The idea of a family movie night involves a host of fun rituals: popping the popcorn, gathering blankets and pillows in the living room, and dimming the lights to create the perfect movie theater setting.
But for many families, the most important step is often the hardest one: finding the right movie.
“Friday movie nights can be challenging!” said Melissa Brady, a mom of seven from Los Angeles County. “We have such a wide range of ages and tastes that sometimes we find ourselves searching for what to watch so long that all the popcorn and candy is gone before the movie even starts.”
LA-area mom Emily Goodwin has six children, ages 1 through 12. For her, the bigger challenge is finding a film her brood will enjoy without being scandalized. During one recent family movie night, a scene in the film made reference to men not being faithful to their wives.
“My littlest kids, of course, had no idea what they were talking about, but we did have to talk about it with the big kids,” recalled Goodwin.
And as Brady pointed out, infidelity is just one in a growing list of troubling themes working their way into popular kids’ media.
“There are many shows now which portray gender confusion as normal,” she noted. When it comes to animated films, an entire Wikipedia page demonstrates the increasing popularity of this trend, which clashes with many families’ moral beliefs.
Goodwin’s and Brady’s experiences are hardly isolated ones. For many parents, finding a “good” family film is like finding a needle in a haystack.
“I often find that the whole show is wonderful,” said Megan Harrington, a senior producer at LA-based Family Theater Productions, “and then there’s that one moment that I feel I don’t want my nieces and nephews [seeing that], or I don’t feel comfortable watching that with my mom.”
Amid the constant battle of managing media at home, the question arises: Is family movie night even worth it?
Longtime Catholic movie critic Stephen Greydanus describes two options for parents. “You can either opt out of popular culture entirely, or you can try to make the best choices that you can and have conversations with your children about the elements in these … movies, with the understanding that they’re going to be encountering the same mindset and the same worldview in life….”
Looking back on his own experience raising children, Greydanus described the movie backdrop of his children’s upbringing as a “golden age,” studded with the early Pixar films, which spurred other studios like DreamWorks to produce other great films. But since then, things seem to have gone downhill.
“Over the past decade or so, Pixar has declined markedly in quality, and the other studios. … It’s been the opposite of that golden age,” he said. “Hollywood animation in general has collapsed creatively.”
Part of the problem, he continued, is the dominance of the Walt Disney Company over much of the industry. Now the owner of Pixar Animation Studios, 20th Century Studios, Lucasfilm Studios, and Marvel Studios, Disney has shrunk the space for creative competition, according to Greydanus. “Disney is the mouse that swallowed Hollywood,” he said.
Another explanation for the decline in family-film quality is that the term “family film” is so hard to define. Father David Guffey, CSC, national director of Family Theater Productions, has found that besides the diversity among family cultures and backgrounds, few families watch films all together.
“When you say ‘family content,’ you really have to ask what people mean by that,” he told Angelus. “I’ve had people tell me that a hard PG-13 movie was family [content]. And I think, ‘Well, not if your family has got 5- and 6-year-olds in it!’ It really depends on your perspective….”
At the same time, Hollywood provides precious few options that would even be appropriate, let alone enjoyable, for the whole family. Most studios have all but abandoned G-rated, “general audience” films, and even PG movies are falling to the wayside in favor of edgier PG-13 content. A recent Wall Street Journal article reported that between 2010 and 2019, PG-13 movies grossed more than twice as much as PG movies, at $54.6 billion….
The recent Netflix hit The Mitchells vs. the Machines, an animated family adventure film, includes a post-credit sequence in which one protagonist and her mother mention her new girlfriend. The brief, easy-to-miss moment did not prevent Greydanus from giving the film a glowing review, but he noted that this theme will only grow more prevalent.
Disney, and the people catering to the same audience as Disney, are looking to make waves,” he said. “They’re looking to feel good about being socially progressive and socially responsible from their point of view. They want to go home at the end of the day and feel like they’ve made a positive difference in the world. And to them, this is the way of doing that.”
Greydanus disagrees with the “culture warrior” approach, namely signing petitions, boycotting films, or canceling streaming subscriptions to protest this film trend. “I don’t think that we’re going to win hearts and minds that way, and I don’t think we’re going to win the culture that way….”
While the Goodwins generally limit screen time when it comes to choosing a family movie, intentionality is key. “When we do watch movies or shows, we put thought into what we’re putting on for them,” said Goodwin. “One of our biggest criteria is, ‘Has it stood the test of time?’ ”
But Goodwin and her husband also take other measures, like researching a family film and sometimes even watching it themselves first before showing it to their children.
Almost every person interviewed for this story referred to a parental guide or review site (such as ScreenIt, Kids-in-Mind, PluggedIn, or Common Sense Media) as another helpful resource for vetting family films. Several use some sort of filtering system, such as VidAngel, in order to enjoy a film without, as Harrington put it, “that one moment” that causes a cringe.
So after vetting, filtering, and (finally) approving a film, mom and dad might want to collapse on the couch and breathe a sigh of relief for finding a safe, if passive, family activity. But according to Greydanus, a permanent deacon in New Jersey and the father of seven, there’s much more opportunity for bonding than simply enjoying a bowl of popcorn together.
“Parents [should be] watching movies with their children, as opposed to just sitting them down and turning it on and then walking away,” he said. “It’s the way not only to introduce kids to good movies, but also to introduce them to how to engage a movie, how to watch it, how to think about it….”
Greydanus noted that parents might need to look “off the beaten path” to find those hidden gem films.
”There are tons of great family entertainment choices out there flying under the radar that a lot of parents don’t know about,” he said. “Studio Ghibli is just wonderful. And many parents that I talk to have never heard of it. Cartoon Saloon, and the Irish folklore trilogy in particular, is really wonderful.” He also encouraged parents to look overseas, naming titles like Ernest & Celestine, April and the Extraordinary World (both French), and the Paddington films (British-French).
Even within the mainstream, Disney-dominant media world, Greydanus pointed out a few bright spots, including some Marvel films (specifically Dr. Strange and Black Panther) and the work of directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the minds behind The Mitchells vs. The Machines and Oscar-winning Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse….
The above comes from a July 26 story in Angelus News.