I’ve been so distraught over the neglect of kids movies in my Top 10 films, I’ve decided to give them their own list. They deserve it. Kids movies are by far some of the more worthwhile film projects filmmakers could attempt, in my opinion. We’re all just big kids ourselves, so why not produce wonderful works of fiction that kids can enjoy?
In the world of animation and family films, Pixar currently reigns as king, with Dreamworks finally catching up. But before there was Pixar or Dreamworks, there was Disney. And not just computer-animated Disney. Hand-drawn Disney. Those are the films I grew up with. Those are the films that dominate my list.
Before we embark on this adventure, I’ll remind you that these are personal favorites, not necessarily my opinion of the top ten kids films of all time. With that, skip with me to Neverland, the future, the depths of the seas, and storybook happy endings.
The Flight of the Navigator
The first kids movie I remember being enthralled by, obsessed with, and generally struck by was The Flight of the Navigator. It spoke to pieces of me I didn’t even know existed yet, most importantly the sci-fi nerd. Granted, at the young age of five, I had trouble understanding the time jumps from “past” to “future” and what exactly the “present” might be. But I’ll always remember the little Puckmaren, an amazingly 80’s Sarah Jessica Parker, the Eye alien, and “Compliance”. I’m sure part of the impact the film had was due to its sometimes more mature content and themes. It served as my introduction to a bigger world, one with consequences and pains, even for kids. But of course, it still had the happy-go-lucky ending.
As much as I appreciated the jaunt into sci-fi and maturity in Flight of the Navigator, I enjoyed the world of fantasy and “never grow up” themes in Peter Pan. Neverland represented a place I would go frequently: my imagination. Anything could happen. I made up the rules. And Peter, as misguided as he often was, ruled Neverland with the glee of a boy. Of course, there were the scary threats of Captain Hook. But you know who scared me more? Tinkerbell. That little fairy had a temper! But over all, I adored Peter Pan. Until I grew up, that is. There was distinctly a day when I no longer thought the kids antics were funny or adventurous, but seriously misguided and dangerous. That’s adulthood for you. But sometimes, just every once in awhile, I remember the fantasy, the innocence, and I fly to the second star on the right and straight on til morning.
The Jungle Book
Most of my childhood cinematic courtships appealed to my adventuresome side. FoN took me through time and space. Peter Pan took me into Neverland, where pirates existed with Indians. The Jungle Book took me to, well, the jungle! Baloo was my best friend at one point. His carefree attitude made me want to venture out of my backyard and on adventures into the unknown. Of course, the entire film is something akin to Peter Pan. Mowgli simply doesn’t want to grow up. He doesn’t want to change. He doesn’t want to be a man. Somehow, I never quite got all that as a kid. These movies made me want to grow-up, if only to wander the world without an adult by my side, to make friends like Baloo and learn how the world works.
Disney movies were DARK! I’ve realized this before, but going through them again only serves to remind me what kind of adult themes those animators were playing with. Everyone knows the story of Cinderella. But no, I did not daydream that I was to one day be swept up by a handsome prince. I was the little girl that fell in love with the mice. Yes. Jaq and Gus were my little fellas. I think I loved all the help and love Cinderella had in her life despite the cruddy family situation. I didn’t have a “cruddy” family, but I was an only child, and latch-key kinda kid. Cinderella had amazing friends that helped turn her dreams into a reality and helped and served whenever they could. I’ve become an adult that enjoys being that kind of friend.
Swiss Family Robinson
I wasn’t always a five year old watching these movies. By the time I saw Swiss Family Robinson, I had grown up a little. But only just enough to start dreaming about what I wanted to be one day. At this point, I think I very much leaned toward architect/explorer. And that insane treehouse in Swiss Family Robinson was a huge attraction to me! I dreamed of one day designing something like that, and living there in carefree jungle life (see The Jungle Book above). It didn’t hurt that the three main characters were cute boys. The warlike climax once again stirred something inside me – a strategist maybe? I loved how the family worked together as a unit to keep what they had claimed and made their home. Such great adventure and architectural engineering.
The Sword in the Stone
There were times in my life I thought perhaps I’d be a historian. Or a time traveler. Periods in time have fascinated me, specifically the middle ages. In a young kids mind, without any particular sense of reality, the middle ages are romantic. There are knights, honor, fantastic yet deadly games of jousting and swordplay. So The Sword in the Stone really allowed me to play in that world, all with a sense of greater purpose. My urge to see a bigger world was personified in this film. Wart is the epitome of hope. And Merlin, kookiness and all, serves as a wonderful teacher and master for Wart. And aside from the realities of the middle ages, the jaunts into places kids only wish they could go were fantastically fun.
The Princess Bride
I don’t remember the first time I saw this movie. But I’ve found that a lot of people have fond, very specific memories of this film. I don’t. I just know that this film has passed the test of time. It would have made my top 20. It’s the epitome of great storytelling. As the Grandpa says, it has “fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles…” Who could ask for more? It’s one of the few live-action films these days I would highly recommend for children. I’m having a hard time putting this films awesomeness into words. It’s captures magic few films capture, and gives the audience a little of that magic.
We’re now firmly out of childhood territory for me. This film was released when I was 21. And as I’ve grown older, my criteria for kids movies have changed. I want to continue to be swept away into a far away fantastical world. But there’s also a sense of responsibility, as an adult and a filmmaker. When it comes to small children, there are most definitely things I think they shouldn’t see. Finding Nemo was on of the first great kids movies in quite some time to be both a well-made film that captured adult imaginations and also an engaging, fun, appropriate kids movie. I’ll acknowledge here that Toy Story didn’t make my list. Back to my personal preferences. It was a good film, but not one whose content touched my heart and spoke to some piece of me. Finding Nemo did.
The Incredibles is a conundrum of a film. Its themes are fairly adult: aging heroes have trouble accepting the worlds mandate that they stay hidden. And for the kids, the serious question: What does it mean to be yourself? Though not as popular as some of the previous Pixar outings, The Incredibles certainly had style that made it popular with general audiences. Once again, there was something for the adults, and something for the kids. It’s playful, adventuresome, and brings together an incredible family. The music, great costumes designed by the quirky Edna Mode, funny physical gags, and moments of danger are all designed to bring you into the excitement and adrenaline rush of the superhero world.
How to Train Your Dragon
I’ll reiterate, I find well-made, appropriate kids films rare. But I was absolutely blown away when I saw this film this year. It marked a first for me: a 3D kids film worthy of paying the exorbitant theater prices more than once. The story had themes that actually made me want to be a parent. I wanted to take kids to see the film and then talk with them about it afterwards. I wanted to tell them, encourage them, to think outside the box. Don’t feel the urge to conform. But look for ways to be more confident in themselves and use it to change the world they live in. Fantastic animation, 3D, and above all, heart, made this film an instant classic for me.
Great kids films are about something more than a two hour distraction for children. They branch out to involve the whole family in heart-felt, hopeful themes. They use imagination, fantasy, and things that would never fly in more adult drama to convey messages the entire world, most especially kids, need to hear.
What’s your favorite kids movie? What has touched your heart and freed it to soar with imagination?