Celebrating Childhood On Film This Childhood Day

Following the recent Quick Read on children’s films that won’t make you wish you weren’t watching them (which led to some great suggestions from readers), here’s another which looks at a similar – and timely – topic.

June 11 marks the NSPCC’s first national Childhood Day – an event set up to celebrate the importance of play for the mental and emotional wellbeing of children and young people.

Families, friends and work colleagues are being urged to take part in sponsored play events to help raise money for the children’s charity, which relies on public donations for 90% of its funding, but just as important after the year we’ve just had, is ensuring children and young people can have a little fun playing in the sunshine.

There are events taking place across the UK – including a drive-in screening of the 1984 classic Ghostbusters in the grounds of a stately home in the North West, on one of the biggest mobile screens in the world – and there’s plenty of information on how to take part or find out more available here.

With Childhood Day in mind, I wanted to look back at few of my favourite – or at least most memorable – representations of childhood and play, in the movies…

Lilo & Stitch (2002)

On the surface, this is a simple Disney film about a cute but mischievous alien who crash lands on Hawaii and wreaks havoc before making friends with a local girl and learning the importance of friends and family. But go just a little deeper, and there’s so much more to it – Lilo, the young girl, has been orphaned and lives with her slightly older sister who is struggling to cope stepping up to the role of parent.

They’re being watched by children’s services, and are terrified of being separated. Stitch himself (herself? itself? It doesn’t really matter), is a genetically engineered creature, the only one of his kind, a complete outsider – haven’t we all felt like that on occasion?

This is a film that looks at the big fears of childhood – losing your parents and family, being alone, not fitting in – and celebrates friendship as family. Oh, and it’s got beautiful, traditional animation and a great Elvis-heavy soundtrack to boot.

Stand By Me (1986)

Based on a Stephen King novella and directed by Late Reviewer favourite Rob Reiner, Stand By Me is the tale of four friends in 1950s America who go on an adventure and end up learning a lot about each other and the world and growing up along the way.

Alright, so the adventure itself is pretty dark – they’ve heard rumours about a body in the woods – but the camaraderie between the cast feels real, and so do the jokes and laughter. They tell tall tales, wind each other up, sing and goof around, and by the end of the film, we feel like one of the gang.

Once they find the body, they realise they never really actually wanted to, and in a tradition that goes back to Homer, the journey, rather than the destination is the point. As the (now adult), narrator puts it in his final line…

“I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12. Jesus, does anyone?”

Kes (1969)

Right, hear me out – yes, this is a devastatingly bleak film covering the childhood of poor Billy Casper in a mining town in the late 1960s. Life for Billy is dark and unrelenting, until he discovers a young bird of prey and develops a connection to the beautiful bird which lifts him far above the harsh realities of his life… for a time, anyway.

Alright, so the end is utterly heartbreaking, but it’s a hard heart that doesn’t beat a little faster when young Billy is out on the moors flying his kestrel. More to the point, it’s got – for my money – one of the greatest football scenes ever to be captured on camera too, as Brian Glover’s bullish PE teacher takes on his students in a muddy kickabout that serves mainly to boost his own ego.

I’m pretty sure many of us had PE teachers like that…

Toy Story (1995 – 2019)

Ending this Quick Read on a high, Toy Story is still an absolute classic in the family film genre, and a real celebration of the importance of play. Over the course of the first movie alone, we see how important play is to Andy – owner of Woody and Buzz – but as the series continues, the films delve more deeply into the importance of play on the toys themselves too.

I’m not saying we should be giving consideration to the thoughts and feelings of the plastic bits and bobs our children play with, but look at the decisions made in part three, as a teenage Andy hesitates before throwing his once-beloved childhood friends away, and instead offers them to a neighbour’s child.

Right there, we can see the importance of play, and although he’s on his way to university, he sits down on the lawn with her and enjoys goofing about with Woody, Buzz, Jessie and the rest – that enthusiasm for play is lovely, and it’s real, even if we’re just looking at pixels on a screen.

So what have I missed?

I’ll be honest, it was hard to narrow this one down (hence including the Toy Story franchise, rather than one specific movie), and I very nearly included 1948’s Bicycle Thieves for its depiction of the unquestioning love the young boy has for his father, but with Kes already on the list, I figured the bleakness quota was already met.

So which movies make your list for the best depictions of childhood on film? As always, let me know on Twitter, Facebook and in the comments!

UPDATE: There was a great response to this, and you can read the full list here!

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