Part 2

Children-Kids Family Films
Part 1 | Part 2 | Examples

Jim Henson:

Pioneering puppeteer Jim Henson, who first helped to establish the long-running, visionary children's public-TV program Sesame Street in 1969 (for the non-profit Children's Television Workshop), earned widespread familiarity with his colorful, beloved iconic characters or muppets (a combination of the words marionettes and puppets), including Kermit the Frog (Henson's signature character), Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch, Grover, the Cookie Monster, Bert and Ernie, Elmo - and others. The success of the show led to the British-produced weekly variety show The Muppet Show (syndicated for a few seasons from 1976-1981) with numerous guest stars (celebrities and other notables) appearing alongside the puppets (one of whom was Miss Piggy), inspiring the first of many Muppet movies. The first big-screen Muppet movie was, appropriately titled The Muppet Movie (1979), with Kermit the Frog (and others of his unique characters), followed by more Muppet films, TV shows, and other technically-brilliant fantasy derivatives and new levels of creative achievement:

  • The Great Muppet Caper (1981)
  • The Dark Crystal (1982)
  • The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984)
  • Labyrinth (1986)
  • The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) - the first film after Jim Henson's death in 1990
  • Muppet Treasure Island (1996)
  • Muppets From Space (1999)

Roald Dahl:

The noted children's book British author, Roald Dahl, who has written screenplays for films including the fifth James Bond film You Only Live Twice (1967) and The Night Digger (1971), is best known for the films based upon his ingenious children's books and its eccentric characters:

  • 1968 - Chitty-Chitty Bang Bang (1968) - co-screenwriter
  • 1964 - Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, filmed as Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971), and later remade by Tim Burton with its original title - Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)
  • 1982 - The BFG (1989)
  • 1973 - The Witches (1990)
  • 1988 - Matilda (1996)
  • 1961 - James and the Giant Peach (1996)

Animal Actors in Classic Childrens' Films:

Animal 'actors' have been very prevalent in children's and family-oriented films, and there have been literally dozens of famous animals of all kinds:

  • Dorothy's dog Toto in The Wizard of Oz (1939)
  • Roy Rogers' horse Trigger
  • a colt named Flicka in My Friend Flicka (1943)
  • a fawn in The Yearling (1946)
  • a mule named Francis in the 'Talking Mule' franchise of films (first with Francis (1950) and extending until 1956 with six sequels) featuring star Donald O'Connor (in all but the last film); the films inspired the wildly-popular 60s TV series Mister Ed (1961-1966) with a talking horse as the title character (voice of Allan Lane) and Alan Young as Wilbur Post; it was fondly remembered for its catchy opening theme song: "A horse is a horse, of course, of course..."
  • Ronald Reagan's chimp co-star named Bonzo in Bedtime for Bonzo (1951)
  • a sheepdog with glasses and running for the office of DA (Dean Jones as Wilby Daniels), in The Shaggy D.A. (1976), the sequel to Disney's profitable slapstick movie The Shaggy Dog (1959)
  • the animal buddy film The Incredible Journey (1963), about the epic 200-mile trip of a Labrador, bull terrier, and Siamese cat to reunite with their vacationing owners
  • he many films (and prequels or sequels) with black stallions, such as The Black Stallion (1979, 1983, 2003) and Black Beauty (1933, 1946, 1971, 1994)
  • a large, drooling French mastiff odd-coupled with crime-fighting detective Scott Turner (Tom Hanks) in Turner and Hooch (1989)
  • a sheep-herding, talking pig, the title character in Babe (1995)
  • a talking piglet, the title character in Gordy (1995)
  • the well-regarded My Dog Skip (2000), with a boy and his dog plot set in the 1940s Mississippi, based upon Willie Norris' original story of memoirs, starring Frankie Muniz and a Jack Russell terrier named Skip (portrayed by Moose (as Eddie), the dog star of television's Frasier) - with a tearjerker ending

- Cheeta (or Cheetah, Chetah)

A world-famous chimpanzee, who first appeared in the classic jungle film Tarzan, the Ape Man (1932) as Tarzan's faithful companion. The 4 foot (1.2 meter) tall, 142 pound (53 kilogram) chimpanzee starred in 12 Tarzan movies in total, and had his last role in the musical film Doctor Doolittle (1967).

- Flipper (Mitzie)

The most famous non-canine animal star of all-time was Flipper (actually an animal star named Mitzie), a dolphin from the Seaquarium in Key Biscane, Florida. The first film starring Flipper was the wildly popular Flipper (1963), which immediately launched the first Flipper TV series that ran from 1964-1968. The last film by the original Flipper (who passed away in 1972) was Flipper's New Adventure (1964), aka Flipper and the Pirates. A new Flipper TV series was launched in 1995, aka The New Adventures of Flipper, lasting until 2000 (with Jessica Alba as one of the stars for its first few years), which in turn inspired a 1996 remake of the original film, Flipper (1996).

- Keiko

Another famous aquatic star was Keiko, who starred as the six-ton killer (or orca) whale (Kieko) named Willy in the Free Willy series, co-starring with young pal and rescuer Jesse (Jason James Richter). In some scenes, an animatronic model doubled for the real-life whale:

  • Free Willy (1993)
  • Free Willy 2: The Adventure Home (1995)
  • Free Willy 3: The Rescue (1997)

A short-lived TV cartoon series in 1994, titled Free Willy, was also inspired by the first film. Keiko, the killer whale used in the films, died in late 2003, at the age of 27 years.

Dogs in Childrens' Films:

Dogs have been the most prominent animal choice in repeated starring roles. Often, the dogs have been paired with young boys - and therefore are a 'boy's best friend.' In many cases, the actual star dog was 'reincarnated' numerous times due to the animal's short life span. Famous dog actors have included:

- Strongheart

Before Rin-Tin-Tin, another German shepherd, named Strongheart, was the first major canine star. He appeared in the major hit Silent Call (1921), which reportedly grossed $1 million. Crowds mobbed Strongheart at stops on a triumphal train tour after Silent Call broke attendance records at theaters. The film had a record-breaking run at Los Angeles' Miller's Theater after 792 performances, playing eight times a day to a total audience of about 250,000 people. Strongheart also appeared in Brawn of the North (1922), The Love Master (1924), White Fang (1925), North Star (1925) and The Return of Boston Blackie (1927) (the only existing Strongheart film) before his tragic, untimely death in 1929 due to an on-site film accident.

- Rin Tin Tin

The famous heroic and brainy German shepherd of Warners' Studios, Rinty (or Rin Tin originally), first starred in the Irving Cummings hit The Man From Hell's River (1922) as himself, and then appeared in the Robertson-Cole Pictures production of My Dad (1922). Rin-Tin-Tin's first starring role (as a wolf-dog) and first Warners' film was Where the North Begins (1923), followed by the Universal Pictures production, Shadows of the North (1923). For the remainder of the decade, Rin Tin Tin saved the Warners studio from financial ruin during the silent era. Rin Tin Tin made about two dozen pictures for Warner Brothers before his death on August 10, 1932. Many descendants of Rin Tin Tin would go on to star in their own films. Rin Tin Tin also became an ABC-TV star, featured in The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin that first aired in October 1954 and lasted for almost five years on Friday evenings. The star German shepherd's life story in the 1920s silent film era was spoofed in the 'guilty pleasure' comedy Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood (1976), with more than 60 film stars in cameo roles.

- Asta

The wire-haired terrier named Asta (actually named Skippy) of The Thin Man (1934) series appeared alongside Myrna Loy and William Powell. Asta provided both humor and a lot of character alongside the sleuthing detective couple. In addition to playing Asta, Skippy also performed in two classic screwball comedies - as mischievous 'George' in Bringing Up Baby (1938), and as 'Mr. Smith' - the object of a custody battle between Cary Grant and Irene Dunne in The Awful Truth (1937).

- Lassie

The devoted family-dog Lassie, a golden-haired female collie based on the canine character created by Eric Knight in a 1938 short story, has been considered the quintessential dog actor over many generations. Lassie (played first by a male dog named Pal) first emerged in the 1940s, with MGM's Technicolored tearjerker Lassie Come Home (1943), starring a young Roddy McDowall. Many sequels followed in the next eight years: Son of Lassie (1945) (with June Lockhart who would later star in the TV series), Courage of Lassie (1946), Hills of Home (1948), The Sun Comes Up (1949), Challenge to Lassie (1949), and The Painted Hills (1951). Like his/her predecessor Rin Tin Tin, Lassie really became famous with the long-running 1954 TV show Lassie (aka Jeff's Collie, and Timmy and Lassie), originally starring June Lockhart as Ruth Martin (after a two-year run with Cloris Leachman) and Tommy Rettig as Jeff Miller. The popular show lasted for almost twenty years (it was revived in 1989 and 1997). All nine of the dogs used to portray Lassie were male, although Lassie was a female character.

Other famous dog actors in family films have included Old Yeller (a dog named Spike) in Disney's Old Yeller (1957), Benji (acted by a veteran dog named Higgins, a mixed breed of cocker spaniel, fox terrier, poodle, and schnauzer), starring first in Benji (1974), Beethoven (a giant St. Bernard) first seen in Beethoven (1992), and a basketball-shooting Buddy (a Golden Retriever) seen first in Air Bud (1997).

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