What is a family film? Which movie would you pick if you had to please everyone? It’s a tough question — almost a paradox. Is this a family with young kids? Maybe you throw on The Brave Little Toaster and try to catch up on sleep while they aren’t looking. Are the little monsters now 11 and 12? Are they ready for Ocean’s 11 and Ocean’s 12? And what about the classics? Your parents might have instilled in you a love of the classics, against all odds — but do you think your kids will be able to sit through Seven Samurai when they’d rather be watching a colorful Pixar film or playing an iPad game? How can a slow-paced classic keep up with brightly colored Pixar film or an iPad game?
These were the types of questions we tried to answer while coming up with a list of 50 “family films” aimed at the family men and women among our audience. We tried to select movies for parents with a wide range of children, from toddlers (Incredibles) to teens (Forrest Gump). The litmus test was that the movie had to be something an adult might watch by themselves. Now some (Matilda, Hook) might not follow in the strictest sense, but our bias was toward films that will engage the entire family and don’t devolve into incomprehensible slapstick with plots only a toddler truly appreciates.
If the film is chosen well, movie night can be some of the best bonding a family has. Everyone exhausted and comfortable, relaxing and taking in something they can all mull over and talk about until next week’s film. Here’s your queue.
Say what you will about animated films, but Up deserved every bit of its Best Picture nomination. We’ve never encountered another movie that had audiences both weeping and laughing in just the first 15 minutes.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Video / iTunesThe Nightmare Before Christmas
It’s not actually directed by Tim Burton — so stop saying it is. Still, the dark director’s twisted imagination remains on full display in this unique tale of holiday envy. Another fun fact? Famed film score composer Danny Elfman is the singing voice of Jack.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Video / iTunesE.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
For once, the titular alien isn’t destroying Earth or bursting through chest cavities. Instead, it’s healing wounds, making bikes fly, eating candy and coining catch phrases that are still gurgled regularly. We give the movie two glowing thumbs up.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Video / iTunesField of Dreams
It’s never too early to introduce the little ones to Kevin Costner in his prime. And Field of Dreams, if anything, is Costner in his prime.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Video / iTunesThe Incredibles
The movie that deftly skewers superheroes and superspies alike, while also teaching viewers of all ages that there’s no better person to be than yourself (and that wearing a cape is a bad idea).
Amazon DVD / Amazon Video / iTunesLabyrinth
The practical effects date this movie, but the cast of characters, and Bowie’s performance, mix humor, adventure and a little horror (those trolls at the start scared me silly as a child).
Amazon DVD / Amazon Video / iTunesHook
Pan purists might scoff at the plotline, but Spielberg’s trademark blend of action, adventure and comedy wins over the heart of anyone with a soul. Hoffman’s Hook in particular is a role of a lifetime.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Video / iTunesHarry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
You don’t need to be Dumbledore to understand the high expectations that come with bringing a worldwide children’s literature phenomenon to the big screen. However, an intense reverence for Rowling’s imaginative world quickly won over fans, launching one of the most successful movie franchises of all time.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Video / iTunesEdward Scissorhands
This is a pick that some might find confusing. But think of it this way: the fairy-tale premise is wildly entertaining to children (permitted they are old enough for some of the themes), and adults can appreciate Johnny Depp in one of the best performances of his career.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Video / iTunesThe Mighty Ducks
A rag-tag group of kids, a court-mandated coach (Emilio Estevez). This is the film that launched Shaun Weiss’s career into semi-superstardom. Anybody under the age of 12 from 1985-1995 will find the movie hilarious, and everybody else will find it entirely enjoyable.
Amazon DVD / iTunesToy Story 2
Arguably the best of Pixar’s sentient-toy trilogy, this masterpiece deals with issues of death, friendship and learning to enjoy things instead of preserving them. But don’t go thinking this is The Green Mile: the themes are thoroughly tucked behind gags, witty humor and a stuffed horse named Bullseye.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Video / iTunesFinding Nemo
Another Pixar masterpiece, it makes an epic story out of the vastness of the ocean and a father’s love for his son. You’ll anthropomorphize the fish in your dentist’s office for the rest of your life.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Video / iTunesHoles
You gotta introduce the kids to Shia sometime. It’s the Hollywood equivalent of having “the talk.” Also, the source material for Holes is a great book to get them started on reading, so consider this a long-term investment.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Video / iTunesThe Princess Bride
The ultimate “everybody loves it” movie. It’s funny, endearing, fraught with excitement and unexpectedly loaded in the cast department. “My name is Inigo Montoya…” ‘Nuff said.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Video / iTunesCool Runnings
Who doesn’t love a classic fish-out-of-water theme, especially when it involves Jamaicans and Olympic sports? It’s the movie that brought us “Sanka, you dead, mahn?” and many other potent quotables, along with a hearty love for underdogs. Don’t forget John Candy.
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This Bill Murray classic takes a simple concept — being stuck reliving the same day — and makes it fun, absurd and a little scary. Answering the question “What would you do if nothing you did matters?” without the heavy-handed philosophy is great for everyone in the family.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Video / iTunesMatilda
The screen adaptation of Roald Dahl’s story of a precocious young girl who discovers her latent telepathic ability. It’s inspiring and fun, but also terrifying in all the right ways. You never thought you’d cringe at chocolate cake, did you?
Amazon DVD / Amazon Video / iTunesMonsters, Inc.
The buddy comedy of buddy comedies, made all the more wonderful by the magic of computer animation…and the fact that the buddies are lovable monsters.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Video / iTunesSpirited Away
This Oscar-winning film might be the only one from Studio Ghibli that you’ve heard of, but it’s for good reason. Its beautiful and intricate animations tells a wonderfully deep but simple story.
Amazon DVDThe Emperor’s New Groove
Emperor Kuzco (David Spade) and a peasant named Pacha (John Goodman) team up to retake Kuzco’s throne after he’s turned into a llama. It’s become somewhat of a cult classic for being absurdly funny for both kids and adults.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Video / iTunesThe Karate Kid
Daniel-San is getting bullied, so he trains with Mr. Miyagi (the late, great Pat Morita) and learns that — contrary to the beliefs of the Cobra Kai — the martial arts are about more than violence. Come for the premise; stay for the montages set to Joe Esposito.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Video / iTunesInside Out
Kids and parents both have something to learn from this animated study of human emotion, in which as much thought went into the science behind mood as the actual storytelling.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Video / iTunesHow to Train Your Dragon
Here’s a story about an unlikely duo: a mysterious dragon and a young Viking who is trained to kill it. This Oscar-nominated film was followed up by an equally acclaimed sequel.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Video / iTunesBack to the Future
It’s the movie you watched as a kid, back in 1985, and it still holds up. One of the most recognizable duos in film — Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd — travel to 1955 and explore the effects of time travel.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Video / iTunesWilly Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
Gene Wilder’s best work. Brilliant character choices, hysterically funny writing; it’s one of only a few movies that leaves audiences simultaneously laughing and frightened.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Video / iTunesHeavyweights
Fat kids go to fat camp. It’s a blast until Ben Stiller takes over and cancels the fun due to lack of hustle. Hilariously, the protagonist is played by an actor named Cody Burger.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Video / iTunesThe Goonies
After discovering a treasure map, a young boy and his friends race through a booby-trapped cave system to find One-Eyed Willy’s fortune before the evil Fratelli family does.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Video / iTunesWreck-It Ralph
An unexpected and wildly original hit, Wreck-It Ralph follows Ralph through the animated world of arcade game characters as he goes from game to game, trying to convince everyone he’s not a villain, but a true hero.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Video / iTunesThe Pagemaster
Macaulay Culkin plays Richard Tyler, a boy obsessed with accident statistics. After taking shelter from a storm in a local library, he finds himself drawn into a cartoon world where he battles evil and discovers a love for books.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Video / iTunesForrest Gump
This Academy Award winner for Best Picture (it topped Pulp Fiction and Shawshank Redemption) has some adult elements (which will probably go over the heads of most non-adults), so screen with caution. However, the diversity of settings and American history — war, ping-pong tournaments, shrimp boats — and Hanks’s performance are enough to entertain anyone, no matter their age.
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Similar to Wreck-It Ralph, this film takes an equally original look at the inside life of childhood toys — only this time it’s the Lego set, not the arcade game.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Video / iTunesMrs. Doubtfire
The success of this movie is as astounding as the plot — an irresponsible father becomes divorced from his wife, ousted from his home and separated from his kids proves his worth through a complex, somewhat disturbing universe of deception — and the late Robin Williams’s performance.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Video / iTunesShrek
Shrek, a Scottish ogre who likes his privacy, gets pissed when the king exiles all the other fairy-tale creatures to his swamp; some princess rescue ensues. There’s a love triangle, and the king’s name is “Farquaad”. In a kid’s movie.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Video / iTunesHome Alone
Poor Kevin McCallister. His huge family doesn’t understand him or pay attention to him, and when they leave for a Christmas trip he’s left behind to fend for himself — which means battling the Wet Bandits. Clever Kevin defends his home from invasion in the most devious and creative ways: this is cozy justice porn for the family movie set.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Video / iTunesBig
Your own current size issues aside, at some point every kid wants to be big. Little did youthful Josh Baskin know that carnival games sometimes grant wishes.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Video / iTunesTime Bandits
Told through the eyes of a child, this story is about using imagination to escape certain sad realities which — unsettling as it is — is about as good a life lesson as you could teach anyone.
Amazon DVD / Amazon VideoJumanji
Straight from the beautiful pages of Chris Van Allsburg’s book erupts the tale of a board game that demands to be played. Robin Williams is perfect as a jungle-grown kid; herds of animals, alarmingly fast-growing killer vines, deadly tsetse flies and more keep both adults and kids on clenched for an hour and forty-five minutes.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Video / iTunesPrincess Mononoke
This is the most beautiful and imaginative film on this list. Hayao Miyazaki’s characters are never all good, never all bad. He explores the uncertainty of morals like no other filmmaker. It’s a cartoon with a PG-13 rating, because it takes its life-and-death themes very seriously.
Amazon DVDMonty Python and the Holy Grail
It’s the most accessible of the large collection of work by the Monty Python comedy troupe and was a favorite for generations of kids and adults growing up. It has enough crude humor for the parents and enough sight gags for the kids.
Will Ferrell in a perfect, if unanticipated, role. It’s his brand of bumble-comedy wrapped in a heart-warming Christmas plot.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / iTunesThe Sandlot
America, baseball and a rosier (or more naive) era.
Amazon DVD/ Amazon Video / iTunesBig Hero 6
This film surprised everyone when it beat out How to Train Your Dragon 2 for Best Animated Film at the 2014 Academy Awards. About a nerd and his robot in a city that merges Tokyo and San Francisco, it’s an important film about overcoming loss.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Video / iTunesCoraline
Neil Gaiman wrote the source material for this film right after he finished American Gods (his best-known work). His dark inventiveness (symbolic, beautiful, scary) was in full force.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Video / iTunesJingle All the Way
The critics hated this movie for all the reasons that make it a great family film: it’s familiar and formulaic, tends toward action over dialogue and it was a definite money grab for its stars. Fortunately those stars are Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sinbad.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Video / iTunesWho Framed Roger Rabbit?
From the director of Back to the Future and Forrest Gump (both on this list), this critically acclaimed hit was one of the first films to successfully merge animation and live action.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Video / iTunesThe Iron Giant
A young boy befriends a gigantic alien robot who’s as scared of his surroundings as everyone else is of him. Think BFG meets Wall-E (which is on our Sci-Fi list, so don’t ask).
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / iTunesRemember the Titans
Denzel Washington is tasked with coaching a Virginia T.C. Williams high school football team in its first year of integration. A story of racial strife, teamwork and a little bit of chanting, it’s about as good as family sports movies get.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / iTunesWallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit
Everyone’s favorite clay duo (take that, Gumby) team up to find the secret behind a mysterious vegetable disappearance. Featuring the vocal talents of the original Wallace, 92-year-old Peter Sallis, and the younger Helena Bonham Carter.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / iTunesJurassic Park
Forget the new Jurassic World. It had nothing on the timeless original.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Video / iTunesDirty Rotten Scoundrels
Think of it this way: Michael Caine is there to drive the plot forward and entertain the adults, while Steve Martin is there for the physical comedy to entertain the kids. What kid wouldn’t love the Ruprecht scene?
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