Ok, we’re going to admit this right up front: this list could be a whole lot longer. We’re sure some will be quick to point out the number of classics we’re missing, be it Bambi, The Lion King, The Little Mermaid, or a whole host of others. Perhaps that’s a good thing though? It speaks to the number of great films that are out there for children - and, for children at heart! 😉
So, how did we come up with this particular selection? Our list is comprised of movies and animated series we would not hesitate to watch again with a little one (or several little ones!). They are roughly organized in order of age accessibility, from ones that are likely to be understood (and appreciated) by mature toddlers, on up to films that will be enjoyed by those on the cusp of (and right on into) teendom. We tried to include a range of options, spanning several decades of filmmaking, a few continents and both live action and animated films. At the end too, we append several “grown-up” films that we think children are likely to enjoy and are ideal for family viewing - we certainly enjoyed them when we were young (and still do!). It is our hope that one or more of the following might prove to help out anyone looking for a film (or films!) to give as a gift to a youngster of their acquaintance:
The Red Balloon - This 1956 French classic is marvelous for very young children as the story is primarily conveyed visually, rather than audibly. As well, it offers a clear object to fixate on: the eponymous red balloon. A young boy (played by the director’s son) finds the red balloon and the film continues to tell the story of its ups and downs, both literal and figurative. At only 35 minutes in length, this movie does not unduly tax the attention span of young children and has managed to repeatedly mesmerize one 2-year old we happen know in its entirety.
Kiki’s Delivery Service - Produced, written and directed by the legendary Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, this film has all sorts of things young children enjoy watching - trains, blimps, flying machines, baking and, perhaps most especially, witches on broomsticks. Kiki is a young witch and, in her world, it is tradition for 13-year old witches to leave home for a year to develop their skills. The film follows Kiki’s journey as she picks a city to settle in, gets a job, makes friends and improves her witching abilities, in the process becoming a confident, independent young woman.
For the Birds - We saw this Pixar short quite by accident - it was shown as a little pre-feature bonus when we went to see Monsters, Inc. in the movie theater. While the feature film turned out to be perfectly enjoyable, it was this little short that stood out in our mind long after we had left the cinema. It’s only a few minutes long and there is no dialog - just funny bird chirrups, squawks and cheeps. It succinctly tells the tale of a group of little birds who make fun of a much larger and slightly awkward bird who tries to fit in. In the end, the little birds get their comeuppance and the big bird has the last laugh (not in a malicious way, but in a humor-of-life kind of way). For parents too, this is a great film to have on hand when only a few minutes of distraction are needed. If you find For the Birds to your liking (and to the liking of the little one(s) you are gifting to), you may also wish to check out the following animated shorts: Presto, Lifted and One Man Band.
My Neighbor Totoro - Another Miyazaki tour de force, My Neighbor Totoro is the story of two sisters, Mei and Satsuki, who move to the countryside with their father in order to be close to their mother who is convalescing at a nearby hospital. The old house they move into and the forest around it are home to creatures of varying types and temperaments. Totoro is one of them - personifying (animalizing?) a kind of mix of some of the cutest aspects of a bunny, an owl, a cat and maybe a bear - a protector of the forest who only appears to people when he wants to. Over the course of the film, he befriends the two sisters, making for a lovely, magical tale.
Robin Hood - We still remember rolling on the floor with laughter the first time we saw Disney’s 1973 animated version of this classic tale. In childhood, we watched the film many times over, never ceasing to get a kick out of Prince John (a rather non-majestic lion) and Sir Hiss (not unsurprisingly, a snake). There are a few songs in the film but not as many as you might find in later Disney musicals, keeping the plot moving along at a brisk pace. The story is widely known so we won’t repeat it here, suffice it to say, this is a well imagined version that, in our opinion, has more than stood the test of time.
The Jungle Book - For us, this animated film has always been largely about friendship, namely Mowgli’s friendship with a responsible black panther named Bagheera, on the one hand, and Baloo, a happy-go-lucky bear, on the other. Mowgli has grown up in the jungle but now it’s time for the “man cub” to return to a human village. The journey to this village is the focus of the narrative, as are the life lessons he learns along the way from his two animal friends, and the dangers and obstacles he has to surmount en route. All of this is an excellent premise for some top notch songs, including numbers such as, “The Bare Necessities,” and “I Wan’na Be Like You.” A little bit of film trivia: Walt Disney died in December of 1966 and this was the last animated feature made under his stewardship. It was released ten months after his death, in October of 1967.
The Princess and the Frog - This 2009 Disney film had us laughing, toe tapping and, yes, tearing up just a little when we first saw it. It’s a story about family, about love and about working hard to make your dream become a reality. Told with humor and a fantastic series of songs, it also features some pretty gorgeous animation, showcasing the beauty and rich culture of New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz. Note: Dr. Facilier, the film’s “baddie” and his cohort of dark spirits from “the other side,” may prove a little scary for the very young, hence we recommend this for slightly older children, or showing it to children for the first time in the company of adults.
The Love Bug - To be fair, we haven’t seen the most recent iteration of the Herbie film franchise, the one starring Lindsay Lohan, but it’s hard to imagine it can best the first film in the series: The Love Bug. Herbie is a car with a mind of his own, helping his owner, Jim Douglas, a down and out race car driver, start to win races again. Throw in a love interest, Buddy Hackett for some fantastic comic bits and David Tomlinson (Mr. Banks in Mary Poppins) as the villain, and you’ve got yourself an awfully swell, laugh-inducing film.
Pete’s Dragon - Again, we’re not talking about the recent Hollywood release, we’re talking about the 1977 film classic with Helen Reddy, Mickey Rooney and Jim Dale, brilliantly playing Dr. Terminus, the film’s lead villain. Pete, played by Sean Marshall, is the picture of earnestness. Best of all though, is Elliott the dragon - in our humble opinion, possibly the best animated character ever to appear in a live action film. He doesn’t talk, he kind of boops in a rather adorable way and the actors do a superb job of convincingly “interacting” with him. Add some great songs into the mix, some pretty fabulous villains (the Gogans! Dr. Terminus!), a bit of a mystery (what happened to Nora’s true love?) and a dash of humor and you’ve got a pretty great children’s film that may not be as sleek as the more recent update but (we’d argue) has a whole lot of heart and humor!
Annie - The 1982 version of orphan Annie’s story was adapted from a Broadway musical which, in turn, was adopted from a comic strip. The film was directed by John Huston and boasts a pretty star studded line-up, including Carol Burnett (as a brilliant Miss Hannigan), Tim Curry (as Hannigan’s brother), Bernadette Peters (as the third member of the villainous trio), and Albert Finney (as “Daddy” Warbucks). Most children won’t know these actors though, much less their pedigrees. Indeed, it’s sheer delight in a story well told that’s the draw here. In our opinion, Aileen Quinn makes for a pretty perfect Annie. She somehow manages to be plucky and optimistic without coming across as saccharin, or an annoying goody-two-shoes. As well, her voice is clear as a bell and does justice to the excellent songs in the musical, going toe-to-toe with the adult members of the cast, making for a truly wonderful film.
Mary Poppins - Julie Andrews played Eliza Doolittle in the Broadway version of My Fair Lady but was not selected to reprise the role on film, being replaced instead by Audrey Hepburn. Secretly, we’re a little glad, as we thought Hepburn did a marvelous job (with top notch singing assistance from Marni Nixon) in that film - moreover, it meant that Andrews was able to play the titular role in Mary Poppins, a role that ultimately ended up earning her an Academy Award. Perhaps even more importantly though, hers was a role that has left a positive memory on millions of children, us included. Julie Andrews’ singing is, as ever, mind bogglingly brilliant, and Dick van Dyke is gloriously endearing, eminently lovable and funny. We suspect most folks will already be familiar with this film, famous as it is, but if you know a young person who has not yet had the pleasure of a “jolly holiday with Mary,” now may be the moment to rectify that situation.
Bedknobs & Broomsticks - This film is a little bit dark and a little bit sinister at times - the threat of a Nazi invasion looms over England - but for children who are old enough to have heard of World War II, this is also a wonderfully funny, positively magical story. Angela Lansbury could not have been better cast in her role as a witch in training who, frankly, doesn’t really relish the idea of having refugee children from war torn London coming to live in her house. Throw in David Tomlinson (how did he end up in so many amazing children’s films?) as a bit of huckster, some excellent song writing by the legendary Sherman brothers, Robert and Richard, and you’ve got yourself a truly stellar film as far as we’re concerned. Final note: as children, we really had no idea where this film was headed (pretty rare, no?) and the ending, as far as we were concerned, could not have been more glorious!
Howl’s Moving Castle - A strong contender for our favorite animated film of all time, this movie - another by Hayao Miyazaki - is for older children who might be ready to approach themes pertaining to war, as well as, love, loyalty and friendship. It has charismatic characters, curses, drama, humor and magic by the boatloads. Miyazaki’s animation is mesmerizing and the score is extraordinarily beautiful. Really, everything comes together in this film to form something truly special - maybe even (dare we say it?) perfect.
Fullmetal Alchemist - Ok, you’ve caught us! This one isn’t actually a film, it’s an animated series, but it’s the one that opened us up to the world of anime and we can imagine no better introduction. Based off a manga series of the same title, the storyline centers around two brothers, Edward and Alphonse, who live in a world where alchemy is a reality. In a desperate attempt to bring their mother back to life, the two boys flaunt the most important alchemist’s law of all, the law of “equivalent exchange,” and the consequences of their actions are dire. They set off on a quest for the Philosopher’s Stone which they believe will help them to repair the damage they have done. Along the way they encounter many obstacles and a rich array of supporting characters that are good, evil and, some, a mixture of the two. Themes that this series touches on include familial love (and loyalty), war, questions about progress in science, discrimination, political ambition and greed. That said, there are also marvelous moments of humor woven into the fabric of this story, making it truly excellent viewing for mature youngsters and teens. Note: there is a more recent anime version: Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood. We understand it adheres more closely to the original manga the series is based off of and, as it has also received top marks from reviewers, we can’t wait to check it out!
Movies for “grown-ups” that children will also enjoy:
The Sound of Music (1965) - Set in Salzburg, Austria in 1938, this film is loosely based on a true story and Julie Andrews shines in the role of Maria, a postulant studying to become a nun. The abbess of the convent realizes that Maria may not be entirely suited to a cloistered life and arranges for her to become a governess. In the course of fulfilling her duties, Maria falls in love with Captain von Trapp, the widowed father of the seven children she has come to care for while he, simultaneously, falls for her. Mix in the threat of the Anschluss, a scheming baroness, and one killer song after the other, and you’ve got yourself a pretty stellar film. Indeed, it’s no wonder that it broke all sorts of box office records when it came out and won Academy Awards for both Best Picture and Best Director.
My Fair Lady (1964) - The Pygmalion story has been told many times over and this musical version is the best we’ve ever seen. With book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner and music by Frederick Loewe, it’s a musical that is comprised of one truly brilliant song after the other, a rare feat. It is the story of how a professor of elocution transforms the life (and perception of) a cockney flower girl simply by teaching her how to speak “properly.” Rex Harrison reprised his Broadway role in the film version while Audrey Hepburn assumed the role of Eliza Doolittle (portrayed by Julie Andrews on Broadway) with Marni Nixon dubbing in for the singing bits. With a bit of romance, a dash of humor and the (at times begrudging!) development of lasting affection, this is a truly memorable story.
The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) - It is our view that this is the best live action film version of the Robin Hood story (see above for our favorite animated version). It boasts a cast that really can’t be beat, including Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Claude Raines and Basil Rathbone. Flynn is a marvelously mischievous, yet deadly serious Robin Hood while de Havilland as Maid Marian is no shrinking violet, acting with both heart and intelligence to rescue her feller. With a top notch screenplay, wonderful costumes and a fantastic score by Erich Korngold, this is a brilliant action-adventure-romance.
The Court Jester (1956) - Gift-wise, this film can stand on its own. But, we think it’s even better when paired with The Adventures of Robin Hood (see above). Why, you ask? Well, this film, starring Danny Kaye, Angela Lansbury and Basil Rathbone is a straight up satire of The Adventures of Robin Hood and a pretty brilliant one at that. Kaye is a comic genius and few other films showcase his talents the way this one does. Angela Lansbury makes for a marvelous Maid Marian-esque princess and, well, Basil Rathbone must have had a good laugh, getting the opportunity to poke a bit of fun at his own portrayal of the Sheriff of Nottingham. Throw in some truly silly/funny songs and some catchy catchphrases and you’ve got yourself a comedy classic.
The Music Man (1962) - “Professor” Harold Hill (played by Robert Preston) arrives in River City, Iowa with the intention of swindling its residents out of their hard-earned money with the promise of reforming the city’s youth into a brilliant marching band. The local librarian and piano teacher, played by Shirley Jones, is having none of it. Hill decides to woo her in order to get her to bury her objections, but from there on out, nothing goes according to plan and the whole town ends up being transformed as a result. All of this happens with a little help from some wonderfully comedic supporting characters (including one played by Buddy Hackett) and a whole slew of absolutely fantastic songs.
Singin’ in the Rain (1952) - Starring Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds, this is an honest to goodness Hollywood classic and, in our opinion, is about as perfect as a musical can be. Indeed, it was ranked #1 on the American Film Institute’s “Greatest Movie Musicals” list. It has humor, heart and some of the best songs out there - and, of course, one of the most memorable cinematic dance scenes of all time. Gene Kelly’s rendition of ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ captures the exhilaration and joy of newly discovered love in a way that few other films have managed to convey in the intervening years. An absolutely wonderful love story that takes advantage of Hollywood’s transition from silent films to “talkies” for some pretty great funny bits too.
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