Saturday, November 29, 2008

Cinematical Seven: Non-Dysfunctional Movie Families

by Jette Kernion

A few years ago, I wrote a Cinematical Seven on my favorite dysfunctional families in films. Everyone has a crazy messed-up movie family they love, whether it's the Hoovers in Little Miss Sunshine or the Bullocks in My Man Godfrey or the Corleones in the Godfather saga. I thought that this year, it would be fun to make a list of families that got along, worked together, and supported one another. You know, happy families ... but not dull, one-dimensional bundles of endless cheer.

It's a lot more difficult to find seven movies with happy-but-not-sappy families than it is to find the screwed-up kind, especially if you are looking for something more interesting than the Cleavers. Since I'm visiting my relatives for the Thanksgiving holidays, I asked them for suggestions. They were all very helpful, and I'm sorry I couldn't include all the suggestions, which ranged from The Thin Man to The Sound of Music to The Hills Have Eyes. Let me know what else we missed in the comments.

The Smiths in Meet Me in St. Louis (suggested by my mom)

It feels like the right time of the year for Meet Me in St. Louis, which is one of my favorite movies to watch during the fall/winter holidays. The father of the Smith family may be somewhat dictatorial at times, but he's surrounded by a wife who keeps everything peaceful, three lively nearly-grown kids looking for love (including Judy Garland), two mischievous younger daughters (including Margaret O'Brien), and the wise, slightly eccentric grandfather. It was probably considered a corny and overly nostalgic look at the turn of the century even when it was released in 1944, but it's got a bit of a dark side too (Halloween, and the fate of the snowmen).

The Parrs in The Incredibles (suggested by my husband)

The Parrs aren't perfect. After all, Bob (aka Mr. Incredible) sneaks around behind his family's back to use his superhero powers again, after they've all decided to live a life as ordinary non-powerful folks. And Violet is rather sulky, but that's what teenagers do. But when someone is in trouble, everyone rushes to help. I was torn between The Incredibles and another movie about a family full of action heroes (or potential heroes), Spy Kids. Both feature strong families, but are never boring.

The Addamses in The Addams Family (suggested by my grandfather and my youngest brother)

The Addams family may be creepy and kooky and all that other stuff, but they are the most happily united family you'll ever see on film. Morticia and and Gomez bill and coo like newlyweds, but encourage their children in all their endeavors (no matter how hazardous or morbid), shower a long-lost brother with affection, and let Grandma stay with them. They stick together throughout the entire film. How come when people claim that there aren't ever enough movies about happy, stable, united families, they never mention the Addamses?

(And it is only after writing the above that I re-read my previous Dysfunctional Families list and realized the Addams family is on both. Hah.)

The MacGuffs in Juno (my idea)

Juno MacGuff is an unmarried pregnant teenager ... and her family doesn't yell at her or kick her out or shame her. Her dad and stepmom help her decide what she wants to do about the pregnancy, take her on her doctor's visits, and are willing to fight anyone who criticizes or makes trouble. Juno's relationship with her dad (J.K. Simmons) is particularly sweet and touching, but I also love the scene in which Allison Janney, as Juno's stepmom, takes her to get an ultrasound. If I were a pregnant teenager, I would want these parents on my side.

The Marches in Little Women (suggested by my sister)

How many versions of Little Women are there now? My favorite is the 1933 adaptation with Katharine Hepburn as Jo. The 1994 version takes great liberties with Louisa May Alcott's book, but for once you get a non-wimpy Laurie and a rather attractive Professor Bhaer. And I'm dying to see the 1978 version with William Shatner and Susan Dey. In most of these films, we don't see much of Mr. March, but the close relationship of the four girls with their mother, Marmee, is a big reason why the book and movies are so beloved. Sure, it's sentimental at times, and certain tragic events might verge on the melodramatic, but in every movie, I always love seeing the four girls and Marmee clustered around the piano, united and cozy and loving.

Pecker's family in Pecker (suggested by my husband)

I can't remember (or find) the last name of the family in this John Waters movie from 1998, but I remember that although everyone has their own little quirks, they're all supportive and loving. Grandma runs a sandwich business from the front window of the house, and she believes her Virgin Mary statue can talk; Mom runs a thrift shop and tries to help everyone look fashionable; one sister works in a gay strip club and the other has a serious sugar addiction. They all stand behind Pecker and his photography, no matter what level of fame and fortune he does (or doesn't) achieve. This isn't the only close-knit family in a John Waters film -- the Turnblads were also a happy family in Hairspray (the 1988 version, at least).

The Buckets in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (my idea, but my brother is kicking himself for not suggesting it)

We could argue about the merits of both adaptations of Roald Dahl's best-known book, but my point is that the Bucket family is happy and stable even though they're dreadfully poor. In the 1971 film, Charlie's mom does laundry to make ends not-quite-meet for her son and the four grandparents. In the 2005 film, Charlie also gets a dad. The other families on the tour of Wonka's chocolate factory are stereotypes of every kind of dysfunction in the book, with spoiled children and obnoxious parents. In the Tim Burton film, we also learn that Wonka himself is dealing with unhappy family issues. But Charlie and his Grandpa Joe -- and the rest of the slowly starving Bucket family -- hang together through the worst conditions possible.

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