Like so many people out there, some of my earliest experiences of Pagan concepts (such as the belief in spirits of nature) come from children’s films. I actually think this is a terrific way to get a bit of a grounding in Paganism – it is in many ways a folk religion, and what could be more “folky” than stories designed to be told to the masses?
Below I’ve listed my top 10 favourite family films that had an impact on my own spirituality as I was growing up (as well as some of the newer family films that I discovered as an adult but still enjoyed!). Whether or not you have children, I hope you find this list useful, and feel free to comment if you have any other good suggestions for Pagan-friendly family movies (I intend to do another list that’s more “Wiccan-orientated later).
10. The Spiderwick Chronicles This is one of those movies that I discovered later in life and really enjoyed. I’m quite surprised it is so overlooked – it’s a solid fantasy adventure but you hardly see it mentioned anywhere. It’s about two children who move house and discover a world of faeries and goblins after discovering a “field guide to faeries” by Arthur Spiderwick.
All different types of faerie folk abound in this film – both friendly and helpful kinds, as well as more malicious kinds. Full of mystery and wonder, it’s a nice little introduction to the world of the fae (but be warned if you have young children – it is quite scary sometimes).
9. Pocahontas This film has been heavily criticised since its release, and not without reason. As an account of an actual piece of history, it is atrocious, filled with inaccuracies and dubious portrayals of Native Americans. However, if you can see past all this (which admittedly is tricky), you do have a very nice little introduction to Earth-based religion. Pocahontas and her people are portrayed as living in harmony and in tune with nature – the song “Colours of the Wind” is all about this. And then there’s the character Grandmother Willow, who is a wise old tree spirit that looks very much like a Crone version of the Green Man! Best viewed as a work of fantasy fiction.
8. Watership Down WARNING: THIS IS PROBABLY THE MOST DISTURBING CHILDREN’S FILM YOU’LL EVER SEE. Some people hear that it’s about a group of rabbits trying to find a safe haven and assume its a sweet, happy child-friendly adventure, but they are wrong, so wrong. This film has graphic and often trippy scenes of rabbits getting ripped to bloody pieces by other rabbits, rabbits getting poisoned, rabbits getting shot, and rabbits otherwise suffering and dying. (Actually, I watched it as a young child and enjoyed it, but it did creep me out!)
Not only is it Pagan-friendly in that it anthropmorphises animals and has a bit of an environmental message; the rabbits themselves have a religion that very much resembles Paganism, in which the Sun is worshipped as the God of creation along with the ancestor of all rabbits (there’s also a Black Rabbit of death!). The religious parts are all told with beautiful folkish animation.
Definitely one for more mature children as well as adults.
7. Fern Gully: The Last Rainforest In more recent years, this film has also been criticised on its heavy-handed environmental message, which perhaps feels a little dated now. But I still really like it! It’s about a community of faeries who must fight to protect one of the world’s last rainforests against destruction. So not only do we have a film that promotes green issues, but it also has nature spirits! Very Pagan indeed. I should also mention that the music in this film is incredible – both the dramatic instrumentals and the poppy song and dance numbers. I often get “It’s Raining Like Magic” in my head when watching the rain!
6. Clash of the Titans (1981) Forget the 2010 remake, this is the version of the story of Perseus and the Gorgon you should see! A brilliant introduction to Greek mythology and all its Gods. Artistic, atmospheric, magical and exciting, it remains my favourite ever depiction of classical mythology on film. Again, it is a bit scary in parts (its full of creepy stop-motion monsters including Medusa, the Kraken and giant scorpions) so be careful when showing it to young children.
5. The Secret Garden (1993) A film with some strong Pagan themes without any “visible” magic in sight! It’s about a troubled girl who is shipped off from her home in India to a manor house England after her neglectful parents die in an earthquake. There, she discovers the gloomy Lord Craven, her invalid cousin Colin…and a hidden, overgrown garden. As she learns more about this strange manor and its past, she also uncovers that the garden holds the key to healing Colin – and herself.
A film about the remarkable healing powers of nature, with an undercurrent of folklore and magic too – at one point, Mary and Colin perform what can only be described as witchcraft to summon Lord Craven to the garden, which they achieve by chanting and dancing around a sacred fire! Like the book upon which it is based, it also has many of the key characteristics of the classic Gothic novel, making it a good children’s introduction to Gothic.
Fantasia is one of my favourite childhood movies of all – if you can even call it a “movie!” A series of beautiful animations set to some of the most famous pieces of classical music, it can be considered Pagan-friendly for two reasons. One is the content of the animation: We have faeries for Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, a depiction of evolution of life on earth for Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, ancient Greek deities and creatures for Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony and Mickey Mouse as a wizard in Dukas’ Sorcerer’s Apprentice! We also have the classical depiction of the Devil as an evil force defeated by church bells in the end for the Night on Bare Mountain / Ave Maria sequence at the end, which is slightly less Pagan-friendly but so beautifully done and so dramatic that I still really liked it (as a child, I actually loved the Devil character and felt kind of sad when he gets driven back into the mountain by church bells. Make of that what you will).
The other reason why this is Pagan-friendly is that encourages children to engage their imagination and visualisation when listening to music – techniques that Paganism very much encourages.
Although nowhere near as strong as its predecessor, the sequel Fantasia 2000 is worth watching. Pagans will probably like the flying whales in the Pines of Rome, and the Spring Sprite of Firebird Suite in particular.
Spirited Away was the film that really introduced the world to Hayao Miyazaki, as well as Japanese spirituality. In this movie, Chihiro is transported away into the world of the kami in order to save her parents. The depiction of the kami in this film as a very diverse set of beings, neither all good nor all bad, rings true to the essence of Shinto. There’s also a subtle environmental message too, in the part where Chihiro must bathe a “stink god” that actually turns out to be a noble river god who has been transformed due to pollution. Beautiful and highly imaginative, it is a wonderful introduction both to Shinto and to the world of magic.
A favourite of many 80s and 90s children, Labyrinth is actually surprisingly similar to Spirited Away – a girl is transported into a magical world to save a member of her family (her baby brother, in this case), encounters magical creatures which are neither wholly good nor bad, and must solve lots of strange riddles in order to find her way. It’s amazing how much overlap there is between the world of the Shinto kami and the world of the fae! Both films depict the underlying ambiguity and mystery of the Pagan world, as well as its wisdom, wonder and beauty.
This film is so gentle, magical and elegant that it charms both young children (my 2 year old nephew loves it) and adults alike. In my opinion, it also captures the essence of both Paganism and Shinto more than any other family film. For such a simple film, about two sisters (Satsuki and Mei) who move to the country temporarily and encounter the mysterious Totoro spirits, this is quite an achievement.
For one thing, unlike Spirited Away, this film shows actual day-to-day practice of Shinto in Japan – on several occasions, characters pray to the spirits of nature for protection.
For another, this film captures just how I feel when I’m out in nature, especially in Japan – the beautiful animation, music and sound effects all very cleverly and subtly recreate the atmosphere of the countryside. And the added spiritual dimension of the creatures such as Totoro add very much to this.
Warm and tender, My Neighbour Totoro will no doubt bring out something of the Pagan side in anyone – young and old alike.