Welcome to the Doc Option, a column where we recommend documentary substitutes or supplements for new or popular narrative releases. In this entry, we spotlight the Oscar-winning feature Into the Arms of Strangers as a pairing with the animated film The Boxtrolls.
This is another Doc Option that requires a “yes I’m serious” disclaimer. How, you may ask, can a documentary about a WWII-era social program that rescued Jewish children from Nazi Germany possibly be compared to a whimsical stop-motion animated film about cute trolls that wear boxes? All shall be explained! The Boxtrolls is a delightful romp, and in addition to engaging any child who sees it, the movie will gently introduce them to certain darker truths about the world. Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport can then help them understand those truths as they apply to real life.
The story of The Boxtrolls focuses on the struggle of the eponymous race of creatures to survive while human exterminators are trying to hunt them all down. These villains use propaganda to demonize the boxtrolls so that the common people solicit their efforts. They round up the Boxtrolls and put them to heavy labor in a factory. And their ultimate goal is to destroy all the Boxtrolls en masse. The movie is, essentially, a beat-for-beat primer on how pogroms against minorities are born and enacted, even if that isn’t evident to any kid who doesn’t know their historical context.
Any Holocaust documentary could then step in to illustrate how such situations play out in the real world. I picked Into the Arms of Strangers, which won the feature documentary Academy Award in 2001, because it’s relatively light for a Holocaust doc, focusing as it does on the stories of children who were spared most of that period’s horrors. The film explores the Kindertransport, a 1939 operation executed by the British government that took in over 10,000 Jewish children from Germany and placed them in adoptive homes. It’s constructed mainly of interviews with those now-elderly children and even a few of the foster parents.
Into the Arms of Strangers, though more family-friendly than the average Holocaust doc, doesn’t shy away from the grimness of its subject matter. The entire first portion of the film is devoted to the former kind talking about the oppression they faced in the years leading up to World War II, culminating in the devastation of Kristallnacht, which proved to be the inciting motivation for instigating the Kindertransport. Pairing this with The Boxtrolls allows a smooth transition between understanding the boxtrolls’ lot in life and how people have similarly been persecuted for no other reason than the baseless, often government-stoked fears of the majority.
Vitally, the fact that its characters survived also gives Into the Arms of Strangers a “happy” ending. Introducing kids to the horrors of history can be a delicate enough endeavor without having to utterly depress them. Since the doc is constructed in an archetypically educational format, it also makes for an easy conversation starter for any parent who wants to have a more in-depth discussion with their child about such events or those similar to them. The truths of history can be conveyed either directly or obliquely, and this double feature does both. While some parents may be hesitant about the idea, any mature enough kid should be able to handle it with no problems.