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Cinema and Media Studies Children in Film
by
Ian Wojcik Andrews

Introduction

The child in film is a multifaceted, wide-ranging topic that considers historical, ideological, pedagogical, and theoretical questions, including those of definition. What a children’s film is depends on when films with children in them began. Real and animated children have acted in films since the beginning of cinema in the late 19th century. The earliest movies children (a teenager and a baby respectively) actually starred in were live action films such as Watering the Gardener (1895) and Breakfast with Baby (1895) by the Lumière Brothers. Early fantasy films by Georges Méliès were adaptations of fairy tales such as Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood in 1901 and 1903, respectively. British director Cecil Hepworth adapted Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 1903. Early images of the child as innocent can be found in D. W. Griffiths’s The Adventures of Dolly (1908). In the 1920s, Jackie Coogan acted alongside Charlie Chaplin in The Kid in 1921 and became a child star. At about the same time, the children in the movie shorts known as Our Gang were also popular. During the 1930s there were other children in films: Jackie Cooper, Jane Withers, Virginia Weidler, and Mitzi Green were all well-known child stars. Collectively, they confirmed the powerful socioeconomic, cultural, and ideological presence of the child in film, one that has continued in films as different as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), The Wizard of Oz (1939), National Velvet (1944), Mary Poppins (1964), The Golden Compass (2007), the Harry Potter franchise (2001–2011), Alice in Wonderland (1933), and Up (2010). But children also have starred in films such as Au Revoir Les Enfants (1987), The Village of the Damned (1960), The Exorcist (1973), Pretty Baby (1978), Spirit of the Beehive (1973), Taxi Driver (1976), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), Salaam Bombay (1988), The Sixth Sense (1999), The Matrix (1999), and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). These not-so-G-rated movies suggest the incredible range of film genres in which children find themselves placed (or exploited by Hollywood, depending on your point of view) and confirm the equally incredible talents of the child actors used. They also imply that a children’s film is not defined solely by the presence of a child (Taxi Driver is not a children’s film) or the fact that it originates from a work of children’s literature for that matter: The Matrix, which constantly alludes to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, is R-rated. Needless to say, the image of the child as innocent does not prevail. Children do indeed star in films (and have done so since the early days of the cinema), including those produced by kids themselves. But a firm definition is elusive. Not all films starring children are children’s films. For scholars of children’s cinema, the topic of children in film begs as many questions as it asks.

General Overviews

General overviews concerning the child in film either examine that subject in detail or include images of the child in film in their overall discussion of film. Wojcik-Andrews 2000 contains five chapters that introduce readers to specific issues related to children’s cinema and films: “Definition,” “Criticism,” “History,” “Ideology,” and “Pedagogy.” Street 1983 (cited under Adaptations) contains historically oriented and insightful essays written by respected children’s literature scholars regarding the adaptation of children’s literature into film. Nichols 2003 is an annotated listing of child-friendly movies. Sinyard 1992 takes a thematic approach to examining the presence of children in film: a chapter titled “Little Horrors,” for example, discusses The Curse of the Cat People (1944), The Night of the Hunter (1955), and The Exorcist (1973). Staples 1997, which contains numerous black-and-white illustrations, charts the history of children’s cinema in England but is useful nonetheless as a general introduction to the topic of the child in film. Brownlow 1990 discusses films from the silent era and includes many stills from films that prominently featured children. Lebeau 2008, like Wood 2006, looks less at specific films with children in them and more at the way the cinematic apparatus uses the child to construct images of childhood, including those that relate to sexuality, identity, and the theme of death. Ariès 1962 is a central text in discussions of the child in film because such discussions presuppose the emergence of the modern child, the subject of Ariès’s seminal work on childhood.

  • Ariès, Phillipe. Centuries of Childhood. New York: Vintage, 1962.

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    Not much to do with children in film but everything to do with childhood. Ariès argues that childhood, as we currently know it, came into existence shortly after the Medieval era. Around the 16th and 17th centuries, the culture of childhood emerged as separate from that of adulthood.

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  • Brownlow, Kevin. Behind the Mask of Innocence. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.

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    Invaluable resource for discussions of how the child is represented in silent-era films. Black-and-white illustrations and stills from films on topics such as birth control (Where Are My Children?, 1916) and juvenile delinquency (The Godless Girl, 1929), all from the silent era.

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  • Lebeau, Vicky. Childhood and Cinema. London: Reaktion, 2008.

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    Fascinating study of how film engages the child at the level of representation. Contains several black-and-white photos that cleverly illustrate the author’s ideas about how the camera visualizes the child in terms of questions of sexuality and identity that are of course connected. A must-read for students of children’s film.

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  • Nichols, Peter M. The New York Times Essential Library: Children’s Movies: A Critic’s Guide to the Best Films Available of Video and DVD. New York: Henry Holt, 2003.

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    An annotated listing of children’s and family-friendly movies ranging from The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) to Lawrence of Arabia (1962) to Lilo and Stitch (2002). Parent-friendly. Not scholarly. Includes names of directors, actors. Plot summaries.

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  • Sinyard, Neil. Children in the Movies. New York: St. Martin’s, 1992.

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    Contains a particularly useful introduction to children in film in which Sinyard suggests that the topic is fascinating and not what people might expect. He explores films that contain children regardless of whether they might really be children’s films or not.

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  • Staples, Terry. All Pals Together: The Story of Children’s Cinema. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1997.

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    An overview of the history of children’s cinema in England. Discusses films kids in England saw, the problems kids faced, and the influence of American movies. The topic of the child in film needs more histories such as this. Uses many black-and-white stills from the era.

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

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    A wide-ranging discussion of many issues related to children’s films including a world history of children’s films, a discussion of the appearance of children in films from different film periods, what those films signify theoretically, and how films with children in them might be taught.

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  • Wood, Robin. Personal Views: Explorations in Film. Rev. ed. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2006.

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    Collection of essays by a respected film scholar; includes the seminal essay on images of childhood. Looks at the child in films by De Sica, Bergman, Fellini, Godard, and American cinema up to Night of the Living Dead (1968) and High Plains Drifter (1973). Contains black-and-white images. Smart introduction to studies of the child in film. Originally published in 1976 (London: G. Fraser).

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Anthologies

There are no textbooks that focus on the child in film but there are current anthologies of children’s literature that include critical essays on children’s films by respected children’s literature scholars. Stahl 2007 includes Julaine Gillispie’s “American Film Adaptations of The Secret Garden: Reflections of Sociological and Historical Change.” Rosenberg 2008 includes essays by Hastings and Bassi on the film adaptations of children’s literature texts such as The Planet of Junior Brown, The Little Mermaid, and The Jungle Book.

  • Rosenberg, Teya, ed. Considering Children’s Literature: A Reader. Peterborough, Canada: Broadview, 2008.

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    Arranged more conventionally than Stahl 2007, Considering Children’s Literature includes chapters on drama and theater for the young, as well as a chapter on film adaptations. Waller Hastings’s article titled “Moral Simplification in Disney’s The Little Mermaid” is especially relevant. It examines the amount of money Disney films make and the way Disney simplifies complex moral issues.

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  • Stahl, J. D., ed. Crosscurrents of Children’s Literature: An Anthology of Texts and Criticism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

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    A good, solid, up-to-date anthology of classic and contemporary children’s literature texts and critical essays that examine themes that include gender, orality, picture books, and how classic works of children’s literature are reworked into various electronic media including film.

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Journals

Children’s literature journals such as The Lion and the Unicorn and Children’s Literature Association Quarterly have either devoted a special issue to the topic of children’s films or included essays on children in film in their general issues. The Lion and the Unicorn includes essays by Jack Zipes, Naomi Wood, Heather Neff, Kenneth Kidd, and Richard Flynn. A special issue of Children’s Literature Association Quarterly is devoted to children’s literature and media and includes thought-provoking essays on Pixar’s Up (2010) by Kate Flynn and on anime, such as Samurai Champloo (2004–2005) and So Long, Mr. Despair(2007–2008), by Katarzyna Wasylak. Issue 22.1 (1997) of the Quarterly includes essays from other renowned children’s literature scholars such as Michelle Martin. Online children’s literature journals that also include essays about films with children in them include The Looking Glass: New Perspectives in Children’s Literature (Geer 2011, cited under Articles). But these are primarily literary journals whose specialization is children’s literature rather than film, though they are important nonetheless. Discussions of the child in film can be found in several film-related journals such as Jump Cut and Screen.

Articles

There are many articles on children’s films, including those that look at the child in film. Geer 2011 looks at the most recent adaptation of Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Nick Willing’s television adaptation. Eckert 1974 historicizes Shirley Temple. Shepard 2012 considers questions of social class and children as well as the role of the corporation in the production of images of the child in films.

History

As with all emerging disciplines, questions of history are relevant to the study of the child in film. Jackson 1986 takes a social and cultural approach to the topic. Bogle 1973 is a book on the history of race in American films that generally includes many examples of African-American children being discriminated against and exploited in films from the silent era to the late 20th century. Wojcik-Andrews 2000 looks at the history of children’s films from the silent era to the 21st century, arguing that each film period has produced classic children’s films, or films with children in them. Recent discussions in works by critics such as Susan Ferguson (Ferguson 2011) have further developed these reflectionist positions (that a film with a child in it reflects the era in which it is produced).

  • Bogle, Donald. Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretative History of Blacks in American Films. New York: Continuum, 1973.

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    Important book about the cultural stereotypes of African Americans in mainstream American film. Includes many examples of how the African-American child is also cruelly stereotyped.

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  • Ferguson, Susan. “Children of Global Capitalism: Modes of Critique.” Paper presented at “Spaces of Capital: Moments of Struggle,” London, 10–13 November 2011.

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    Argues that Treeless Mountain (2008), Chop Shop (2007), and Sin Nombre (2009), movies made in South Korea, United States, and Mexico, respectively, represent children who, under global capitalism, have experienced profound national and personal instability and loss of home and identity.

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  • Jackson, Kathy Merlock. Images of Children in American Film: A Sociocultural Approach. London: Scarecrow, 1986.

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    Groundbreaking work on the topic of the child in film. Remains relevant today. Looks at images of the child in mostly American films from the silent era to the era of Spielberg: for example, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

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

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    Overview of the history of children’s films that includes discussion of child stars and films from overseas as well as American children’s films. Discusses foreign and international films with children in them but does not specifically touch upon the issue of race.

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Adaptations

Many early discussions concerning the relation between children and film revolve around the issue of adaptation. Two early, serious attempts to examine this relationship are Street 1983 and Rollin 1993, both of which were groundbreaking in unique ways.

  • Rollin, Lucy, ed. The Antic Art: Enhancing Children’s Literary Experiences through Film and Video. Fort Atkinson, WI: Highsmith, 1993.

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    One of a handful of collections of essays on children’s literature and film, the other being Street 1983. Rollin looks at the issue of adaptation primarily but also includes essays that place children’s experiences with video within a pedagogical context. Rollin’s collection is important, as it was one of the first to situate children’s visual media, including film, in such a broad range of child-related contexts.

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  • Street, Douglas. “An Overview of Commercial Filmic Adaptations of Children’s Fiction.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 7 (1982): 13–17.

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    As the title suggests, this article looks at the adaptation of children’s fiction. Shortened version of Street’s introduction to Children’s Novels and the Movies.

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  • Street, Douglas, ed. Children’s Novels and the Movies. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1983.

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    Groundbreaking collection of essays by top children’s literature scholars about the adaptation of children’s novels into films. Essays cover children’s fiction and their adaptations from both the mid- and late 19th century (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Tom Brown’s Schooldays) to late 20th century (Sounder and Watership Down). Contains many black-and-white illustrations. See pp. xiii–xxiv.

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Disney

Wrongly or rightly, the idea of children in film (and the idea of children’s films) is synonymous with Disney. Bell, et al. 1995 and Smoodin 1994 cover this aspect of the child in film, sometimes focusing on the question of adaptation but also looking at Disney as a powerful socioeconomic, cultural, and ideological influence in the lives of children throughout the world. Though scholarly works such as Zipes 1997 and Giroux 1993 are frequently critical of Disney’s role and influence in children’s culture, others, such as Brode 2005, have argued consistently for Disney as progressive rather than conservative and reactionary. Sammond 2005 and Ward 2002 offer more nuanced discussions of Disney and the image of the child.

  • Allan, Robin. Walt Disney and Europe: European Influences on the Animated Feature Films of Walt Disney. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999.

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    Fascinating study of the early, European influences on Disney’s famous animated features and part of the revisionist tendencies in Disney criticism during the 1990s. Primarily shows how European art and literature, especially the former, found its way into the animated movies. Contains lots and lots of black-and-white and color pictures that reveal both obvious and subtle ways in which the movies drew on classic art styles. Pays minimal attention to Walt Disney’s personal life, unlike Watts, and thus makes a nice companion piece to that book. Highly recommended, if only for the images.

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  • Bell, Elizabeth, Lynda Haas, and Laura Sells, eds. From Mouse to Mermaid: The Politics of Film, Gender, and Culture. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995.

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    Significant collection by Jack Zipes, Henry Giroux, Brian Atterby, Lynda Haas, and D. Soyini Madison. Zipes argues that Disney radically changed the way we view folk and fairy tales by sanitizing them and using them to reinforce dominant American ideologies. Giroux argues a similar point. Haas examines the way Disney eliminates mothers, and Madison situates Disney’s Pretty Woman (1990) in the context of African-American feminist theory.

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  • Brode, Douglas. Multiculturalism and the Mouse: Race and Sex in Disney Entertainment. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005.

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    Argues that Disney was, and remains, progressive in its cultural representations of African, Asian, and Native Americans. Brode is swimming against the critical tide, but the book is relevant nonetheless as it presents a different perspective on Disney’s cultural ethnicity. Also suggests that while critics might deride Disney’s sentimentality, others admire Disney for precisely that reason.

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  • Giroux, Henry. “Beyond the Politics of Innocence: Memory and Pedagogy in the ‘Wonderful World of Disney.’” Socialist Review 93.2 (1993): 79–108.

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    A political reading of Disney in contradistinction to Brode. Argues that Disney films from Good Morning Vietnam (1987) to Pretty Woman universalize history and gender relations and in the process play down the actual gender, race, and class conflicts the films allude to.

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  • Sammond, Nicholas. Babes in Tomorrowland: Walt Disney and the Making of the American Child, 1930–1960. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005.

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    As the title suggests, a thought-provoking discussion of how Disney constructs the American child.

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  • Smoodin, Eric, ed. Disney Discourse: Producing the Magic Kingdom. New York and London: Routledge, 1994.

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    Cultural studies and historicist approaches to the different aspects of Disney’s empire rather than a discussion of children in film. Relevant, though, as it was part of the ongoing reevaluation of Disney in the 1990s that includes but is not limited to Watts 1997 and Allan 1999.

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  • Ward, Annalee R. Mouse Morality: The Rhetoric of Disney Animated Film. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002.

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    Useful critical work that looks at how Disney’s films address moral issues such as the ones found in The Lion King (1994).

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  • Watts, Steven. The Magic Kingdom: Walt Disney and the American Way of Life. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.

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    Alternatively personal and critical, Watts reexamines the Disney empire, arguing primarily that it was both inside and outside mainstream early 20th-century American culture and was, therefore, uniquely positioned both to parody and yet celebrate that culture. Fascinating, at times revelatory study of Disney that is part rigorous cultural analysis and part populist journalism. Numerous black-and-white photos show Walt Disney in political, cultural, and personal settings.

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  • Zipes, Jack. Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales, Children, and the Culture Industry. London: Routledge, 1997.

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    One of many books by respected scholar Jack Zipes, this covers the relationship between the culture industry and children’s literature and film. Takes a cultural studies approach to the topic.

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Theory

Many works previously mentioned use various critical theories to help in their discussion of children in film. Zipes 2011, developing Zipes’s earlier cultural approaches to Disney in 1997, historicizes the rise of the fairy tale film from its humble beginnings in the late 19th century with George Méliès to more recent offerings such as The Princess and the Frog (2009). Few critics discussing the child in film provide a sustained attempt to theorize about the category of the child and its constructed relation to the films in which it finds itself placed. Lury 2010 attempts such a discussion and in the process talks about the growing importance of Japanese films starring children, among other subjects. Lury’s book is particularly useful for graduate students studying children’s cinema and film from theoretical perspectives, as is a psychoanalytic reading of The Little Mermaid (1989) in White 1993. Wood 2006 examines auteur theory.

  • Lury, Karen. The Child in Film: Tears, Fears, and Fairytales. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2010.

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    The Child in Film is not a historical survey, but it does draw on the work of Derrida and theorists of anthropology, sexuality, and history to discuss films starring children. Lury writes about films such as Broken Blossoms (1919), Spirit of the Beehive (1973), Man on Fire (2004), Schindler’s List (1993), and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). A must-read for students of childhood studies and film.

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  • White, Susan. “Split Skins: Female Agency and Bodily Mutation in The Little Mermaid.” In Film Theory Goes to the Movies. Edited by Jim Collins, Hilary Radner, and Ava Preacher Collins, 182–195. London: Routledge, 1993.

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    Draws on Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalytic theories to uncover what might be considered an authentic woman’s narrative even in filmic texts such as Disney’s The Little Mermaid that at first sight seem overwhelmingly patriarchal.

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  • Wood, Robin. “Reflections on the Auteur Theory.” In Personal Views: Explorations in Film. 2d ed. Edited by Robin Wood. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2006.

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    Discusses many issues in film as well as the auteur theory whereby directors impose a certain style on their work that elevates them to auteurs rather than simply directors and thus in part distinguishes between commercial cinema and art or independent films. Originally published in 1978.

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  • Zipes, Jack. The Enchanted Screen: The Unknown History of Fairy-Tale Films. London: Routledge, 2011.

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    Contains an abundance of references and discussion of fairy-tale films from around the world from the early days to the most recent releases. Should convince anyone that Disney is not, and never was, the only producer of fairy-tale-type films even though it may be the most financially successful.

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Film Festivals

The latest films in which children appear can be found in the numerous children’s film festivals held throughout the year around the globe. In the United States for example, major cities such as New York (New York International Children’s Film Festival) and Chicago (Chicago International Children’s Film Festival) regularly showcase the latest films starring children.

Child Stars

There are as many child stars as there are children’s films. Each film period brings to the public’s attention a new group of child stars that flourish for a while and then mostly fade into obscurity until their careers are perhaps rejuvenated later in life. This is true of child stars from Jackie Coogan and Shirley Temple in the 1930s to Jodi Foster (Pretty Baby, 1978) in the 1970s, to Drew Barrymore (E.T., 1982) and Jerry O’Connell, Corey Feldman, and Wil Wheaton (Stand By Me, 1986) in the 1980s, to Macaulay Culkin (Home Alone, 1990) in the 1990s. The biographical Black 1988 conveys this well, as do Chandler 1993 and Edwards 1988. The criticism of child stars ranges from the largely anecdotal and unscholarly to the highly theoretical. The following texts are good starting points for both.

  • Black, Shirley Temple. Child Star: An Autobiography. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1988.

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    Candid autobiography of Shirley Temple’s life from her earliest films to the extinction of her career in the 1950s. Includes discussion of her mother’s influence and her two marriages. Detailed, good read from an obvious insider.

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  • Chandler, Suzanne. Children of Babylon: The Untold Stories of Hollywood’s Youngest and Brightest Stars. Stamford, CT: Longview, 1993.

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    One of the earliest texts to highlight what happens to aging child stars. Not scholarly. Contrast with Snead’s work.

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  • Edwards, Anne. Shirley Temple: American Princess. New York: William Morrow, 1988.

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    In parts, a slightly more candid account of Shirley Temple’s life and career, especially in relation to the influence of Temple’s mother. Not scholarly, but worth reading against Temple’s own account of her life.

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Directors

Wood 2006 discusses an important aspect of the child in films, which is the role of the director. Wood’s engaging writing style draws attention to the work of older directors such as Ingmar Bergman and Howard Hawkes.

Genres

Children act in films that come from a range of genres. Fantasy, animation, and realistic fiction are the most popular genres in which children star. Think here of the child actors and actresses in blockbuster fantasies such as the Harry Potter series; The Golden Compass (2007); and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005). In relation to children in animated films, think of the anthropomorphized animals in most of Disney’s films. Kids and young adults appear in films as different as Up (2010), Ponyo (2008), Spirited Away (2001), or, for older kids, The Girl Who Leapt through Time (2006). An important animated movie recently released would be the 2007 adaptation of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, a tale about a young Iranian girl, Marjane, coming of age during the Islamic Revolution. Children can be found in science fiction and horror movies (think here of The Bad Seed [1956] or The Village of The Damned [1960]) as well as adaptations of canonical picture books such as Where the Wild Things Are, The Cat in the Hat, Jumanji, The Polar Express, or Brian Selznick’s ever-so-postmodern The Invention of Hugo Cabret: A Novel in Words and Pictures (2007). There are articles about the child in science fiction films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), most notably Sobchack 1991.

  • Sobchack, Vivian. “Child/Alien/Father: Patriarchal Crisis and Generic Exchange.” In Close Encounters: Film, Feminism, and Science Fiction. Edited by Constance Penley, Elisabeth Lyon, Lynn Spigel, and Janet Bergstrom. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991.

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    Psychoanalytic and cultural studies approach the notion that the birth of the child in films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Rosemary’s Baby (1968) signifies the crisis in the middle-class family in the post–World War II era as a result of the various social and sexual changes shaping the history of that epoch. Smart essay from a respected film scholar.

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Pedagogy

An issue of increasing importance in the study of the child in film is pedagogy, especially as it relates to questions of diversity and multiculturalism. Many thoughtful and informative websites are looking seriously at how the presence in children’s films of children from around the world might be used in schools to teach students cultural tolerance. Two that do so, Journeys in Film and Teach with Movies, are listed below.

LAST MODIFIED: 12/19/2012

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780199791286-0087

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