A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that there is a depiction of fascist thuggery, concentration camps, and violence directed against the "non-Aryans" (Jews, primarily; no specific mention of gypsies, Catholics, Poles, Slavs, etc.) of Europe. Chaplin's approach is way milder than the Schindler's List horrors and newsreel footage of corpse-piles that were to confront shocked moviegoers in later years. Some viewers might think it's even too mild, though that's an unfair burden to put on this film.
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What's the story?
Between WWI and WWII, a title tells us up front, insanity reigns and humanity "got kicked about a bit" in a suspiciously German-looking country called Tomania. The great Charlie Chaplin plays dual roles. One is a nameless, hapless Jewish barber, who dutifully (if ineptly) fights for his nation in the First World War and suffers amnesia. When he recovers he finds all Jews herded into ghettoes and persecuted, scapegoated for the country's economic woes under the policies of a look-alike, mustached pipsqueak dictator Adenoid Hynkel (also Chaplin) and his fascist advisors. While the strutting Hynkel dreams of world conquest, builds palaces, meets with the equally pompous dictator of a rival empire called Bacteria (think Mussolini's Italy) and gears up for an invasion, the barber's lucky WWI friendship with a high-ranking Tomanian military officer lands him in and out of trouble.
Is it any good?
The movie doesn't feel like old newspapers, but fresh and urgent. The immortal, wordless dream ballet in which Hynkel/Hitler, imaging himself emperor of Earth, dances lovingly with a globe-shaped balloon, is a timeless metaphor for every wannabe conqueror from Napoleon on up. Chaplin's narrative isn't terribly cohesive, more like a series of blackout sketches, but younger viewers are especially forgiving about that. Some critics think The Great Dictator went overboard with a climactic speech, in which Chaplin completely breaks character to deliver an emotional tirade against 1930s totalitarianism and the "machine men" plunging the planet into madness. But as a film-comedy genius using the talents he has to confront world-class enemies and injustice directly, this is as good as it gets.
Viewers today are used to satire like Saturday Night Live or Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay, which look terribly out of date just months later. Not exactly great art. But THE GREAT DICTATOR is different. Silent-era megastar Charlie Chaplin, in his first film with extensive dialogue, does attack the international villains of the time, the Third Reich (Hynkel for Hitler; a fat field marshal named Herring, instead of Goering; a "Garbitsch" -- pronounced "garbage" -- instead of Goebbles). But the jokes are done with sublime slapstick, poignancy, and timeless insight into the foibles of human nature.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the rise of the Third Reich and Mussolini's Italy, and how Charlie Chaplin skillfully turned some of the most frightening real-life villains into buffoons. You could research the other sorts of movies coming out at the time, from Axis Germany, Italy, Japan, and the USSR -- and how they served their own "great dictators'" aims. While some movies from Nazi Berlin certainly did glorify fascism (check out Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will, if you dare), others were deliberately non-political, meant to take the average citizen's mind off war. Ask kids if they think Chaplin's pointed comedy holds up well today, or is a WWII relic. Who are today's "great dictators"? And who are the comedians today that make them into buffoons?