But! The good news is that there is some stuff that is both appropriate for toddlers AND actually enjoyable for adults (or at least enjoyable as background noise). Here in this post I want to share the best of the best, and I'd love to hear your recommendations too. I'd like to do similar posts for books, television, iOS apps, etc, but I'll start with movies.
We have not actually watched that many full-length movies. Most full length films for children contain at least one scary part, and these scary parts, in my opinion, are often actually scarier for little children than adult movies would be. I think to a three year old, seeing someone get shot in a realistic way is more puzzling than scary. When I think of the things in my young childhood that scared me the most, they are not adult things I watched in error, but rather stuff like the Pleasure Island sequence in Pinocchio.
There are basically four movies that we watch right now, but we watch them a lot.
The film doesn't really teach a moral lesson per se, other than "babies are awesome" and "all babies are very alike, and all babies are very different". There's no narrator so you have to draw the lessons yourself. The juxtaposition of different scenes provides its own commentary. For example, Hattie's father vacuuming around her, and then carefully using a lint roller on her romper, cuts to Ponijao chewing on a bone she found in the dirt. Bayar, alone in the yurt and tethered to a pole with no toys
, happily chomping on a roll of toilet paper, cuts to Mari, screaming and throwing herself on the ground in frustration at her inability to correctly work a toy, while surrounded by other toys.
In my opinion, you could lay the parents out in four corners of a graph, where one axis was "conscientious cultivation" (classes, concerted efforts to "teach", helicopter parenting, constant monitoring) and the other graph is "emotional and physical availability" (answering cries, holding/wearing the child, quantity time). Relatively, Hattie's parents score high on both, Ponijao's parents score low on cultivation and high on availability, Mari's parents score high on cultivation and low on availability, and Bayar's score low on both. But the movie doesn't necessarily show one way as the best way, and it definitely shows that all four babies are loved.
Winnie the Pooh (2011) - We actually enjoy this one more than the original Disney film. Unlike Piglet's Big Movie and The Tigger Movie and Kanga Starts Dating: the Movie or whatever else Disney has churned out lately, this film is actually based on stories in the original books by Milne. It's brief, just over an hour, and has wonderful music (including the theme song sung by Zooey Deschanel) and voice acting (including John Cleese as the narrator). The "scary" part of the movie, a psychedelic chalkboard bit about the mysterious Backson, doesn't scare my daughter. I think a key reason for that is, the Backson just does naughty things, like poking holes in socks and scribbling in books--come to think of it, the Backson basically does stuff that toddlers themselves do. Including waking up babies. So no wonder toddlers aren't too afraid of him; he's just a big toddler!
Morally, the movie teaches a great, low-key lesson for toddlers about self-control. Pooh has to learn to control his urge for honey in order to help his friends. But mostly it's just a lot of fun.
The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh - The original seems much cheaper in retrospect, in terms of doing stuff like repeating animation frames, but it has its own charm, especially the music. Honestly I prefer the 2011 movie, but the original is still great. The Heffalumps and Woozles song is scary to my toddler though, so we skip it.
My Neighbor Totoro - Little spider-like black puff balls swarming in your attic. A massive beast with huge teeth and eyes. A mother who is dangerously ill and might die. Sounds like nightmare fuel, right? Actually, My Neighbor Totoro is amazing specifically BECAUSE it's like nightmare retardant. This film is about a set of girls, seven-ish Satsuki and five-ish Mei, who move with their university professor father to the country to be near their mother's tuberculosis sanatorium in post-war Japan. You might think that would be a grim setting, but it's the reverse. Their father is warm, caring, authoritative, and supportive, as are their neighbors. The girls are rambunctious but well-meaning and respectful, at least for their ages. All the stuff that seems terrifying at first glance becomes enchanting and uplifting.
My toddler loves to recite lines from the movie; when I brush her hair, she says "Mommy, I want it to look just like yours" like Satsuki does in the film, and when she dresses up, she'll often turn to me and say "Do I look like a big girl?" like Mei says to her father. And of course I have to give the father's line, "You do!" Every time it happens it reminds me how much kids absorb what they see in media, and thus how important it is to choose wisely what to show them.
Do you have any recommendations for movies for toddlers that everyone will enjoy too? Please let me know in a comment!