Movies are our sagas, our myths, our touchstones, and our collective cultural heritage. They are also one way that we teach ourselves and our children about values. Of course, kids get their most important lessons from the behavior of their parents. But movies give us a chance to explain and expand on those lessons through a modern form of parables or Aesop's Fables. And like parables, stories in movies have the advantage of distance--it can be easier for kids to talk to parents about what's happening on screen than to talk about what's going on inside them. Those discussions are a powerful way for families to connect and communicate. I've selected 10 terrific movies in which characters show qualities like responsibility, integrity, compassion, and courage. Each is popcorn-worthy entertainment for families to share and a great way to begin conversations about the way that our values affect our choices and their consequences.
It's a Wonderful Life
(Not rated) 10 and up
These days, there is a lot of emphasis on doing whatever is necessary to make us feel good, which makes duty one of the most neglected of all values. That is why it's important for families to share movies that give us examples of thoughtful people making principled choices contrary to their own pleasure because of a sense of responsibility to others.
George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) never realizes his dream of leaving his hometown to see the world, because he has to take care of his family and protect his community from the predatory Mr. Potter. As George magically sees what the town would have been like without him, it's a healthy exercise for each of us to think about what we would see if someone were to show us the effect we've had on those around us.
Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
(G) 8 and up
Even though most movies feature at least one character telling at least one lie, it is hard to find a good illustration of the importance of honesty. Most often, characters will not tell the truth about themselves and later will be forced to reveal whatever it was they were hiding. But there are a few movies that give us heroes who illustrate the importance of integrity by insisting on telling the truth, even under the greatest pressure to lie.
Charlie is a poor but honest boy who wins one of five golden tickets for a tour of the world's most delicious chocolate factory, in this adaptation of Roald Dahl's beloved "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory." The other five winners are obnoxious and spoiled children. Each of them is felled by some catastrophe, while Charlie resists the opportunity to sell Wonka's secrets, leaving him to win the biggest prize of all. NOTE: The Tim Burton remake is visually inventive but less true to the book and does not have as much heart as the original.
A Man for All Seasons
(G) 12 and up
Movies almost always have heroes, and heroes are almost always courageous. In westerns, adventure sagas, mysteries, sword and sorcery epics, and war movies we see thrilling depictions of physical courage. Some movies also give us great examples of moral courage.
This is the true story of Sir Thomas More (Paul Scofield), a man of great principle and a devout Catholic who was Lord Chancellor to King Henry VIII. The King wants to dissolve his marriage to the queen so that he can marry Anne Boleyn. But this conflicts with the Church's position that marriage is indissoluble.
Because of More's incorruptible reputation, his support is crucial to the King. Every possible form of persuasion and coercion is attempted, but More refuses to support either the divorce or the new church headed by the King. Finally, having lost his position, his fortune, his reputation (on false charges), and his liberty, More is sentenced to death. He accepts it with grace and faith, forgiving the executioner.
(G) 5 and up
A lot of what passes for humor or coolness in current movies is just rudeness. But courtesy is an essential value that can transform relationships by giving people a view of both the giver and the recipient as deserving of respect and empathy.
"Babe" is a delight for the eye, heart, and spirit, a lovely story about a pig who lives his dream--and saves his life--by learning to herd sheep. It takes place on Farmer Hoggett's small farm, a picturesque ideal of country life. The screenplay is witty without being cynical and tender without being soppy. The combination of real animals, animation, and puppetry is flawless. Babe treats all species as friends, while the animals show a great deal of prejudice against each other and him. The movie makes clear the way respect gets passed on by those who receive it.
Remember the Titans
(PG) 12 and up
Many memorable movies deal with the issues of bigotry and tolerance that reflect both the aspirations and the challenges of America since its earliest days. Perhaps no category has been more honored by the Oscars as Best Picture--from "Gentlemen's Agreement" to "Driving Miss Daisy" to "In the Heat of the Night."
"Remember the Titans" stars Denzel Washington as football coach Herman Boone in this football story inspired by the real-life integration of a Virginia high school in 1971. There is a lot of hostility in the school and the community about the change. Boone must work with the school's long-time white coach, who has just been demoted, as well as with players who have no interest in working together. On the football field only what is inside the players matters--talent, loyalty, hard work, integrity. In his own life, Boone has faced racism with dignity and self-confidence, not bitterness.
Toy Story 2
(G) 5 and up
Most movies show some characters being loyal to others. Even bad guys have loyal sidekicks. So it is important to find films that demonstrate a thoughtful loyalty--and that does not mean going along with everything a friend wants. In this sequel to Pixar's groundbreaking all-computer-animated feature film, a cowboy toy named Woody (voice of Tom Hanks) is stolen by an evil toy store owner, who recognizes Woody as a valuable collectable because he will complete a full set based on an old children's TV. Woody's friends organize a rescue mission led by astronaut toy Buzz Lightyear (voice of Tim Allen).
But when they arrive to rescue Woody, he isn't sure he wants to be rescued. He is delighted to find out his origin and value, and to meet up with his former TV co-stars who tell him he will be better off in a museum than waiting for his little boy to outgrow him. All the characters have to think carefully about what is most important to them and where their loyalties lie. Buzz realizes he must do whatever it takes to rescue Woody, and Woody realizes that even if his little boy grows up, the chance to be part of his childhood and a treasured memory is most important to him.
Akeelah and the Bee
(PG) 12 and up
After the novelty of school wears off, just about the time that homework begins to seem tedious, kids start to wonder what the point of studying is. How will algebra or spelling or history ever have any relevance to their lives, which they confidently assume will consist of work on computers equipped with calculators, spell-checkers, and CD-ROMs? Movies can help by illustrating the transformation of both mind and spirit that comes from learning. And there is an entire genre of films about real-life teachers who changed the lives of their students by going beyond the subject matter to show them a new vision of themselves and what they could accomplish.
This terrific film is inspired by the dedicated kids who compete in the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Keke Palmer is the determined and talented Akeelah, whose mother (played by Angela Bassett) is loving but terrified of risking any more loss. Laurence Fishburne is Akeelah's coach, Dr. Larabee, a man who has more in common with Akeelah than he wants to admit. This family film illustrates the joy of curiosity, the power of knowledge, and the pleasures of achievement.
(PG) 10 and up
In movies, as in life, we get and send very mixed signals about the role of violence. Almost everyone would agree that violence is not a good way to resolve conflicts. Yet violent movies are among the most popular and lucrative.
This film opposes violence on the largest scale-without employing violence in the process. NORAD, which monitors airspace over North America, has created an automatic system to launch missiles when the U.S. is attacked, without any possibility of human interference. Meanwhile, a teenager named David (Matthew Broderick) is at home trying to tap into the computer of a software manufacturer to try out their new games. He accidentally connects to NORAD's computer and "plays" something called "Global Thermonuclear War." The FBI, thinking he's a spy or a terrorist, captures him. David realizes that he has accidentally set in motion an unstoppable series of commands that will lead to a real thermonuclear war. He escapes to seek out the scientist, now a recluse, who designed the program. They manage to figure out a way to teach the computer not to undertake an initiative that will leave no one a winner, concluding that in a nuclear-war scenario "the only winning move is not to play."
9. Helping Others
A Little Princess
(G) 7 and up
Compassion and empathy are important, but they are not enough. Those feelings must be translated into action that makes a difference. This film, based on a classic children's book, is about a wealthy little girl who helps others and who continues to be very generous even when she becomes poor and believes there is no one in the world who cares for her.
Sara Crewe (Leisel Matthews) is brought to Miss Minchin's boarding school by her adored father. She is the brightest girl in the school, with exquisite manners, but her odd fancies and her father's lavish provisions for her make the other girls uncomfortable or jealous. After Captain Crewe is reported missing in action, Miss Minchin takes everything from Sara and has her stay on at the school as a servant. Sara finds a way to keep her spirits up despite deprivation and abuse. In one instance, she is desperately hungry but gives almost all her food to a beggar child who is even hungrier. Her compassion inspires others--the baker who observes her is moved to give the beggar child a home.
(PG) 11 and up
Any high school English teacher will tell you that the first requirement for a story is conflict. As a result, many movies present us with issues of fairness and justice. Some do so directly, by taking us into the judicial system.
Adapted by Louis Sacher from his Newbery Award-winning book, "Holes" is the story of Stanley Yelnats (Shia LaBeouf), who is wrongfully accused of stealing a very valuable pair of sneakers and sentenced to a juvenile facility in the desert. Each boy there is required to dig a five-foot-deep hole every day. They are told it is to help them develop character, but could it be that the Warden (Sigourney Weaver) is looking for something that just might be buried in the endless stretch of sand that once was Green Lake? We cannot understand the answer to that question until we learn the stories of Stanley's pig-stealing great-great grandfather, who was cursed by a gypsy, and of the notorious outlaw of the Old West, Kissin' Kate Barlow. These two stories are interwoven with Stanley's, providing counterpoint and illumination on issues of fairness in and outside the justice system