Top Ten Children’s Films For Adults, Too

There’s more to making a family film palatable for grown-ups and kids alike than letting riff-rabid Robin Williams off the leash or dropping double-entendres and pop-culture name-checks among the sight gags: The story has to speak to the child in all of us while not talking down to tykes. These ten movies wrap their simple but essential take-aways in charming (and, yes, sometimes cloying) high-concept packages, and we’re grateful for the gift that keeps on giving with repeat viewings. (Because it’s difficult to evaluate recent films objectively, this list omits twenty-first-century releases; also, only English-language films are included.)

10. A Christmas Story

A simple nostalgic tale that nobody made much of a fuss over when it came out in 1983 is now one of the most beloved Christmas flicks, all the more so because it is so not sappy: A narrator recalls one Yuletide in the 1940s when, as a bespectacled young boy, he was absolutely, positively certain to just die if he didn’t get a Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle from Santa. Kids and adults alike feel Ralphie’s pain and get caught up in timeless trials and tribulations. Best line: The narrator recalls a foul-mouthed tirade by “the Old Man”: “In the heat of battle, my father wove a tapestry of obscenities that as far as we know is still hanging in space over Lake Michigan.”

9. 20000 Leagues Under the Sea

The 1954 film adaptation of the Jules Verne novel, the crowning achievement of Disney’s live-action filmography, combined high-quality production values, a small but impressive cast, and a sophisticated script. Kirk Douglas as brawny harpoonist Ned Land, James Mason as cultured but unhinged Captain Nemo, and Paul Lukas as conflicted Professor Aronnax are the id, ego, and superego of this family-friendly morality tale (with a corpulent Peter Lorre along for comic relief), and though Nemo is clearly bonkers, his crusade to employ violence to end violence has a certain appeal. And then there’s the dreamy underwater photography, the Mom-can-I-have-one? Nautilus, and the thrilling battle with the giant squid. Best line: Captain Nemo: “The natives over there are cannibals. They eat liars with the same enthusiasm as they eat honest men.”

8. The Lion King

As usual, Broadway-ready songs and comic relief sidekicks get in the way somewhat in this 1994 Disney hit, the peak effort of the studio’s third golden age of animation. But the story, pitched as “Bambi Meets Hamlet,” is perhaps the most epic and mythically resonant film (and certainly, in parts, the grimmest) from the Mouse House. Adults can appreciate the Shakespearean plot and Jeremy Irons’s sardonic villain, while kids enjoy the thrills and the laughs. Best line: Mufasa, the lion king, explains things to his son Simba, “When we die, our bodies become the grass, and the antelope eat the grass. And so we are all connected in the great Circle of Life.”

7. Toy Story

Once upon a time, a feisty little animation studio called Pixar created a computer-animated film full of heart and soul — and revolutionized filmmaking. The antics of a roomful of toys that come to life whenever no people are around entertains grown-ups and kids alike on one level, but the terrific dialogue and set pieces — based on pop-culture nostalgia rather than catchphrases and images that are already lame by the time a film comes out — really set it apart. Best line: Little Bo Peep comes on to Woody, asking, “What would you say if I get someone else to watch the sheep for me tonight?”

6. Pinocchio

This follow-up to Disney’s first full-length animated feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, like that film, doesn’t skimp on the excitement — including the scares. What gives it the nod on this list over Snow White and Disney’s other early films? The sheer heroism of the little puppet, who (with a little nudging from his “conscience,” Jiminy Cricket), demonstrates his humanity and his right to become a real boy. Even more important, though, Pinocchio is the real deal: He disobeys, runs away, and succumbs to temptation on Pleasure Island but then, without looking for it, finds redemption. Best line: The Blue Fairy’s judgment “A boy who won’t be good might just as well be made of wood.”

5. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial

With this film, producer/director Steven Spielberg created a fairy tale for the suburban age: A boy in a single-parent household (guess which parent), with the aid of siblings and friends, helps an alien reunite with others of its own kind. Anybody could have made a film about this, but only Spielberg could have made this film. His masterstroke? Not only did he shoot most of the film from the boy’s or the alien’s point of view, but he remembered what childhood is like — and so do you. Best line: Elliott and his older brother, Michael, discuss E.T.; Michael asks, “Did you explain school to him?” and Elliott replies, “How do you explain school to higher intelligence?”

4. The Princess Bride

Rob Reiner’s 1987 swashbuckler send-up is a captivating tale-within-a-tale featuring stirring feats of derring-do, characters straight of out of Fairy Tale Central Casting, and a fierce commitment to the romantic resonance of classic adventure novels. Mandy Patinkin, as a sympathetic Spanish swordsman smoldering with a passion to avenge his father’s treacherous death, steals the show from the comparatively pallid romantic leads, and Wallace Shawn, who makes no effort to immerse his villainous character in the medieval milieu, is nevertheless gratingly ingratiating. Best line: Inigo Montoya’s much-rehearsed challenge to his long-sought nemesis, “I am Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”

3. Star Wars

This scrappy little modern-day fairy tale, inspired by everything from Greek myth to samurai films, still warm the romantic’s heart after several decades and an overblown and underwhelming second Star Wars trilogy. Harrison Ford, forever young and cocky as swashbuckling space pilot Han Solo, appeals to kids and grown-ups alike, and the retro gee-whiz adventure never goes stale. Best line: Obi-Wan, holding a light saber and waxing eloquent, says, “This is the weapon of a Jedi Knight. Not as clumsy or random as a blaster; an elegant weapon for a more civilized age. For over a thousand generations, the Jedi Knights were the guardians of peace and justice in the Old Republic. Before the dark times — before the Empire.”

2. Iron Giant

At the height of the Cold War, a precocious young boy living in a small town in Maine befriends a massive robot, imposing but innocent, that only later recognizes its hidden, heinous purpose — and, learning from the boy what it is to be human, defies its directive. With this criminally underrated gem from 1999, director Brad Bird, who went on to make The Incredibles and Ratatouille and has two live-action films in production (including Mission: Impossible IV), caught the tenor of the times, achieved a heartwarming tone without being overly sentimental, and crafted a smart, sophisticated animated film delightfully bereft of Disney-esque touches. Best line: The title character’s declaration of self-determination, “I am not a gun.”

1. The Wizard of Oz

Dorothy’s surrender to the schmaltzy sentiment of “There’s no place like home” is a disappointment (now, seriously, would you have left Oz?), but when the story is framed in the fairy tale mold, the homily hits home — literally. The production suffered ominous obstacles, but what happened then was rich: This 1939 release struck yellow-brick gold. Perhaps the most nearly perfect movie of all time, it boasts a classic quest story line, unforgettable characters, a gorgeous production design, and an irrepressible, timeless charm. Best line: The Wizard’s one-line lesson to the Tin Man: “A heart is not judged by how much you love, but by how much you are loved by others.”

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