The 8 Best Classic Kids Films

Eight pre-1971 classic kids films, from 'Singin' in the Rain' to 'National Velvet'.

by Andy Kryza
Originally Published: 

A common misconception about children is they won’t be interested in older movies. After all, some think, what kid would want to watch classic kids films after they’ve been dazzled by the latest kaleidoscopic Pixar offering? But kids are nothing if not cinema fans in the making.

“Something I sincerely stand by is that children intrinsically have good taste,” says Susan Booth, a cataloger for the American Archive of Public Broadcasting who programs children’s screenings at the National Audiovisual Conservation Center. ”You’d be surprised by which movies they enjoy, just given the chance to experience them. The younger they are, the more open-minded to, and accepting of, what you want to share with them (they are).”

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A love of the classics may start with Disney, but there’s more than a century of great, classic filmmaking. Start with these eight kids movies, all produced before 1971.

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Watching Judy Garland get swept up by a black-and-white tornado and dropped into a technicolor wonderland of singing munchkins, terrifying flying monkeys, and Yellow Brick Roads has been a rite of passage for young movie lovers for decades. Eight decades later, it’s still a touchstone of pop culture full of great songs and more than a few scary (but not too scary) moments.

Why It Holds Up: The costumes are still dazzling, the songs hummable, and while technology and storytelling has advanced exponentially with each passing year, the big reveal of the vibrant Oz continues to lodge itself in the imaginations of anyone who sees it.

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Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

Revisiting a classic Christmas tale with young children can reveal some of the more unsavory elements of their era, be it the casual racism of A Christmas Story or the fact that It’s a Wonderful Life’s entire story springboards from a suicide attempt. On its surface, Miracle on 34th Street seems like it could suffer a similar fate, as it starts with a drunken Macy’s Santa and revolves around his replacement being taken to court to gauge his mental state. Yet what follows is an uplifting, feel-good affirmation of imagination and true belief that more than earns its place in the holiday canon.

Why It Holds Up: The themes presented in this story have been recycled over and over, from Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus to Elf and even an inferior remake. The original remains the best version of the timeless tale.

Singing’ In the Rain (1952)

Perhaps the high point of the classic studio-musical era — some might argue it’s where that wave crested — the plot of Singing’ in the Rain concerns the advent of sound in cinema and the actors who have to adapt to incorporate their voices into it. Which … well, yawn, especially for a kid. But the song and dance numbers are so vibrant, the sets so elaborate, and the goofball factor so infectious, nobody’s going to notice that they inadvertently learned about movie history. Even for those who hate musicals, this is essential viewing — plus, “Make ‘em Laugh” is a welcome respite to “You’re Welcome” on any playlist.

Why It Holds Up: Gene Kelly is a legend, and his grace and physical humor are still being emulated on stages and screens everywhere. The title track is one that has managed to remain in the cultural zeitgeist since the day the movie premiered.

The Red Balloon (1956)

How’s this for a hard sell: The Red Balloon is a wordless, French film about a little boy who is followed by a sentient balloon. He goes about his day — attending school, playing outside, going to church — as the balloon follows him like a puppy. And that’s kind of it. Yet the simple tale manages to feel, more than perhaps than any subsequent kids movies, like a bare-bones children’s book come to life, one with a complete arc, a few shed tears, and ample laughter.

Why It Holds Up: The wordless narrative exemplifies visual storytelling, rendering it a timeless tale divorced from modern filmmaking’s tendency to overload its narratives with references and subtext. And at a scant 30 minutes, it’s a breeze.

The Sound of Music (1965)

At nearly three hours, The Sound of Music basically demands to be viewed in multiple sittings and, truth be told, a lot of the Rodgers & Hammerstein-penned songs can be skipped (one can only handle so many operatic meditations on love by aging nuns). But the songs that stick are absolutely astounding, and the story — about a feisty nun-in-training who falls for a noble navy captain while caring for his children in the days leading up to World War II — is engaging to nearly any age of viewer: Younger kids will latch on to the music and the cast of talented children, while older children will learn a little about Europe’s troubled history by reading between the lines.

Why It Holds Up: Epic storytelling of this nature is Hollywood’s bread and butter, but seldom is such a heavy topic tackled with such a gleeful attitude. Still, just to reiterate, it’s long, and there’s a lot of nun singing. Plus, everyone learns to sing scales. Win-win!

Yellow Submarine (1968)

Make no mistake, this is one of those classic kids films that seems forged from the notes scribbled from a Baby Boomer acid freakout, a collage of the bizarre that concerns the Beatles helping restore peace to a land plagued by the Blue Meanies. But it also represents a chance to expose children to classic songs — the title track, “All You Need is Love,” “All Together Now,” “Eleanor Rigby,” and others all make appearances — while showing something visually dazzling, if a little bizarre. Come to hook kids on the music of The Beatles. Stay for the ’60s psychedelia.

Why It Holds Up: Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band just celebrated its anniversary, and still feels relevant. The music here draws from that classic and more, serving as a crash course to a band that many kids will love for years to come.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)

A box-office bomb at the time, Willy Wonka embedded itself into the collective imagination over the years, particularly with the advent of home video. And while there are some elements that haven’t aged particularly well — the uncertain fates of some children make Willy Wonka seem like a child murderer, for one — the movie manages to endure thanks to the gloriously conceived sets, ear-wormy songs, and Gene Wilder’s charmingly mischievous performance.

Why It Holds Up: What kid hasn’t dreamed of running wild in a chocolate factory, especially one full of chocolate rivers, Everlasting Gobstoppers, and lickable wallpaper? Pure imagination indeed.

National Velvet (1944)

The horse film to end all horse films, National Velvet stars young Elizabeth Taylor as a feisty girl training a horse to compete in the English Gran National with the help of a jockey played by Golden Age mainstay Mickey Rooney. There are a million movies about horses that don’t involve sparkles. Start with the best before moving to the likes of The Black Stallion, Spirit, Black Beauty and others.

Why It Holds Up: If classic kids films about a little girl’s relationship with a horse ever becomes dated, it will be because horses have become extinct. When the little girl is played by a Hollywood icon, it just sweetens the deal.

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