Cinema and Media Studies Children in Film
Ian Wojcik Andrews
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 December 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0087


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.

    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.

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

    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.

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

    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.

  • 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.

    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.

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

    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.

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

    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.

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

    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.

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

    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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