Children have always enjoyed good stories and adventures. They are entertained, they learn how to understand and gain insight into the life to which they one day will have to adjust, and in the most serious sense, stories and FAIRY TALES help them to survive. Children have listened to the often very cruel tales of the Brothers Grimm; they have laughed, cried, and shuddered around the campfires; they have read books; and they have held their ears to their RADIO receivers. Today moving images are among their favorite storytellers, and generally, children have had an inquisitive, nonproblematical relationship to film as yet another useful, splendid source of entertainment, knowledge, and insight. However for many adults–parents, pedagogues, and the authorities–this is not the case. We might even go so far as to say that an important approach to understanding the subject "children and the movies" is paved with fear.

There is almost always widespread trepidation about anything new, and such trepidation very much affected film as well. Ever since the birth of film at the end of the nineteenth century there has been widespread concern as to the effects of this emotionally powerful medium on SLEEP and peace of mind, morals, and morality. Children were not the only ones in danger, either. Anybody might be corrupted by witnessing infidelity, murder, and common-or-garden-variety sinfulness displayed on the silver screen! So the agenda of adult discussions on the subject of children and film has often consisted of damage control. Initially this resulted in prohibition and later in censorship, particularly of films containing scenes showing explicit violence and sex. It is worth noting that early discussions of film censorship were not only about shielding children from powerful, violent experiences but very much about the existence of certain matters that were not for adult eyes either. The medium was so powerful, with its rather-too-close resemblance to real life, that it just had to be controlled.

Most countries in Europe introduced film censorship before World War I when film was a phenomenon barely two decades old. In Europe controls were usually administered by the state. Seldom left up to people with any knowledge of film, censorship was delegated to lawyers or people with influential political or religious connections. In more recent times teachers and psychologists have taken over the role of film censor to enable them to decide what is harmful to children. In the United States the film industry chose to submit to self-censorship in order to avoid state or local organs. The MPPDA (the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America) was set up in 1922 and its politically experienced leader, former postmaster general Will H. Hays, persuaded the industry to accept a production code. From 1934 onward it was mandatory and its attitude to crime, alcohol, drugs, religion, violence, and sex determined what might, or rather might not, be shown on film. It was a moral straitjacket that was loosened in the 1950s, but with only a few adjustments the Production Code applied until 1968.

People have talked from the beginning of the brutalizing effect of the film medium, a debate repeated in the 1950s when the deleterious effects of cartoon strips and COMIC BOOKS were on the agenda in the United States and Europe, and in the 1980s when it was argued that violent content of videotapes that corrupted youth. But no clear, unequivocal evidence has ever been found of a direct link between violent movies and violent actions in real life. However, a Danish study on the subject concluded that children whose social skills are underdeveloped can become aggressive by watching violence on the screen. The dramatic expansion of the television and video market in the 1990s has rendered censorship practically impossible and so there is now a widespread tendency to replace prohibition with consumer guidelines like those in use in the United States, where a ratings system has been in operation since 1968. Ratings systems typically apply categories such as General Audience or Parental Guidance and impose different age limits, varying from country to country. In general, however, film censorship has evolved from political and moral censorship for adults to exclusively considering suitability for children. Adult censorship is now only found in a small number of countries.

Irrespective of fear and censorship, children have always loved watching films. They have laughed till the tears ran down their cheeks at Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy, they have wept over Lassie and Bambi, they have shuddered and hidden their faces when the witch appeared in Walt DISNEY 's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and they have "whoopeed" and yelled when watching adventures and Westerns. A number of films not produced expressly for children have ended up being cherished by children–as was the case with books by JULES VERNE, James Fenimore Cooper, Captain Marryat, and Edgar Rice Burroughs, originally penned for adults, which ended up in the nursery. Children have always adopted their very own film treasures, for example, The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), The Crimson Pirate (1952), Star Wars (1977), and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).

The term children's films, that is, films specifically produced for audiences of children, really took shape after World War II. In Britain the production company Rank embarked on the production of children's films and by 1951 this led to the establishment of the Children's Film Foundation. Film as an art form for children was not in focus; what was discussed was what children's films must not contain. Films for children were meant to be edifying, pedagogically responsible productions, contributing to their upbringing and education. So they were not to depict war and violence (an attitude which should of course be regarded in the light of the recently concluded world war) and they were not to depict the consumption of alcohol. Marriage was sacrosanct and inviolable, respect had to be paid to the church and monarchy, and the authorities were always good and just, if occasionally strict. Sex was not discussed at all, because it was quite unthinkable.

Children's films from the Children's Film Foundation soon became watered down into cheaply produced films all much of a muchness, an hour in length in order to fit special children's matinees. They introduced the two most enduring genres of children's film: the children's detective story in which hale and hearty youngsters behave like little grownups, foiling and catching slightly stupid, absolutely harmless criminals. They have a wonderful time in an anonymous community completely detached from reality, with no divisions or genuine conflicts. The other genre is animal films, in which children cast their affections on hordes of mice, rats, moles, beautiful horses, birds with broken wings, lame deer, and bunnies, dogs, and cats. (Children's detective stories and animal stories are also popular genres in literature.) It is interesting to observe how tenacious these views of children's films remained throughout the second half of the twentieth century, even though a number of children's films did try to break out of these restrictive moral limits, often with little success in terms of reaching their target group. Before the Iron Curtain rusted away, many children's films were made in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union as an instrument for inculcating the correct ideological stance; but Czechoslovakia in particular managed to rise above time and place and created a powerful tradition of puppet films for children.

The trouble with so-called children's films is that pedagogical correctness and benevolence often weigh more than narrative pleasure and film as an art form. Nobody has ever really managed to decide whether they should be films that children appreciate, films both children and adults appreciate, or films that adults do not necessarily want to see but which they would very much like children to enjoy! The older children become, the more they explore on their own, and adults may think what they like of children's tastes in film and culture (if they ever find out what they are) but these tastes represent independent choices and are one of the ways in which children grow up. Films are quite simply an easy, accessible road to a glimpse behind various closed doors into the world that lies ahead.

As a consequence, the children's films that adults deem politically correct for children do not necessarily seem to be the films in circulation in the children's own, often clandestine, culture. Nevertheless, most good films for children have a number of characteristic features. They have a child in the leading role, and this child has a mission to fulfill. The mission may be tough but the child succeeds, because the message is that a child's actions do make a difference. Children's films, such as Albert Lamorisse's French classic The Red Balloon (1956) and Spirit: Stallion of the Cimmaron (2002) by Dream Works, share a faith in the triumph of good despite all the odds, and a belief that the world will go on. Young cinemagoers must not be left disillusioned or paralyzed into inaction. For the most part children's films (films targeted specifically to children) are now made in Scandinavian countries and in Canada where there are state subsidies, while commercial cinema operates with the concept of family films (films intended for all age groups), in many countries is usually synonymous with Disney products and their imitators.

See also: Children's Literature; Media, Childhood and.


Balzagette, Cary, and David Buckingham. 1995. In Front of the Children: Screen Entertainment and Young Audiences. London: British Film Institute.

Kinder, Marsha. 1991. Playing with Power in Movies, Television, and Video Games: From Muppet Babies to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Street, Douglas. 1983. Children's Novels and the Movies. New York: Ungar.