mr. Brown hires Nanny McPhee in desperation, and she uses her magical gifts to teach the children five important lessons: they will learn to say please and thank you, they will do as they are told, they will learn to dress on their own, they will be prepared to accept the consequences of their actions, and they will learn to listen to others. As the children complete each lesson, Nanny McPhee transforms. Her warts disappear, her teeth become even, and she changes into a beautiful, smiling woman.

Nanny McPhee uses magic to help get her message across, but there are less miraculous ways to help children learn to act in ways that makes other folks smile. And the Council explores them in Essentials. “Prosocial behaviors,” as Essentials explains, “are voluntary actions intended to benefit another person. They require empathy and include compassion, cooperation, taking turns, generosity, being fair, feeling and showing affection, being kind and helping. These behaviors begin in infancy and develop over time with the proper guidance from grownups like parents and teachers.

But most of the children in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory haven’t learned these important lessons that make life sweeter for us all. Veruca Salt acts like a spoiled brat; Violet Beauregard is a competitive perfectionist; Mike Teavee approaches life with the skills he has learned through video games and Augustus Gloop is a glutton. The children are all punished in various ways after making a tour of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, a place that offers both terrors and delights. The only child who comes out unscathed is Charlie Bucket, a kind boy who lives with his family in a shabby one-room shack. Though Charlie is poor, his life is rich in love. And he refuses to give up his family after Willy Wonka invites him to come live in the factory and be his only heir. “A chocolatier has to run free and solo. He has to explore his dreams,” Willy Wonka insists. But in time he comes to live with Charlie’s family and even makes up with his long-estranged dad, a forbidding dentist who didn’t allow him to eat candy.

That’s a pro-family message and one that the Council constantly tries to get across as it urges teachers to partner with families. Family matters most, and movies can convey key lessons like this in ways that reach young minds. Learning should be playful and fun, as the Council knows. And good children’s movies can teach little ones while keeping them entertained. Children may think they’re just having a good time while watching a film, like they do when eating a sugary treat. And Willy Wonka puts this well when he says, “Candy doesn’t have to have a point. That’s why it’s candy.” And why do children like to watch movies? Because it’s fun. Still, literate spiders, lonely, little pigs and not-so-lovely nannies can make points about life, love and loss in light, sweet ways that appeal to young folks. A spoonful of sugar can help the medicine—and some deep moral lessons—go down.

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