Children's Films


The remarkable success of Snow White —one of the highest-grossing films of its era—demonstrated that films with a particular appeal to children were a viable source of revenue for the studios. Animated features continued for some time to be the primary genre aimed at children. Thus followed further Disney productions such as Pinocchio (1940), Dumbo (1941), and Bambi (1942), all of which dealt specifically with issues of childhood development. Meanwhile, MGM had initiated a live-action series of films that gained unexpected and widespread success among young audiences. The Andy Hardy series featured an adolescent protagonist and his primarily adolescent friends. As had been the case since the 1910s, a key component in targeting the child audience was not so much the content of the films as the time of their exhibition; weekend matinees continued to be common in most American communities after World War II, and by the late 1950s the studios reaffirmed their effort to tap the burgeoning baby-boom market with films catering to the interests of the young (a trend even more evident in films for teenagers).

Beginning in 1950 the Disney studio gravitated toward more live-action films featuring youngsters. It had great success with Treasure Island (1950), an appealing adventure with a boy in a lead role, and with features about youth such as Johnny Tremain (1957), Old Yeller (1957), Pollyanna (1960), Big Red (1962), and Mary Poppins (1964). With the establishment of the ratings system in 1968, studios were under new pressure to produce G-rated movies that could appeal to all ages. Again Disney led the way with a number of comedies and adventures, such as The Love Bug (1968), The Million Dollar Duck (1971), The Island at the Top of the World (1974), The Apple Dumpling Gang (1975), and Gus (1976). Other studios joined in the family film genre with The Phantom Tollbooth (1970), Pufnstuf (1970), Tom Sawyer (1973), The Little Prince (1974), The Black Stallion (1979), and Mountain Family Robinson (1979). For decades films featuring young people and animals continued to have a special appeal to children, from the numerous films about Lassie the dog (beginning with Lassie Come Home in 1943) to a series based on the scrappy dog Benji (beginning with Benji in 1974). Science fiction also took on new significance for children in the 1970s and 1980s, with the release of the Star Wars and Star Trek series (beginning in 1977 and 1979, respectively) and fables like The Cat from Outer Space (1978) and The Black Hole (1979).

In the 1980s, however, the Hollywood studios again seemed to lose interest in the child audience, as a new wave of PG–13 teen films offered greater profit potential. Once more, the Disney studio seemed single-handedly to revive interest in the child market when it released two animated musical features at the end of the decade, Oliver & Company (1988) and The Little Mermaid (1989). These films inaugurated a new kid-friendly atmosphere in American cinema, which was also beginning to flourish in the home-video market. Thus followed more Disney and non-Disney titles, many of which did not feature actual children, intended to draw children to theaters and televisions. Examples include Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990), Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), The Mighty Ducks (1992), 3 Ninjas (1992), The Flintstones (1994), Casper (1995), Pocahontas (1995), Toy Story (1995), Space Jam (1996), Mousehunt (1997), George of the Jungle (1997), A Bug's Life (1998), The Prince of Egypt (1998), Tarzan (1999), and Stuart Little (1999).

In the twenty-first century the studios have maintained a consistent output of similar films for children, most in the realm of animated features such as Shrek (2001) and The Incredibles (2004), but with some live-action films making a splash, such as How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000), The Cat in the Hat (2003), Holes (2003), and the very popular series based on the Harry Potter novels (beginning in 2001). Many of these films were criticized for their open marketing of toys and other products to children and their promotion through product tie-ins with various fast-food chains. The media industry is targeting children more than ever before, linking the supposed pleasures of consumption with those of entertainment.

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