The real family films are those like ET and The Wizard of Oz, which appeal to adults as well as children.
Films that transcend generations
"ET phone home." Strange, when you think about it, that one of the most famous lines in movie history is spoken by a puppet. But ET: The Extra Terrestrial remains one of the classics of our time because Steven Spielberg made the simple story of a lost alien spellbinding, exciting, heart-rending and, crucially, completely believable. Eight-year-olds who first saw the film in the cinema back in 1982 now look forward to the moment when they can share the glory of this classic family film with their own children.
So last week's announcement that ET has been voted the Greatest Ever Family Film in a British poll of the readers of Radio Times magazine, is hardly controversial. After all, ET wasn't a word-of-mouth success: for 11 years it held the record of highest-grossing film. But it is pleasing, simply because ET is also an exceptional study of a real family. It's interesting that ET only narrowly beat The Wizard of Oz to the top spot in the poll, a movie generally regarded as one of the very first family films. It's easy to presume that times and tastes have changed since 1939, when Judy Garland first followed the yellow brick road, and that kids these days are more excited by explosions, aliens and superheroes. But while the notion of films that families could watch together was still relatively new in 1939. If you watch The Wizard of Oz where it was meant to be experienced - in the cinema - it has the same sense of danger and miraculous journey that characterises ET. Both protagonists become lost in unfamiliar lands, and both films toy with the idea that it could all be a fantasy.
In fact, the history of children's cinema is one of cycles. The first golden age began two years before The Wizard of Oz, with Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs - the first full-length animation in history and unusually, missing from the Radio Times' Top 10. It was followed by Pinocchio in 1940 and Bambi in 1942. A new Disney film became a major Hollywood event. But as live-action techniques improved, the thrill diminished. Mary Poppins did include some animation in 1964, but Julie Andrews was very much in the flesh. In the same 10-year period, The Sound of Music (1965), Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) enthralled family audiences with song and captivating capers. All are, unsurprisingly, in the top 10 of the most recent poll.
The Jungle Book aside, it suggested that the era of animation was over. But Beauty and the Beast in 1992 signalled a new dawn for Disney and the family film. It remains one of only two animations ever to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar - and while that might be one measure of success, the fact that it was the first animation to make $100m (Dh367m) in North American box offices is another. The other Oscar-nominated family movie was Up by Pixar, the groundbreaking studio that has done so much to make realistic computer animation de rigueur for the family film in the 21st century, and reignite interest in the genre. Pixar's success began with Toy Story in 1995 - No.5 in the Radio Times Top 10. But the reason why Pixar's films - The Incredibles, Wall-E, Finding Nemo - are so well loved (and so successful) isn't because they look good. It's because they marry their looks with beautiful - some might say old-fashioned - storytelling for young and old, based on emotions and wit. They transcend generations.
There is, of course, an inherent flaw in the Radio Times' list - it's a magazine for adults and it's doubtful its readership cast a quick poll among the younger members of their families before voting. Therefore, despite their brilliance, it's not surprising that more than half of the top 10 films are more than 40 years old: there's an element of nostalgia at play here. If you did ask kids what their favourite film of recent times is, they might tell you Toy Story 3, but they could just as easily cite Alvin And The Chipmunks: The Squeakquel. And in a way they'd have every right to: this is a slapstick 90-minute romp aimed directly at children. It's just all-out, good-natured, fun.
That, perhaps, is the difference between the throwaway nature of the pure children's film and the lasting family films of the Radio Times poll. So the reason why ET will still top polls such as this for decades into the future is obvious. It's not made specifically for children at all. It's made, happily, for everyone - for the child in all of us.