Over the Hedge and Under the Radar

Mapping todays kiddie-movie landscape

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As for subtitles, forget it. It's galling that children are trusted with a green ogre who enunciates in broad Glasgow guttural, but not with a foreign film. While most cities in Europe (where arts sponsorship is still, quaintly, considered a government responsibility) mount annual children's film festivals made up of indigenous or non-Hollywood fare, even reputable local events like AFI Fest (which contents itself with putting out an under-18 guide to its regular festival schedule) and the Los Angeles Film Festival (which shows old chestnuts like Yellow Submarine on family day) show little interest in children's cinema. The UCLA Film & Television Archive's occasional Kids' Flicks series bravely screens Charlie Chaplin shorts and early Dickens adaptations. But aside from the Giffoni Hollywood Film Festival, an Italian-inspired event that gestures at foreign fare for older kids, no one wants to touch subtitled movies for children. Art-house exhibitors grumble that young people, from the cradle through college, won't tolerate foreign-language films. They might if they'd been raised on them, and you have to start them young. Small children are endlessly receptive to art in all its forms: they'll prick up their eyes and ears for Mozart or Fantasia or, as my daughter did at Sprockets, a gorgeous little Dutch-language film (the subtitles were read aloud by a festival worker) called Winky's Horse, about a lonely Chinese immigrant girl who bonds with an equine friend. A pack of raucous teens from a local high school fidgeted restlessly through the early scenes of a terrific Japanese movie called Hinokio, about a traumatized, wheelchair-bound adolescent whose father invents a robot to go to school for him; by the end, you could have heard a pin drop. And against all expectations, my kid was as enchanted as I was by The Dog, the General and the Birds, an exquisite hand-drawn French fantasy, inspired by Chagall, about the torment and redemption of a Russian general who had cruelly set birds on fire as a ploy to drive Napoleon from Moscow.

The chances of any of these wonderful movies ever making it to an American theater or festival are slender to nil. Without them, though, kids will come to expect nothing more from a trip to the theater than a good time, and that will be a loss. We all have childhood movies that remain ingrained in memory years after we saw them, whether because they fired our imaginations or spoke to emotional struggles we were going through at the time. In all my years as a film critic, I have never experienced horror as immediate or palpable as the words "Bambi! Get up!" (call me a wuss at your peril—years ago Quentin Tarantino told me that when he was a tot, that scene caused him to be carried shrieking from the theater) or the branches that reached out to grab Snow White in that dark forest. I can still call up the final moments in Old Yeller that evoked so movingly the painful coexistence of unconditional love and necessary loss. And the Oscar-winning French classic The Red Balloon, in which a wordless child chases a flirty balloon through Paris streets (I can still hear the satisfying clatter of the kid's feet over the cobblestones) still speaks to me of loneliness, yearning and the euphoria of being carried away. Eagerly but way too late, I sat down to watch a hard-to-find tape of the movie with my daughter. She was bored stiff, and tactfully but firmly suggested a switch to Lilo & Stitch. A respectable trade, I suppose. But 30 years from now, will she leap up and say, "Lilo & Stitch—it changed my life"?

OVER THE HEDGE WAS DIRECTED BY TIM JOHNSON AND KAREY KIRKPATRICK; WRITTEN BY LEN BLUM, LORNE CAMERON, DAVID HOSELTON AND KIRKPATRICK, BASED ON THE COMIC STRIP BY MICHAEL FRY AND T. LEWIS; PRODUCED BY BONNIE ARNOLD. COUNTYWIDE.

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