Remembering Robin Williams: A Mini Film Fest with My Son

The Oscar nominations have now been announced, and while many are making lists of films they need to see, planning Oscar parties, or predicting winners, I’m left wondering what kind of tribute will be given to Robin Williams during the ceremony. As a winner for Good Will Hunting, a 3-time nominee, and a co-host in 1986, I’m hoping his work gets the attention it deserves. When you stop and look at the span of his career, you understand why so many felt personally impacted by his tragic death in August of last year.

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One of my greatest joys as a parent has been sharing favorite films with my son. As he’s still quite young, I’m watching most of these family-friendly movies for the first time in decades. Add to that the thrill of seeing them through my 5-year-old’s eyes, and it’s always an amazing experience.

Until recently, I was going through my mental list of favorite movies when choosing ones to show my son. Then in August, Robin Williams passed away, and I decided I needed to introduce my son to this beloved actor’s work.

To my memory, the world hadn’t lost a movie star who was as popular – and still active – in quite some time. I’d wager any movie-lover’s list of favorites includes at least one of Williams’ films. My library includes five of them.

Robin Williams left behind a body of work that included more than 60 films, four of which had yet to premiere. One of these was Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb, the third installment of the wildly popular series. Excited at the idea of taking my son to see one of Williams’ movies in the theater led us to embark on a mini Robin Williams film fest over the couple of months following Williams’ death.

© 1992 Walt Disney Productions. IMDB.com

The first — not surprisingly — was Aladdin. Like many 5-year-old boys, mine’s not much for princesses and romance. But Disney has a knack for balancing the “happily ever after” part of fairy tales with the swashbuckling fun 1992’s Aladdin has in spades. And of course, the vast majority of the fun comes from Williams’ voice work as the Genie. Even if my preschooler didn’t get half the jokes, he never stopped laughing and smiling at the manic delivery of it all. The Genie epitomized everything wonderful about Williams — silly voices, spot-on impersonations, non-stop zaniness, all wrapped in a lot of heart. The movie may be titled Aladdin, but Williams’ Genie is what makes it magical.

Photo by Columbia/Tristar – © 1995 TriStar Pictures. IMDB.com

Next we tried Jumanji. Knowing my son is pretty much a pint-sized action star — as well as a fan of jungle animals from way back — I thought he’d get a kick out of the game-come-to-life concept of the 1995 film. And no other actor plays the “man-boy” as well as Robin Williams. As Alan Parrish, he springs from the mystical box a full-grown adult who’s spent his childhood running through a jungle. What other actor could bring to life a wild child stuck in the body of a 44-year-old man?

But there were two things I hadn’t planned on: 1) How much dialog and airtime was given to the death of the children’s parents, and 2) how much the special effects would spook my normally unspookable kid.

Perhaps it was the real-life setting or the particularly glum Kirsten Dunst, but the dead parents device came off a little darker than I’d remembered. And although the digitally-rendered monkeys, spiders and lion are rather rudimentary by today’s standards, they still managed to scare my little guy. Again, it may have been the fact that they were “real” things (as opposed to Hulk, Jabba the Hutt and Megatron — none of which cause him to even blink). In any event, Jumanji was one board game we never quite finished.

© Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. IMDB.com

Surprised by my son’s reaction to Jumanji, I was a bit trepidatious showing him another live-action adventure film. Yet he was beyond delighted by 1991’s Hook. Granted, the first part was a little confusing to him. My son had seen the animated Peter Pan — and while I repeatedly explained Williams was playing a grown-up Peter, it never quite registered in his 5-year-old brain. That is until Peter flew.

I had gotten up to get something from the kitchen when I heard my boy excitedly report, “Daddy, he’s FLYING!”

Once again, Robin Williams’ heart and energy shined as he balanced the innocence of youth with the weight of being a parent, gliding (flying) easily between the two. Always just on the edge of being a caricature of himself, but never preventing the viewer from getting lost in the story. Hook was probably my son’s favorite film of our little fest.

© 2006 TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX. All Rights Reserved. IMDB.com

And finally, we watched 2006’s Night at the Museum, a first for the whole family. Living in the Washington D.C. area, our son has visited more than his fair share of museums. So watching the wooly mammoths, cavemen and T-Rex skeleton magically spring to life felt like familiar friends coming over for a play date; compared to the freakiness of the gigantic spiders and throngs of monkeys from Jumanji. He’s now anxious to revisit our favorite D.C. museums, as was extra excited to see the sequel.

Williams’ Teddy Roosevelt added his usual dose of giggle-worthy moments as well as a refreshing turn as a fatherly guide to lead actor Ben Stiller’s character. Bonus: Our son now knows the name of another president!

An unexpected theme emerged from our film fest selections — that of fathers estranged from their children. Work, divorce and death separated child from father in three of these four films. The exception being Aladdin. While the title character is presumably an orphaned street urchin, Princess Jasmine is a Disney rarity, in that she has a seemingly healthy relationship with her father.

Upon his tragic passing, Williams left behind three children. While all adults, they were still separated from their father much too soon. I hope they know and find comfort in the fact their dad brought so much laughter and smiles to so many — including me and my son. I look forward to lots more father/son time watching Williams’ movies, and of course many more laughs and smiles.

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The original version of this post appeared on Fandango.com.

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