From golden oldies to 21st-century instant classics, here’s our deeply curated, and surely controversial, ultimate ranking of 100 movies kids must see before they hit their 10th birthday.
Finding great movies for kids isn’t easy. It’s not that there aren’t plenty of kids films — just the opposite. Right now, parents are swimming in it. In fact, the quantity is part of the problem. But finding, or remembering, the true quality is what makes finding great kids movies all the more difficult. The haystack is growing, and the needles are better hidden in it.
So when a parent picks up a remote, what do they do? You can rely on your own memory, but too often so-called masterpieces and “classics” suddenly seem dated and offensive today. Which is another way of saying no, Peter Pan and Dumbo are not on this list.
This isn’t to say parents should only chase new kids movies though. Otherwise, you’ll end up with things that are both mindless and boring, like Cars 2 or Hoodwinked. And to make matters worse, some of these movies star talented people and purport to be “clever.”
But it’s not just what kids want that matters. Parents wanting to watch these movies with their children matters, too. Coming up with the 100 best kids movies of all time isn’t about picking some movies you can throw on so the kids are distracted. These movies are about things to watch as a family, because, shared screen time, isn’t really a problem.
Fatherly’s goal here is to offer up movies that every kid should — nay, must! — see by the time they’re 10 years old. These are kids movies for kids at a time in their development when the world is full of wonder and magic — real magic — and jaded Hollywood critiques of films haven’t crept in yet. To do this, we got together six dads plus one film expert — all of whom are film critics — and compiled a list. There were rules: Each film had to be well-received enough to have mostly favorable reviews on respected publications like Common Sense Media or Rotten Tomatoes. These had to be films that families could find — and stream — easily. And finally, the movies had to exhibit a timeless quality, whether they were made in 1955 or 2022. In some instances, we expanded our scope beyond movies that are strictly for kids — like Star Wars — but no matter what, we strived to make sure that the films made sense for families. These are movies that families do watch and should watch together. This list isn’t about making your kids happy. It’s about watching movies together that inspire something bigger.
To rank the films, editors, and writers at Fatherly voted on a long list of films to determine the top slots. We didn’t always agree, and so, this entire ranking represents a composite of our views on the best kids movies of all time. Every movie on this list is a must-see. Even if a movie ranks low on this list, we still think this is a great movie because we put it on this list. This is a ranking of great kids movies, not a ranking of bad kids movies at the bottom and good ones at the top.
If you see it on the list, it’s a great movie. So, bust out the microwave popcorn, and dim the lights, here are Fatherly’s best 100 kids movies of all time.
Hey, kids, want to learn about protecting the environment and conservation? That’s probably not the most effective way to convince kids to care about the Earth’s ecosystem, but if you tell it to them in the form of fairies, a miniaturized construction worker, a bat voiced by Robin Williams, and a demonic chemical spill voiced by Tim Curry, well, then you’ve got something. The young fairy Crysta (Samantha Mathis) lives in a world where humans are believed to be extinct, destroyed by a dark spirit of pollution known as Hexxus. But when Crysta learns that humans are still out there, she falls in love with a young lumberjack named Zak (Jonathan Ward) and faces off against a reborn Hexxus, whose scenes gave many of us our first experience with kindertrauma. There’s a vast amount of imagination on display in FernGully: The Last Rainforest, and the film remains memorable, which speaks volumes considering it came out in the age of Disney dominance. — RN
Stream FernGully on Prime Video
Toy Story 4 arrived in theaters in 2019, nearly a decade after Toy Story 3. Did the world need another Toy Story adventure? The answer was a resounding… yes, for kids, parents, and parents who were kids when the original Toy Story opened in 1995. Pixar delivered yet again, reuniting old pals Woody and Buzz Lightyear, as well as many of their familiar fellow toys, and spinning a story about friendship, letting go, growing up, freedom, and love. The animation is pristine, the music hits all the right notes, and the story makes time for two wonderful new characters. There’s Forky (Tony Hale), a pseudo-toy made of out a plastic spork, some wax and clay, pipe cleaners, and mismatched googly eyes, and Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves), a Canadian motorcycle-riding daredevil in the Evel Knievel mode. The movie is better and more touching than it has any right to be. — IS
Stream Toy Story 4 on Disney+
The Beatles made their mark in so many ways, even in animation. Yellow Submarine is a surreal, madcap, and strange masterpiece, filled with inside jokes and puns and, of course, some great songs (including the title track, “All Together Now,” “All You Need Is Love,” and “Hey Bulldog”). The story follows the Fab Four — John, Paul, George, and Ringo — as they ride a yellow submarine to help save the good folk of Pepperland from the clutches of the Blue Meanies. The Blue Meanies despise music of any kind, while the Pepperlandians appreciate the music of all stripes. Oddly, the Beatles lent their music and likenesses to Yellow Submarine, but actors provided the voices of the characters. Young children likely won’t notice or care. — IS
Stream Yellow Submarine on Apple TV
The very first entry in the Harry Potter franchise often gets a bum rap, and it’s a bit undeserved. Director and co-producer Chris Columbus launched the franchise, playing a major role in casting all the key players, including Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint, plus the late, great Richard Harris and Alan Rickman. He also established the magical world of Hogwarts and many of its visual cues and captured the elements of inclusiveness and chosen family inherent in J.K. Rowling’s novel. The film as a whole may be workman-like, but there’s an overall warmth to it, and Columbus elicited wonderful performances from his young cast, especially Radcliffe, and he’s owed an enormous debt of gratitude. — IS
Stream Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone on Peacock
When it came to manic comic genius, Fred MacMurray had nothing on Robin Williams, who took on the actor’s The Absent-Minded Professor iconic role as an insufficiently practical professor in the hit remake Flubber. But when it came to all-American affability, no one could top the star of Double Indemnity and My Three Sons. 1961’s The Absent-Minded Professor gave MacMurray one of his signature roles as a daffy professor who invents a flying substance called Flubber and then must deal with the unexpected consequences. Along with Mary Poppins (which, to be fair, features animation), The Absent-Minded Professor is about as good as live-action 1960s Disney got, which is very good indeed. — NR
Stream The Absent-Minded Professor on Disney+
People like to think that Pixar invented the tear-jerker kids movie (see: Up, Inside Out, Toy Story 3, etc.), but the OG House of Mouse knew how to cue the waterworks. The Fox and the Hound is a quiet, understated story of an adorable fox kit and a puppy who become fast friends only to grow up and be told, by those around them and even their very natures, that they’re meant to be enemies. With adorable animal antics, a remarkably mature and bittersweet ending, and a terrifying bear who is low-key one of the best Disney villains, The Fox and the Hound is a special, special movie with an important, melancholy, and beautiful message about friendship. – IS
Stream The Fox and the Hound on Disney+
The live-action/animation hybrid Bedknobs and Broomsticks offers an irresistible central conflict: witches versus Nazis, Wiccans versus the SS. A perfectly cast Angela Lansbury is a force of nature as newbie witch Miss Price. The spell-caster enters the lives of three children traumatized by World War II with an eye toward using her ever-increasing knowledge of the dark arts to help defeat the Axis powers. It’s a nifty premise begging for a contemporary update, particularly since we are, if anything, even more, obsessed with fascists and practitioners of the occult, a group that overlaps a fair amount. — NR
Stream Bedknobs and Broomsticks on Disney+
Hayley Mills solidified her standing as the Queen of Disney live action with a masterful dual turn in 1961’s The Parent Trap as identical twin sisters who are separated at birth and grow up without knowledge of the other’s existence. The very different siblings meet at summer camp and scheme to reunite parents Brian Keith and Maureen O’Hara as they go from strangers to siblings to dear friends. Disney used old-school movie magic, extensive split screens, and some damn fine acting to create the illusion that one gifted child actor was two distinct human beings. It’s an ingenious premise borrowed from the 1949 novel by Erich Kästner that led to a number of TV sequels and a swell 1998 remake starring a terrific Lindsay Lohan in a star-making performance that promised more than her career ultimately delivered. — NR
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Crikey! The Rescuers Down Under could have gone under so easily. It was a sequel to the beloved (but problematic) 1977 movie, The Rescuers. And it seemed to want to be set in Australia only to cash in on the popularity of Crocodile Dundee. It could’ve been a disaster, but instead, it’s an unexpected delight, a quirky action romp with a memorable setting, exciting stakes, and a pretty good environmental message. — JG
Stream The Rescuers Down Under on Disney+
This may shock you, but Charles Dickens? Pretty good writer! The Muppet Christmas Carol, for all of its wonderful puppetry and humor, is remarkably faithful to Dickens’ original story, which makes the inclusion of familiar, outsize characters like Kermit and Miss Piggy all the more delightful in their contrast. At several points, Gonzo (playing the role of Dickens), straight-up recites the author’s original text verbatim. Michael Caine’s legendary and completely earnest performance brings it all together, as at no point does his Scrooge treat his felt co-stars as a joke. The Muppet Christmas Carol is such a gift because it doesn’t just rely on the Muppets many strengths, but uses them to bring out the best of a 19th century classic. — JG
Stream Muppets Christmas Carol on Disney+
Based on the first two books in Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain series, The Black Cauldron was a rare box office bomb for Disney, though has since become a cult classic among fantasy fans. There is a surprising level of darkness to this tale of an assistant pig farmer, Taran, and his companions who seek out a mystical Black Cauldron that the Horned King plans to use to create an army of the undead. One of Disney’s few PG-rated animated movies, The Black Cauldron doesn’t steer away from some horrific images or even death, but it does so with such an atmosphere that the film feels like an artistic wonder, even if it’s too scary for most kids and too narratively simplistic for most adults. — RN
Stream The Black Cauldron on Disney+
Family films don’t come much better than Stuart Little. Rob Minkoff, who directed the animated classic The Lion King, tried his hand at this live-action/animated hybrid, which brings to life E.B. White’s beloved book of the same name. Essentially, the Little family (Hugh Laurie, Geena Davis, Jonathan Lipnicki) of New York City adopts a talking mouse, Stuart (voiced by Michael J. Fox), not as a pet, but as a son/brother. Gently, playfully, and with heart and state-of-the-art visual effects/animation, Minkoff explores friendship, family, jealousy (Nathan Lane is a hoot as the Littles’ covetous cat, Snowbell), fear, bullying, sibling rivalry, and more. — IS
Stream Stuart Little on Prime Video
While Prisoner of Azkaban took the Harry Potter franchise into the dark, The Goblet of Fire truly upped the ante with the first PG-13 entry, pushing Harry, Ron, and Hermione closer to adulthood as the threat of Voldemort loomed ever closer. Featuring the World Quidditch Cup, a wide variety of magical creatures, and an expansion of the Wizarding World. The Goblet of Fire is a testament to all of the fun the franchise can offer, but also the darker designs waiting at the end of the fun and games. Voldemort’s return provides a frightening yet enthralling lesson about growing up. — RN
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At this point, Shrek is more meme than movie, more glib punchline than a cinematic experience. The film’s once revered reputation has taken a hit over time thanks to unnecessary sequels, spin-offs, sequels to spin-offs, TV shows, parody, and imitation. So it’s easy to forget what a pop culture phenomenon Shrek was at the time of its release or how rapturously it was received. The film’s smart-ass take on fairy tale mythology was a very direct rebuke to the saccharine niceness of Dreamworks honcho Jeffrey Katzenberg’s old employer, Disney. Shrek was a massive hit that made Dreamworks as a force in animation and helped establish the studio’s aesthetic. Shrek proved massively influential, for better or worse, and won the first Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. — NR
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The last film of Disney’s renaissance era, Tarzan gives new life to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ iconic tale of a man raised by apes. Tarzan explores what it means to be human, pitting Tarzan (Tony Goldwyn) against the savage William Cecil Clayton (Brian Blessed) for the love of Jane Porter (Minnie Driver). There’s just something so inherently cool about Tarzan in this movie, dreadlocked, and surfing on trees like a bohemian extreme sports athlete. But beyond the cool, there’s a lot of heart in Tarzan’s search for belonging. With its big emotions, and backed by an original soundtrack by Phil Collins, Tarzan feels like an epic rock opera. — RN
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Whenever Disney strays from adapting the traditional European fairy tales we all know and love, it’s a pretty safe bet that they’ll deliver something special. While it’s not a direct adaptation of any particular story, Moana draws from Polynesian myths to tell a beautiful tale about a young woman who discovers herself through her ancestors and saves her culture with the help of a demigod. With fantastic vocal performances from Auliʻi Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, and Jemaine Clement; brilliant songwriting by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Mark Mancina, and Opetaia Foa’i; stunning environmental effects; and a chase sequence inspired by Mad Max: Fury Road; Moana is a high point in Disney’s modern animated canon. — RN
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Don Bluth and Gary Goldman were at the top of their games when they directed this lush retelling of the legend of Grand Duchess Anastasia. Here, the character is 18-year-old amnesiac Anya, voiced primarily by Meg Ryan (with assists from Kirsten Dunst, Lacey Chabert, and Liz Callaway), who yearns to locate her family. The animation is gorgeous and the songs range from OK to really good, but the voice cast truly sets Anastasia apart. Just listing the names will eat up the rest of the allowed word count — John Cusack, Angela Lansbury, Kelsey Grammer, Bernadette Peters, Christopher Lloyd, Andrea Martin, Hank Azaria, and then-relative newcomers Billy Porter and J.K. Simmons. — IS
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Perhaps the best thing about Encanto — well, the second-best thing after “We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” an instant addition to Disney’s top-tier songs — is that it doesn’t end the way you expect it to. Our plucky heroine, the only member of a superpowered family without an ability of her own, doesn’t end the movie with a special power. Encanto is about acceptance, both of yourself and the people you love. — JG
Stream Encanto on Disney+
Although the long-awaited sequel to the first Incredibles doesn’t have the same novelty as the original, it does do one thing the first movie failed to do: Show what a stay-at-home dad’s life is like. The way that Incredibles 2 flips the script on the very old-timey parental gender roles is essential.
A bit scarier than the original, Incredibles 2 is still one of the best Pixar movies of all time and presents family life not as you wish it was, but mostly, as it actually is.
Stream Incredibles 2 on Disney+
Explorers is an imperfect gem of a movie. Three teen boys — Ben (Ethan Hawke), Wolfgang (River Phoenix), and Darren (Jason Presson) — build a spacecraft and venture into space, all based on Ben’s dreams. Soon, they meet actual aliens, who are as fascinated by the boys as the boys are by them. There are magical moments, strong performances (especially Hawke and Phoenix, who made their film debuts here and soon would be major stars), and some very cool creatures. Fans of director Joe Dante will get a kick out of seeing his go-to ensemble, including Robert Picardo and Dick Miller. — IS
Stream Explorers on Pluto TV
The Princess and the Frog rarely feels like it gets the attention it deserves. Maybe it’s because it’s a hand-drawn feature released in the age of computer animation or because the film is entrenched in African American culture in 1920s New Orleans. Either way, the film takes the classic fairy tale and transforms it into a story of chasing one’s dreams but also not forgetting to enjoy life in the process. Tiana (Anika Noni Rose) is practical and driven, while Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos) is irresponsible, yet when a botched voodoo spell turns them both into frogs, they’re forced to re-examine their lives, not by sacrificing who they are but by being additive and open. The opening musical number is a showstopper and the film features one of Disney’s most terrifying animated villains in the voodoo bokor Dr. Facilier (Keith David). — RN
Stream The Princess and the Frog on Disney+
There will always be something appealing to young minds about the story of King Arthur and the sword in the stone, the idea that you might have a secret destiny that doesn’t rely on strength or power but being chosen. As far as chosen one stories go, The Sword in the Stone is just a good time and solely focuses on young Arthur, without getting into the Knights of the Round Table, Mordred, and the King’s darker future. The story may be slight, largely focused on Merlin teaching Arthur important life lessons by turning him into a variety of animals, but it’s never short on entertainment. While it’s a far cry from the epic scope of T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, the whimsy through which fantasy is approached feels like a good entry point for kids before introducing them to The Black Cauldron, The Hobbit, and Harry Potter. — RN
Stream The Sword in the Stone on Disney+
After years of increasing irrelevance among modern audiences and direct-to-video films that did little to increase their stature, the Muppets made their big comeback in 2011. Co-written by and starring Jason Segel and featuring the talents of Amy Adams and Chris Cooper, alongside a who’s who of celebrity cameos, The Muppets recaptured the heart, humor, and iconic music of Jim Henson’s beloved creations.
It’s a “get the band back together” movie that not only relies on audiences’ nostalgia but also provides a great entry point for new viewers to fall in love with these characters. — RN
Stream The Muppets on Disney+
When people contemplate the wide world of Walt Disney animated movies, many immediately think of their heroine or hero, while other folks instantly recall the villain. Be honest… Can you even remember who the hero of One Hundred and One Dalmatians is? Our point exactly. Sure, you recall the adorable spotted dogs, all 101 of them. But it’s Cruella de Vil — voiced by the late, great Betty Lou Gerson — who stole the show. Haughty and terrifying and dangerous and greedy, and driving around in the coolest of cars, she’s a character for the ages — and still deliriously fun to watch. — IS
Stream One Hundred and One Dalmatians on Disney+
Treasure Planet was an enormous flop when it came out, bombing at the box office despite being the most expensive traditionally animated film ever made. That’s a shame because this swashbuckling space adventure shines brighter than a chest full of doubloons. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island is a classic for a reason (this is not the only adaption of the book you’ll find on this list, though this one is Muppet-free), and by updating the setting to make it a sci-fi space opera, Treasure Planet brings a whole new life to a timeless tale. — JG
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Danny DeVito directed and co-starred in this faithful adaptation of the beloved Roald Dahl novel of the same name. Mara Wilson — who is 35 now!!!! — stars as Matilda, a 6-year-old girl with magical powers and a terrible, hateful family (including DeVito as Matilda’s father). Supported by a loving teacher, Miss Honey (the wonderful Embeth Davidtz, who should have been a major star), Matilda comes to harness her powers, namely her humanity and her telekinetic abilities. DeVito captures the dark, seedy, mean-spiritedness of the world around Matilda.
Stream Matilda on Hulu
Ponyo tells a very simple (if somewhat strange) story: A little goldfish falls in love with a boy and wants to become a human little girl. It’s the stuff fairy tales are made of. What the Brothers Grimm didn’t have, though, was Hayao Miyazaki. The life and colors and movement in Studio Ghibli’s ocean are a wonder to behold, a spellbinding display of beautiful complexity that elevates the wonderfully childlike story. (Or should we say, submerges it?) — JG
Stream Ponyo on HBO Max
Based on Neil Gaiman’s novella, Henry Selick’s Coraline is kindertrauma at its finest. It’s boundary-pushing, nightmare-inducing, and a powerful story about the importance of family. When Coraline stumbles into a parallel universe with parents more attentive than her own, she believes she’s found a sanctuary. But there’s a much darker truth to this alternate world, and the horror that lurks there is enough to even give some adults a pause. Coraline is a welcome challenge for younger viewers interested in horror and dark fantasy. And in an age of computer animation, its stop-motion animation is a rare sight to behold. — RN
Stream Coraline on The Roku Channel
Robert Rodriguez is a signature voice, one that even in the space of kids movies is still instantly recognizable. When Carmen and Juni’s superspy parents are captured, the siblings use their parents’ resources to save them from crazed children’s television host, Fegan Floop. Spy Kids revels in absurdity while also offering a loving entry point to the espionage genre. Action, mystery, and cool gadgets are plenty to hold a kid’s interest. Oh, and then there’s the Thumb-Thumbs, truly the stuff of nightmares, yet made entirely plausible in Rodriguez’s gonzo fantasy world. — RN
Stream Spy Kids on HBO Max
Terry Gilliam, Monty Python’s resident animator turned twisted auteur, turned his attention to the world of children’s entertainment with the surprise 1981 hit Time Bandits. It’s a rollicking dark comedy about a contemporary child who ends up falling in with a group of time-traveling little people who journey through the ages with larceny in their souls. Even at his most PG and wholesome, Gilliam still managed to invest an awful lot of humor, darkness, personality, and imagination into the proceedings. Time Bandits is the kind of movie that makes kids fall in love with film as a medium and its infinite possibilities. Did we mention George Harrison did the songs? — RN
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Greek gods get the Disney treatment with this entertaining romp of a movie that, for the sake of the kids in the audience, tones down the darker side of typical mythology tales. So, for example, Hera is good versus evil. Fast-paced and entertaining, with yet another all-star cast and some offbeat wildcards (Tate Donovan, Susan Egan, Danny DeVito, Rip Torn, Samantha Eggar, Hal Holbrook, Wayne Knight, Paul Shaffer, Charlton Heston, Bobcat Goldthwait, Matt Frewer, and, best of all, James Woods as fast-talking villain Hades). Interestingly, Hercules is considered a box office disappointment, as it only grossed $99 million at the U.S. box office. — IS
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The premise of Space Jam only barely made sense in the ’90s. Michael Jordan, just off the peak of his powers and finishing an odd stint as a minor-league baseball player, combined with the Looney Tunes, who were in vogue again for reasons that may or may not have had to do with the popularity of bootleg “gangster” Looney Tunes shirts. Space Jam shouldn’t work — and in many ways, it doesn’t, actually — but there’s something so bewildering about how inexplicable it all is that you can’t help but have a good time. — JG
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There’s an impressive level of maturity to Mulan, given the subject of a young woman who joins the Imperial Chinese Army, disguised as a man, in order to save her ailing father from certain death. The stakes, both in terms of the film’s depiction of China and those for Mulan herself, couldn’t be higher, and yet the risks are in service of something greater: honor. Mulan is one of Disney’s most well-rounded animated characters, and Ming-Na Wen lends the character an endearing spark of resilience and humor that allows Mulan to be equally convincing as an underdog and a warrior. And Eddie Murphy keeps the film’s energy up as Mushu. Songwriters Matthew Wilder and David Zippel, who came aboard as last-minute replacements to the film if you can believe it, deliver an iconic soundtrack that’s impossible to forget. — RN
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Alice in Wonderland is considered a classic today, often mentioned in the same breath as such early Walt Disney animated fare as Snow White, Cinderella, Bambi, and Dumbo. Visually, it’s gorgeous and inventive, as well as far trippier and less linear than anything that preceded it and most of what followed it, which makes sense since it’s an adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Any child who has read the book and liked it can surely handle the film. If it’s a young child’s first introduction to Carroll’s world, be prepared to answer questions and possibly quell concerns. — IS
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Raya and the Last Dragon is a spectacle to behold, a film that not only emphasizes the importance of unity but stands as a fantastic action film as well. The warrior princess Raya (Kelly Marie Tran), who witnessed a tragedy that turned her father into stone and divided her people, seeks out a dragon, Sisu (Awkwafina) in order to restore a mystic gem and drive the evil spirits from her land. Co-directed by Moana’s Don Hall and Carlos Lopez Estrada, Raya and the Last Dragon boldly subverts the expectations of fantasy and the traditional notions of good and evil by highlighting the complexities and beauty of different cultures. It’s the Disney animated film for this current age. — RN
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The cautionary tale that is Pinocchio has been told countless times on the big screen, in versions animated and live-action. Oscar winner Guillermo del Toro has a new one on the way, and we’re excited to see it. Nothing, however, beats Walt Disney’s 1940 animated musical. The story still touches the heart, with its relatable I-want-to-be-a-real-boy scenario and Geppetto’s boundless love for his puppet creation. And the songs, especially “When You Wish Upon a Star” and “I’ve Got No Strings,” are as timeless as ever. “When You Wish Upon a Star” and the film’s score both won Academy Awards. — IS
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Lady and the Tramp is a sentimental favorite for many Disney fans. And that’s because love is in the air for Lady, a sweet-but-spoiled cocker spaniel, and Tramp, an easygoing, self-sufficient mutt. The story is adorable, the animation is charming, and the romance is swoon-worthy. The spaghetti-and-meatball scene, which ends in an accidental — and iconic — kiss continues to raise a smile nearly 70 years later. Peggy Lee voices several of the film’s characters and sings a trio of songs, and her contributions are priceless, especially the Brooklyn accent she brings to the character Peg. — IS
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Sure, Batman’s known as the Dark Knight, but with all due respect to Christian Bale and Robert Pattinson, the Caped Crusader doesn’t always need to be dark and edgy. Batman ’66 takes Adam West’s charming, corny, and comical take on Batman from the old TV show and blows it up to feature length. There’s room in the world for a Batman who tracks down a serial killer and a Batman who fends off a shark with his handy dandy Shark Repellent Bat-Spray… and one of those two Batmen is much more kid-friendly. Biff! Pow! Comics aren’t just for kids anymore (but sometimes they are, and it’s wonderful). — JG
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In a lot of ways, A Charlie Brown Christmas is kind of like Charlie Brown’s wimpy little Christmas tree. The animation is somewhat janky, the plot a little scattershot, and it’s pretty short. Those qualities, though, are part of what makes it such a wonderful and enduring classic. Those quirks are what makes A Charlie Brown Christmas feel distinct and special rather than generic, and like Charlie Brown’s tree, it has a lot of heart if you’ll just show it a little love. — JG
Stream A Charlie Brown Christmas on Apple TV+
Roald Dahl’s stories are unique among all children’s literature. There’s nobody else who could blend such imaginative, loving whimsy with a twisted, dark, and scary streak. Fitting, then, that James and the Giant Peach doesn’t really look like any other children’s movie, sporting a distinct stop-motion style that’s both lush and ever-so-slightly off-putting. It’s a weird movie with a bit of an edge, and that makes it extra-ripe for enjoyment. — JG
Stream James and the Giant Peach on Disney+
This “tale as old as time,” as Mrs. Potts calls it, was the first (and for many years, only) animated movie to have ever been nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars. It’s more than deserving of the accolade. Few movies before or since, in any medium, have pulled off what Beauty and the Beast pulls off, making a very furry sort of romance feel effortlessly timeless. The fact that every song in the movie is an all-time classic certainly helps. — JB
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The magical world of C.S. Lewis comes to life in a fantastical adaptation directed by Andrew Adamson, making his live-action debut after Shrek and Shrek 2. Four children step through a wardrobe into a world of wonder and dangers and learn that the fate of Narnia is in their hands. The kids — Anna Popplewell, William Moseley, Skandar Keynes, and especially young Georgie Henley (who is now 27!!) — are wonderful and share genuine sibling-esque chemistry, while James McAvoy (as the faun, Mr. Tumnus), Tilda Swinton (as the cold, imperious White Witch), and Liam Neeson (as the voice of the regal lion, Aslan) elevate every scene they’re in. The Narnia series spanned three films, and it’s a treat to watch the core quartet of actors mature physically and as performers.
Stream The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe on Disney+
There are three factors that make How the Grinch Stole Christmas such a holiday classic. The first is Dr. Seuss, who penned and illustrated the book that inspired the animated adaptation. The second is legendary Looney Tunes animator Chuck Jones, who put such life and whimsy into every frame. The final thing that makes Grinch such a Christmas staple is a man who’s more typically associated with Halloween. Boris Karloff, Frankenstein’s Monster himself, provides narration that gives the colorful and festive proceedings just the right amount of gravitas.
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Disney veteran turned studio head Don Bluth reportedly had to cut an awful lot of potentially nightmare-inducing and child-traumatizing scenes to secure a G rather than PG rating for 1988’s The Land Before Time. That helps explain the film’s brisk 69-minute runtime. But an awful lot of darkness slipped into the film all the same. Bluth’s crowd-pleaser occupies an ancient, lost world both beautiful and unmistakably grim, marked with death, abandonment, and fear. Computers would soon take over animation, but The Land Before Time illustrates the incredible artistry of hand-drawn animation at its most time- and labor-intensive. The Land Before Time wasn’t just followed by a direct-to-video sequel but rather 13 follow-ups that, needless to say, aren’t anywhere near as essential or revered as the original. — NR
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Aladdin is maybe the most important animated film since Steamboat Willie. There were cartoons before Robin Williams — a bona fide celebrity! — voiced the Genie, and then there was everything that came after. From then on, it would be the norm for animated movies to feature big-name live-action voice actors. With Aladdin, though, such casting was still exciting and new, and although the rest of the movie boasts gorgeous visuals and a swashbuckling story, Aladdin is Williams’ movie. He’s perfectly cast as the Genie, because he, like his all-powerful blue counterpart, is a magical force that just needed to be unleashed. Aladdin ain’t never had a friend like him, and audiences ain’t never seen anything like him, either. — JG
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Lilo & Stitch expands the Disney formula considerably. Here, we get Stitch (aka Experiment 626), a blue alien creature who resembles a cross between a dog and a koala bear, arriving on Earth — specifically Hawaii — where he befriends Lilo, a quirky, feisty, and independent young girl. Lilo and Stitch cause chaos wherever they go, and the powers-that-be on Stitch’s planet want him brought back home. The story spotlights friendship and love and family, especially chosen family, and it’s complemented by colorful animation that ventures from outer space to the beaches of Hawaii, as well as a half-dozen smartly utilized Elvis Presley songs. — IS
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So many “kids” movies are about death — or at the very least, prominently feature death in the opening moments. (See: every Disney movie with a dead mom.) Coco goes beyond that in a beautiful, touching, and technicolor way. Miguel’s journey to the Dia de los Muertos-inspired Land of the Dead is a fun adventure, but it’s also a warm and earnest reflection on family and how those we’ve loved and lost are never really gone if you remember them. — JG
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Perhaps it’s appropriate, given that the film is a madcap heist, but Jim Henson’s directorial debut is a criminally underrated gem. Sandwiched between 1979’s The Muppet Movie and 1984’s The Muppets Take Manhattan, the Muppets’ second feature film, set in London, is actually second-to-none. Its soundtrack is filled with singable tunes, including the touching “The First Time It Happens,” the hilariously bombastic “Piggy’s Fantasy,” and the freewheeling Electric Mayhem-led rock-disco groove “Night Life.” There are a number of truly laugh-out-loud moments (including a great sight-gag that punctuates a running joke about an unexpected familial connection between Kermit and Fozzie), but the film’s true accomplishment is the way it pushes the bounds of puppetry to tell a story full of humor and heart. When Kermit, Piggy, and the rest of the gang sing and ride bicycles through Battersea Park, you’ll temporarily forget that you’re watching creatures made of foam and felt. — CG
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Up is arguably the zenith of Pixar animation. It’s beautiful to look at, funny as can be, and touching beyond words. Ed Asner provides the voice of Carl, a cranky old widower who winds up on the adventure of a lifetime in South America, not with his late, beloved wife, Ellie, but rather with an excitable young Wilderness Explorer named Russell (Jordan Nagai) who somehow becomes chosen family. Asner deserved an Oscar, and Christopher Plummer (as an explorer chasing an elusive bird named Kevin) is equally good. The opening sequence, a remarkable four minutes and 22 seconds that reveal Carl and Ellie’s love story, never fails to reduce grown adults to puddles of tears. — IS
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Even as an adult, it’s still a delight to see cartoons interacting with live-action people or environments. They’re two different mediums! They don’t belong together! Pete’s Dragon capitalizes on this inherent excitement by making Elliot (Pete’s titular dragon) the only animated part of the movie, instantly signaling that he’s 1) not part of the mundane flesh-and-blood world and 2) he’s a kinder, more cartoony sort of figure. Pete’s Dragon is uneven in a way a lot of Disney films of the era are, but you just can’t beat a big green cartoon dragon being best friends with a little boy. — JG
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The 1980s-1990s Disney animation renaissance found inspiration from the highest of highbrow sources when 1994’s The Lion King gave Hamlet an animated, anthropomorphic spin. (Wait is it Hamlet?) The heavy, dramatic story of a young prince who must deal with duplicity and betrayal in his own family in the form of his nefarious uncle Scar (Jeremy Irons, oozing effete villainy) is lightened by the comic relief antics of Timon and Pumba and infectious ditties like “Hakuna Matata” from the songwriting team of Elton John and Tim Rice, who picked up a staggering three Oscar nominations for best song from this film alone. With The Lion King Disney aspired nakedly to greatness and achieved it. — NR
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The 1980s were full of kids movies that owed their existence to the zeitgeist-capturing success of E.T. Steven Spielberg himself produced many of these, most notably Gremlins and its sequel. Spielberg was not involved with Disney’s 1986 cult classic The Flight of the Navigator, but it’s hard to overstate his influence on the film. The Flight of the Navigator reproduces the central dynamic of E.T. by having a child befriend a space alien with an adorably childlike spirit and sensibility. Only in this case, the playful E.T. in question is Max, the robotic controller of a spaceship that ferries a lonely boy throughout space. Only a year after the breakout success of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Paul Reubens provides the voice as well as the impish, lovable spirit of Max in a motormouthed, virtuoso turn. — NR
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Roald Dahl was as notorious for anti-Semitism as he was revered for his enduring genius, yet Willie Wonka, his most famous creation, will forever be associated with Jewish actor Gene Wilder. Wilder found the perfect tone for the legendary gimmick-happy confectioner, at once vaguely sociopathic, dryly sarcastic, wildly condescending, secretly humane, and ultimately very sad, even tragic. Wilder’s Wonka looks down on humanity, but particularly children, as if they are a lesser species he will never understand because they fundamentally defy comprehension. The nightmare-inducing production numbers, sadistically catchy songs, and free-floating darkness certainly help but the key to the film’s enduring cult lies in the tricky genius of Wilder’s uncompromising and utterly fearless performance.
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Disney got jazzy with The Aristocats, and that fact is reflected in the whirlwind animated imagery that accompanies the jaunty musical numbers. The story unfolds in Paris in 1910 and centers on Duchess (Eva Gabor) and her three kittens, who are dumped in the countryside by Edgar (Roddy Maude-Roxby), a butler displeased that the cats, and not him, will inherit his employer’s fortune. Heading back to Paris, they encounter O’Malley (Phil Harris), who becomes a love interest for Duchess and a father figure to the kittens, and O’Malley’s musically inclined alley cat pal, Scat Cat (Scatman Crothers) and his singing, dancing, and instrument-playing buddies. The Aristocats is particularly fun for kids, with lots of silly gags and chases. The music and voices are aces.
The only thing parents should be aware of is that a few of the background jazz cats flirt with racial stereotypes. It’s nothing approaching how offensive Dumbo or Peter Pan gets (neither of which made our list for that exact reason), but just be aware. The upside here is that this is one of the least scary classic Disney movies of all time. — IS
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There are tons of kids movies with environmental messages, which is great, but so many of them are not exactly subtle, and they beat their viewer over the head about saving the Earth to the point where you almost wonder if it’s no longer effective. That’s not the case with Wall-E, which has enough faith in its audience to trust that they’ll get the message through a lengthy first act that almost feels like a silent movie. Things get a little more explicit when Wall-E goes to space and finds what remains of the human race, but even so, the film resists spelling everything out for its viewer. As humanity rediscovers at the end, it’s more rewarding when you put in some of the work yourself. — JG
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Children hear the word “no” an awful lot: Can I stay up late? Can I have ice cream for breakfast? Can I bike ride to Japan to see my favorite band in concert? No, no, no. Director Bob Clark perfectly encapsulates this truism in A Christmas Story, a series of childhood vignettes from writer and raconteur Jean Shepherd (who also narrates the film as adult Ralphie) connected by a common thread: 9-year-old Ralphie Parker’s desire for an Official Red Ryder carbine action 200-shot range model air rifle. It’s a mouthful, and also potentially dangerous, as nearly every adult reminds him throughout the movie’s 94-minute runtime. Even the Big Guy from the North Pole is in on the safety conspiracy: “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid,” a department store Santa Claus says before pushing Ralphie down a giant slide with his big, black boot. “Ho, ho, ho.” Everything works out in the end — for the most part — and by the time the final credits roll, A Christmas Story proves itself to be about more than a young boy’s quest for a toy. It’s about the importance of family, friends, and slowing down to appreciate the simple moments in life before they pass you by. After all, isn’t that what the holidays are all about?
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Adventure and romance are at the heart of Willow, a late 1980s fantasy film from director Ron Howard and producer George Lucas that’s grown in popularity over the years — and remains good family fun. A baby is destined to cause the downfall of an evil sorceress, Queen Bavmorda of Nockmaar (Jean Marsh), and she wants the infant killed. The effort to protect that child leads to an unlikely partnership between Willow (Warwick Davis), a goodhearted Nelwyn little person and aspiring sorcerer, and a braggadocious mercenary, Madmartigan (Val Kilmer), who romances Queen Bavmorda’s free-spirited daughter, Sorsha (Joanne Whalley) — or does she romance him? Kilmer and Whalley ended up getting married in real life, and Davis, who charms from beginning to end, will reprise his role as Willow in an upcoming Disney+ series.
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Audiences and critics alike did not have high hopes for 2014’s The Lego Movie, a motion picture inspired by a popular line of plastic building toys for children. Post-modern pranksters Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s blindingly shiny CGI animated comedy about an affable everyman, voiced by Chris Pratt, who discovers that he may possess a heroic destiny soared above the low, low expectations engendered by its inspiration with a wild romp through seemingly the entirety of pop culture, or at least the intellectual property Warner Bros. controls. The Lego Movie isn’t just funny and inventive; it’s also surprisingly satirical and unexpectedly emotional. The Lego Movie isn’t just funny and entertaining; it’s genuinely about something as well. — NR
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The 1970s are not generally seen as a high point for Disney animation. The period between Walt Disney’s death in 1967 and the Disney renaissance of the late 1980s and 1990s represents a wilderness period for the studio, but the films it made in that ostensibly fallow time nevertheless connected with audiences, particularly children, in a big way. This is particularly true of 1973’s Robin Hood, the House of Mouse’s beloved Nixon-era adaptation of the classic yarn about a heroic soul who steals from the rich and gives to the poor, with songs by country’s oddball genius Roger Miller. Brian Bedford might just have done too good of a job of making the title character foxy in more ways than one, as Robin Hood has created more furries than just about any other film that side of Zootopia, which was very overtly inspired by Robin Hood and its iconic hero. — NR
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On paper, Toy Story did not look particularly distinguished. It was the first movie from a new studio called Pixar involved in the excitingly, terrifyingly new field of feature-length computer animation. Even less encouragingly, it was about the adventures of real-life, extremely purchasable toys like Mr. Potato Head (voiced by Don Rickles) as well as fictional toy pals like space hero Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) and cowboy throwback Woody (Tom Hanks). Toy Story soared over low expectations with animation so dazzling, revolutionary, and richly imagined that it felt like a form of magic. But Toy Story didn’t just look different and better than pretty much every animated movie ever made: It was equally sophisticated and satisfying in its storytelling. From the very beginning, Pixar was uniquely gifted at integrating cutting-edge technology with a Disney-like grasp on the emotional needs of the moviegoing public. People might have been skeptical of computer animation going into Toy Story, but it didn’t just single-handedly redeem CGI as a medium; it established it as a medium with the potential to be deeper, richer and greater than conventional animation in every conceivable way. With the exception of Nas’ Illmatic and Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, debuts don’t get better than this. — NR
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The awesome power of executive producer Steven Spielberg, the most commercially successful filmmaker in the history of American film, as well as one of our greatest auteurs, made the impossible happen with 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit. He brought together Disney and Warner Bros. and Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, not to mention a slew of other legendary cartoon icons for a blisteringly bleak cartoon noir tale of lust, greed, murder, and public transportation.
Bob Hoskins should have won a godd*mn Nobel Prize, not just an Academy Award, for his hilarious and heartbreakingly real performance as tragic shamus Eddie Valiant, while Jessica Rabbit kickstarted puberty for multiple generations of horny young people. Christopher Lloyd’s Judge Doom, meanwhile, wasn’t just way too terrifying for a kid’s film; he’d be too scary for even the most intense adult horror film. Who Framed Roger Rabbit is nothing short of a miracle, the perfect fusion of cutting-edge technology and world-class storytelling. — NR
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When it made the leap to big screen filmmaking with 2000’s Chicken Run, Aardman Animations maintained the droll wit and inveterate Britishness that distinguished its television output but added an extremely cinematic element of spectacle and adventure. Chicken Run is an extended riff on The Great Escape with chickens terrified of being slaughtered by evil farmers taking the place of Allied soldiers and a nefarious farmer couple assuming the roles occupied by the Nazis in the original film. Chicken Run is still the top-grossing stop-motion animated film of all time, so it is perhaps not surprising that a long-in-the-works sequel will be coming out on Netflix next year. — NR
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Recently, superhero movies have been obsessed with exploring “the multiverse,” a comic book concept that offers a lot of creative opportunities but carries the risk of making things too complicated, obtuse, and self-referential for the average viewer to understand. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse totally avoided getting tangled in this web. Just as it states the motto that “anybody can wear the mask,” anybody can follow (and appreciate) one of the best movies in recent memory. Spider-Verse is zany, but it’s accessible to everyone, whether they’re thrilled to see a hero who looks like them, empathizing with midlife crises, or are just delighted to see Spider-Ham hit a bad guy with a big hammer. —JG
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1987’s The Princess Bride was only a modest box-office success, but in the three and a half decades since its release, it has been so beloved and so ubiquitous that seemingly everyone has experienced it. It’s not unlike A Christmas Story in that respect. If people haven’t seen Rob Reiner’s effortlessly charming adaptation of William Goldman’s novel about fairy tales, childhood, innocence, storytelling, and imagination then they’ve undoubtedly processed it through memes, quotations, homage, parody, and imitations. Cary Elwes and Robin Wright became instant romantic icons as pure-hearted lovers, and they’re supported by a cast of ringers like Billy Crystal, Mandy Patinkin, Wallace Shawn, Christopher Guest, Andre the Giant, Carol Kane, and Peter Falk in perfectly cast roles. The Princess Bride is every bit as good as its sterling reputation suggests. It’s better than good; it’s perfect, an all-too-quotable contemporary classic that’s much more than just the source of a lot of hack bits on the Internet. — NR
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Finding Dory can’t quite reach the heights (depths?) of its predecessor, Finding Nemo. That’s understandable, especially because far too often, franchises struggle when they promote a supporting comic relief character like Dory to a leading role. And yet Finding Dory is a charming dip back in the ocean, and Dory thrives rather than flounders as a protagonist, turning her previously funny memory issues into a surprisingly tender story about overcoming self-doubt and the unforgettable love parents have for their kids.
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Rufio! Rufio! Rufio! If chanting this character’s name is meaningless to you, it means you’ve never seen the greatest Peter Pan adaptation of all time, the Robin Williams epic Hook. Sure, this movie is dated and riddled with a general feeling of ’90s-ness. And yet, as far as “modern” takes on “classic” kids stories go, Hook is one of the most unique. Also, possibly, Steven Spielberg’s most underrated movie, ever. — RB
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Legendary animator Don Bluth made his directorial debut with an adaptation of Robert C. O’Brien’s Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. What’s great about Bluth and particularly this film is that he never underestimates the intelligence of children and handily blends fantasy with the reality of the world, even if that reality is dark and scary. The central character, a mouse named Mrs. Brisby (changed from the books to avoid copyright concerns with the sports disc) undertakes a quest to save her sick child Timothy, discovering a colony of technologically advanced rats, and the secret of her deceased husband, rodents who were all part of experiments at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). It’s an impressive reveal and makes quite the statement on animal testing. Yet despite these larger implications, Bluth never loses sight of Mrs. Frisby’s heroic journey. — RN
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The argument for this movie as one of the best kids movies ever is threefold. First, it’s a great way to segue kids from animated movies into live action. Second, it’s a movie about sentient balloons — and where are you going to see that? Third, and foremost, some of the best movies in the history of cinema are silent films and few adults even get exposure to this medium ever anymore. If the Red Balloon is the only silent film your kid ever sees it will be a fine one. — RB
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Another absolute classic from writer-director Hayao Miyazaki, Princess Mononoke spins an exciting, enthralling, and thought-provoking tale about Ashitaka, a prince in ancient Japan who becomes caught up in a clash between humans who are destroying a lush and wondrous forest and the forest’s spirits determined to protect it. The messages are unmistakable and the animation and music are perfect. This one is recommended for kids who are a bit older, and we also suggest going with the English-language version, which is bolstered by a Neil Gaiman script and the voices of Minnie Driver, Billy Crudup, Billy Bob Thornton, Claire Danes, Jada Pinkett Smith, and others. — IS
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Pure mischief. That’s the name of the game in Chris Columbus’ Home Alone, which made Macaulay Culkin a child star and launched half a dozen sequels that never lived up to the first one. As a kid, there was always a bit of wish fulfillment in Home Alone, not only in the premise of being left to your own devices to defend your home from burglars but the fact that the burglars, Harry and Marv, so memorably played by Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern had a true sense of threat about them. They so clearly came from the adult world, something the Columbus-less sequels frequently forgot. Home Alone challenges pre-conceived notions of children’s comedies by integrating a true sense of danger within its holiday cheer and hijinks. — RN
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Parents be warned: One of the best parts of Frozen is also, potentially, the worst part. “Let It Go” is a tremendous song — perhaps the best of the modern Disney era — but it’s also a tremendous earworm, so be careful before firing up Disney+. Luckily, there’s far more to Frozen than just Idina Menzel’s pipes. The movie is a fun inversion of the classic Disney princess formula without any Shrek-like winks, and the sisterly bond between Elsa and Anna forms the warm heart at the core of this frosty tale.
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The most transgressive and bizarrely mature animated film designed to just sell kids a bunch of expensive toys is easily The Transformers: The Movie. Not only does this movie teach kids healthy (and sad!) lessons about death, but it also contains an instantly relatable hero’s journey. Seeing Autobot Hot Rod (Judd Nelson) go from petulant risk-taker to bona fide leader is, still, somehow, inspiring. The rest of the voice talent is unreal. From Robert Stack to Leonard Nimoy, Eric Idle, and yes, Orson Welles as a planet that eats other planets, it’s hard to find an ’80s kids movie having more fun than Transformers.
But then you remember the soundtrack. Weird Al is there, but every ’80s kid will always remember the Stan Bush banger “The Touch.” Will contemporary kids feel like this movie still has got the power? The answer is a big yes. — RB
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Think of 9 as your kid’s gateway drug to the post-apocalypse. What is without a doubt the scariest movie on this list (you will want to wait until they’re closer to 10 years old for this one), 9 is also the film to introduce them to some of the deepest joys you’ll find in adult movies — lost civilizations, seat jumps, chases, and suspenseful soundtrack (which includes probably the most horrifying use of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in a film to date). It also has an equally colorful cast of characters that includes killer robots (one with a doll head), sweet burlap puppets infused with the soul of humanity, and Christopher Plummer. While there is chair-gripping suspense and a share of death (but no gore), it is all tempered by the fact that hope reigns supreme throughout this movie — and wins out in the end. This is, after all, a flick for kids. — TT
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Kids have big feelings. And, one of the hardest things about parenting is unpacking those feelings. It’s hard to think of a better kids movie that actually addresses this. Inside Out feels like it could be the best Pixar movie ever. The only reason it’s maybe not is simply that it’s so meta. Still, absolutely essential and comfort food for all those kids who live out loud. —RB
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That’ll do pig! No childhood is complete without a pig-centric adventure, and it’s really tough to find a more perfect pig movie than Babe. There are certainly some sad aspects of this film, and the possibility that it may turn certain children into vegetarians. (Which, arguably, is the best-case scenario!) Can you really say you’ve parented if your kids haven’t seen Babe? — RB
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It’s one of the greatest movies of all time, as everyone reading this already knows. For dinosaur-loving kids of a certain age, there’s no better choice. The wonder of Steven Spielberg’s film, the way in which it brought dinosaurs to life onscreen like never before, and the cast of memorable characters comprising both adults and children, its balance of science and thrills, have allowed Jurassic Park to remain popular almost 20 years later. While it can be quite intense for younger viewers, for those old enough to appreciate a jolt, Jurassic Park is a foundational film experience. — RN
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There’s a wonderful amount of whimsy and charm in this, one of Hayao Miyazaki’s best films, but although Kiki is soaring through the sky on a flying broomstick, the stakes are remarkably grounded. Kiki is a young witch out in the big city for the first time, trying to find her first job and a place in the big beautiful world. It’s a coming-of-age story with a great role model at its center. Ultimately, Kiki’s is about a good kid who just wants to work hard and help people — something that’s as magical as any talking cat. — JG
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Kids and parents alike have delighted in Homeward Bound for nearly three decades. Three house pets — Chance (Michael J. Fox, who serves as narrator), a standoffish bulldog; Shadow (Don Ameche), an old but experienced and sage golden retriever; and Sassy (Sally Field), a spoiled Himalayan cat — become separated from their families and think they’ve been abandoned. And so they head out on a dangerous trek through the wilderness, hoping to make it home safely. That means toughing out the terrain and weather and outsmarting a bear and a mountain lion. There’s comedy and action, lessons about friendship and family, and it’s all shot live-action, which is great… except for the fact that animals’ mouths don’t move when they speak! – IS
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For many ’80s and ’90s kids, The Hobbit was our first introduction to The Lord of the Rings. While directors Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass were primarily known for their holiday specials, they created a lasting impression on budding fantasy fans with their adaptation of Tolkien’s novel and the unlikely hero Bilbo Baggins, winningly voiced by Orson Bean. With beautiful character designs, a deft balance of humor and tension — including a great adaptation of the iconic “Riddles in the Dark” scene, and some lovely songs by Maury Laws, The Hobbit is a formative fantasy experience that surpasses the notion of a TV movie. — RN
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The only Star Wars movie your kids actually need to see is the one that doesn’t require a subtitle. Although the artistry and expansiveness of the Star Wars galaxy get more varied and perhaps deeper in the subsequent sequels, prequels, and spinoffs, the original film (later subtitled Episode IV: A New Hope) is a wonderful stand-alone adventure. The massiveness of Star Wars as a phenomenon, has, perhaps, over the years, diminished the potency of the first movie. But the movie was an instant classic for a reason, and more than any other Star Wars film plays out like a true children’s classic. — RB
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The first live-action film based on the beloved books of the same name is improbably not rated G, but instead, PG. Why, you may ask? The answer is, that Nicole Kidman plays an evil taxidermist who also shoots people and animals with a silencer gun that fires knock-out darts. Her goal is to stuff Paddington, and frankly, Kidman sells this performance perhaps better than any Bond villain. The rest of the cast is equally amazing, including Hugh Bonneville (you know, the dad from Downtown Abbey) and Sally Hawkins (The Shape of Water). Ben Whishaw (Q from the Daniel Craig Bond films) nails the voice of Paddington, while secret MVP Peter Capaldi lurks around as a hilarious nosy neighbor.
Although Paddington 2 is the better film, you have to start here. And, if Paddington was your child’s first “live-action” movie, you’d be doing something right. This film prepares your kid for literally every single action movie trope, in the most delightful way possible. — RB
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After roaring out of the gate with Chicken Run, still, its top grossing feature, the tea-sipping, crumpet-eating, exquisitely English geniuses over at Aardman Animations gave their most beloved icons, genial inventor Wallace and his loyal pooch Gromit, their very own feature film vehicle with 2005’s beguiling Wallace & Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit. The result was spooky in the most innocent, child-friendly manner possible, a lovable horror comedy with a delightfully droll wit. And in a world of bloated runtime, Wallace & Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit runs a lean 85 minutes. This Academy-Award-winning stop-motion animated gem makes a very big impression in a minimal amount of time. — NR
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At times, Fantastic Mr. Fox feels a little too peculiar and specifically grown-up to be a “kids” movie, due to the combination of Roald Dahl’s unique storytelling and Wes Anderson’s singular aesthetic. Yet, that kind of makes it perfect, in an unexpected way, as a kids movie, because sometimes kids act like weird little adults. They deserve to see a stop-motion George Clooney fox living a charming little life and engaging in some delectable high jinks. It’s a twee, animal Ocean’s Eleven. — JG
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The film that started it all. If your kid is a fan of superhero movies, well it all started here with Richard Donner’s Superman. From the iconic performances by Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, and Gene Hackman as Superman, Lois Lane, and Lex Luthor respectively, and John Williams’ iconic score, Donner presented Superman as an American fable. It’s light on action, perhaps more so than today’s young audiences may expect, and heavier on romance than young audiences may want, but there’s no doubt that there’s still a thrilling sense of wonder in seeing Superman soar the skies and Reeve provide the warmth and integrity you’d want your kids to aspire to. — RN
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In between giving the world the acclaimed German World War II submarine masterpiece Das Boot and the Secret Service-intensive thrillers In the Line of Fire and Air Force One, Teutonic auteur Wolfgang Petersen tried his hand at children’s fare with a beloved 1984 adaptation of Michael Ende’s novel of the same name. If it were re-booted today, The Neverending Story would be filled with soulless CGI, but it was fortunate enough to be created at a time when practical effects and puppetry ruled. Petersen’s marvelous meditation on the life-changing power of storytelling and imagination follows an insecure boy who gets sucked into the titular book about a realm called Fantasia threatened by a malevolent force known as The Darkness in an increasingly literal level, eventually becoming a player in the action himself. It’s a film of darkness and wonder that isn’t afraid to go to some very grim, potentially traumatic places AND it has a banger of a New Wave theme song. Despite the title The Neverending Story ends after 94 minutes, and the Neverending Story franchise ended after three movies, the last of which went direct to video. — NR
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Fans of legendary Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki consider Spirited Away to be one of his three best films, if not the best. Deservedly so. It’s a vivid fantasy, filled with wonder and some scares, about a 10-year-old girl, Chihiro, who unexpectedly steps into a fantasy world where her parents are pigs and a witch steals her name. The animation is rich and brilliant, and the story celebrates nature, family, perseverance, friendship, and the bravery of a young girl. While the film works fine in the original Japanese version, younger kids might prefer the American iteration, which features the voices of Daveigh Chase, John Ratzenberger, Suzanne Pleshette, Jason Marsden, Susan Egan, David Ogden Stiers, and Michael Chiklis. — IS
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After a distinguished television career that included The Critic, King of the Hill, and The Simpsons during its 1990s golden age, Brad Bird made an extraordinary directorial debut with the 1999 adaptation of Ted Hughes’ The Iron Giant. Set against the backdrop of the Cold War, The Iron Giant captures, with a Spielbergian sense of wonder, the complicated, intense emotions that ensue when a lonely little boy in 1950s Maine discovers and befriends a massive robot from outer space voiced by Vin Diesel. The film’s plot pits otherworldly innocence against the worldly malevolence of a government and a military that do not trust anything they cannot control. The movie was a big flop at the time of its release but has acquired a huge cult following. Its title character was even bizarrely and crudely roped into the migraine-inducing inanity of Ready Player One as a futuristic warrior and showed up in Space Jam: A New Legacy, a project as mercenary and corrupt as The Iron Giant is pure. The Iron Giant was similarly an early indication that Vin Diesel’s true gift lie in voicing sweet-natured creatures from outer space, not in playing human beings in live-action films. — NR
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Technically, this is a list of the best kids movies. Finding Nemo definitely qualifies by that, as it’s a refreshingly beautiful adventure across the sea full of important life lessons and fun characters like a great white shark who wants to change his diet and a tubular sea turtle. However, Finding Nemo is really for all the dads out there, as Marlin’s journey to find his son — and eventually find a balance between wanting to keep him safe and letting him explore and grow up — is extremely powerful even if you’re a landlubber.
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Mercifully featuring only one musical number, The Great Mouse Detective immediately precedes the Disney renaissance that began with The Little Mermaid in 1987. Based on the children’s book series Basil of Baker Street, which of course, were pastiches of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories and novels, The Great Mouse Detective may be one of the most accessible and smart movie versions of Sherlock Holmes ever. As talking mice go in the great pantheon of kids movies, Basil is deeply underrated. —RB
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They don’t call it a jolly holiday with Mary for nothing. Thankfully deviating from the P.L. Travers books series of the same name, this Disney classic is, perhaps, the most timeless blend of live-action and animation ever. There are a few things in this that are a bit questionable for contemporary audiences, but luckily, the movie version of Poppins isn’t overtly racist like the book version.
Mary Poppins is a great example that often, the book is worse and the movie is better. Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious had nothing to do with books, but in the movie, it’s perfect. Julie Andrews is much better in this than she ever was in The Sound of Music, mostly because Mary Poppins is a wonderfully flippant character, sort of like an unpredictable wizard fused with Doctor Who. And, no matter what anybody tells you, Dick Van Dyke is freaking hilarious in this. — RB
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It’s no surprise that Steven Spielberg’s beautiful tale of a young boy who befriends a stranded alien from outer space broke the record for the highest-grossing film of all time and became a global phenomenon. In comparison to the director’s previous work, E.T. is intimate and personal. But thanks in large part to John Williams’ sweeping score, cinematographer Allen Daviau’s picturesque shot composition and lighting, screenwriter Melissa Mathison’s ability to perfectly tap into the emotions and vernacular of suburban youth — “It was nothing like that, penis breath!” — and of course, Spielberg’s direction, which is simultaneously bold and careful, the movie manages to feel like a big summer blockbuster, despite its relative quietness. As for the titular extra-terrestrial, Carlo Rambaldi and his team brilliantly created an alien that is simultaneously off-putting to look at, at least initially, while also being undeniably cute and impossible to look away from. When you add in the brilliant performances by the cast and the breathtaking effects work by Industrial Light & Magic, you have a true cinematic masterpiece for children of all ages. — CG
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When he made his directorial debut with 1989’s Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, Joe Johnston was already an Academy Award winner due to his special effects work on Raiders of the Lost Ark and a legend due to his work helping create the look of iconic Star Wars characters like Boba Fett. That turned out to be the perfect background to direct Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. The surprise blockbuster updated the sunny innocence and all-American wholesomeness of live-action 1960s Disney fare like The Absent-Minded Professor with cutting-edge technology and the latest in special effects. Rick Moranis was perfectly typecast as a Poindexter dad who accidentally shrinks his children and must save his family from being squashed like bugs. Honey, I Shrunk the Kids had some help at the box office from Tummy Trouble, the first Roger Rabbit short. But even without the help of Robert Zemeckis’ rascally rabbit, this would still be a winner. — NR
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The Marvel Cinematic Universe is making a Fantastic Four movie, but honestly why bother? Pixar already made the best Fantastic Four movie, even if it’s technically not Marvel’s First Family. Younger kids may identify with Dash, the headstrong speedster, and teens might find a connection with how Violet feels like she’s invisible even when she’s not using her powers.
Parents probably see aspects of themselves in Mr. Incredible and Elasti-Girl as they navigate their relationship and their own personal desires. Above all, though, The Incredibles is about how these four (and Jack-Jack) work as a family. Well, that and some extremely stylish crime-fighting. — JG
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A year before audiences were welcomed into his puppet-filled playhouse on Saturday mornings, Paul Reubens’ lovably quirky Pee-wee Herman character made his big-screen debut under the direction of newcomer Tim Burton. On the surface, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure is an epic and unforgettable, highly quotable road trip movie — “I know you are, but what am I?” — complete with trips to the Alamo, a high-speed chase through the Warner Bros. movie lot, and performance of The Champs’ 1958 hit “Tequila” in a biker bar. But at its core, Big Adventure is a hilarious and surprisingly touching love story between a man and his bicycle. Do you want to talk about friendship goals? Find someone who looks at you like Pee-wee looks at his Schwinn. — CG
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Despite his possessory credit, Tim Burton did not direct The Nightmare Before Christmas, nor did he write the screenplay, although he did dream up the story and characters. Yet the film nevertheless represents the purest representation of Burton’s adorably gothic aesthetic. Burton’s stop-motion-animated musical finds Halloween, in the lanky, unforgettable form of Pumpkin King Jack Skellington, staging a confused takeover of Christmas that results in mischief rather than merriment and monstrosities rather than mirth. Fueled by Danny Elfman’s fiendishly catchy songs, Nightmare Before Christmas has been lovingly realized down to a molecular level. It’s The Grinch That Stole Christmas by way of Charles Addams while feeling throughout like a creative X-ray of Burton’s soul. Like the best Christmas fare, it feels like The Nightmare Before Christmas has always been with us; it just needed Burton to pluck it down from the ether for the world to enjoy every Christmas and Halloween. The Nightmare Before Christmas is a Christmas and Halloween classic that occupies a massive place in our culture and the childhoods of countless theatrical weirdos because it’s ultimately just that good. Nightmare Before Christmas might have spawned multiple generations of Hot Topic mall goths but don’t hold that against it! — NR
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Brad Bird followed up two of the greatest children’s films ever made in The Iron Giant and The Incredibles with another all-time winner in Ratatouille. In a bravura performance that taps into the legendary comedian’s status as a passionate fan and enthusiast as well as a true artist, Patton Oswalt is the voice and the soul of Remy, a Parisian rat who dreams of becoming a gourmet chef and is able to realize those aspirations with the help of a human helper/sidekick/vessel. Peter O’Toole is equally perfect as Anton Ego, a feared critic with a brutal pen but an underlying streak of empathy and understanding. In the best Pixar tradition, Ratatouille is funny and beautifully animated but also deeply moving and surprisingly profound. — NR
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With five successful seasons of The Muppet Show under his belt, Jim Henson did the unthinkable: He pulled the plug on his highly successful primetime variety show and turned his attention to writing and directing an expansive fantasy-adventure film, told entirely with puppets. It would take several years (and two Muppet films) before The Dark Crystal made its way to theaters, but thanks in large part to the world-building and creature designs of artist Brian Froud, Henson and co-director Frank Oz successfully created one a modern myth that continues to endure. Although the film wasn’t a runaway hit when it arrived on screens in 1982, its cult following has grown through the decades, with the film even spawning an Emmy Award-winning Netflix series, The Dark Crystal: The Age of Resistance, in 2019. Even Aughra, the film’s all-knowing spiritual mother figure, might not have seen that coming. — CG
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Disney movies might be magical, but Hayao Miyazaki (aka Studio Ghibli) movies pull off honest-to-god magic tricks. My Neighbor Totoro’s enchantment stems from Miyazaki telling a story convincingly and surreally through the eyes of a young child, Mei. As such, a sad plot — two girls leave their sick mother behind in a hospital for a new house in the country with an understandably absent father — turns on the joyful and innocent imaginings of Mei. A gleefully trippy movie is the result, filled with living cat buses, mischievous sootballs, and a round furry flying creature that grows to be as big as a house — and the most supportive friend a struggling kid could ever ask for. — TT
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Paddington was winsome, entertaining, funny, and a visual treat and Paddington 2 is even better — and less scary. Less scary is a good thing, since Nicole Kidman terrified young kids who saw the first film. This time around, everyone’s favorite, super-polite British bear (voiced by Ben Whishaw) is steadfast in his determination to find the perfect 100th birthday gift for his Aunt Lucy. It leads to wild misadventures full of oohs and aahs, plenty of laughs (scripted jokes and visual gags alike), and oodles of affection. And while kids won’t necessarily notice or care, adults will love seeing some of the United Kingdom’s greatest actors letting loose, among them Hugh Grant (hamming it up as an… actor), Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, Brendan Gleeson, Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent, Peter Capaldi, Tom Conti, and Joanna Lumley. — IS
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It may seem like cheating to give an extremely famous movie that is nearly 90 years old the top slot. But. Come on. Everything comes from The Wizard of Oz. Great songs. A cutesy team-up, an unfaithful — but wonderful — adaptation of an already beloved kids book. Great costumes. And more and more and more. Nobody truly hates The Wizard of Oz, even if they say they do. The flying monkeys and the witch are scary as hell for the very little ones, perhaps even more so than Darth Vader.
But, in many ways, all of cinematic pop culture revolves around The Wizard of Oz. Parents reference this movie without remembering they’re referencing it. (“I’m melting! I’m melting!”) It makes instantly adorable kids’ costumes, instills reasonable fear of extreme weather into children, and perhaps best of all, teaches kids to distrust authority figures who don’t give straight answers. Even when you get to Oz, things will not be what you expect, a lesson that gets more and more poignant year after year. — RB
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The 100 Greatest Kids Movies Of All Time According to Movie Critic Dads – Fatherly
From golden oldies to 21st-century instant classics, here’s our deeply curated, and surely controversial, ultimate ranking of 100 movies kids must see before they hit their 10th birthday.