With the release of Sam Raimi's Oz the Great and Powerful this Friday and my recent viewing of the ultimate classic The Wizard of Oz for The Film Experience's "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" series, I've been thinking a lot about children's fantasy movies. There's obviously the timeless classics like aforementioned Wizard of Oz and Mary Poppins, but here are a few movies that are not talked about all that often despite being pretty terrific films.
1. Babe (1995, directed by Chris Noonan)
Can a movie that earned seven Academy Award nominations (including Best Picture) be called underrated? It just so happens that Babe is that kind of Best Picture nominee that, almost ten years later, has been largely forgotten. The film-lover community (and the internet especially) is composed of the kind of people who are just not going to open up to a movie about a talking pig unless its made by Pixar.
That is a true shame, since Babe is a movie that not only holds up, but remains effectively moving all these years later. The relationship between the little pig and farmer Hoggett (one of James Cromwell's best performances) is the kind of sincere allegory about surrogate parenthood that, because it has an animal at its center, is just not taken seriously.
2. Matilda (1996, directed by Danny DeVito)
Danny DeVito himself is one of the most underrated directors. The man behind Throw Momma From the Train and The War of the Roses goes significantly less dark with his adaptation of Roald Dahl's Matilda, but anyone who's seen the movie will agree that his personal sense of humor is still present and makes for a really entertaining movie. I watched it not too long ago and I have to say it is as odd and charming as an adult as it was when I first saw it.
Actually, Matilda is a weird example of a movie that I feel like has been a touchstone in the childhood of many people of my generation, but is largely neglected as far as online fandom is concerned. And God knows if there's a place where childhood nostalgia reigns supreme, it's the internet. Hopefully the upcoming Broadway Musical Production (which is already a hit in London) will bring people to revisit this gem.
3. A Little Princess (1995, directed by Alfonso Cuarón)
You wouldn't be wrong to consider the director of Y Tú Mamá También and Children of Men to be one of the true cinematic geniuses working today. If you are a fan of Cuarón, then maybe you owe it to yourself to watch his adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett's A Little Princess. Despite mainly positive reviews, the movie was a big box-office failure when it was first released and remains extremely underseen until this day.
It is, however, one of the most succesful movies to adopt a point of view that borders on magical realism and remains incredibly true to childhood. Much celebrated movies like Pan's Labyrinth and Beasts of the Southern Wild definitely owe something to A Little Princess.
4. Peter Pan (2003, directed by P.J. Hogan)
P.J. Hogan's version of J.M. Barrie's classic came right when Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings enthusiasm was at its height, something that could be one of the reasons it bombed so hard at the box-office. Anyway, if you're looking for a great adaptation of Peter Pan (maybe because you just saw Steven Spielberg's atrocious Hook) you needn't look further than this.
What could have been a terrible update of the classic story ends up being surprisingly effective mainly because Hogan (who co-wrote the screenplay) put the pre-adolescent relationship between Peter and Wendy front and center. You could call this a more "sexually-charged" Peter Pan (don't worry, it's still a "PG" rated movie), but what it really does is adopt a more modern sensibility to convey what was already present in the orignal work.
5. The NeverEnding Story (1984, directed by Wolfgang Petersen)
Coming off an Oscar nomination for his World War II drama Das Boot, german director Wolfgang Petersen took on the german author Michael Ende's Die unendliche Geschichte. The result was a movie that, if nothing else, presented us with a truly fascinating fantasy world (especially for a child).
The movie certainly has a strong set of supporters and fans, but the movie doesn't come up nearly as often in conversation about 80s fantasy movies as you would expect from a movie that spawned two sequels and a television show. Also, my mom was a huge fan of this movie.