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A children's film or family film is a film genre that contains children or relates to them in the context of home and family. Children's films refer to films that are made specifically for children and not necessarily for the general audience while family films are made for a wider appeal with a general audience in mind. Children's films come in several major forms like realism, fantasy, animation, war, musicals, and literary adaptations.
Children are born with certain innate biological dispositions as a product of long evolutionary history. This provides an underlying biological framework for what may fascinate a child and also impose limitations on the same. These can be seen in certain universal features shared in children's films. According to Grodal, films like Finding Nemo (2003), Bambi (1942), or Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away (2001) are based on certain strong emotions like fear that lead to the activation of what Boyer and Lienard (2006) called the hazard-precaution system. This enables the brain to take precautions in case of danger. Children's films such as these explore attachment to parenting agency, or the development of friendship or reciprocal relationships between individuals, or deal with the necessity or need in children and young people to explore and to engage in play. Thus these diverse films deal with certain aspects that are not mere social constructions, but rather emotions relevant to all children and therefore have an appeal to a wider universal audience. Cultural aspects shape how various films are created but these diverse films refer to underlying universal aspects that are innate and biological.
In both the United States and Europe, the idea of children's films began to gain relative prominence in the 1930s. According to Bazalgette and Staples (1995), the term "family film" is essentially an American expression while "children's film" is considered to be a European expression. However, the difference between the two terms can also be seen in casting methods adopted by American and European films respectively. In American family films, the search for a child protagonist involves casting children that meet a specific criteria or standard for physical appearance. In contrast, European children's films look to cast children who appear "ordinary". Similarly, in American family films, the adult cast can be composed of well known actors or actresses in an effort to attract a wider audience, presenting narratives from an adult or parental perspective. This is shown through the casting, script, content of the plot, editing, and even Mise en scène. According to Bazalgette and Staples, a fine example of a family film is Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989). According to them, a European children's film with a similar plot would be titled Sis, Dad Shrunk Us, explaining that European children's films are told from the child's perspective, portraying the story through the various emotions and experiences of the child. Because of these differences, American family films are more easily marketable toward domestic and international viewing audiences while European children's films are better received domestically with limited appeal to international audiences.
The Walt Disney Company made the notable animated adaptations of Grimms' Fairy Tales beginning with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) before World War II. The period immediately before and during World War II saw the release of three significant family films in the U.S. These were Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs by Disney, Gulliver's Travels by Dave Fleischer and Max Fleischer, and Pinocchio (1940). All of these were lose adaptations of literary sources. During the war, Disney made more family films like Fantasia (1940) and Dumbo (1941).
After the war, Disney continued to make animated features that could be classified as family films given the scope of its content. According to Wojcik (2000), the most important literary adaptation of children's literature in immediate post World War II period were the motion pictures The Diary of Anne Frank by George Stevens (1959), Treasure Island (1950) by Byron Haskin, and Luigi Comencini’s (1952) motion picture Heidi.
In the 1960s, motion pictures such as To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) and Oliver! (1968), directed by Carol Reed, portrayed children as naturally innocent. Other films of the 1960s that involved children include The Sound of Music (1965) by Robert Wise and The Miracle Worker (1962). These were very successful musical motion picture that were in the genre of family films. Hollywood also released motion pictures starring children though these were not commercially successful and they were literary adaptations nonetheless. These include ...And Now Miguel (1966), Up the Down Staircase (1967), The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1968), and The Learning Tree (1969). Other films of the decade include Pollyanna (1960), and The Parent Trap (1961).
Important children's films in the 1970s from the United States include animated classics such as The Aristocats (1970), Charlotte's Web (1973), The Rescuers, and The Hobbit (1977). The decade also had live action children's films like Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971), Sounder (1972), Tuck Everlasting (1976), and A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich (1978), and the divorce drama involving a child Kramer vs Kramer (1978). This trend of films inspired the 1980s and 1990s productions of classic children's films from America including Beauty and the Beast (1991) and Matilda (1996).
American children's and family films of the 1980s include Popeye (1980), The Fox and the Hound (1981), Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), The Great Mouse Detective (1986), and The Little Mermaid (1989). Spielberg portrays children realistically, having to cope with issues. This is seen in E.T. the Extra Terrestrial, where the children have to cope with single parenting and divorce and separation from the father. Also in the motion picture Empire of the Sun (1987), the protagonist child Jim Graham has to deal with separation from his mother and father for years together to the point that he is unable to even remember what his mother looked like. He is wounded not by bullets, but by the madness and cruelty of war and separation from parents. So even though he did not die of bullets in the war, he internally died. According to Wood (1986), in their films, Lucas and Speilberg both reconstruct "the adult spectator as a child" or "an adult who would like to be a child". Other important children's films from the U.S. in the late 1970s include Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). Motion pictures like Superman (1978) and Superman II  are also important children's and family films. They have been ranked as some of the best family entertainment over the past generation. The 1970s and 1980s also include several films and their sequels as classics of family films, for example Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977) and its sequels Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Star Wars Episode VI: The Return of the Jedi (1983). Other similar movies and sequels include Robert Zemeckis's film Back to the Future (1985) and its sequels Back to the Future Part II (1989) and Back to the Future Part III (1990). Other important children's and family films from this period also include Annie (1982), Flight of the Navigator (1986), The Land Before Time (1988), and Batman (1989).
Important animated family films of the 1990s include Disney titles such as The Lion King (1994), Mulan (1998), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), and the Pixar computer animated classic Toy Story (1995), directed by John Lasseter. This decade introduced the modern fairy tale film Edward Scissorhands (1990), depicting an isolated, artificially created young man with human emotions and childlike qualities who is ultimately rejected by society while the female protagonist holds on to his memory. The 1990s also saw additional live-action family films such as Back to the Future Part III, which brought the Back to the Future franchise into this decade, Alan & Naomi (1992), Jurassic Park (1993), Steve Zaillian's, Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993), October Sky (1995), and Fly Away Home (1996).
Notable family films of the 2000s include Monsters, Inc. (2001), the Ice Age film series (2002–present), the live-action Harry Potter film series, (2001-2011) and The Chronicles of Narnia film series (2005-2010). So far, in the 2010s, live-action family films include Hugo (2011), directed by Martin Scorsese.
In the 1960s, the UK made motion pictures dealing with children that are now regarded as classics. These films include The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962), Lord of the Flies (1963), Born Free (1966), To Sir, with Love (1967) (based on E. R. Braithwaite's real experiences), and if.... (1968). The list also includes the film Kes (1969). Some children's motion pictures belong to the category of Avant Garde films because of the unconventional and often controversial treatment of the subject. According to film scholars; an important example of an Avant Garde children’s film is the British film Pink Floyd The Wall (1982). Pink Floyd The Wall is an unconventional and controversial motion picture that has a haunting and powerful nightmarish depiction of alienated childhood, boarding school separation, maternal deprivation, separation anxiety, war, and consumerist greed that affects a child and further affects his relationships and experiences in adulthood. It shows the child with non traditional images and the social changes that has occurred with family. In Pink Floyd The Wall the representation of child and family "stresses confrontation, confusion, dysfunctionality and history". Other important children's films from Britain include the clay animation crime film starring the characters Wallace and Gromit, The Wrong Trousers (1993), directed by Nick Park and produced by Aardman Animations.
In the 1930s and 1940s, a children's film studio was set up in Moscow. Several films were imported from this studio for United Kingdom including The Magic Fish, The Land of Toys, and The Humpbacked Horse. Post World War II children's films include the celebrated Italian neorealist masterpiece Bicycle Thieves by Vittorio De Sica (1948). According to Goldstein and Zornow (1980), Clement's French film Forbidden Games (1952) is a film featuring children in the scenario of war and shows the gap between children and adults. This period also includes the Czech children's film Journey to the Beginning of Time (1955), directed by Karel Zeman. In the 1960s, important European children's films include the British-Italian romance film Romeo and Juliet (1968) and the French film L'Enfant sauvage (1969). French film directors Louis Malle and François Truffaut made significant contributions to children's films. Louis Malle made the films Zazie dans Le Metro (1960), Murmur of the Heart (1971), and Pretty Baby (1978). The works of Truffaut include The 400 Blows (1959), The Wild Child (1969/1970) and Small Change (1976). The film making style of Malle and Truffaunt inspired present day directors in making children's films in contemporary times; most notably Ponette (1996) directed by Jacques Doillon which depicts the pain and hurt experienced by a child because of loss of parental love and boarding school separation and child displacement. Ponette (1996) deals with the emotional and psychological pain and hurt that children experience “while living without parental love and care”. Other important European children's cinema in the 1960s include The Christmas Tree (1969) which tells the story of a child coping with his imminent death due to leukemia and Robert Bresson's film Mouchette (1964) which deals with the suicide of a 14 year old girl. According to Wojcik, the contrast between films like Mary Poppins (1964) and Mouchette shows the ambiguous or "schizoid" nature of the depiction of child or children in the 1960s. European classics of children's films also include the German classic directed by Wim Wenders Alice in den Städten (1974). Other European contribution to children's film include masterpieces like the Spanish film The Spirit of the Beehive (1973). The list also includes Fanny & Alexander directed by Ingmar Bergman. and the Danish film Pelle the Conqueror (1988). Autumn Sonata by Ingmar Bergman is also an important cinema in the genre of Family Films, though it deals with issues between parent and child which the child expresses after reaching prime adulthood. Other important children's films from Europe in the 1980s include the film The NeverEnding Story (1984), directed by German director Wolfgang Peterson. European children's films also includes the Danish film Me and Mamma Mia (1989)  and the Hungarian film Love, Mother (1987). The 1990s include the important Russian films Burnt by the Sun (1994) and The Thief (1997) both of which are set in post revolutionary Russia of 1917. In the 2000s important European children's films include the Finnish film Mother of Mine (2005). It also includes the Italian short film Il supplente ("The Substitute") (2007) and the Polish-European animated film Peter and the Wolf (2006). In 2010s the Belgian, French language film The Kid with a Bike (2011) stands as an important children's film.
In the 1960s, important children's films from Japan include Bad Boys (1960) based on the lives of children in a reform school for juvenile delinquets. This film is similar to motion picture like Shoeshine (1946) and Pixote (1981). Other Japanese films include Boy (1969). In the 1950s, important children's films from Asia include the motion picture Apur Sansar by Satyajit Ray (1959). Other children's films include South Indian productions like Daisy (1988) depicting children in a boarding school and their experience of separation and longing. Important children's films from this region also include Abhayam (1990/1991) alternate title Shelter ("sanctuary" or "protected refuge") by Sivan with cinematography by Santosh Sivan. It was awarded the Silver Elephant and Special International Jury & CIFEJ Jury Awards at 7th International Children's Film Festival. India also has a notable neo-realist children's movie dealing with street children in Mumbai Salaam Bombay (1988) by Mira Nair. It depicts the cruel way in which adults treat children in India. It shows the hard life of street children in Mumbai (also called as Bombay). Important children's films from India also include the Bollywood films Masoom (1983) and Mr. India (1987); both directed by Shekhar Kapoor. Other important children's films include the lavish reproduction of German Fairy tales of Grimm brothers by the Israeli film production Golan Globus and canon films in their productions of fairy tale series called Cannon Movie Tales which includes classics like The Frog Prince (1986) starring Aileen Quinn, Helen Hunt, and John Paragon; and Beauty and the Beast (1987) starring John Savage; Puss in Boots (1988) starring Christopher Walken. Miyazaki's Spirited Away was voted as the top in the list of 50 movies that one must see by 14 years of age. The list also included the Maori motion picture Whale Rider (2002). Iranian cinema has contributed significantly to the world of children’s film. These include Majid Majidi's Children of Heaven (1997), Baran (2001), and Where Is the Friend's Home? (1987). Another important children's film is Son of Mary (1998), directed by Hamid Jebeli and set in Azerbaijan. It deals with the relationship between a Muslim boy and an Armenian priest.
Important children's films from Africa include Tsotsi (2006). An important series or collection of family film is the anthology of 20 Canadian and European motion picture productions titled Tales for All. This includes the Canadian children's film Bach et Bottine (1986) and the Argentine film Summer of the Colt (1989/1990), directed by André Mélancon. Iran and Denmark believe that specific films for children need to be made. Thus Danish children's films are subsidized by the government as the Danish market is too small to make profits. In 1995, Denmark had about three children's films being made every year by the support of the state funded Danish film institute. Similarly, Iran makes a significant number of children's films. An example of a Danish children's film is Me and Mama Mia. Examples of Iranian children's films include Khaneh-je Doost Kojast? (Where Is the Friend's Home?).