A literary film fiesta for the holidays

Hollywood takes a page from kids' lit this holiday season.

By Valle Dwight

Classic tales with a twist

While there’s not a huge number of children's holiday movies to pick from this year, they do share an interesting trait: All are adaptations of classic or popular stories. KJ Dell’Antonia, a former reviewer for Common Sense Media and now a writer for Slate’s DoubleX and XX Factor blog, suggests that parents use the movies as a springboard for getting their kids to read the original tales. “Talk about how the story has been updated,” she says. “Compare the film with the book and see which they like better.”

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I

Rated PG-13 for sequences of intense action violence and frightening images
Release date: November 19, 2010

The story of Harry Potter and his wizard friends gets darker and more intense with each year at Hogwarts. This much-anticipated, second-to-last installment is no exception — and is really not appropriate for younger kids. As a lead-up to the final showdown between Harry and Voldemort, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is full of tense action foreshadowing that deadly denouement.

The movie follows Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint), and Hermione (Emma Watson) as they look for the seven horcruxes — dark magical objects used to attain immortality — representing pieces of Voldemort’s soul. In the process, their friendship is put to the test by the dangers facing them.

Tangled

Rated PG for brief mild violence
Release date: November 24, 2010

Next up is Disney’s 50th animated feature, Tangled. This is the story of Rapunzel — in this version a spirited teenager (with magically long hair) trapped in a tower. But she’s not your basic damsel in distress. Disney has taken the criticism of its other female characters to heart, says Dell’Antonia. “This is a positive girl role. She is a strong girl character, and it’s not just perfunctory.”

Rapunzel (voiced by Mandy Moore) is curious about the world outside the tower and spends her days reading and imagining what life could be like. When she’s ready to bust out, along comes a charming rogue (voiced by Zachary Levi) who is using the tower as a hideout. Together the two have their share of adventures, with enough action and humor to keep both boys and girls engaged throughout.

Nutcracker 3D

Rated PG for thematic elements, scary images, action, and brief smoking
Release date: November 24, 2010

It’s not every day you see Tchaikovsky listed in the film credits. This 3D cinematic retelling of the classic ballet is gorgeously rendered, with a talented cast (Elle Fanning, John Turturro, and Nathan Lane) and songs by Tim Rice (The Lion King).

Purists may cringe at the modern twists in the story (Clara is now "Mary," for instance), but there are still sugarplums, fairies, and toys come to life, so it's definitely worth checking out — especially, says Dell'Antonia, for families who might never get the chance to see the ballet version.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Rated PG for some frightening images and sequences of fantasy action
Release date: December 10, 2010

Disney bailed on the Narnia series, but 20th Century Fox has stepped up to distribute the third installment (and the first one in 3D). In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Lucy (Georgie Henley) and Edmund (Skandar Keynes), along with their cousin Eustace (Will Poulter), return to the land of Narnia. After getting swallowed into a painting, they end up onboard the ship The Dawn Treader and head out on an incredible adventure to the very edge of the world.

If seeing the movie inspires your kids to read the book, you're in luck: HarperCollins recently published new editions of The Chronicles of Narnia including Dawn Treader.

Gulliver's Travels

This film is not yet rated
Release date: December 22, 2010

This movie looks like pure fun. Though it’s a contemporary twist on Jonathan Swift’s classic fantasy novel, Gulliver's Travels is a typical Jack Black vehicle. There are good messages for kids here, including that even little guys can have big dreams.

Dell’Antonia sees this as a great way to introduce kids to the original story. “Try to find an abridged or kids’ version of the book to read before you go to the movie,” she says. Or watch the 1938 animated film (which has been remastered and released on DVD) and compare it to the new live-action version.

Valle Dwight is a reporter, writer, and mother of two school-aged boys. She has written for many magazines, including FamilyFun, Wondertime, and Working Mother.