Reviewer Jane Boursaw (reellifewithjane) focuses on the family market in film and television. She has written for hundreds of print and online publications over the years. Her work now mainly consists of syndicated family movie and television columns, an online magazine, and the occasional story for publications like Variety or People Magazine. She’s also a family TV columnist at TVworthwatching.com. We talked to Boursaw about what’s going on in the family market.
There are storylines, Boursaw says, “… that hold up over time, because they’re things that people deal with in real life every day.” The best family films tell these stories in a way that kids and families can relate to.
Boursaw cites some common themes among family films:
- Doing what’s right, even if your peers make fun of you (How to Train Your Dragon)
- Working together to overcome an obstacle or achieve a goal (Toy Story)
- Relying on friends and family to get through life’s rough patches (Happy Feet Two)
- Pushing through, even when all hope seems lost (Arthur Christmas, Kung Fu Panda 2)
- Finding an inner strength to persevere through a tragedy (Soul Surfer)
- Taking the “good” path in the good vs. evil storyline (Harry Potter, Star Wars)
“One thing I’ve noticed,” she says, “is that the simpler storylines sometimes get short shrift in the family movie industry. There doesn’t always have to be a big, monumental storyline to make a great movie.”
Boursaw points to Flipped, a PG-rated movie directed by Rob Reiner, as a good example of a subtle storyline. “Flipped contains no explosions, car chases, giant robots, dragons, or aliens. It’s not in 3D, and the kids are thoughtful and respectful, not bratty and obnoxious. The parents act like real parents – flawed and doing the best they can under difficult circumstances.”
Further, Boursaw states that Reiner “doesn’t dumb things down for us.” There’s a degree of subtlety to the film. “Unlike most family films, you can’t see the ending coming a mile away. We have to take that journey with the characters and see how it all plays out.”
Boursaw’s wish? “… more family films like Flipped, with stories focused on human connections and emotions with superb acting, a simple story, and a great production.”
Filmmakers conking us over the head with a “big message” isn’t something Boursaw values. “It’s better if it’s more subtle,” she says, “if the message comes through and kids don’t even realize they’ve learned something.”
She likes Arthur Christmas. The characters “… learn something about themselves and find the strength to overcome their fears and carry out their mission when all seems lost.” The film walks “that fine line between giving audiences an entertaining movie and slyly embedding important messages for both kids and adults.”
It’s Always About Story
We asked Boursaw if the growth in CGI and other filmmaking technologies advances story as genuinely as live-action films. “For the most part,” she says, “you’re still going to find at least some CG animation, if not full-blown animation, in most family films. That’s not a bad thing.”
For her, it always goes back to story. “If it’s a great story, then it doesn’t matter whether it’s animated or not.” She does think that younger kids will probably be more apt to sit through an animated movie than a live-action movie.
Boursaw adds that, even when the option to make a live-action film is there, it’s not necessarily the best choice. “Steven Spielberg originally envisioned The Adventures of Tintin as a live-action film,” she says. “When he approached Peter Jackson, (he) convinced Spielberg that live action wouldn’t do justice to Herge’s comic books. And I agree. The motion-capture animation pays homage to the comic books in a way that live-action never could.”
Tangled, Kung Fu Panda, and How to Train Your Dragon are three more great examples of animated movies that are not dumbed down for kids, she states.
What makes a family character real? “Kids aren’t dumb,” Boursaw states. “They know when a character is genuine versus a character that’s some odd amalgamation cooked up in a writer’s head.
“I wish every filmmaker of a family movie would get inside the head of a kid and learn what’s important to them – and then write characters based on those things.” For Boursaw, that’s how real characters are born.
What do kids think about? “Toys, dragons, first kisses, first dates, stuff they’re not allowed to do, school bullies, finding the courage to face their fears and do the thing that scares them most.”
The Evolving Family
Does the family media market reflect the evolving definition of family? “The tide is definitely turning,” says Boursaw. “Modern Family is one of the best shows on TV right now, and it features a gay couple raising an adopted Asian daughter. And it pokes fun at itself.” She describes the episode where Cam and Mitchell try to get Lily into a preschool by playing the gay/Asian baby card as “… one of the funniest of the series.”
Boursaw says it’s not that unusual now to find gay characters on TV shows. Glee, Pretty Little Liars, The Office are just a few examples. “While not all of the storylines on these shows are suitable for kids,” she says, “they’re generally okay for kids 12 and older.”
She goes on to say that in some ways, these stories about non-traditional families are decades-old. “You mention single-parent stories. Those stories date back to 1960s TV shows like Family Affair, The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, My Three Sons. So I think a lot of these stories have been around for a while – they just change shape through the years. I just saw Joyful Noise…, and the interracial relationship between two teenagers was sort of a non-issue.”
Filmmakers work at exploring mature themes for children and young adults, Boursaw says. She sees The Help as a family film – one that is both educational and a history lesson. “Dolphin Tale,” she says, “is a family film with an environmental message about caring for creatures that need our help.”
When it comes to the classics, she feels today’s filmmakers have a tough act to follow. “The old-fashioned fairy tales told the worst stories imaginable – princesses locked in towers, forced to live with evil witches, put to sleep for years, etc.”
She cites Tangled and The Princess and the Frog as “superb modern fairy tales.” “Both of those films have fun characters, great voices, gripping action, lovely songs, and heartfelt messages about following your heart and becoming the person you were always meant to be.”
Boursaw views these films as well made. “The ‘floating lights’ scene in Tangled is one of my favorite scenes from any movie ever.”
“And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention one of my favorite family films of 2011: Hugo by director Martin Scorsese. The kids are resourceful and brave in the face of abandonment, and who else but Scorsese could make a family movie about the film industry? He covers a lot of ground in that film.”
Documentaries for the Family market
“Documentaries have really come into their own over the past decade,” Boursaw says, “but doc filmmakers have their work cut out for them when it comes to family films. Kids are used to lots of colorful images, fast action, and funny characters. Making a doc that a kid will sit through is challenging, but not impossible.”
“When Oceans came out in 2009, I took my then 11-year-old daughter and her friend, but it wasn’t enough to hold their attention. I think they felt like they were in science class at school.”
More options are clearly available for older teens interested in modern culture and issues. “Where Soldiers Come From by director Heather Courtney is a good example. It tells the story of a group of teens in the small town of Hancock, Michigan who decide to enlist in the National Guard shortly after graduating from high school.”
Documentaries Boursaw likes:
- Where Soldiers Come From is many things: an economic story (not a lot of jobs in Hancock, Michigan), a war story (Courtney followed them to Afghanistan), a coming of age story, and a family story.
- Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey by directors Constance Marks and Phillip Shane tells the story of Elmo’s real-life alter-ego Kevin Clash, who was teased by classmates as a kid, but encouraged by his parents to pursue his life’s passion – puppets. We all know how that turned out. Elmo is huge. (And Kevin Clash couldn’t be nicer.
- The Story of Anvil, directed by Sacha Gervasi. It’s the story of a hard-working heavy metal band that really didn’t gain fame until after the doc came out.
- Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop, because we love Conan, but also because here’s a guy who could have let all the furor over his dismissal take him down. Instead he got back up on his horse at TBS.
- A great doc from Tribeca – The Bully Project, which follows several U.S. families torn apart by bullying, including two who’ve had sons commit suicide. Director Lee Hirsch shines a light on the inadequacies of schools and communities in protecting families, as well as a lack of education, like encouraging bystanders to intervene. Every family affected by bullying should see this film.
- GasLand – Who knew you could light a faucet on fire?
- Fordson: Faith, Fasting, Football – What happens when a predominately Arab-American high school football team has to prepare for a big game against their rivals during the last ten days of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan?
- Miss Navajo – About one girl’s efforts to win a Native American pageant, as well as the struggle to hold onto a disappearing culture.
Media in the UK
BBC Kids has some great shows,” says Boursaw, “like M.I. High (teen spies!), the Sarah Jane Adventures (Doctor Who spin-off about a secret agent), The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (a reality competition for kid magicians), and Leonardo (follows Leonardo da Vinci as a teenager).
A few others geared for the older crowd: Being Human (okay for kids 14+), Primeval (12+), and Downton Abbey (13+ – really, this is a great show to watch with your family). There are also a few shows on BBC America that we love watching as a family, including Top Gear and Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares.
A Shared Lexicon
“When it comes right down to it,” Boursaw says, “if a show or movie is entertaining and engaging for all ages, it doesn’t really matter if it’s touted as a ‘family’ movie or TV show. It’s just a great experience to watch something with your family and have it become part of your shared lexicon.”