February brings us an entertaining crop of mother-free films, featuring hapless fathers (or father-figures) trying with varying degrees of success to fill this void. Fortunately for all involved, there do seem to be other does in the forest, scullery-maids-in-waiting and adoring school teachers biding their time until the end of the story--and until the fathers have successfully bonded with their offspring--to appear in all their marriage-ready glory.
"Curious George" is a curious throwback to a simpler time that probably never really existed. An animated film from Ron Howard’s Imagine Entertainment, it contains no double entendres, computer-animated pyrotechnics, or even wise-cracking sidekicks. Instead, it has a well-meaning museum curator (who is sold a hideous screaming yellow outfit by scheming urban outfitters) and a little monkey who follows him home from Africa, whose innocent curiosity is always landing them both in trouble.
The film is handsomely made and commanded attention from a theater full of the under-7 crowd. As a mom who still remembers the desert landscape of well-made, suitable films for small children, this one comes highly recommended for anyone whose children would still consider a game of peek-a-boo a hilarious plot point. Adults can amuse themselves picking out the voices of Will Farrell, Drew Barrymore and Dick Van Dyke. Unlike "Nanny McPhee," which I will discuss below, there’s little reason to see "George" if you’re without small companions. But if you have little monkeys of your own whose curiosity gets the better of them on a regular basis, it will probably come as a relief to you that at least you've never mistakenly gone sailing over Central Park with a tenuous hold on 200 or so helium balloons.
Let us now consider the life journey and screenwriting career of Emma Thompson. Back in 1995, she had a successful (and Oscar nominated) turn at writing "Sense and Sensibility," a movie about the worth of Witty Single Women of a Certain Age, which was produced when she was, well, a witty single woman of a certain age.
She is now married and raising a child, so it should come as no surprise that she clicked with the idea of writing a screenplay about a magical nanny. The result is the witty, wise fairytale "Nanny McPhee," based on the "Nurse Matilda" books. It’s hard to tell if "Nanny McPhee" is more a fantasy for grown-ups or for children. Certainly any of us with offspring can appreciate how fantastic it would be to have a magical, loving disciplinarian show up requesting no salary and willing to show herself to her room.
But all the children with whom I talked after the movie loved the character of Nanny McPhee and wished they had someone like her in their life. She is certainly strict, certainly imposes boundaries and (unusual) consequences, but she has mastered the secret we all struggle to learn: Nanny McPhee fulfills the children’s need to be known, understood, and still loved, which is what truly brings about a permanent change in their behavior. (While I’m saying that about misbehaving children, the truth is, that is perhaps the deepest spiritual need of all humans, which is why the movie works as an adult fantasy as well.)
For viewers who have no children, let this be the litmus test: If the thought of seeing the venerable talents of Derek Jacobi, Imelda Staunton, and Angela Lansbury employed in an all-out food fight makes you chuckle, "Nanny McPhee" is a good bet.
Finally, this being a British fairy tale, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is, inevitably, Colin Firth in a puffy shirt, tight pants, and an ingenuous smile, but, hey, it works for me.
I’ll admit the idea of watching "Bambi II" was a tough sell at my house. (“Who dies in this one?” demanded my young daughter.) But Disney apparently had unprecedented success with last year’s video re-release of the original "Bambi"--so, dollar-wise, how could there not be a sequel?
While the original "Bambi" was written as a response to the death of Walt Disney’s own mother, "Bambi II" is very much a new millennium’s response. Life goes on. Prince Stag has to figure out how to become a single parent. Bambi has to realize Mom isn’t coming back. Bullies get their horns while you still have your spots. Thumper’s bumper crop of little sisters drives him crazy. All in all, I wouldn’t say it’s a classic--but then, the idea that life goes on even after a catastrophe is seldom as dramatic as the catastrophe itself.
If your kids enjoyed the characters in the original "Bambi", they’ll no doubt enjoy the sequel. But while it may be used for discussion in bereavement groups (and perhaps in support groups for emotionally distant stags), I’m not sure this movie will be top of the list during preschool juice breaks. Still, it is the quality we’ve come to expect from Disney, and it did keep the attention of my young (and relieved) daughter, and even my older son and his friend, who happened to wander through the room and stayed to see young Bambi take on the pack of dogs--and his new adolescent status.