From Roger Ebert's Answer Man Column, this week:
Q. My 8-year-old son Andrew has taken an interest in my movie collection. We've been watching movies atypical for someone that young: "Rushmore," "Spellbound" (the spelling bee documentary), "The Right Stuff," "Tell No One" (with subtitles no less!) and this past Friday, a movie near and dear to you: "Dark City."
It appears that kids can handle complex characters and story lines better than we think. Very rarely do I have to explain what was going on, and his comments indicate that he is getting it (during "Rushmore": "Sometimes Max is not nice, but I like him"; on the ending of "Dark City," "He knows all about her, but she doesn't know about him!")
What strikes me the most is how "natural" cinematic grammar is understood by children. No one has to sit down and explain things like cutaways, flashbacks, dream sequences, POV shots and the passage of time in films. How do they learn this stuff? Also, do you think the thematic material in the movies I listed is too much for 8-year-olds, or can I continue to brag and bore my friends?
Mike Spearns, St. Johns, Newfoundland
A. Start bragging. IMHO, kids up until about the age of 11 are more open to good movies than they will be again for some years, unless they fall prey to the deadening effect of peer pressure. A kid knows, as any adult does, that "Twilight" is a crashing bore. I suspect many teenagers like it because they have been ordered to by their peers.
Younger children instinctively love a Miyazaki animated film more than the meaningless action of films like "Monsters vs. Aliens" or "Kung Fu Panda." They're open to the magic. Later, some seem to need to be battered by noise and chaos.
I've never met a preschooler who did not respond well to silent comedy. A film critic friend of mine and his novelist wife raised their daughter on nothing but good films, and so she developed such good taste that she never has been able to stomach visual junk food.
As for understanding the language, the grammar of film seems to have evolved directly from the instincts of the first filmmakers. It requires no theory to understand the difference between a closeup and a long shot, or that a dream sequence is a dream sequence. A good movie contains all the instructions you need about how to watch it. This is true of the greatest films. Only junk like "Transformers 2" requires an instruction manual.
(Reprinted here in full only because his site won't archive it in a way that leads you back to it easily)