What makes a Family Feature
Since Disney content will only be available on Netflix Watch Instantly for another month, (see Netflix loses Disney streaming content), I plan to spend an evening or two each week re-watching whatever Disney movies are featured on Netflix Starz Play. But before I begin reviews in earnest, I'd like to give my thoughts on what makes a good "family film" satisfying.
"Family film" has come to mean "kids' movie", but that's not what I'm referring to. I mean "family film" in the sense that Walt Disney himself talked about: A motion pictures that adults and children can all enjoy together. It can be the animated fairy stories that Disney is famous for; or grown-up film that kids also enjoy, like Swiss Family Robinson, or Treasure Island: Either way, it should have some elements that keep everyone engaged.
Creating a "family feature" involves a delicate balance of elements that will appeal to small children, teens, and adults. It's like chemistry, or cooking, and the proportions have to be just right. Each element must make an appearance frequently enough to keep everyone interested. Yet, nothing should seem disparate or out-of-place. The ingredients must blend together enough to feel organic, to seemingly arise naturally from the story.
Walt Disney refined his movie making technique quite early in his feature career. You can see a bit of struggle in the first few features. In Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs the childish and more adult elements don't blend very well. The interactions of the Wicked Queen, the Huntsman, the Prince, and Snow White are clearly in adult territory. Only with the appearance of the forest animals and dwarfs do we really have children's entertainment; and those extensive segments are a bit too long, and (although endearing) are a bit too silly for adults. But, that film is breathtakingly beautiful. It's a glorious masterwork, imperfect though it may be.
With Pinocchio some thought is given to alternating between comic gags and serious story elements much more frequently. In that regard, it's more of a success. But the three "acts" (Stromboli's puppet theater, Pleasure Island, and Monstro segments) aren't well connected. The story doesn't flow the way Snow White did, in a way that adults prefer. Yet it's another finely crafted and stunning film. Perfect in it's imperfection.
After those films Dumbo seems like a retreat. It places itself squarely in kiddie territory, shying away from the more dramatic elements of the previous films. (There are patricular moments of horror in Snow White and Pinocchio, which are absent here.) The characters are overly cute, and the whole affair has the look and feel of a Silly Symphony cartoon. But it's utterly charming, has some catchy tunes, and is mercifully short at 64 minutes.
Bambi seems to strike a more even tone between cuteness and drama throughout, although it turns quite dark at the end. Each film improves on the methods of the previous ones. Is there a "perfect" family film? One that the adults and teens enjoy all the way through, that also doesn't make the little ones restless? It's hard to say, but some films come closer than others.
Anyway, you get the idea. As I review various films before they disappear from Netflix, I'll occasionally touch of how the films plays as a "family features".