As a courtesy to you wonderful readers, we’ll be taking a stroll down memory lane as we look at 35 years of family movies (1980-2014). Watching movies together as a family, whether on a rainy spring afternoon or a frigid winter evening, has always been a favorite of mine.
All the movies I’m sharing with you are rated PG or lower and contain elements that I believe will entertain most if not all age groups. I have seen the vast majority of these films, and the ones I haven’t have either been recommended to me or received positive reception at their time of release. That being said, I realize all parents have different guidelines for acceptable movies, so I always recommend that you watch the movies before your children first in case there may be any objectionable material.
35 Years of Fun Family Movies: 1980-2014
1980 – POPEYE (Rated PG) – Do today’s kids even know who Popeye is? If not, they may not appreciate this 1980 box office failure as those of us who grew up with the spinach eating sailor that E.C. Segar created along with girlfriend Olive Oyl, mortal enemy Brutus, and hamburger-eating pal Wimpy. The movie was trashed when it first came out, and it’s certainly one of the most unique musicals ever made, but it has grown to acquire cult status, and Shelley Duvall was born to play Olive Oyl. Watching it over 35 years later, it certainly has the glow of nostalgia around it now. Not for everyone’s tastes, but worth a shot.
1981 – THE GREAT MUPPET CAPER (Rated G) – Call me a dork, but I think The Muppets can do no wrong, and in my heart of hearts, this movie is the crown jewel of their repertoire. A fun story for kids and adults alike, wonderful cameos from familiar humans, brilliant music and songs that will stick with you for the rest of your lives, and Miss Piggy not only doing an Esther Williams-style dance number in a swimming pool and putting Ginger Rogers to shame with a virtuoso tap dance but also breaking out of prison on a motorcycle after being accused of jewel theft. Seriously, who could ask for anything more?
1982 – SAVANNAH SMILES (Rated PG) – This was an absolute staple of my HBO-viewing childhood and holds special meaning because it was the first film I remember my grandparents taking me to see in a theater. I distinctly remember bawling my eyes out, and the same has pretty much happened every viewing since. A young runaway ends up in the getaway car of two escaped convicts who are naturally accused of kidnapping the young girl. Young Savannah turns out to be a ray of sunshine who eventually changes their lives for the better. Sweet movies about precocious young children usually give me hives, but this is a hilarious heartbreaker, and the ending will produce more tears than a STEEL MAGNOLIAS marathon on Lifetime.
1983 – MR. MOM (Rated PG) – I was on the fence whether or not to include this in a list of family films, particularly because of one scene that takes place at a male strip club, but overall this movie is a lot of fun, and I think kids will have a ball seeing a pre-Batman Michael Keaton forced to become a stay-at-home dad after he is laid off, and his wife becomes the bread winner of the family. This comedy is filled with awesome sight gags and actually presents a good message about gender equality and parenthood. Teri Garr is wonderful as Keaton’s wife – this came out the year after her Oscar-nominated role in TOOTSIE, and she was one of the great comic presences of 1980s film.
1984 – GREMLINS (Rated PG) – At the time of its release, there were those who feared this film might be a bit intense for younger viewers. It now seems tame by comparison. Steven Spielberg was one of the forces behind this extremely enjoyable tale of a boy and his pet and the consequences that occur when the rules aren’t followed. The little “mogwai” named Gizmo remains one of the most adorable creatures in motion picture history, and any kids who has ever wanted a pet hamster or rabbit will fall in love immediately. The titular gremlins take over the story in the second half, and if your kids are easily frightened, you may want to take a quick glance to make sure it is suitable. Don’t want any nightmares!
1985 – PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE (Rated PG) – This may be a peculiar choice for a family movie list, but if you put aside your personal feelings for Paul Reubens’ man-boy and watch this film with an open mind, you will find a wonderful adventure and fun characters that children of all ages will love. Many people don’t realize that this was an early directorial effort from Tim Burton, who later made the enjoyable BEETLEJUICE, the over-hyped BATMAN and the atrociously awful ALICE IN WONDERLAND. His creativity shines through, along with a great score and visually arresting production design. The late Jan Hooks’ cameo as an Alamo tour guide and the appearance of a truck driver named Large Marge are particular highlights!
1986 – THE ADVENTURES OF MILO AND OTIS (Rated G) – This is one of the only movies I’m using in this series of blogs that I haven’t actually seen, but with a G-rating and a healthy 80% Rotten Tomatoes score, I feel confident in encouraging you to consider this film that was actually made originally for Japanese TV. Narrated by the late Dudley Moore (you may remember him from the original ARTHUR), the film follows kitten Milo and dog Otis and their adventures during a trip down the river. If you end up watching this, I’d love to hear what you think! I realize pretty much any film with small animals is going to be a big hit with the kiddies!
1987 – BABY BOOM (Rated PG) – This is one of the very few films that I didn’t care for when I first watched it, but subsequent viewings have made it a favorite! Career-driven JC Wyatt, played hilariously by Diane Keaton, inherits a baby upon the death of a relative. Hilarity ensues. That’s really all you need to know about this film – you can probably predict exactly where it’s going, but there’s a lot of charm in the undertaking. Smaller children may get a little bored as there’s not a lot of visual inventiveness or over-the-top schtick, but it turns out to be a lovely story of acceptance and the power of love.
1988 – DAFFY DUCK’S QUACKBUSTERS (Rated G) – I am a Looney Tunes fanatic, and Bugs, Daffy, and the gang are like extended members of the family. This is one of several compilation films released in the 1970s and 1980s in which classic cartoons were interspersed with new animation and modern storyline. An obvious homage to GHOSTBUSTERS, I considered this a very fitting recommendation as we look forward to the all-female reboot of the 1984 classic next month. I would encourage modern cartoon-lovers of all ages to familiarize themselves with movies such as these, as this is indeed the gold standard of present, past, and future animation.
1989 – TROOP BEVERLY HILLS (Rated PG) – If you look up the term “guilty pleasure” in my personalized dictionary, a picture of this 1989 Shelley Long vehicle will service as the ultimate definition. I tend not to make a habit of sharing with many people the fact that this 43-year old male loves to watch a movie about a group of spoiled Wilderness Girls, but try as I might to resist the charms of this admittedly B-movie production, I am now and forever caught in its web. This is the cinematic equivalent of cotton candy – and perfect for a summer afternoon. Young girls, in particular, will probably get a kick out of the over-the-top female bonding that takes place while trying to sell cookies and win the climactic jamboree. Let’s keep this choice just between you and me, OK?
1990 – THE WITCHES (Rated PG) – I am not well schooled in the world of Roald Dahl, having only seen adaptations of his WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY and this wonderful film based on his 1993 children’s book of the same name. 1990 was one of my favorite years for movies in the last few decades, and director Nicolas Roeg’s movie is high on my list of favorites. While staying with his grandma at a hotel in England, young Luke comes upon a convention of witches who want to rid the world of nasty, smelly, horrible little children. Our young protagonist finds himself turned into a mouse and must find a way not only to save himself but children everywhere. I know some parents are sensitive to movies involving witches and warlocks and stuff like that – if you’re in that camp, you can skip this flick. Everyone else sit back and enjoy. Anjelica Huston, as the Grand High Witch, is absolutely marvelous!
1991 – LITTLE MAN TATE (Rated PG) – Jodie Foster made her directing debut with this wonderful tale of a young genius who can play classical piano, do calculus level math problems in his head, and make works of art that rival Van Gogh but ultimately just wants to have someone to sit with him at the lunch table. It’s the tried and true tale of the extraordinary child who wants nothing more than to be ordinary. This is obviously a deeply personal film for Foster, having been in the motion picture business literally since infancy, and it is always a deeply personal viewing experience for me, someone who has always felt like an outsider and never felt like I truly fit in anywhere. This is probably one of my strongest recommendations of this entire series, especially for school age children who are learning about peer pressure and the importance of acceptance and respect. I really love this movie!
1992 – A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN (Rated PG) – Some may consider this an odd choice for a list of family movies, but I couldn’t disagree more. As we look at the very real possibility of having a female president for the first time in our nation’s history, a film like this can be used as a history lesson to see how different things were for women 75 years ago. For those of you unfamiliar with the story, Penny Marshall’s comedy/drama is based on the true story of an all-female professional baseball league that was created as a result of many of the young athletic men of the time being deployed overseas during World War II. Anyone with a sibling will relate to the love/hate relationship between sisters Dottie and Kit that anchors the film, and though a relatively small role, this may arguably be Tom Hanks’ finest hour in my humble opinion.
1993 – THE SECRET GARDEN (Rated G) – Do you have a child with more discriminating taste? Possibly a youngster who reads E.M. Forster novels and really wants a DOWNTOWN ABBEY lunchbox? This is the perfect summer movie to enjoy together. Based on Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic, this hauntingly beautiful film is about a young girl whose parents die in an earthquake, and she is sent to live with an uncle who is also in mourning over the death of his wife. While there, young Mary Lennox discovers a cousin she never knew she had and a garden that has been unkempt for years but which may hold the secrets of magic. This is a lovely, ultimately moving children’s movie for those who have an attention span longer than 15 minutes. Younger children and those a little less mature may get bored, but the rest of you are in for a treat.
1994 – MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET (Rated PG) – I honestly have mixed feelings about this choice, but I wanted to include a holiday movie in here somewhere for those of you who like to celebrate Christmas in July. The 1947 original simply cannot be topped! It’s kinda like “The Carol Burnett Show” and Adele songs – if you try to do your own versions of them, you’re inevitably going to come up short. That being said, as far as remakes go, this is actually one of the better ones, although there are a couple changes made from the original, particularly in the courtroom and toward the end, that are unforgivable. Thankfully, the theme is timeless, the actors do their best, and the story is inherently charming and touching and downright irresistible. I mean, come on, when you see Santa speaking in sign language to the little deaf girl, we all believe for a minute or two!
1995 – BABE (Rated G) – This is a very special movie, as evidenced by its surprising nomination for the Best Picture Academy Award along with a slew of other honors. Farmer Hoggett wins a small pig at the county fair. Our fair Babe is spared his life rather than cooked for Christmas dinner and spends time trying to bond with the other animals of the barnyard, eventually discovering that he is a natural sheep herder. What sets BABE apart from other family movies? Well, for one, the quality of the filmmaking is stupendous – the production design turns a simple barnyard into a world as magical as Oz or Neverland. And it’s message of conformity and finding acceptance among those different than yourself can be appreciated by almost anyone – in a way, this would make a great double feature with LITTLE MAN TATEabove. Only the coldest of hearts will fail to be charmed by this one!
1996 – FLY AWAY HOME (Rated PG) – After the death of her mother, young Amy must relocate to Canada to live with her estranged father. It’s rough going at first, as Amy has had no relationship with her dad in the past; however, things begin to change for the better when she comes across some abandoned goose eggs. Becoming a surrogate mother for the geese after the eggs hatch, Amy and her dad join forces in an effort to teach them how to fly south for the winter. Here we have yet another example of a family movie featuring parental death and cute animals; however this film has the distinct advantage of being made by Carroll Ballard, whose 1979 film THE BLACK STALLION is considered by many to be the gold standard of family films. Both Jeff Daniels and young Anna Paquin are quite good; however, be warned that you will be harassed to buy your children a pet goose for the rest of the summer.
1997 – GOOD BURGER (Rated PG) – In my efforts to be taken seriously as a film blogger and critic of high standards and impeccable taste, I must include this feature from the gang at Nickeloden featuring the comic stylings of Kenan and Kel as fast food employees whose restaurant is threatened by a huge new burger joint that opens across the street. Listen, it’s summer – sometimes you need something light and airy, something that requires absolutely no brain power to absorb or digest. I’m not going to say much more as this is not one of my proudest moments, but there are lots of goofy performances and sight gags to keep the kids entertained.
1998- THE PRINCE OF EGYPT (Rated PG) – Surprisingly, I rarely hear this movie brought up in discussions of great animated films of the last couple decades. In essence THE TEN COMMANDMENTS for the Spongebob generation, this movie gives us the book of Exodus in cartoon form, featuring the voices of actors like Michelle Pfeiffer, Sandra Bullock, Steve Martin, and Jeff Goldblum. I saw this twice in the theater when it first came out, and I was extraordinarily impressed, particularly it’s unforgettable rendering of the parting of the Red Sea. There are a few slow spots, and it doesn’t have the greatest of musical numbers, the exception being the Oscar-winning “When You Believe”, but I applaud the filmmakers efforts to bring Biblical stories to the younger generation.
1999 – MUSIC OF THE HEART (Rated PG) – Any youngster who is in band at school or takes piano lessons every week will fall in love with this true life story of Roberta Guaspari, a divorced mother of two desperate for a job who finds work teaching violin to underprivileged children in Harlem. Over the next decade, the program becomes a huge success, only to be threatened with termination due to budget cuts. In order to raise money to keep the program alive, Roberta’s past and present students join forces with musical greats such as Itzhak Perlman, Joshua Bell, and Isaac Stern to put on a benefit concert. This is a fine story that not only highlights the importance of the arts in our public schools but also paints a very personal portrait of the difficulty of divorce not only on the parents involved but also the children. The climactic benefit concert at the end gives me chills literally every time I watch this film. And don’t be surprised if you shed a tear or two.
2000 – LIFE-SIZE (Unrated – I would consider it PG) – I suppose including this title is sorta cheating because it actually wasn’t a theatrical release but a movie made exclusively for the Disney Channel. It’s also a questionable choice because I don’t care to admit to first watching and enjoying this film about a pre-meltodown Lindsay Lohan bringing a doll played by Tyra Banks to life when I was 27 years old. Thankfully I had eight and four-year old nieces at the time, so I used them as an excuse to watch this a few dozen times; but just between you and me, they may not have been present during a couple viewings. In many respects this is a very obvious, clumsily made, juvenile undertaking, but I couldn’t help but be touched by the underlying story of a young girl desperate to fill the void left by her deceased mother, and I found myself genuinely moved at the climax. That being said, be forewarned that this movie has a singing and dancing epilogue at the very end that is probably the most awkward, uncomfortable thing I’ve ever witnessed in my life.
2001 – JIMMY NEUTRON: BOY GENIUS (Rated G) – This animated film from Nickelodeon Movies has the distinction of being among the set of nominees for the very first Best Animated Film Oscar, along with MONSTERS, INC. and winner SHREK. While not on par with either of those two other movies, this is still a fun, breezy comedy based on the Nickelodeon cartoon series about a 10-year old boy and his robot dog. Jimmy, being the titular genius that he is, always seems to be inventing new gadgets and contraptions, sort of a MacGyver for the toddler crowd. Jimmy often dreams of a life on his own, even though he’s not even a teenager yet, but an alien kidnapping in his hometown of Retroville makes him realize the grass isn’t always greener on the other side of the fence. This is harmless fun that will keep the kiddies occupied and possibly allow you time to get some work done around the house.
2002 – SPELLBOUND (Rated G) – I said it before in my review of AKEELAH AND THE BEE (also a wonderful family film well worth checking out), and I’ll say it again here and now – there is nothing more exciting than a spelling bee. I was originally going to use this film in my Great Movies You’ve Never Heard Of series, but I thought this was an even better venue to discuss how wonderful this movie is and what a great G-rated gem this can be for the whole family. This documentary follows eight incredibly gifted youngsters who are competing in the renowned Scripps National Spelling Bee. We witness the intense pressure they not only place upon themselves but also get from their parents, friends, and teachers. In many ways these kids are like participants in a mental Olympics, and while some thrive under the pressure, some succumb to the intensity. Take some time to discuss with your kids afterwards the pressures they face at school and among their peers – this may be a very relatable movie for many of them.
2003 – FREAKY FRIDAY (Rated PG) – For the most part, I’ve been trying to recommend some lesser known films for our series. This remake of the 1976 Jodie Foster comedy/fantasy did really well at the box office, making over $110 million, but I rarely hear it discussed nowadays, which is a shame because it’s a wonderful piece of commercial moviemaking featuring a performance by Jamie Lee Curtis that is beyond outstanding and seriously deserved awards consideration. Mom Tess and daughter Anna are having a contentious relationship, to say the last. After a magical visit to a Chinese restaurant, both find themselves the next morning having switched bodies and over the course of the next 90 minutes discover things about themselves and each other that will impact their lives forever. Nothing new here, folks, but the filmmaking and performances are above average making this a surprisingly enjoyable film for all ages. And I want to say it again – Jamie Lee Curtis’ performance here rivals that of Tom Hanks in the similar-themed BIG.
2004 – FINDING NEVERLAND (Rated PG) – If you took my recommendation from the previous installment and enjoyed THE SECRET GARDEN, this fantastical movie about author J.M. Barrie and the family that inspired him to write PETER PAN is going to be right up your alley. For those youngsters who know Johnny Depp only from the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN movies, his fine and understated work here will be a revelation. Those familiar with the story of Peter and Wendy and Captain Hook will enjoy finding scenes here that parallel those that eventually made it to Barrie’s creation that, of course, has been the basis of countless movies, television shows, and stage productions. I would be remiss not to spotlight the work of young Freddie Highmore here, who gives one of the best children’s performances I’ve ever seen. If you don’t shed a tear or two during his final scene with Depp, your heart is made of stone!
2005 – CHICKEN LITTLE (Rated G) – Somehow I missed this movie when it first came out back in 2005, and while hardly among the best of Disney’s oeuvre, it’s still a very entertaining and certainly family friendly film that has something for everyone. I must admit that one of the aspects I responded to most strongly was its unpredictability – when I started the film, I certainly wasn’t expecting a Steven Spielberg-like space fantasy complete with a lost extra terrestrial and a climactic battle worthy of WAR OF THE WORLDS. I had no idea where this picture was heading, and that’s very impressive for this type of movie. Along the way we also get a touchingly complicated relationship between a father who has lost his wife and a son who has lost his mother. We learn the importance of trust and communication between parents and their children. And any movie that ends with the song Don’t Go Breaking My Heart can’t be all bad!
2006 – WORDPLAY (Rated PG) – My apologies if this list of films may be getting a little too cerebral compared to the others, but I couldn’t bear the idea of leaving this highly enjoyable independent film off of my list. Basically a celebration of the crossword puzzle, the main gist of the story follows New York Times puzzle maker Will Shortz, but other puzzle lovers highlighted include Jon Stewart, former president Bill Clinton, and baseball player Mike Mussina. It’s amazing how much humor, suspense, intrigue, and fascination can stem from such a topic, but filmmaker Patrick Creadon does a wonderful job delving into the worlds of the word players. Anybody who loves crosswords, search-a-words, Sudoku or anything like that will likely find this movie fascinating to watch.
2007 – HAIRSPRAY (Rated PG) – Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined a musical based on a John Waters movie to be among the titles on a family movies list. For those of you unfamiliar with Waters, he is an underground director from Baltimore known for his questionable taste and outrageous camp classic movies. That being said, the motion picture wizards whipped up a miracle and produced this film about a talented but overweight young girl who wants to join an American Bandstand-like dance show in the 1960s and in the process joins the fight for integration. A fantastic cast (including John Travolta in drag), songs you’ll be singing for days, and a dazzling 10 minute finale are just a few of the joys this film has to offer. I distinctly remember seeing this in the theater when it was first released and literally smiling non-stop from the opening credits till the final song. This is the definition of a feel-good movie!
2008 – FOOD, INC. (Rated PG) – I thought long and hard about whether to include a documentary about the United States food industry on such a list, but I finally conceded to do so. I have long believed that movies can be sources of enlightenment as well as entertainment, and I believe this film can not only be a source of some brilliant conversation afterwards but possibly affect young people in their future decisions. The film addresses many aspects of modern day food preparation and processing, from the treatment of the animals being raised for slaughter to the restaurant employees being paid minimum wage and not being treated much better than the animals themselves. Admittedly much of this will go over many kids’ heads, and there are a couple animal scenes that might disturb younger viewers, but this may very well change hearts and minds of viewers young and old alike.
2009 – PONYO (Rated G) – If your family has a love for animated films and likes to try things out of the ordinary, give this Japanese fantasy a try! Originally released in 2008 in Japan, it came out stateside in 2009 for American audiences re-dubbed with the voices of familiar actors such as Tina Fey, Cate Blanchett, Matt Damon, and Liam Neeson. The film revolves around a goldfish princess who longs to become human after developing a friendship with a human boy. The director is Hayao Miyazaki who has made many award-winning animated films such as SPIRITED AWAY, PRINCESS MONONOKE and HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE. If you are only familiar with Disney and Pixar animation, give one of these films a shot! You may be surprised by the beauty and originality of these films compared to what we are used to in North America.
2010 – WAITING FOR SUPERMAN (Rated PG) – Yep, another documentary. Your kids are going to hate me by the time this is over. I am willing to take the risk, though, because this more than any other title on my list, should be required viewing for families. Davis Guggenheim is the director and co-writer of this indictment on the current state of the American public school system. Guggenheim is also the talented fellow who made AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH back in 2006, which took a scathing look at global warming and its effects on the environment. I love artists who use film not only to entertain but also to enlighten, to probe, and to challenge. Over the decades there have been countless reforms and attempts to strengthen our education programs in an attempt to produce more graduates than drop-outs. Why have the improvements been so limited and, in some cases non-existent? What can we do that hasn’t already been done. You’ll have some great discussions after this movie! (Currently available for rent on Google Play, Amazon Video, and Vudu. Free to TubiTV subscribers. Available for purchase on CinemaNow.)
2011 – THE MUPPETS (Rated PG) – In my mind, Kermit and Miss Piggy and all their pals are living breathing creatures, not puppets, and I will continue to believe this until my dying day. I consider them one of the great creations of family entertainment which earns them a second mention in this blog series. Walter is the biggest Muppets fan ever, and when he discovers that a greedy tycoon is planning to destroy Muppet Studios, he embarks on a mission, along with his human brother and his brother’s fiancee, to reunite all of the original Muppets who have gone their separate ways in order to raise the money needed to save the studio. This ridiculously touching and nostalgic film will bring back wonderful memories for those of you who grew up with Jim Henson’s gang and make new converts of youngsters not familiar with this wonderful group of characters. The ending song and dance number is a real highlight, and you will get a kick out of all the celebrity cameos. This is one of the ten best films of 2011!
2012 – FRANKENWEENIE (Rated PG) – This may prove to be one of the more divisive films I’ve mentioned throughout this whole series. This animated film from the creative juggernaut that is Tim Burton is decidedly not another normal Pixar or Disney production. The animation itself is actually stop-motion and filmed in black and white. The plot revolves around a little boy’s attempt to bring his deceased dog back to life and the havoc that ensues. More adventurous viewers a little tired of the basic tried and true will likely relish the imagination and creativity of this movie, which is actually based on a short film Burton made decades ago. If your family enjoyed THE CORPSE BRIDE and THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, this film will be a perfect addition to your movie library.
2013 – THE SOUND OF MUSIC LIVE! (Unrated) – Movie purists out there are going to tar and feather me for even considering this recommendation, but hear me out. I realize it’s not the 1965 original, and nothing can ever come close to Julie Andrews twirling on a mountaintop singing her brains out. I realize Carrie Underwood may be my favorite contemporary country singer but acting is probably not the best use of her talents. And I realize the songs and story will make make overly cynical viewers want to burn the DVD halfway through. That being said, I was genuinely moved on more than one occasion, including the sublime Audra McDonald singing a goosebump-inducing version of Climb Ev’ry Mountain. And this was the very beginning of a wonderful trend I fully support and hope continues for years to come – the return of live television. It’s the next best thing for those of us who aren’t able to attend Broadway shows and want to experience a little bit of the thrill of sitting in the third row on 42nd Street.
2014 – PADDINGTON (Rated PG) – What a wonderful surprise this movie turned out to be and purely by accident! My 19 year old niece and 7 year old nephew were visiting for the day, and we were desperate to find a film on which everyone could agree. I finally ended the suspense by choosing the movie about a Peruvian bear who takes residence with a couple in England only to be threatened with taxidermy by an evil Nicole Kidman. And you know what? We all loved it! There were plenty of funny slapstick moments and cute cuddly bear scenes for the little one and enough clever dialogue and cute cuddly bear scenes for the older one – for a moment we were all happy! Obviously based on the series of books by Michael Bond and the multiple television series that followed, this is a delightful family movie which takes the viewer on an adventure from the jungles of South America to the rainy streets of London. This is one of the rare occasions when I actually wouldn’t mind seeing a sequel.
What are some of your favorite fun family movies?