Nobody likes cold cockles. It’s been proven. And one of the finest ways to warm the cockles of your heart is with a family movie; you know, the kind that little Jacob can stumble into the room for and not have you dive at his eyes and ears with outstretched hands screaming “NOOO!”. We’ll admit movies with sex and violence often have a magnetically mischievous quality to them, but they rarely deliver the feel-good fuzzies the way a cherished family classic can. And man needs his feel-good fuzzies. That too has been proven.
In compiling this list, we decided to exclude all the made-for-TV holiday specials we love, like Rudolph, Frosty, and the Grinch—that’d just be too Christmassy. We also thoroughly realized that unlike their live-action counterparts, directors of animated films get absolutely no credit! Quick, who directed The Lion King? Exactly. It was news to us too.
But enough of that. Now it’s time. Whether or not you have a family of your own, these films will make you wanna hug somebody (our services are available for a fee). Check out our list of the 50 best family movies of all time, in no particular order.
The Lion King
There are the golden Disney classics, and then there are the modern Disney classics. But even if you lump them all in together, The Lion King might still be considered the king of the jungle. With unforgettable songs by Elton John and Tim Rice, some deep themes, the always attention-grabbing voice of James Earl Jones, and plenty of laughs from Timon and Pumbaa, this 20-year-old film remains universally loved across the globe.
The Wizard of Oz
What can we say about The Wizard of Oz? It’s 75 years old and it still enraptures both children and adults with a magical spell that appears unbreakable. From the breathtaking moment the black and white changes to color, to the unforgettable song and dance routines, nearly every minute of this film is an iconic treasure. And believe it or not, the Blu-ray 3D version looks spectacular. Go buy it.
Beauty and the Beast
Just try and find a girl or woman who can resist the charms of this ode to romance. From the bouncy opening number “Belle,” to “Be Our Guest,” the musical numbers are as stage-worthy as anything you’ll find on Broadway. And any movie that features the great crime-solving duo of Angela Lansbury and Jerry Orbach as a talking teapot and candlestick, respectively, is OK with us.
The first ever feature-length computer-animated film, and the one that started it all for Pixar, Toy Story kicked off the new golden age of animation with a bang. Watching Woody (Tom Hanks) and Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) trade quips in this buddy movie for all ages – as well as the two sequels – remains a timeless pleasure. Apparently Billy Crystal turned down the role of Buzz Lightyear, and regretted it so much that the next time director John Lasseter called him, he just answered the phone with a simple “Yes.” That got him the role of Mike Wazowski in Monsters Inc.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
Many of the Harry Potter films could make the cut here, but in our 50 Best Sci-Fi list, we chose Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 to represent the billion dollar franchise. This time we’re going with the one that started it all, because if you’re gonna gather the family around for a Harry Potter movie, you gotta start at the beginning, right? Of course it’s the amazing imagination of author J.K. Rowling that deserves the bulk of the credit, but Christopher Columbus, Daniel Radcliffe, and the rest of the cast and crew of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone can hold their heads high for being the first to achieve Rowling’s vision on screen; not an easy thing to do.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
The first full-length animated film, Walt Disney took a big chance on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, as the film industry pegged it for certain doom from the start, calling it “Disney’s folly.” But oh how wrong those naysayers would be, as Snow White would not only triumph at the box office, but enjoy decades of success in re-releases and on home video. And it’s an intellectual property that’s still being milked, as the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train roller coaster just opened up at Disney World’s Magic Kingdom.
The Muppet Movie
The first live-action film with our favorite felt friends, The Muppet Movie works on a ton of levels, from Kermit’s poignant opener, “The Rainbow Connection,” to the bevy of one-liners, to the parade of guest stars. The genius of Jim Henson is on full display for 97 minutes, and seeing Kermit riding a bicycle still thrills us for some reason.
A beautiful piece of computer animation from Pixar, Finding Nemo wins you over with its visuals, Dory’s (Ellen DeGeneres) humor, and the lessons about taking risks and family love. We’ll happily “keep swimming” with this one on home video until Finding Dory hits theaters in 2016.
If there’s any movie responsible for the instant stigma attached to the word “stepmother,” this is it. Though for some reason, as far as we can tell, mice didn’t enjoy much of a reputation resurgence. Anyways… with its underdog story, pretty dresses and shoes, and the search for Prince Charming, Cinderella is perhaps the ultimate chick flick. Let your toddler daughter watch it at your own risk.
The Iron Giant
Similar to E.T., The Iron Giant spins a surprisingly touching tale about an alien who falls to Earth and finds only one boy who understands him. Set in 1957, the film has a decidedly retro style that just works. Even if it tanked at the box office, with its themes of peace, paranoia, and understanding impossible to resist, writer-director Brad Bird can know he created a masterpiece here.
More than 70 years after its release, Dumbo will still do two things to you: make you misty-eyed, and make you wonder why Walt allowed that “pink elephants on parade” scene to stretch on as long as it does. Aside from that detour, Dumbo holds firm as one of the earliest Disney classics to stand the test of time.
You’d think a story about monsters who get paid to scare kids at night would be a disastrous plot for a kids movie, but Pixar makes it work with Monsters Inc. With the brilliantly funny Billy Crystal as Mike Wazowski and the cuddly John Goodman as Sully, there’s plenty of humor to go along with the imaginative plotline and eye-catching colorful animation.
E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
A Spielberg masterpiece that weighs heavy on the heart, as a family film for kids over the age of 8 or so, E.T. is pretty much flawless. Henry Thomas is sensational as young Elliot, the boy who befriends the Reeses Pieces-loving alien. John Williams’ score and excellent performances by the entire cast add to the magic. Also, can we just say, thank god there was never a sequel.
The dynamic directing duo of Ron Clements and John Musker followed up their smash The Little Mermaid with this huge hit just three years later. Of course the manic Robin Williams commands the spotlight as the Genie who seems to nedd to do five minutes of stand up before granting any wishes. Another round of memorable songs infused with a classic folktale and excellent animation make this one of Disney’s best.
While we generally try to stay away from recent releases on our best movies lists, it’d be fruitless to try to deny the power of Frozen. As of this writing, it’s #19 on the all-time domestic box office list at $401 million, and a staggering #5 worldwide all-time at $1.2 billion. The songs are some of the very best ever heard in a Disney movie (perhaps you’ve heard “Let It Go” once or twice?), but the hysterical Olaf is the only character we really want to see more of.
The Little Mermaid
It’s hard to remember a time when Disney movies weren’t license to print buckets of cold cash, but that was the case in the 1970s and 80s. The Little Mermaid, based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, delivered the mojo back to Disney in a major way thanks to gorgeous hand-drawn animation, great songs, and a memorable heroine, Ariel, voiced by Jodi Benson.
If you haven’t seen Pinocchio in a while (and we’re guessing you haven’t), you might be surprised at how intense it can be in certain parts (two words: donkey boys). We like what critic Josh Larsen calls this 1940 classic– ”the original Scared Straight!”, because of its downright scary scenarios that befall a wooden puppet-turned boy who needs to learn to become brave, truthful, and unselfish. A true Disney classic, and home to the timeless tune, “When You Wish Upon a Star.”
Another golden oldie from the Disney vault, Sleeping Beauty raised the bar for animation in 1959, even if it didn’t do well at the box office at the time. The pace of the film is a little on the slow side, but the film’s climax, with the scary/hot queen Maleficent turning into a fire-breathing dragon, is still a sight to behold.
It’s a Wonderful Life
Perhaps the ultimate antidote to depression and self-pity, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life never fails to lift your spirits while bringing tears to your eyes. The legendary Jimmy Stewart is George Bailey, a man who hits rock bottom and is ready to end it all before his guardian angel shows him how much of an impact he’s had on everyone else. A holiday classic that will undoubtedly result in a big group hug at the end.
A simple coming of age tale drawn with exquisite skill, Bambi is the first true tearjerker many of us experienced as children. On the death of Bambi’s mother, Walt Disney took some flak for so closely following the Austrian novel that the movie was based on, Bambi, a Life in the Woods. But would any of us recall the film so fondly if she survived? Probably not. An early lesson to children that sometimes, life is cruel.
Full of humor, action, and likability, Despicable Me is a lot of fun. The minions might be the poster children for the franchise, but it’s the interactions between Gru (Steve Carrell) and his three young adoptees that deliver the film’s most memorable moments. It also looks great on Blu-ray.
News of a Muppets reboot with Jason Segel (How I Met Your Mother) had many of us pre-emptively Statler and Waldorfing from the balcony a few years back, then we saw The Muppets, and well, we shut the hell up because this movie is fantastic. The songs are superb, the nostalgic touches are spot-on and heartfelt, and the story is both surprisingly sweet and funny. Segel deserves a ton of credit for co-writing it, as does James Bobin for directing.
A love story and a cautionary tale about consumerism and waste, WALL-E speaks loudly to adults, especially in the film’s very quiet, post-apocalyptic first half-hour. Director Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo) shows guts in sticking with the minimalist vibe as long as he does, and it’s to the film’s benefit, as the more frenetic middle and latter sections dull the impact a bit. Still, WALL-E is classic piece of art with lots of heart.
The Polar Express
Despite some nitpicking about the visuals, The Polar Express has rightfully earned its place as a day Christmas classic, with an awe-inspiring premise and a message about holding onto the little kid in you. If you grew up playing video games, the still evolving performance capture technology used in The Polar Express is hardly a deterrent; if anything, it adds to the appeal.
The four-minute montage early on in Up might be the most moving piece of animation ever seen in theaters. Of course, young children won’t quite grasp the gravity of what they’re seeing, but director Pete Docter and Pixar deserve serious kudos for just creating that snippet alone. While the rest of the film falls into the rather typical adventure movie antics, the excellent bookends of Up make it magical.
Akeelah and the Bee
Despite a somewhat predictable formula, Akeelah and the Bee shines as an inspirational movie that’s perfect for young students and their paremts to eatch together. Keke Palmer is 11-year-old Akeelah Anderson, a girl dealt a tough life, but also with a gift for spelling. As long as you can get by Curtis Armstrong (booger from Revenge of the Nerds) playing a school principal, you’ll be good.
It’s tough finding an 80s kid that doesn’t have a sweet spot for The Goonies. This frolicking adventure-comedy tells the tale of a group of kids who seek pirate treasure to help save their homes from foreclosure (it wasn’t based on a true story). A loud, rambunctious, over-the-top guilty pleasure that will instantly transport you back to your childhood. We know what became of Sean Astin, Josh Brolin, and Corey Feldman, but did you know Chunk (Jeff Cohen) is a lawyer in L.A. now? Yep.
One of the great movie musicals of all-time is also one of the best family movies as well. Julie Andrews is the magical nanny who uses her charms to turn a glum family’s frowns upside down, while the creative effects and catchy songs keep things moving along. The first Disney movie ever to be nominated for Best Picture.
Written and directed by the ultra-talented Brad Bird (The Iron Giant, Ratatouille), The Incredibles leaps into action with its popping visuals and engaging story about a family of undercover superheroes. And what could make for a cooler family than that? One of the most thrilling pictures to come out of Pixar Animation Studios, it’s also one of the safest ways to introduce your kids to the talents of Samuel L. Jackson.
On the Mount Rushmore of animated films, you’d best believe there’s a spot for Fantasia, Walt Disney’s landmark feature from 1940. A series of vignettes set to classical music performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra, Fantasia doesn’t try to invest you in a plot, but it does immerse you in a vibrant sea of sights and sounds. Can’t handle the whole thing? At least check out Mickey Mouse in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.”
Throw your hands up, press ‘em against your face, and just submit to the power of Home Alone’s nonstop slapstick comedy. A box office blockbuster in 1990 (it stayed number one for 12 weeks, well past Christmas), Home Alone likely wouldn’t have been as huge if it weren’t for the uncannily charming Macaulay Culkin. Some say Elvis (yes, that Elvis, who died in 1977) can be seen with a beard in the scene where Mrs. McAllister is shouting at the desk clerk.
The Karate Kid
Like Rocky, the power of The Karate Kid comes from its underdog protagonist. Ralph Macchio is Daniel, a new kid in school who gets bullied and beaten by the morally bankrupt locals. Both Macchio and Pat Morita (as Kesuke Miyagi) are great, and even though we can admit it is predictable 80s cheese, it’ll forever be waxing on and off in our hearts.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
Who’s the best director that the average Joe hasn’t heard of? It’s gotta be Robert Zemeckis. Ya know, the guy behind Back to the Future, Forrest Gump, Cast Away, The Polar Express, and this groundbreaking live-action/animation mashup. Bob Hoksins is the human that stars in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, but it’s Roger and the sultry Jessica Rabbit that are etched in our memories. The only caveat we’d offer is that it’s a little too “adult” for young kids.
So wait, you’re telling me the guy who directed Taxi Driver, Good Fellas, Cape Fear, and Shutter Island, also was at the helm for one of the best family films in recent memory? Yep. In 3-D, no less. Hugo focuses on an orphan who lives in the walls of a train station, and it delivers a wide swath of magic that appeals especially to movie lovers like us.
Whereas Disney films usually offer humor in measurable doses to break up the drama and musical numbers in their films, DreamWorks came out of the gate swinging with its comedy fists in Shrek. And why not? If you’ve got the hysterical Eddie Murphy and Mike Myers leading the way, it’d be foolish not to. With tons of irreverent humor and late 90s references, Shrek may not entirely have the everlasting appeal of a Disney classic, but it sure is funnier.
The Bad News Bears
A rag tag bunch of little leaguers with seemingly no talent and a drunk for a manager – played perfectly by Walter Matthau – somehow make their way to the championship. The Bad News Bears is brash, ballsy, funny, and one of the best sports movies ever. Also a great father-and-son kinda movie.
How to Train Your Dragon
It’s become typical to bash 3-D, and when theaters tack an extra $5 onto the price of a ticket, we can understand the frustration. But if you have a 3-D set at home, you simply can’t deny the artistry that pops off the screen with How to Train Your Dragon. This story of a boy who befriends a dragon is filled with depth, humor, and poignancy, and it even stands toe-to-toe with anything Pixar has created.
“What if Peter Pan never grew up?” asks Hook, a film that took a beating from critics in 1991, but then again, most critics aren’t 10-year-olds, are they? It may not be Spielberg’s finest, but it is a star-packed (Robin Williams, Dustin Hoffman, Julia Roberts) and enjoyable fantasy romp in Neverland that speaks strongly to the themes of childhood and the loss of innocence.
The Princess and the Frog
Disney took its time in creating its first black princess, but at least they nailed it with Tiana and The Princess and the Frog. The talented team of Ron Clements & John Musker (The Little Mermaid, Aladdin) eschewed the trend of CGI and wisely returned to traditional animation for this New Orleans-set tale. Younger kids and jazz lovers will especially enjoy it.
Miracle on 34th Street
You do believe in Santa Claus, right? If not, fire up Miracle on 34th Street and then come see us. This beloved Christmas classic centers on a department store Santa who swears he’s the real deal and gets locked up in a mental hospital because of it. Edmund Gwenn won the 1947 Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, and we tend to think his is the definitive version of Kris Kringle on film.
The Nightmare Before Christmas
The Nightmare Before Christmas may not have been directed by Tim Burton (he produced and co-wrote it), but it’s as Tim Burtony as any Tim Burton movie out there. This wholly original, bizarre, dark, stop-motion masterpiece tells the story of Jack Skellington, a being from “Halloween Town” who opens a portal to “Christmas Town” and decides to celebrate the holiday, with some dastardly and comical consequences. Not meant for toddlers, but great for everyone else.
Ahh, Old Yeller. Can one even say those words without reaching for the Puffs Plus with Aloe? We think not. The ultimate boy-and-his-dog flick, Old Yeller triumphs as a true sentimental classic thanks to its origins as an award-winning novel by Fred Gipson. Find the cattiest of all the ‘cat persons’ you know, show them this, and then ask them if cats are still cooler than dogs.
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Purchase: Amazon DVD
Hayao Miyazaki’s visually stunning Spirited Away tells the story of a 10-year-old girl who falls into a mystical world of evil gods and witches. While it barely made a dent in U.S. theaters, this mind-bending adventure in the spirit of Alice in Wonderland absolutely crushed at the box office in Japan ($221 million). It’s one of those movies where you watch it (with older kids) and then spend the rest of the night breaking down what it means.
A Christmas Story
The one day of the year when people actually seek out TBS is when they run the 24-hour marathon of A Christmas Story. That should tell you a little something about the cult status of this family favorite (as well as TBS). Whether it’s Ralphie’s (Peter Billingsley) laser-focused pursuit of the Red Ryder BB gun or Flick’s (Scott Schwartz) buddy’s tongue getting stuck on the metal pole, A Christmas Story has permanently wedged itself into our minds, and excellently captures the feeling of being a kid at Christmastime.
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
What kid wouldn’t want the chance to run wild in a candy factory? The sensational Gene Wilder is Willy Wonka in this fantasy-filled adaptation of Roald Dahl’s 1964 novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It certainly has a dark side to it (you might wanna cover your kid’s eyes on the tunnel scene), but it also creates a spectacular world full of candy-related craziness, with Oompa-Loompas, colorful effects, and plenty of moral lessons.
The Black Stallion
A boy and a horse get shipwrecked on a desert island, developing a powerful bond in the process. And if you saw The Black Stallion as a kid, you likely formed a bond with the film as well, thanks to its Cast-Away-meets-The-Horse-Whisperer story and the spectacular cinematography. A classic testament to the ties that can bind a boy and an animal.
The Red Balloon
This 34-minute French film contains almost dialogue, but that doesn’t keep it from enchanting any child who sees it. A boy finds a balloon which soon starts following him through the streets of Paris, leading both boy and viewer on a simple but enchanting adventure. A winner of the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, despite the aforementioned lack of talking.
Another tearjerker for pre-teens, the 1973 animated version of Charlotte’s Web tells the tale of a pig named Wilbur who, when faced with impending slaughter, gets help from a spider named Charlotte. A great choice for the family that’s ready to talk about the loss of loved ones.
The Sound of Music
A musical, romance, family movie, and then, out of nowhere in the last few minutes, a thriller, all in one, The Sound of Music is a cherished family favorite. From the bouncy Do-Re-Mi to the sweeping title song, there’s no shortage of cheesy good tunes to accompany the cheesy good acting, led by the charming Julie Andrews.
Boys and baseball just go together, and The Sandlot captures this phenomenon perfectly with its Little Rascals-esque vibe and spunky ensemble cast of kids. Lead character Scotty Smalls (Tom Guiry) leans on the national pastime to help him fit in in a new neighborhood while encountering a beast of a dog and a handful of other coming-of-age events that will resonate with any boy who ever picked up a glove.
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