MOVIE | Weighty portrayals of American racism takes center stage in children’s WWII tale
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➤ Rated PG
Made-for-kids movies ought to be like kids themselves—full of joyful problems. Whether they’re sneaking off with sweets or pleading to use the bathroom after you’ve already reminded them a million times, it’s the simplicity of their concerns that make us love them (and their movies) so much.
When it sticks to these playful predicaments, Railway Children is dreamy and heartwarming. Even in 1940s war-torn Britain, young siblings Lily, Pattie, and Ted find ways to have fun and be naughty. Their mom may be in tears as she sends the trio from urban Manchester to safety in the bucolic hillsides of Yorkshire, but for the kids, everything’s an adventure.
Inspired by both the 1906 children’s book by Edith Nesbit and the 1970 British family classic, this 2022 version imagines a new generation of children alighting at Oakworth train station. In the 1970 version, Jenny Agutter played a teenage Roberta, the eldest daughter in a family that fled to Oakworth in the 1900s seeking refuge from poverty and suspicion. This version takes us 40 years into the future where we see Agutter as Grandma Roberta taking in Lily, Pattie, and Ted as they flee city air raids during World War II.
All’s well until a game of hide-and-seek unearths a runaway soldier, sending the movie off the rails. Have the children found a Nazi spy? No, he’s Abraham, an African American teen who’s deserted his unit after being harassed by white comrades. Understandably, the kids fret. But Abe doesn’t quell their fear. Rather, he stokes it by talking about racism and fears he’ll be hanged. Unfortunately, that doesn’t endear us to Abe, or the rest of the movie. We’ve now traded hide-and-seek for a dark conversation about American bigotry.
This is not to minimize the struggles of African American soldiers or the problems of racism. American troops were indeed segregated during World War II, and some black soldiers were hanged for offenses. But it’s hard to feel sympathetic about it here, when the actual enemies were German and the problems presented stretch beyond the scope of a child’s mind. In one scene, Lily, Pattie, and Ted witness another black soldier kicked and beaten after he’s caught holding a white woman’s hand. It’s a bit heavy for a young viewer.
That brief scene of brutality and a child’s reckless attempt to stop a moving train take this film to the edges of its PG rating. Older children and families who’ve grown up with the 1970 classic should stop by for nostalgic reasons. Everyone else can chug right by.
Classic children’s novels adapted for the screen
- The Swiss Family Robinson / 1812
- The Wonderful Wizard of Oz / 1900
- Mary Poppins / 1934
- The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe / 1950
- Charlotte’s Web / 1952
- Old Yeller / 1956
- Chitty Chitty Bang Bang / 1964
- Matilda / 1988
- Ella Enchanted / 1997
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