thefourmarxbrothersPerhaps it’s a quirk of our family, but sitting down together for a movie regularly has always been as important as sitting down for a meal. I have spent 30 years, on and off, writing about movies and other entertainment, so I’ve always wanted to be there for those moments I remember so well from my own childhood, when something I saw in a theatre or on TV exploded in some creative lobe in my child’s mind, leaving an indelible mark.

I’ve had a chance to think about this lately as my children have gotten to the age where they’re beginning to experience more on their own, just out of our orbit. The work we’ve done trying to nurture their ethics and imaginations is very nearly at an end, and whatever they see will thrive or die on the ground we’ve helped prepare; I won’t pretend the thought isn’t as anxious as it melancholy.

We’ve watched a lot of movies together, but when I try to think of just a few films that I’d recommend to new parents, the choice narrows rapidly. You probably won’t like one of these films; perhaps you’ll hate all three, but list-making remains a subjective art, and while I like to think that this trio of films will help my children navigate the world more easily, I have to admit that watching them together, crammed together on our tiny couch, have taught me just as much about being a parent.

Duck Soup (1933) – I saw this film for the first time with my sister and brother-in-law, on a roll-up screen in a common room at York University in the ‘70s, back when rep cinemas were still rare in Toronto and videotape was known only to TV professionals. You had to wait for an old film to show up on late night television, or you went where the movie was – in this case a film society screening at a university. This brutal fact is my equivalent of the “walking 10 miles barefoot to school” tale, a story told to shame my kids when they complain that we don’t have Netflix.

This might not be my kids’ favorite Marx Brothers film. Depending on the day that might actually be A Night At The Opera or The Big Store, but I always end up picking this satire of politics and war in some Ruritanian backwater, since it aligns most perfectly with a fond wish that my daughters will mistrust authority figures in general and politicians in particular. It’s the bedrock of my own worldview, and even more than our DNA, don’t we all hope that our opinions and beliefs are the legacy we pass on for posterity?

When they were smaller I’m sure they might not have caught most of Groucho’s asides, but that didn’t matter because they had the broad slapstick of Chico and Harpo to keep them laughing until Groucho’s relentless irreverence revealed itself as the engine of all that anarchy and mayhem. The real challenge will come later in life when they realize that politicians aren’t all so obviously pompous, venal, gutless or sinister, and that there’s rarely a Rufus T. Firefly around to flush them from their holes.

My Neighbour Totoro (1988) – I saw my first film by Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki before I became a parent, and knew immediately that it was something I would want to share with the children that I knew were waiting for me, just over the horizon. That film was Spirited Away, and I knew it might be a bit too intense for a small child, but when I reviewed a DVD of My Neighbour Totoro a few months later, it was shelved in anticipation of the moment I would show it to my son or daughter, eager to see if it would have the effect I expected.

The sweetest of Miyazaki’s films, it’s the story of two little girls living in the country with their father while their mother recovers in the hospital from some unknown illness. To their great joy they find that their dusty old house and the woods nearby are full of forest spirits visible only to them, from grimy little herds of soot sprites to a trio of playful tree creatures ranging in size from puppy-like to massive.

It was a world my daughters instinctively longed to live in, and even a sleep-deprived, overworked father could see that it was as real to them as my office cubicle was to me, especially when they could escape the city to a clearly magical place like their great-grandmother’s little cottage on the Bay of Fundy.

I envied them that much wider portal to their imagination, and fed it with more Miyazaki films over the next few years. I know that portal is closing now, and that a day will come when that DVD of Totoro will be our keepsake of that brief time when we all shared a bond based on some landscape of the mind they longed to visit with the eager approval of their envious parents.

Toy Story 3 (2010) – The creative golden age of Pixar Studios coincided neatly with our family, so there isn’t a Pixar feature or short film we haven’t all seen together at least three or four times. Earlier generations might have trusted Disney to entertain them as a family, but while you once had to wait two or three years between Disney animated features like Cinderella and Peter Pan, Pixar films arrive annually, and right as school lets out for summer or Christmas breaks.

Pixar is as much a technology company as an entertainment one, which suits my kids fine since their lives so far have spanned the rise of file sharing and omnipresent broadband and wifi. Apple’s trio of handheld devices – the iPod, iPhone and iPad – will one day elicit a nostalgic sigh from them the same way a Walkman does for their parents. Pixar’s technological evolution, from the now-primitive digital shapes of the first Toy Story film (so remarkable at the time!) to the expressively rendered characters and textures of each new film, is a technological evolution they both understand intuitively and take for granted.

I could have chosen any of the three Toy Story films (so far), but their bittersweet message about kids growing up and once-loved toys being discarded sharpened to a lethal point with the third film. Maybe they don’t like to be reminded that the idyll of childhood will end one day – though it doesn’t seem to upset them, as far as I can tell – but parents need to remember it; our time at the head of a family unit is finite, and the stretches of life extending out on either side of it are long and cast its shadow all day.

Some of us might look back on it with regret, but I think every parent thinks that they might have enjoyed it more, despite the sleeplessness and exhaustion and worries about money and time, if they’d only remembered how brief it would be.