(George Miller, USA, 1994)


As nobody needs to be told, the topic of children and popular culture – and particularly popular culture made for children – is an incredibly complex and vexatious area.

Some of the material made these days for children has a quite elevated and protected aura. Think of the hallowed terms ‘Children’s Television’ and ‘Children’s Literature’; these, at least, are highly visible, highly respected areas in our culture. There are foundations, conferences, special awards, regular columns in newspapers devoted to children’s literature and children’s television. People who work in these areas pride themselves on the fact that they are making works for children that are at once entertaining, sophisticated and ennobling. The clear message is that the best TV shows and novels of this sort can be watched by adults and children alike, and neither group will feel gypped or dissatisfied.

But try turning over the words ‘Children’s Cinema’. This sounds like a very alien phrase indeed. There is absolutely no respectability attached to this area. It is hard to imagine a positive public conference on children’s cinema, just as it is hard to imagine a serious weekly newspaper column on children’s toys, or children’s comics. For there is no nobly produced Children’s Cinema as such. There are really only ‘kids’ movies’, targeted to grab a young market. Plus, something very small, theoretical and badly recognised on the side – a kind of childlike cinema made for adults and their nostalgic, very cultivated pleasures. I am thinking here of art films like Bertolucci’s Little Buddha (1993), even Agniezska Holland’s version of The Secret Garden (1993). In world cinema, it is probably only in the extraordinary films of Iran’s Abbas Kiarostami (for example, Where is My Friend’s Home? 1987) that one finds a genuine children’s cinema, which is all at once innocent, childlike, resonant, disturbing and deeply satisfying as art.

But now it is back to the dreaded realm of kids’ movies, because Easter is fast approaching. This is the season for old Walt Disney films (like 101 Dalmatians [Wolfgang Reitherman, 1961] or The Jungle Book [Wolfgang Reitherman, 1967]) to be re-released or re-made. Now is the time for soppy pictures about kids and animals, kids and their never-ending stories, kids who wander away from their parents for a thrilling day or two in the big world before running right back. For many film reviewers like myself, kids’ movies form a kind of horrific, black hole. Being forced to watch such films en masse can be like watching endless hours of industrial documentaries, or unsubtitled films from a language and culture you have absolutely no grasp of. Kids’ movies are like a foreign country; they do things differently there. And I guess that for many parents, these movies can be a kind of purgatory, too. They are the movies you take your kids to in order to keep them happy – no more and no less.

In this frame of mind, Andre (1994) was a good movie for me to see, because it shook up my defences and preconceptions a bit. It is a quite conventional but captivating kids’ movie, and to my surprise it gave me a lot of pleasure. It is based on a true story of a seal who was taken in by a family, in a small fishing town in Maine. Dad, played by Keith Carradine, is a slightly befuddled nature nut, a guy who cannot resist bringing any stray animal home. Their house is a rambling menagerie. His partner, played by Chelsea Field, is the rational, civilising one – she is described as “wife, law-maker, zoo-keeper and mother”, but it is revealed pretty quickly that she is just an old softie too. The main line of the film follows Andre’s relation to this family – how he goes away or is taken away, but always, miraculously returns. There is a particular focus on the youngest girl of the family, acted wonderfully by Tina Majorino, who charts her formative years in relation to Andre.

Woven into all this are the stories of the family’s teenage son and daughter, and a story about the local community. Just as Andre himself copes with the questions of his identity, and young Tina grapples with her new-found responsibility, so the father must come to terms with the changes taking place in his children’s lives. It is directed by Australian George Miller, and convention decrees that I must identify him as The Man From Snowy River George Miller, not Mad Max George Miller. This Miller has a genuinely and fetchingly old-fashioned filmmaking touch. The community locals seem like character actors in an old Frank Capra film. The family crises play like something out of a ’60s Disney film, completely free of the abrasions of modern realist drama. Best of all, Miller gets right into conjuring a shameless circus of scenes showing Andre dancing, Andre playing, Andre in dress-ups, and especially, Andre blowing raspberries.

A number of years ago I was seized by a compulsion to make a thorough study of some of the popular culture made for children. I had a suspicious, politicised agenda. My hunch was that a lot of stuff made for kids, including some of the very official, very respectable stuff, was basically conservative, and designed to seduce children into adopting a very rigid, narrow set of life values. I took it upon myself to collect every one of the Little Golden Books for kids that are available in supermarkets. Books of the type: the little puppy who thinks he is a kitten, the little girl who would not say no, the little train who did not want to ride on the tracks … stories of that nature. These perfectly horrid little volumes confirmed all my worst fears. Here was a shocking ideology dished up to children: the stories preached compromise, sacrifice, acquiescence to parental law, good behaviour. They frowned on any expression of madness, desire, neurosis or greed, and advised kids on how to purge such nasty excess from their beings. For me, it was like watching the horror movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don Siegel, 1956). It seemed to me at the time that these books were full of hypocrisy and repression, and that they projected a terribly morose view of the world.

Watching Andre however, I find that I am no longer moved – not in this case, anyhow – to such a thunderous ideological expose. It is not just that the film seems harmless, as I guess those Little Golden Books seem harmless to some. I actually find something positive in its message to kids. Andre is basically about laws of nature. There is global or environmental nature, and then there is human nature. Andre himself is like one of those mixed up, somewhat unnatural characters you often find in children’s fiction. He is a seal who lives with a human family, and apparently regards himself as somewhat human. He does not mix with others of his type, and when the seasons change, he does not change properly with them. In a Little Golden Book, this would be a sin, a crime against nature. All good little animals, like all good little children, must find their proper place in the order of things and stay there.

This film does not preach such a message. By admitting that there are different natures and different orders, it is able to imagine hybrid natures and hybrid beings. It is an ecological tale in the true sense: it is about finding a workable ecology of all living elements, a mobile equilibrium. Neither the environment nor the civilisation are absolutely ideal places to be in this story – both are volatile, fraught with dangers and conflicts, as well as joys and traditions. Andre and his human friends create a touching extended family, one that draws strength from both the environment and civilisation. The personal experiences of love and friendship matter more than abstract principles about where and what people should be. There is a very touching moment early on in the film, when the mum and dad of the family agonise over whether to keep Andre at home or let him back into the sea. “You have to let nature take its course”, says one, meaning that this seal belongs in the ocean, not on land. But then Andre does something and completely melts their hearts, and the other parent comments: “I think nature just did take its course”.

MORE George Snowy Miller: Gross Misconduct, Les Patterson Saves the World

© Adrian Martin April 1995

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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