My obsession with child stars began when I saw my first Shirley Temple movie and likely will not end until the year 2089 when, at the age of 105, I die of a gummy overdose. When I was actually young enough that becoming a child star was (in my mind) a legitimate possibility, I took breaks from looking up “agent” in my hometown’s ridiculously slim Yellow Pages in order to devote myself to memorizing the birth dates, siblings, and shoe sizes of every famous person under the age of 15. Along the way, I noticed that many of these pint-sized thespians c0-starred in at least one movie with an adorable animal. COULD ANYTHING MAKE 9-YEAR OLD ME MORE JEALOUS? More important, could anything make 27-year old me more jealous? Hint: no! A new goal was born. It was no longer enough to pine for the life of an average, run-of-the-mill brilliant young actress. No, I wanted the freaking zoo to come with it. Here are the movies that did me in:
I’ll never forget when this movie came out and I got my hands on a review that declared tiny star Tina Majorino “the new Shirley Temple.” Insanely jealous, I read the line out loud to my mom, and she kindly (or unkindly, depending on your POV) snorted, “She wishes.” And sure, Tina’s career floundered (see that animal pun right there?) for awhile, although she sure was good in Napoleon Dynamite and I hear she was also in Big Love. I’m kind of loving the poster for this movie, in part because Tina looks borderline little-person, and also because the marketing team clearly didn’t think a button-faced child and a mammalian sea creature were cute enough on their own. No, the seal had to be dressed up like a human! That’ll show how cute this movie is! And you know what, it was cute, in all its supposedly-based-on-a-true-story-even-though-the-seal-is-played-by-a-sea-lion glory. The plot is inconsequential (there’s a seal, Tina loves it, fishermen hate it, trouble ensues) in the face of those matching hats!
Hold me, like the River Jordan, and I will then say to thee, you are my friend… Okay, if you aren’t already listening to the Michael Jackson-penned theme song, “Will You Be There,” you must. Open this link in a new tab. It’s worth it. Instant time travel back to 1993. Another movie about a child helping an animal in potential peril, Free Willy starred a boy named Jason James Richter who went on to do virtually nothing other than playing the lead in The Neverending Story III followed by a meager handful of TV appearances. But back when this movie came out, wow, to me he was a gigantic mega star. Not only does his character save the life of titular killer whale Willy, but he, himself, is a rebellious little street urchin also in need of some TLC. The only thing better than a movie about a kid and an animal is a movie about a troubled kid helping a troubled animal. Spoiler alert: everyone is untroubled by the end. The poster kind of gives away the money shot, though, doesn’t it?
My favorite thing about this movie is the fact that I actually assembled for myself the entire outfit Thora Birch is wearing on the poster. The shirt was from Gap Kids and I already happened to own it, it was 1994 so white overalls were a wardrobe staple, and a red baseball hat was easy enough to scrounge up given that I had an older brother at home. Once I was satisfied, I wore the entire outfit, head to toe, to go see the movie in theaters… and was genuinely perplexed when nobody stopped me for an autograph. Regardless of my fourth grade delusions, this movie was the real deal. The unbelievably talented (truly!) Thora Birch wants a pet but her mom doesn’t think she’s responsible enough. Cue runaway monkey she meets in the park, renames Dodger, and takes home. Except it turns out he’s a trained kleptomaniac whose previous owners were crooks! What’s a scrappy little heroine to do? You’ll have to rent the movie to find out. Gap Kids tee shirt strongly encouraged but not required.
A remake of a 1963 film, Flipper is about a boy forced to spend the summer in Florida with his uncle (kids in movies were always being shipped off to live with uncles and grandparents. Does this happen in real life? Why not ever to me? Is this why I’m not a child star slash never had a wild animal for a best friend?). So while he’s in Florida, he meets a special new dolphin friend and saves him from about a million dangerous situations. I didn’t really care about the politics of toxic waste dumping or the intricacies of echolocation. No, I liked this movie because of one thing and one thing only: Elijah Wood. He was the cutest boy that had ever lived, and he was starring in a movie with one of the cutest animals of all time. To this day, I’d probably date any guy whose best friend was a dolphin, let alone a guy whose best friend was a dolphin who knew how to do tricks involving a Pepsi can.
Fly Away Home
I remember what a huge deal it was that this was the role Anna Paquin chose as a follow-up to her Academy Award-winning performance in The Piano. Devoted child star stalker that I was, I read every interview with her I could get my hands on, and she always made a thing about how she wanted to go to school and be very selective about her roles and not just be an actress but be a good actress. Her choices obviously paid off, since she is by far the most famous member of this list (I’ve never seen any of the Lord of the Rings movies, so in my mind Elijah Wood stopped acting shortly after starring in North). Fly Away Home is about a young girl sent to live with her father (of course) who inadvertently imprints (hello, future vampire lover) on a flock of baby geese as their Mother Goose. She then has to teach them how to migrate, blah blah blah, look at that funky hat she’s wearing on the poster! Could anything have been more enticing to an attention-hungry little 10-year old like myself than a funkily dressed movie star holding a baby chick? I’m still jealous.
There’s that famous W.C. Fields quote that actors should never work with children or animals. I’ve never been sure whether that’s because they’re too unpredictable (and often terrible) or because they might be so cute they overshadow the adult actor’s performance entirely. If we’re drawing conclusions from these wonderful flicks, it’s clearly the latter. It upsets me to this day that Thora Birch had the double joy of starring in a movie and being paid to play with a monkey all day. So what do we think, is it too late for me? Until I know for sure, I’ll keep working on my movie about an elementary school girl with a growth disorder that makes her look 27 who befriends a lonely unicorn and saves her from a traveling circus.