Here come the holidays, and with them some moral dilemmas. I tell my son how gratifying it is to be generous and unselfish, and I try to model these qualities as best I can, but every year his wishlist gets longer and more complicated. The idea of “’tis better to give than to receive” is met with a shrug and, “Mom, you should thank me for helping you feel so good about all the awesome stuff you’re going to give me.”
See how he twisted that around? We assume he’ll be going to law school someday.
So to counter his wily ways, I turned to the movies. If I can’t adequately drive home the value of service, sacrifice, and loving everyone whether you like them or not, I can use Pixar to put a little more muscle into the message.
Not every film on this list will speak to every child, but my hope is there will be at least one or two that will capture your child’s attention and be sweet enough to help the medicine go down — the medicine being, essentially, don’t be a d*ck.
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Despicable Me 1 of 10The Plot: Gru, the evil villain (Steve Carrell), wants to steal the moon to prove he's the biggest villain ever, even though his mom (Julie Andrews) doesn't think he's smart enough or evil enough to do it. Then three girls selling cookies come to Gru's door. He tries to be evil to them, using them to get into his enemy's lair, but their unfailing intelligence, cheer, and inability to be insulted start to break down Gru's gruff exterior. When the orphanage removes the girls from him, he realizes how much they mean to him. Trigger warning for survivors of ballet recitals. The Lessons: People are sometimes grumpy because they feel worthless or unloved, but being patient with them can help turn things around; you can love someone but still be better off without them. Ages: 5 and up
Up 2 of 10The Plot: A tired old widower who just wants to be left alone (Ed Asner) realizes that he has to live out one last dream that he shared with his recently-deceased wife. Helped by an unwitting boy, he goes on an adventure, has some of his illusions shattered, and achieves a sense of peace. Directed by Pete Docter. The Lessons: People are sometimes grumpy if they feel like they have nothing to live for, but being patient with them can help turn things around. Also, don't give up on your dreams, trust where the dog wants to lead you, and always try to remember what it feels like to be a kid. Ages: 5 and up
Millions 3 of 10The Plot: In this comedy-drama directed by Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire), two brothers find a duffle bag full of stolen money that's been thrown from a train. The older brother wants to spend it; the younger brother thinks it's a gift from God and that they should give it all to the poor. Hijinx ensue. The Lessons: There are a lot of ways to help people in need besides money; acts of kindness can sometimes go wrong; two wrongs don't make a right; many hands make light work. Ages: 7 and up
Children of Heaven 4 of 10The Plot: A young boy, Ali, charged with picking up his sister's shoes from the shoemaker accidentally lets a garbageman take them. He apologizes to his sister, Zahra, and because they are poor and afraid to tell their parents, they devise a plan for Zahra to wear Ali's Converse sneakers to school in the morning and then trade with Ali when his classes start in the afternoon. Complications ensue, but hard work brings good fortune to everyone. Directed by Majid Majidi. The Lessons: Hard work can pay off, especially when the right people notice; losing things can make room for something better to come along. Ages: 8 and up
Looney Tunes 5 of 10The Plots: Too numerous to describe, but the virtues and vices embodied in each character could fill a shelf full of psychology books. The Lessons: Don't jump to conclusions; the biggest egos have the hardest falls; every rose has thorns; anxiety is interest paid on trouble before it's due; comedy is tragedy plus time; never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity. Ages: 5 and up
The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill 6 of 10The Plot: An unemployed musician in San Francisco befriends a flock of feral parrots. The birds trust him so much that people begin to call him the St. Francis of San Francisco. This remarkable documentary follows his life from homelessness to his discovery of the wildness that exists even within a large city, and his often humorous relationships with individual birds. Directed by Judy Irving. The Lessons: Amazing things are everywhere if we know how to see; food, patience, and a quiet heart can help you earn an animal's trust; the more you learn about animals, the more you learn about yourself. Ages: 8 and up
The Black Stallion 7 of 10The Plot: A boy (Kelly Reno) is shipwrecked with a prize Arabian stallion. The boy coaxes the horse into trusting him, and they learn to rely on each other for friendship, survival, play, and affection. When a rescue party finally finds them, the boy insists on bringing the horse with them, and he is then discovered by an ex-jockey and trainer (Mickey Rooney) who thinks he could be a champion. With Teri Garr as the mother. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola.) The Lessons: Animals can be fiercely intelligent and deserve our respect; Francis Ford Coppola is a genius. Ages: 5 and up will be mesmerized
Babe: Pig in the City 8 of 10The Plot: The story takes up where the original "Babe" leaves off, with Farmer Hoggett getting injured, making him unable to work. To earn money, Mrs. Hoggett takes Babe to a fair near a big city to earn an appearance fee, but they become separated and Babe has many perilous, madcap, big-city-based adventures. Directed by George Miller (Mad Max, Happy Feet). The Lessons: Mercy can transform the hardest heart; not everyone gets a happy ending; love and courage need to go hand-in-hand. Ages: 10 and up, due to some darker situations and characters
Wallace and Gromit: Three Amazing Adventures 9 of 10The Plot: Three short films make up this DVD package: "A Grand Day Out" (Wallace and Gromit build a rocket go to the moon and see if it's made of cheese and end up dodging a judgmental stove), "The Wrong Trousers" (Wallace invents a pair of robotic trousers to take Gromit for walks, but their new lodger, a dastardly penguin, rewires them for his own nefarious purposes), and "A Close Shave" (Wallace falls in love with the owner of a yarn shop and Gromit is accused of running a sheep-rustling ring). Directed by Nick Park. The Lessons: Always stand up for your friends; short cuts sometimes end up making more work for us; your dog may be smarter than you; a nice piece of cheese can solve a multitude of problems. Ages: 5 and up
It’s a Wonderful Life 10 of 10The Plot: George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) believes that his life has passed him by and considers ending it all, but his guardian angel shows him what life in the town would have looked like without his contributions, and George ends up being overwhelmingly grateful for what he has. Directed by Frank Capra. The Lessons: No one is a failure who has friends; sometimes our dreams can blind us to the love that's right in front of us. Ages: 10 and up
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