The ideal kids’ movie manages to balance family-friendly content and accessible story with mature themes and remarkable visuals. Plenty of filmmakers aim for just one of these factors and end up with a product with the cultural half-life of a Demi Lovato album. The way to tell that a movie geared towards kids has succeeded is to check back on it a few years after it came out. Movies with the right mix don’t go bad – at least not quickly.
Because creating a great kids’ movie – artful, timeless, original – is so hard, the list of kids movies that adults enjoy remains fairly short, yet remarkable: These movies are astonishing.
- Spirited Away
Studio Ghibli productions tend to be equally enjoyable for kids and adults, but Spirited Away, arguably director Hayao Miyazaki’s magnum opus, takes the cake. The animated film tells the story of ten-year-old Chihiro, who finds herself trapped in the spirit world after a detour gone wrong. Lovingly hand-drawn and populated by unforgettable characters, Spirited Away sets the bar so high that it’s not just one of the best animated or children’s movies, but one of the best movies, period.
- Iron Giant
Brad Bird’s pre-Pixar classic is set during the Cold War and tells the story of a young boy’s discovery of a massive, seemingly-benign robot. Questions of the robot’s origin and purpose are used to explore deeper puzzles regarding the nature of free will and the consequences of violence, heavy stuff even for adults. Gorgeously animated, superbly voice-acted, and bursting with more heart than most films that’ve followed, The Iron Giant is a timeless film for any age group. Just remember, you are who you choose to be, and try to hold back tears.
A lone robot is left behind on Earth to clean up humanity’s trash after they’ve abandoned the planet for the stars. Finding solace in his own curiosity and salvaging what treasures he finds, WALL-E’s mission is forever altered by the arrival of a new, sleek machine named EVE in this largely-wordless space adventure.
- The Lion King
It’s Hamlet but with animals! Plus, it features one of the best villain musical numbers of all time.
Growing up an outcast is never easy, especially when you can talk to ghosts. Laika’s jaw-droppingly gorgeous stop-motion feature is a family-friendly throwback its director described as “John Carpenter meets John Hughes.” There’s comedy, there are thrills, and there are a lot of zombies.
- E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Steven Spielberg’s family blockbuster is, yes, a film about a boy meeting an alien, but at its heart it’s an extraordinarily complex story about having to face real, adult challenges while holding on to the best things that make one a kid. E.T. is undoubtedly one of the greatest films ever made, and there’s nothing wrong with crying at the end, no matter how old you are.
- The Goonies
Two words. Rocky. Road.
- Fantastic Mr. Fox
Wes Anderson’s stop-motion animation adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic book is a neurotic, whimsical dive into the world of Mr. Fox, a charismatic smooth-talker who tries to best a trio of angry farmers to save his family and friends.
- School of Rock
Jack Black plays a schlubby, struggling rocker who cons his way into a substitute teaching gig at a prestigious prep school and ends up teaching his students the art of rock … and self-acceptance.
Atlantis flew way under the radar in its release, likely due to Disney not being sure what to do with this genre outlier, which is a real shame considering it’s one of their most fun and imaginative offerings. Atlantis ditches musical numbers in favor of a mature action-adventure that tells the story of a discredited young man who guides a team of explorers in search of the fabled city of, you guessed it, Atlantis. The animated film makes a genuine attempt at featuring a multi-ethnic cast of characters, and even goes as far as putting real, working guns in its villains’ hands. Plus, Michael J. Fox voices the protagonist.
What should’ve been another CG Disney romp turned out to be a thoughtful meditation on inclusivity and prejudice. When rookie Officer Judy Hopps arrives in animal metropolis Zootopia as the first bunny on a police force, she starts to uncover a conspiracy that might shake the whole city. Zootopia is intelligently plotted and broadcasts a deeply-resonating, mature message about race.
- Chicken Run
The World War II POW allusions are likely to go over most kids’ heads, but this Claymation Great Escape remix with chickens is a timeless romp, even if the film’s Hitler-analogue is nightmare-inducing.
Disney’s Moana tells the story of the daughter of a Polynesian chief who sets off on the ocean to reunite a mystical relic with a goddess, encountering the legendary demigod Maui on her adventure. Good luck getting those songs out of your head.
- Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
Robert Zemeckis’s blockbuster comedy imagines a world in which everyone’s favorite cartoon icons are just trying to make ends meet. Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Is equal parts noir mystery and Looney Tune meta-humor, plus Jessica Rabbit holds the unusual distinction of having jump-started puberty for a whole generation.
- Big Hero 6
Following the death of his brother, robotics prodigy Hiro finds solace in Baymax, a robot whose sole purpose is to take care of people. Faced with a mysterious threat, Hiro and his friends must learn to transform themselves into superheroes.
A delightful time machine to the sane portion of Shia LaBeouf’s acting career, complete with Sigourney Weaver, Jon Voight, and even more actors that kids will never be as delighted as you to see pop up on screen. Based on Louis Sachar’s acclaimed novel, LaBeouf plays Stanley Yelnats, an accused juvenile delinquent sent to dig holes at a desert detention camp who uncovers a deep mystery.
- The Lego Movie
A movie entirely based around marketing Danish toy blocks to kids shouldn’t have worked this well. Alas, as the theme song “Everything Is Awesome” suggests, The Lego Movie is, indeed, so, so, so fun.
- The Nightmare Before Christmas
When Halloween Town’s Jack Skellington wanders through a portal into the realm of Christmas, he sets in motion a ghoulish, musical tale that inspired Hot Topic merchandise forever.
Buddy the elf, played by Will Ferrell, is an orphan raised in the North Pole. As an adult, Buddy learns the truth about his parentage and heads to New York City in search of his real, human father.
- The Princess Bride
Rob Reiner’s ’80s fairy tale is a perfect story of whimsy and heart, packed full of some of the most quotable lines ever uttered in one single film. Framed as a story within a story, The Princess Bride is an unforgettable delve into a classic fantasy land that only gets better with age.
Fart and burp jokes aside (and there are plenty), Shrek adds up to a delightful send-up of sanitized Disney fairy tales. Dreamworks’ animated feature literally opens with the titular ogre wiping his ass with the “true love’s kiss” part of a fairy tale book, and somehow only gets raunchier from there while still managing to stay PG.
- Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
You know the gist – the titular young boy finds out he’s a wizard and enrolls at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. He makes some friends, and J.K. Rowling made some millions.
- How to Train Your Dragon
How to Train Your Dragon arguably represents the pinnacle of Dreamworks’ animated offerings, a gorgeous, rollicking adventure that’s entirely centered around Vikings and dragons. What’s not to love?