From The Kid to Toy Story, cinema has given us thousands of indelible ways to entertain and stimulate children, and subdue the difficult ones. We all grew up with classics that have stuck with us: for some it was Pixar; others were weaned on the classics of Disney animation or Studio Ghibli's fantasical otherworlds. But what should you be treating your kids to first? Glad you asked because we've been weighing up this very question. Tears were shed and hair was pulled but eventually we came up with 50 of the finest kids' films in cinema. And, hey, we're all friends again now.
50. Honey, I Shrunk The Kids (1989)
Long before he bulked Steve Rogers up in Captain America, director Joe Johnston was sending Rick Moranis' brainiac DIY-scientist and his kids in the other direction in Disney's Borrowers-alike smash. Watch this one and skip two sequels that failed to match its pace and inventiveness. Oh, and happily for young minds, the bit where one of the kids was due to come a cropper during the sprinkler scene didn't make it past the draft stage.
49. Labyrinth (1986)
Jim Henson understood that real fairy tales are rarely all sweetness and light, and while Labyrinth isn’t quite as grotesque as its predecessor The Dark Crystal, it’s no less startling. Ex-Python Terry Jones wrote the final iteration of the screenplay, injecting humour and momentum into the adventure. But at its core this is still the tale of a descent into an evil realm to rescue a stolen baby from monsters. And then there’s Bowie, of course. Eyes up here, guys.
48. Shrek 2 (2004)
Shrek ushered in a new, daringly mature breed of animated adventures. Where Pixar evolved the traditional Disney model, DreamWorks roundly took the piss out of it, poking fun at fair maidens and brave sir knights with colourful aplomb. This first sequel is probably the series at its peak; among the fairy-tale parodies and pop culture references, it sees our favourite grumpy ogre confronting his greatest challenge – the in-laws.
47. Despicable Me (2010)
Crackpot animation from Universal, which made break-out stars of its little yellow freakazoids. The Minions stole the show – and the end credits, which are still among the best uses of 3D since it was forced on everyone in 2009 – but the first Despicable Me is also the surprisingly touching tale of Steve Carell’s supervillain Gru: learning to be nice again when lumbered with three wards from Miss Hattie’s Home For Girls. For all the frantic gags, it’s the soft centre that stays with you.
46. Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)
Spirited Away may be Studio Ghibli’s highest-profile effort, but for many, this is the peerless Japanese studio at the height of their powers. Among the menagerie of its typically surreal aberrations: a castle on legs, a talking fire, a turnip-headed living scarecrow, a carpet-rugged dog, a flying prince, and an obese witch. Another day at the office, then.
45. The Black Stallion (1979)
A lesser-known gem, The Black Stallion is the tale of a boy and a horse shipwrecked on a deserted shoreline. Dazzlingly shot - Caleb Deschanel's photography is regularly cited by his fellow cinematographers - it's a feast for young eyes with a storytelling simplicity that will chime with children weaned on anything from C.S. Lewis to Michael Morpurgo.
44. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968)
Before they're ready for Goldfinger, here's some Gert Fröbe-starring, Ian Fleming-sourced magic that's more age appropriate for your little people than Sean Connery's seduction techniques. Like Top Gear on laughing gas, Fleming's flying car tale makes for an inventive, colourful, hammy and fun kids' caper. Altogether now! "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, we love you."
43. Frozen (2013)
It would have been remiss of us to leave Frozen, a film already permanently engraved in the minds of a generation of nippers, off this list. But we include it with a trigger warning. Parents the world over are still suffering the traumatic effects of PFSD (Post-Frozen Stress Disorder), the psychological side-effect of watching Disney’s icy fairy tale on repeat for months; many are now in padded rooms, straightjacketed, rocking gently back and forth, humming “Let It Go” to themselves. Spare a thought for them.
42. Son Of Rambow (2007)
After the huge undertaking of adapting The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, director Garth Jennings went low-budget and low-key, with this charming semi-autobiographical tale of two boys attempting to remake First Blood on a mini-DV camcorder. Funny, well-pitched, and very British, this is a scrupulously honest account of life as a nerdy, film-obsessive 11-year-old. (Not that we’d know from personal experience, or anything.)
41. Toy Story (1995)
The film that announced Pixar to the world as a force to be reckoned with, and computer animation as a serious storytelling device. Toy Story was the first ever entirely computer-generated film, but that’s almost the least notable of its achievements: it took the well-honed Disney fairy tale template and placed it into a recognisably realistic modern world, complete with a fierce wit and a bulging heart. This is no mere child’s plaything...
40. The Muppet Movie (1979)
The original and still the best, Jim Henson's first big-screen Muppetathon was an origin story long before Batman Begins and co got in on the act. Beginning with Kermit watching his own swamp-based origins on screen (meta much?), the Dark Frog embarks on a US road trip involving brainwashing, insta-grow pills, Dr. Teeth and bizarro/awesome cameos from Telly Savalas and Orson Welles. You can't explain the plot without being put on a psychiatric watch list, but your kids will love you for trying.
39. The Incredible Journey (1963)
In reality, there's no way two dogs and a cat could get to the end of the street without mauling each other or being distracted by a bin, let alone across country, but, hey, that's the magic of Disney. Plus if this happened in real-life, its three fluffy heroes - Luath the Labrador Retriever, Bodger the Bull Terrier and Tao the Siamese cat - would basically break the internet. Inspiring and adorable in equal measure.
38. WALL-E (2008)
800 years in the future, humanity has abandoned Earth, a planet now overwhelmed with pollution and rubbish. The only thing left: an adorable trash-compacting robot who has evolved long enough to fall in love. One of Pixar’s most ambitious projects (and for this studio, that’s saying something), WALL-E’s grand scale and intimate charm benefits from talents like Star Wars sound designer Ben Burtt and cinematographer supremo Roger Deakins.
37. Matilda (1996)
Roald Dahl – arguably the greatest children’s author of them all – has earned somewhat patchy treatment on the big screen. But this adaptation, a story of an abused little girl who discovers telekinetic powers, is as faithful as they come, and venerated by children of a certain age. The infamous chocolate-eating scene is a slice of sloppy schadenfreude; the ultimate resolve between Matilda (Mara Wilson) and Miss Honey (Embeth Davidtz) gives the film its real sweetness.
36. Wallace & Gromit: The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit (2005)
Aardman's long-awaited big-screen outing for Wallace and Gromit is basically a Universal monster movie with added laughs and the studio's wonderfully English worldview. Alongside our old favourites, man (Wallace) and his much smarter best friend (Gromit), Ralph Fiennes and Helena Bonham Carter are simply spiffing as the posh types caught in a bunnypocalypse, and the visual gags land with dizzying regularity. If your kid doesn't enjoy this film, put them up for adoption.
35. How To Train Your Dragon (2010)
A classic tale of a boy and his dog, only the ‘dog’ breathes lightning and would happily devour a village. This loose adaptation of Cressida Cowell’s novels sees inept Viking Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) break with tradition to befriend (and train) an injured dragon. The story (friendships forged, prejudices set aside) is charmingly told but its Toothless that steals the show – DreamWorks’ wonky-tailed lizard proving as adorable a character as any Disney concocted.
34. Miracle On 34th Street (1947)
Pick the one where Santa won an Oscar - well, Edmund Gwenn did for playing him - rather than the '90s remake, because it's here than the real magic happens. The story of one bearded old fella and his Macy's grotto may seem a little dated in this age of Amazon Prime, but there's no better way to introduce children to the simpler joys of Christmas.
33. The Kid (1921)
Want to introduce your wee'un to the joys of silent cinema but think they may be a bit young for all five-and-a-half hours of Abel Gance's Napoleon? Try Charlie Chaplin's heartfilled fable of the Little Tramp and the even littler scamp he befriends in one of cinema's most magical junior bromances.
32. Beauty And The Beast (1991)
It was, as the song went, a tale as old as time. But rarely have such tales been told so elegantly, so lavishly, with new advances in animation offering a sumptuous canvas of colours and characters (a singing teapot will never not be great). The story, too – typically Disney, fable-filled and fanciful, but rich in romance and poetry – was enough for it to earn the first Best Picture Oscar nomination for an animated film.
31. Paddington (2014)
The idea seemed improbable and the first trailer left a few unconvinced but, boy, was director Paul King's little bear a joy to behold when he arrived on the screen. For anyone who wants their kids to learn about things like home, finding a place in the world and the importance of always having a sandwich to hand, this is indispensible viewing. Try to gloss over the bit where Hugh Bonneville dresses up as a cleaning lady, if you can.
30. Oliver! (1968)
There have been at least dozen adaptations of Charles Dickens’ classic novel about the orphan boy who wanted more. But few are as unforgettable as the toe-tapping exclamation-marked musical version from Lionel Bart and Carol Reed. Beautifully staged, perfectly cast, and with songs that lift the source text to a new plane, the original poster claimed it to be “much more than a musical”. We’d be inclined to agree.
29. The Railway Children (1970)
An ideal parental bonding experience, E. Nesbit's train tykes make a timeless big-screen trio. They're led by Bobbie (Jenny Agutter), a teen with the smarts of Hermione and the train safety awareness of Denzel Washington in Unstoppable, but even the girls' Yorkshire rail capers fade in comparison with the poignant beats and one of the most tear-duct-stirring endings in cinemas. Totes loco-motional.
28. The Adventures Of Robin Hood (1938)
Look in the dictionary for “swashbuckling” and you will find Errol Flynn’s broad-as-it-is-long smile grinning back at you. His effortlessly charismatic turn as the heroic outlaw is surely definitive screen version (sorry, Kevin), in a crowd-pleasing technicolour adventure that transcends its eight-decade age. Lavish production values, classical Hollywood starriness, and a cast of thousands – even cynical 21st-century children will be hooked.
27. Finding Nemo (2003)
Pixar’s great strength was finding a story in unexpected places: a toy chest; an ant colony; a rat’s nest. In Finding Nemo, we find ourselves emotionally invested in a tiny clownfish with a dodgy fin. The heart-rending story, of a father learning to let go, sneaks its way in through a shoal of hilarious characters and setpieces. Pass the tartar sauce!
26. The Jungle Book (1967)
Still the king of the swingers 50 years later, Disney's (first) take on Rudyard Kipling's novel is a pacy 78-minutes of jungular mayhem lit up by the songs of the Sherman Brothers, sassy dialogue and wonderful characters. It's so good, Disney would go on to reuse chunks of the cel animation in Robin Hood six years later.
25. Home Alone (1990)
What should an 8-year-old boy do when left alone and terrorised by burglars? The sensible thing would be to call the police and get the neighbours to help out. But this Chris Columbus/John Hughes classic offers an alternative option: extreme violence. Introducing Macaulay Culkin to an unsuspecting public, Home Alone’s curious blend of elaborate boobie traps and sentimental life lessons has ensured its place as an annual viewing appointment at Christmas.
24. The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
The ultimate antidote to jolly Christmas cheer, this darkly brilliant stop-motion treat came from the demented mind of Tim Burton, years before he somewhat ran out of creative steam. The story of Jack Skellington, the gothic anti-hero of Halloween Town who finds a portal to Christmas Town, has become as beloved as the seasonal tales it seeks to caricature.
23. The Goonies (1985)
A generation shuffled their truffles for the love of Richard Donner’s caper, in which Cory Feldman, Josh Brolin and co. go in search of pirate treasure, facing competition from Robert Davi and Anne Ramsey. Producer Steven Spielberg’s fingerprints are on it too, but this is closer to Gremlins than E.T.: a reminder of a time when kids’ films were allowed to be a little bit scurrilous.
22. Inside Out (2015)
A movie that made us care about a nougat-filled elephant-cat hybrid, Inside Out came out just in time to silence those suggesting that Pixar had lost its critical edge. On paper at least, it sounds bonkers. Set inside the human mind with a character called Anger and that aforementioned nougat-flavoured frankenfriend, it sounds like a metaphysical jungle impenetrable to anyone without a PHd in psychology. But kids loved it, and yours will too.
21. Time Bandits (1981)
Directed by Terry Gilliam, who also co-wrote with Michael Palin, and featuring appearances by the latter and John Cleese, this is the closest thing you’ll get to a Monty Python movie for kids. It’s also a thrilling time-travel fantasy adventure (featuring a gang of dwarves on the run from God) that was unafraid to go ‘dark’ an entire generation before a kid called Harry received an invite to attend a magical boarding school.
20. Up (2009)
While grown-up will be blubbing their eyes out during the opening Married Life montage, smaller folk may be getting ready to revel in the antics of Russell, the ever-helpful boy scout, Doug, the benovelent but hugely dim talking dog, and cranky old Carl Fredricksen on their Amazonian adventure. Ready those Wilderness Explorer application forms now.
19. Elf (2003)
Without even really trying, Elf has become one of those films that has wormed its way into pop culture legend. There’s a certain breed of Elf fan who, around Christmas time, will offer a stream of Elf quotes, without prompting. They’ll chirp “Smiling’s my favourite” with joy; shout “You sit on a throne of lies!” in anger; call themselves “Cotton-headed ninny-muggins” in sadness; and consider “candy, candy canes, candy corns and syrup” as the four main food groups. Son of a nutcracker, indeed!
18. The Secret Of Kells (2009)
Cartoon Saloon is like the Studio Ghibli of Ireland. Their 2015 effort, Song Of The Sea, offered a sumptuous illustrated picture-book, come to life. But for our money, this bewitching fantasy – about a little boy who lives at a medieval monastery – is their best work. Drawing on centuries of Irish mythology, it takes in illuminators, wolf-girls, deities of death, vikings and barbarians, via some of the most luscious hand-drawn animation committed to celluloid. Spellbinding stuff.
17. Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban (2004)
The moment the Harry Potter franchise left behind its little-kid origins and began to grow up a bit. Azkaban – directed by Alfonso Cuarón between Y Tu Mama Tambien and Children Of Men – starts to deepen the mythology around Harry’s lineage, but does so in the midst of a cracking adventure that involves Gary Oldman’s escaped convict Sirius Black, time travel, a hippogriff and a werewolf.
16. Pinocchio (1940)
Everything about Pinocchio is memorable, etched into our collective consciousness as a paragon of classical Disney. Just like the work of its wood-carving patriarchal hero, Gepetto, there is a meticulousness and quality to this early Disney effort that is immutable, enduring, timeless. Offering hope to wooden boys everywhere, its impassioned wishing-upon-a-star denouement helped establish the now-unmistakable Disney DNA. No word of a lie.
15. Spirited Away (2001)
Howl's Moving Castle is almost as beloved and Princess Mononoke has a harder-edged brilliance, but this is peak Ghibli, a feast of outlandish imagination set in a netherworld that mutates and morphs almost as fast as the eyes can absorb it. Its ten-year-old heroine is the perfect guide for youngsters into a realm of witches, dieties and monsters.
14. Aladdin (1992)
On paper, Aladdin is Disney on auto-pilot: a princess who needs rescuing from a dashing hero, augmented with heartwarming songs and talking animals. What stands this one out from the crowd is Robin Williams’ Genie. A bundle of hyper-energy, anachronistic pop culture references and subversive winks to the grown-ups, the Genie added an extra dimension to Disney, and demonstrated a level of invention previously unseen. It offered, you could say, a whole new world.
13. Babe (1995)
Until they remake Gravity with Miss Piggy, this remains the greatest pig-based children's yarn in the canon. A delight from start to sheepdog-trial-set finish, it's heartwarming, clever and ingeniously conceived. It also spawned the greatest line of movie dialogue - "That'll do, Pig" - we've still had absolutely no opportunity to use in real life. Not yet, anyway.
12. Toy Story 3 (2010)
Pixar occasionally field criticism for the quantity of sequels they produce. But when they’re this good, who’s complaining? The world’s greatest threequel saw Woody and the gang take on a melancholic note, as a grown-up Andy heads off to college and forgets about his beloved toys. The astonishing finale, in which these beloved characters confront and accept a fate of near-certain death, is practically unprecedented in a family-friendly film.
11. The Iron Giant (1999)
Adapted from Ted Hughes’ beloved children’s book – the title changed to avoid confusion with a certain Mr T. Stark – this enchanting story of a mysterious metal man who befriends a small boy practically bypassed mainstream audiences upon release, but has built up a small cult following over the years – particularly among fans of Brad Bird (who went on to direct The Incredibles). Released just as Pixar and its ilk rose to domination, it’s perhaps the last of the great traditionally-animated films; like its metal hero, caught between ages and technologies.
10. Monsters, Inc. (2001)
Children can get scared by the dark so what more clever or more reassuring idea than to disarm those fears with a funny and very, very clever story of industrial scarers dependent on the screams of little ones to power a city? Sully and Mike Wazowski, Monsters, Inc.'s scarer-in-chiefs, are so loveable and well-meaning than the whole process seems almost innocent. Everyone will sleep more soundly after watching this.
9. The Princess Bride (1987)
Rob Reiner's beloved classic offers up an alternative fairy tale realm in which nothing is quite as you'd expect, like a Walt Disney yarn filtered through a postmodern prism. William Goldman's script is playful and filled with quotable dialogue ("My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die") and kids will love its zest, energy and rollicking sword fights. Stardust and others have aped it but the idea of anything matching it is, well, inconceivable.
8. The Lego Movie (2014)
When a feature-length narrative movie based on a set of toy plastic bricks was first announced, eyes narrowed; grumbles rumbled; the hue and cry of ‘cash-in!’ was raised. That The Lego Movie ranks so highly on this list is a testament to how much it surprised us all. It’s fast, shrewd, and furiously funny, with typical self-awareness from Phil Lord and Chris Miller; the ingenious final-act reveal transforms an already very good family-friendly film into something truly great.
7. The Lion King (1994)
The best Shakespeare film ever made? The Disney Renaissance of the 1990s reached its zenith with this stunning adaptation of Hamlet, recasting the tragic Danish prince as a precocious lion cub who just can’t wait to be king. All the elements come together in one joyous package: songs (from Sir Elton, no less) that will rattle around your memory long after the end credits; a voice cast (James Earl Jones’s booming baritones, a highlight) that elevates the animals into something human; and animation as soaring as the savannah itself.
6. Toy Story 2 (1999)
When has a sequel ever bested its original? The Godfather Part II was one exception. Terminator 2: Judgment Day managed it. And Pixar, with only their third feature film, somehow crafted a Better Sequel to join that rare, anomalous Better Sequel Club. 1995’s Toy Story was hardly a low bar – far from it – but the sequel finds the superlative animation studio hitting their golden era stride, with a tale as heartwarming and heartbreaking as anything they’ve ever done. You’ve always got a friend in them.
5. Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs (1937)
A small, non-unionised minority group is exploited by a passing royal who mistakes their humble abode for an Airbnb. Hardly a promising set-up for a fairy tale we grant you, but this one is a bit special. The songs are sparkling, the romance between Snow White and the prince is swoonsome and the dwarves get seriously rich, so it all works out nicely. Hi-ho!
4. The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Not just one of the greatest kids' films of all time, but one of the greatest movies full stop, show your children this and you'll be ticking off two boxes in one. There are many important life lessons - about heart and smarts and the loyalty of little canines - in between all the glorious songs, kaleidoscopic sets and a lot of Munchkin mayhem. Although if your little'uns want to know why it's okay for Dorothy to kill so many people, you're on your own.
3. The Red Balloon (1956)
The story of one boy and his self-aware balloon, this 34-minute gem is part adventure yarn, part romance that's backdropped by cobbled Parisian streets and has a heart the size of the Sacre Coeur. There's fantasy, truancy (you might want to skip that bit) and a bit where two balloons fall in the love. Trust us, it's magical.
2. My Neighbour Totoro (1988)
"I think that when children become three or four years old, they just need to see Totoro." So says Studio Ghibli founder Hayao Miyazaki. And he should know, because few filmmakers have a more intuitive grasp of what fires a child's imagination. In this case, it's a bittersweet story of loneliness defeated by the power of friendship, with the help of a big grey furry spirit and a magical Catbus.
1. E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
It’s the story of a weird-looking alien with telekinetic powers and a penchant for Coors Lite who missed the last bus back to his home planet. It’s the story of a shy, lonely boy whose dysfunctional home life confronts the unknown. It’s a story of single parents and broken marriages, of suburban small-town America, of innocence lost and learnt again. It’s the quintessential Steven Spielberg film: joyously cinematic, entirely earnest, unapologetically optimistic, a starry-eyed 20th century fable. (It boasts the quintessential John Williams score, too, one that makes your heart swell and your goosebumps tremble.) It’s iconic. It’s timeless. It’s perfect, basically. It’s the obvious number one.