The phrase “kids movie” does not always have the best reputation these days. For some grown-ups, it can feel like a sacrificial task to take your children to whatever new film the big studios have released with younger audiences in mind.
That is exactly the issue. Movies made just for kids, with no attention brought to the adult purchasing the ticket or pressing PLAY on the remote, lack the appeal to satisfy audiences of all ages. However, when you replace the word “kids” with, say, “Pixar” or “Spielberg-produced,” that is usually enough to get the parents’ eyes to light up at least a little.
The best kids movies could be more accurately described as family movies, films with stories and themes that can appeal not just to an adult's inner child, but a grown-up’s mature mind as well, which makes for a fun time for everyone.
I have compiled a list of the best kids movies (or best family movies) that you will be proud to share with your children. Some of these are just one Netflix click away. Enjoy!
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
For decades, society cowered at the thought of visitors from other planets touching down on Earth. Thanks in no small part to H.G. Wells, aliens were associated with sinister intentions, like human extinction or vile experimentation.
In the early 1980s, director Steven Spielberg wanted to tell a much different story.
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is a story about a boy (Henry Thomas) who is emotionally abandoned by his family who meets an alien literally abandoned by his family, on accident, of course. The unlikely pair rely on each for support, which proves tricky when the government gets involved and E.T. begins suffering from a deadly case of homesickness.
Nominated for nine Academy Awards and the winner of four, E.T. is a timeless classic still, decades after entrancing the world with its charm and heart wrenching drama. It is impossible for the whole family to not get swept up in John William’s rousing score, themes of loneliness and friendship, and the heartbreaking final line E.T. says to Elliott, “I’ll be right here,” as he points to his forehead.
The Goonies (1985)
It is the film that launched the careers of a few notable (and some infamous) names in Hollywood. It is also the movie that has allowed audiences to keep doing the Truffle Shuffle for decades.
The Goonies, from director Richard Donner and executive producer Steven Spielberg, is the kind of classic adventure involving police chases, booby traps, mutants, and other thrills all from a child’s point of view. Follow the titular group of youngsters as they get into more trouble than ever searching for a pirate’s treasure buried somewhere beneath their hometown.
As you watch (whether it is your first or 50th time), take a closer look at brothers Mikey and Brand. They are Sean Astin (Samwise in The Lord of the Rings trilogy) and Josh Brolin (Thanos in Avengers: Endgame) making their feature film debuts.
The Sandlot (1993)
Is there a film that captures the joys of summer, the thrill of the game, and the perils of childhood more authentically than The Sandlot? I do not think so, given that the movie was already a nostalgia juggernaut upon release.
The Sandlot is a celebration of an era in which young boys lived out their fantasy of playing America’s favorite pastime, baseball, for no other reason than the love of the game. They never kept score, they never stopped playing until the day is done, and they were willing to risk their lives facing a “beast” on the other side of the fence to retrieve a baseball signed by Babe Ruth.
This is the kind of movie for children that a father would willfully take their kids to upon release, and those kids would grow up to show it to their kids. The Sandlot is the rare kind of family film that genuinely appeals to the whole family because everyone has a memory they associate with it.
Toy Story (1995)
One of the great things about Pixar’s trilogy (and soon to be four-part franchise) revealing the secret world of children’s playthings is that you can make an argument for why each movie is the best. This is my argument for why the first Toy Story is one of the best family movies (and movies in general) ever, period.
Pixar changed the world with this film, the first full-length computer animated feature of all time. Tom Hanks as Woody and Tim Allen as Buzz headline a story that not only changes your perspective of how you treat your toy collection, but is a relatable tale about hubris, disillusionment, petty ignorance, jealousy, and other common human flaws one would not expect from a kids movie.
Toy Story was nominated for three Academy Awards in 1996. Had the Academy developed the Best Animated Feature category back then, I believe it would have been a slam dunk.
Speaking of the Academy Awards’ Best Animated Feature category, this reinvention of the children’s fantasy genre from Dreamworks was the first recipient of that award. A slam dunk, it was.
Never has an ogre been the subject of such widespread love and admiration, almost to uncomfortable levels, before Mike Myers’ Scotch-accented, green curmudgeon teamed up with an Eddie Murphy-like donkey to rescue a heavily guarded princess (Cameron Diaz) by request of the petty Lord Farquad (John Lithgow). Furthermore, animated films, and lighthearted bedtime stories, were never seen the same again after Shrek.
Best of all, Shrek provides the audience with a lesson, as most bedtime stories do, about believing in oneself despite how others may see you and that love is not just true in fairy tales. Yeah, I just quoted Smash Mouth’s “I’m A Believer” cover. Does not make it any less true.
The Incredibles (2004)
As far as superhero movies go, there lies a debate of which tone is more appropriate: light or dark? Some go too dark (Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice) and some go too light (Green Lantern). Writer and director Brad Bird figured out a way to make his costumed avenger story just right.
Bob Parr (Craig T. Nelson) is having a mid-life crisis and longs to relive his days as Mr. Incredible, before costumed vigilantes were outlawed. When he gets a second chance to relive the glory days, his family is accidentally put in peril by a ruthless villain. Good thing his family has powers, too.
I do not believe for a second that Brad Bird made The Incredibles for kids. If this were not a Pixar movie and Disney went the live-action route, the movie’s grim, high-stakes violence (the villain dies from getting his cape caught in a jet propeller) and adult themes (Helen Parr thinks Bob is cheating on her at one point) would keep it from barely making the PG-13 cut. Yet, that is what makes it a blast for everyone.
Best Kids Movies On Netflix
Sometimes you don't have the time for a night at the movie theater and would rather settle for family night in the comfort of your own home. Of course, there are also times when you may not own the movie of your choice and your town's lone surviving video rental store does not have a copy.
Fortunately, Netflix has some of the best kids movies available and these are a few choice recommendations:
Do you consider Mulan a Disney princess? I struggle with associating her with the traditional, definitive characteristics of that title because she does not represent any of them.
Mulan is not the story of a privileged woman in a war torn China who needs a manly warrior to rescue her. It is the story of a country that needs a woman to save it, a task she takes upon herself to prevent her elderly father from serving in the fight against the Huns.
Mulan is a role model like no other Disney character whose belief in her own strengths and perseverance against traditional gender roles makes her a legend in battle. She is a great heroine to take inspiration from and her movie is a perfect choice for a family Netflix night.
Tarzan is an iconic character of adventure fiction who has existed since Edward Rice Burroughs first introduced him in his 1914 novel Tarzan of the Apes. While Burroughs deserves all the credit, if you ask nearly anyone nowadays who the definitive image of the human jungle king is, it’s not Alexander Skarsgard in 2016’s The Legend of Tarzan. It’s Tony Goldwyn in Disney’s animated interpretation.
Goldwyn provides the voice of Tarzan, a man raised by apes since infancy with acrobatic skills of navigating the jungle by vine swinging who go through a bit of an identity crisis when he discovers a lost woman, Jane (Minnie Driver), whose species better resembles he than his animal allies. On top of that, his adoptive mother, Kala (Glenn Close), has to face the reality that her human cub has grown up and it may be time for him to flee the nest.
When Phil Collins’ Oscar-winning original song “You’ll Be In My Heart” plays over Tarzan’s emotional goodbye to Kala, there is not a dry eye in the house, no matter your age. Of course, he and Jane decide to stay in the jungle in the end, making for a happy ending to a wonderful adventure perfect for children.
Not to mention, you have the lead singer of Genesis providing the music, so the parents are happy.
Stuart Little (1999)
Say, speaking of interspecies adoption, how wonderfully weird was Stuart Little? Michael J. Fox provided the voice of an impressively animated CGI mouse invited into the house and lives of a well-to-do family of New Yorkers, which turns out to be a challenging transition for all, especially with the Littles’ mischievous cat, Snowbell (Nathan Lane) stirring the pot.
Did you know that the original 1945 novel by E.B. White is even stranger and darker?
In the book, Stuart is not a talking mouse lucky enough to be adopted by human parents. He is a boy born to human parents who, by a bizarre defect, bears the resemblance of a rat. The 1999 interpretation from director Rob Minkoff (The Lion King) changes it up a bit, into a story easier for children, and parents, to swallow.
I have always found that Stuart Little was an impressive achievement in production design, taking place mostly in a house of elegant aesthetic, but what I really admire it for is what great role models the Littles (Hugh Laurie, Geena Davis, and young Jonathan Lipnicki) are. The parents recognize their adoptive son’s human qualities and encourage him to achieve goals much, much bigger than he is.
Stuart Little is a family movie that makes you proud of your family, no matter how you define yours.
Spy Kids (2001)
I grew up with James Bond and always found him to be the definitive spy, with Aston Martins loaded with lethal features, conveniently handy gadgetry, and a smooth talker with ladies. However, the life of James Bond is not at all how children really envision the life of espionage. It would be a lot wackier than that.
That is why Robert Rodriguez’s Spy Kids is the ultimate childhood spy fantasy. The dream-like plot is complete with impossibly complex gadgets, gravity-defying martial arts, and a villain with an incomprehensibly bizarre plan for world domination that does not even require covert intrigue to put a stop to. You just have to be good at sneaking into places and pushing the right buttons before the clock runs out on the “bad guy” device.
Spy Kids is a riotously fun, visually impressive film that will keep your children’s eyes glued to the screen and even relates to the parents by serving as a great metaphor for the stakes of raising a family. Sometimes it feels like saving the world.
Monster House (2006)
I always grew up wishing that I could watch horror movies, but two things stopped me: my mother and my own lack of courage. Thus, I am very thankful that Monster House could serve as a proper introduction for me to the genre.
The initial idea of the movie (from the mind of co-writer and future Rick and Morty co-creator Dan Harmon) is brilliant. Halloween is just around the corner when three children discover that the creepy house across the street is even weirder than they realized. It’s alive.
Monster House does not hold back on thrills, keeping your convinced that the house’s victims result in multiple fatalities in a PG movie nonetheless, until the bittersweet conclusion. Also, being one of the first feature-length films to be made primarily with performance capture gives the film a nearly unprecedented, immersive quality that puts you right into the belly of the wooden beast.
Monster House is a great way to being the family closer together on Netflix night… since you will be holding each other tightly the entire time, but also laughing along the way. For horror fans, this is a film you can proudly show your children without shame.
Some people do not always find peace with their families. Some people want to find a way to escape their families, just like Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) in Coco (one of the best kids movies in recent years). Miguel finds solace in music, which has been banned in his family for generations.
All it takes is one grand visit to the afterlife on Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) for Miguel to bring his Mexican family together through the very thing they claimed would curse them: Academy Award-winning music.
Coco is an infectious, heartfelt animated musical adventure from Pixar that inspires you to remember what family means to you. As much fun as you and your family will have with it, I would also recommend keeping tissues handy.
If these films are proof enough, not every kids movie is just for kids. Even these are not all of the best kids movies out there. Whether you are watching Netflix, renting a Blu-ray, or taking that family trip to the theater, movies that the whole family can enjoy are not, and most likely never will be, in short supply.
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Jason has been writing since he was able to pick up a washable marker, with which he wrote his debut illustrated children's story, later transitioning to a short-lived comic book series and (very) amateur filmmaking before finally settling on pursuing a career in writing about movies in lieu of making them. Look for his name in just about any article related to Batman.
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