The Bottom Line This is a list.
I love movies. My kids love movies. There is something special for us about sitting down to watch a movie together. We can laugh and cry and learn without commercial interruption. We can choose to watch things that everyone will enjoy, and we can talk about them when they’re over. We can watch each one five zillion times, especially if we’re six years old. All without leaving home or paying eight bucks a head (which adds up after five zillion viewings). There is something magical about a truly good children’s film, and here are ten of the best (I mean, ten of the best that I’ve seen, so far, that may change at any time, but are the best for now – yeah, that’s better):
Mary Poppins (1964)
The Banks family is living the good life, or so thinks father George Banks. His suffragette wife and two children have slightly different ideas, and their lives are turned upside down (and right side up) by the appearance of magical new nanny Mary Poppins. From the heyday of Hollywood musicals (and winner of numerous Academy Awards), Julie Andrews shines as the prim and not-so-proper Mary Poppins. Full of memorable songs and dance numbers (including the Oscar winning “Chim Chim Cher-ee” featuring a marvelous Dick Van Dyke, as well as a beautifully done segment mixing live action and animation), Mary Poppins is filled with innocent magic and fantastical settings sure to delight any child.
James and the Giant Peach (1996)
James lives a storybook life filled with dreams and love until he is tragically orphaned by a rampaging cloud rhinoceros (!). After being sent to live with his horrid aunts, James is gifted with a bit of magic by a visitor. His subsequent voyage across the sea aboard a giant peach with a bevy of giant insect friends tests his courage and his convictions. This film version of the popular book by Roald Dahl uses a combination of live action and animation to create a mystical, magical world. The live action portions are beautifully filmed, giving everything a slightly unreal appearance, and the animation brings to life some of the most lively and interesting giant bugs ever to grace the screen. A host of celebrity voices help give the creatures character, as they teach James about love and family. This movie looks wonderful, and has a terrific surreal edge to it that keeps it entertaining for both adults and children.
Toy Story (1995)
In a world where toys come to life when their owner is out, Woody has the undeniable honor of being the Favorite Toy. When this position is threatened by the arrival of Buzz Lightyear, the toys embark on an adventure that takes a look at jealousy, courage, perseverance, compassion and honesty. Like any really good children’s movie, none of this is thrown on too heavily, the morals left to play out within the story. Toy Story was the first feature length computer animated film from Pixar Studios and amazes with the quality of its animation and the sweetness of its story. Kids can relate to bully/villain Sid, and parents will be equally entertained by the often quite witty dialogue between the toys. Tom Hanks stands out as the voice of Woody, doing an excellent job making an animated toy into a full and funny character. This one is a winner on all counts.
The Snowman (1982)
This is the only holiday themed selection. I tried to avoid those, as they have limited appeal outside certain times of the year, but this is one of the finest children’s films I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing. Based on the book by Raymond Briggs, the story is of a boy who joyously builds a snowman. Later that night, the snowman comes to life, indulging in all sorts of mischief with the boy. The two eventually fly to the North Pole and celebrate with Santa. This is an entirely dialogue-free movie. A hauntingly lovely score by Howard Blake accompanies the glorious pencil sketch animation. The music beautifully conveys the fanciful escapades of snowman and boy, and the final scene never fails to make me just a little sad. This is simply a beautiful little film.
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Possibly the most classic of all children’s movies, the tale of Dorothy Gale’s trip from her Kansas farm to the magical Land of Oz is one that has fascinated for decades. Dorothy’s journey along the yellow brick road teaches her of intelligence, compassion and courage. The film is a real treat for kids, as the initial sequences in black and white may be unlike anything they have seen before. The magical transformation into vivid Technicolor is like an instant history lesson on the wondrous changes that have taken place since the early days of the movies. Though the “special effects” are hokey, the story without any high-speed action, the characters sweet and a little sappy, The Wizard of Oz refuses to be dated. The Wicked Witch is still scary, the Wizard still a disappointment, the beautiful ruby slippers still glamorous. And Judy Garland singing Somewhere Over the Rainbow remains one of the high points in musical film history. The Wizard of Oz is a movie sure to remain entertaining for decades to come.
The Jungle Book (1967)
Before the days of Disney churning out film after film after animated film, there were those special movies made by Disney that defined the genre of the animated feature. The Jungle Book, based on the story by Rudyard Kipling, is one of those movies that made Disney legend. The story of little Mowgli, separated from his family and raised in the jungle, is brought to life through the beautiful animation and clever and funny characters. As Mowgli makes his journey through the jungle, his chaperones Baloo the bear and Bagheera the panther provide the comic relief, the song and dance, and the protection from those that would do him harm. Voiced by stars of the day, The Jungle Book hasn’t lost its sense of fun, adventure and searching in the years since its first release. It most certainly holds its place as one of Disney’s finest productions.
Not since the animated rendering of E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web has a movie come along that so thoroughly enters the world of the farm animal. Is this a world we necessarily desire entrance into? If the movie is Babe, then most definitely. Babe tells the story of a little pig who ends up by chance on the farm of Arthur Hoggett (James Cromwell). Desperately lonely, Babe is taken under the wing of a sympathetic sheepdog and raised as one of her own, eventually becoming a sheep herding pig. The film is marked by the sheer genius of computer animation that allows the animals to “talk”. The film looks fabulous, with a lovely sense of the countryside and farm life. The story has a little of everything, from drama, to adventure and lots of silly comedy. The themes of resentment, loneliness, and a desire to fit in will surely resonate with both parents and children. Babe was deservedly nominated for a slew of Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and took home the statue for best Visual Effects. An absolute gem.
A Bug’s Life (1998)
Yet another offering from Pixar Studios, A Bugs Life tells the story of Flik, an ant in a colony terrorized by grasshoppers who sets out to find some “warrior bugs” to help his beleaguered breathren. Again, Pixar presents a beautifully computer animated feature length film, delivering astounding visuals and a delightful cast of quirky insect characters. The endearing ants are well matched by the bullying grasshoppers, and the warrior bugs throw just the right amount of confusion and fun into the mix. Of particular note are the walking stick, voiced by David Hyde Pierce and the ladybug, voiced by Denis Leary. The “bloopers” that run during the credits of the movie simply add another layer of laughs onto an already cute and charming film. Both parents and kids will enjoy this one.
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)
The second selection based on a book by Roald Dahl, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory may be one of the first children’s films with a true second layer designed specifically for the enjoyment of adults. Telling the tale of Charlie Bucket, a very poor child hoping against hope to win a visit to the famous (and infamous) candy factory of the elusive Willy Wonka, we have here what can only be a child’s dream come true. A magical visit to a wonderland of candy in every shape, size and description. As the children (along with one adult each) are led on their tour of the factory by none other than the reclusive Mr. Wonka (Gene Wilder) himself, it becomes clear that each is a stereotype of a particular bit of bad behavior, be it gluttony, brattiness or heinous gum chomping. Overlaying all of the fun, silliness and smack-you-in-the-head “lessons” is the wonderful Wilder. He loves his factory, he’s quite odd in every way, and he’s something of a sadist, actually. He’s not really at all upset at the terrible fates of the naughty children, rather he seems to relish in one delicious demise after another. All of this is done with enough subtlety that he doesn’t seem at all wicked to the children, yet his attitude and muttered sarcasm are a treat for adult viewers. An absolute classic.
Looking at it purely objectively, Shrek is an ogre love story with a donkey sidekick. Fortunately for children and adults alike, this is no ordinary ogre, no ordinary donkey, no ordinary love story. Voiced by Mike Myers, Shrek the ogre is sent to rescue Princess Fiona from her heavily guarded tower and bring her to Lord Farquaad (a funny and fabulous voicing by John Lithgow). For this service, Farquaad promises to return to Shrek his beloved disgusting swamp, into which Farquaad has relegated all fairy tale creatures. Shrek sets out to fulfill his task, accompanied by a “won’t take no for an answer” donkey (a hilarious Eddie Murphy). Along the way, Shrek learns a thing or two about love and friendship. What makes this a wonderful film is the combination of a very clever story and an absolutely outstanding animated embodiment of both Myers and Murphy. It’s hard to imagine that an animated donkey can simply “be” Eddie Murphy, but he is. The filmmakers took every measure to allow the actors to be more than just voices, somehow incorporating a little of their humor and style into the characters. Kids will love the fairy tale characters, the icky muck of the life of an ogre and the silly antics of the donkey. Once again, a lesson about being different will be appreciated by both children and adults.
So there you have it, ten of the best children’s movies out there. Funny, sad, magical, and all endlessly entertaining. For a family like ours that loves movies, films like these are a gift, their quality making them timeless. There may well come a time when the kids no longer look at these films like they do now – but they will again, when they have kids of their own. Right now I think it’s time to watch a movie. Enjoy!