Children's Films


The child star system that had worked so well for Hollywood before the war broke down soon thereafter. Very few child actors had more than a couple of popular films to their name after the 1950s, as the studio system was losing its coherence and power in controlling the American movie market. Although this meant that fewer films were made about children, those that were made offered a wider array of images. For example, The Bad Seed (1956) takes on the topic of a little girl's villainous nature by considering if her evil is in fact genetic. The Miracle Worker (1962) tells the story of Helen Keller's childhood development, raising awareness about

Emma Watson, Daniel Radcliffe (center), and Rupert Grint in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Chris Columbus, 2002).
disability issues. Oliver! (1968) brings the Oliver Twist tale to screen as a musical, offering a nostalgic celebration of orphanages. And the Disney studio continued to make some films about children as well.

Then in the 1970s Hollywood produced many films featuring children that drew critical attention for their coverage of serious issues. Two of the most notable were Paper Moon (1973), for which nine-year-old Tatum O'Neal (b. 1963) won an acting Oscar ® as a hardened hoyden, and The Exorcist , in which a little girl endures the unfathomable tortures of demonic possession. With such films the studios were clearly changing their previous images of childhood innocence into tales of cynical children damaged by their surroundings. This was certainly the case with Taxi Driver (1976) and Pretty Baby (1978), two radical portraits of teenage prostitution; the topic of girls' sexuality had been wildly controversial even when addressed in Lolita (1962).

The studios also began making more films about children that were aimed at a child audience, as in Escape to Witch Mountain (1975), The Bad News Bears (1976), My Bodyguard (1980), Annie (1982), and the biggest film of the 1980s, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982). Many of these films were humorous and adventurous, although they continued to explore realistic conflicts for children, such as broken families, teamwork, bullying, poverty, drug use, and missing parents. Perhaps this realistic aspect is what then explains the studios' movement away from films about children in the later 1980s: addressing childhood was becoming an increasingly delicate enterprise.

After the diverse and often dark depictions of children that had emerged in the 1970s, and the rise of a dominant teen cinema in the 1980s, Hollywood only occasionally explored contemporary childhood thereafter, and almost always did so in relation to adult culture. A popular topic became kids who comically torment their parents and other adults, as in Problem Child (1990), Home Alone (1990), Dennis the Menace (1993), Richie Rich (1994), First Kid (1996), Leave It to Beaver (1997), and The Parent Trap (1998). Still, few films took seriously the role that children play in the lives of adults and the culture at large; exceptions included Little Man Tate (1991), Free Willy (1993), Pay It Forward (2000), and I Am Sam (2001). Hollywood products nonetheless continue the trend of featuring children in fanciful or even absurd stories, as in the Harry Potter series, the Spy Kids series (2001–2003), Tuck Everlasting (2002), The Cat in the Hat (2003), Catch That Kid (2004), Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004), and Hide and Seek (2005). For whatever reason, the American film industry remains largely reluctant to address real issues and aspects of children's lives.

SEE ALSO Cartoons ; Child Actors ; Fantasy Films ; Teen Films ; Walt Disney Company

Allen, Robert C. "Home Alone Together: Hollywood and the 'Family Film.'" In Identifying Hollywood's Audiences , edited by Melvyn Stokes and Richard Maltby, 109–131. London: British Film Institute, 1990.

De Cordova, Richard. "Ethnography and Exhibition: The Child Audience, the Hays Office, and Saturday Matinees." Camera Obscura 23 (1990): 91–106.

Goldstein, Ruth, and Edith Zornow. The Screen Image of Youth: Movies about Children and Adolescents. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1980.

Jackson, Kathy Merlock. Images of Children in American Film: A Sociocultural Analysis. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1986.

Staples, Terry. All Pals Together: The Story of Children's Cinema. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1996.

Wojcik-Andrews, Ian. Children's Films: History, Ideology, Pedagogy, Theory . New York: Garland, 2000.

Timothy Shary

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