Few films stay with you like the ones you watched as a child. And the best kids’ movies come in all shapes and sizes – cosy animated adventures, thrilling tales of derring-do, visually-dazzling works that pour fuel on budding imaginations, and tales that (whether we realise it or not at the time) are teaching us valuable life lessons. From animated favourites via Disney, Pixar, Ghibli and Aardman, to family-friendly all-singing-all-dancing musicals, to adaptations of classic children’s literature, there’s a whole world of cinema awaiting young viewers.
But choosing which films to show your kids isn’t always easy – so Empire’s done the hard work for you. We’ve hand-picked a selection of 50 movies we think they’ll enjoy – from fairytales and sci-fi fables, to slapstick-packed adventures and tales of friendship and bravery. The films we’ve picked will – we hope – thrill them, enchant them, and have them rolling in the aisles, hopefully with as few tears as possible. All you need to provide is the popcorn.
Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse (2018)
Pretty much as soon as it hit cinemas, Spider-Verse became the gold standard for wildly inventive, emotionally mature, mind-bogglingly spectacular animation. Miles Morales is just a regular kid in Queens, New York City, before he’s bitten by a radioactive spider and… well, you know the rest. But it’s all new to Miles, who accidentally opens a wormhole to other universes and other Spider-Folk whose help he’ll need to stop Kingpin from destroying his reality. There’s some real darkness here too, so it’s perhaps not one for the very young – though it's a stellar introduction to Spider-Man overall. Really, nobody’s too young to not appreciate Peter Porker, AKA Spider-Ham.
School Of Rock (2003)
Few actors can access their inner 10-year-old like Jack Black, and in Richard Linklater’s celebration of music as a home for both adolescents and the eternally adolescent, he turns it up to 11. Black’s Dewey Finn is a burnout layabout wannabe rock star still trying to make his childhood dreams a reality, when he gets kicked out of his band. Desperate for cash, he nicks his friend-slash-landlord’s gig as a substitute teacher at Joan Cusack’s snotty day school – only to find these kids have got mad musical skills. What they don’t have is any appreciation of the power of rock ‘n’ roll. He’s only too happy to oblige, and sets out to secretly turn them into rock gods. Joyous stuff.
Turning Red (2022)
In Toronto, 13-year-old Mei Lee tries to keep a lot of things to herself: mainly her crush, Devon, and her love for boy band 4*Town. That is, until she finds herself going through something so big that she can’t hide it. Whenever she gets stressed and embarrassed, she turns into a giant red panda. It turns out it’s an unwelcome inheritance from an ancestor, and as she tries to work out how to live a normal life, Mei realises that she also needs to stand up to her overbearing mum. Domee Shi’s film is a loving and heartfelt hymn to the invisible but mighty ties which bind the generations of women in a family together.
You might think you love movies, but nobody loves movies quite as much as Martin Scorsese. This Parisian fantasy follows 12-year-old orphan Hugo (Asa Butterfield), as he finds himself slowly ratcheted into a mystery involving a broken automaton, a heart-shaped key, and the early cinema special effects pioneer Georges Méliès. (Marty loves movies!) Soon, Hugo realises that this automaton might unlock his relationship with his lost father. It’s a beautiful looking film full of love and wonder, and it’s a fun way into one of the great directors’ oeuvres – especially if you’re uncertain as to whether your four-year-old is ready for Taxi Driver yet.
Chicken Run (2000)
Aardman’s first feature shifted The Great Escape to a North Yorkshire chicken farm in the mid-1950s, where plucky (but unplucked) Ginger plots to break out to freedom. Standing in her way are the brusque Mr and Mrs Tweedy, a brand new chicken pie-making machine, and her very dim fellow inmates. “I don’t want to be a pie,” moans Babs. “I don’t like gravy.” But then a glamorous rooster called Rocky crash-lands in their world, and freedom seems possible. Miranda Richardson’s Mrs Tweedy is one of the most maniacal of all animated villains – plus there’s the heartbreaking moment early on when poor old Edwina gets the chop – so you might want to give it a quick rewatch first. But for the most part, it’s poultry in motion.
Puss In Boots: The Last Wish (2023)
Arriving over ten years after the previous Puss In Boots film, few were clamouring for this sequel. But it’s surprisingly stellar – with a dazzling animation style in the wake of Into The Spider-Verse, thrillingly-crafted action setpieces, and an emotional journey for our hero. It is also, to be clear, a touch scary for smaller viewers – with Puss (Antonio Banderas) realising his nine lives are nearly up, and fleeing an approaching sickle-wielding wolf (Wagner Moura) as a literal embodiment of death. Cue a search for a wishing star that’ll allow our feline favourite to replenish his supply of lives, joined by ugly-cute chihuahua Perrito (Harvey Guillén), and Salma Hayek’s returning Kitty Softpaws. A Shrek-verse swashbuckler that’ll entertain grown-ups as much as youngsters.
Mary Poppins (1964) / Mary Poppins Returns (2018)
Six decades on, the original Mary Poppins remains a total delight – Julie Andrews giving sweet-but-stringent discipline as the magical nanny blown in on the wind, and Dick Van Dyke cock-er-neying it up a storm as Bert. It’s packed with heart-soaring song-and-dance numbers, peppered with gorgeously playful animated sequences too, and all delivered in a most delightful way. And if the first film goes down like a spoonful of sugar, Disney’s more recent sequel – with Emily Blunt as the returning Poppins, Lin-Manuel Miranda as Bert-a-like lamplighter Jack, and Ben Whishaw and Emily Mortimer as the grown-up Banks children – is beautifully-crafted too, reverently delivered in the style of the original but with all-new catchy songs. Can you imagine that?
With an E.T.-esque tone, great characters, and none of the grubby Michael Bay-isms of the main franchise, Bumblebee is the ideal Transformers starter point for younger viewers. It still has the robots-in-disguise action of the main franchise, but tells an ‘80s-set story of friendship between the yellow VW Beetle and Hailee Steinfeld’s misfit teen Charlie. Directed by Laika Studios’ Travis Knight, it’s warm, funny, and properly charming – which you can’t necessarily say about other films in the franchise. Plus, Transformer-head adults will love the G1 designs, and the war on Cybertron sequence.
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.
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.
The Kid Who Would Be King (2019)
It was quite the wait for Joe Cornish's second film, but this modern-day take on Arthurian legend was worth it. Come for the imagery of school kids battling ghostly warriors, stay for the goofy take on Merlin as played by Angus Imrie and, occasionally, Patrick Stewart.
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.
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."
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.
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...
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.
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!
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. The recent musical adaptation is well worth watching too.
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.
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.
If Moana hasn’t already inveigled its way into your home with its subtly subversive plotting, gorgeously vibrant animation and earworm songs then make way, make way for another contemporary Disney smash. The Mouse House’s first Polynesian princess is a hardy, headstrong hero, while Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson brings maximum charm as shape-shifting semi-demi-mini-god Maui. Throw in a scene-stealing slapstick chicken, songs by Lin-Manuel ‘Hamilton’ Miranda, and a Bowie-inspired giant evil crustacean voiced by Flight Of The Conchords Jemaine Clement, and this is truly irresistible stuff.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Kubo And The Two Strings (2016)
Laika’s fourth animated film is perhaps its best effort yet – a grand, mythical and hugely inventive adventure bursting with imagination. It hinges on a classic quest narrative, sending the titular boy across feudal Japan to track down a magical suit of armour, with wonderful subtext on the power of storytelling and creativity. Then there’s the staggeringly ambitious stop-motion animation which sets an all-new standard for how detailed and epic the medium can look. Some dark and creepy moments thoroughly earn its PG rating, but what’s an adventure without a little danger?
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.
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!
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, and WolfWalkers is delightful too. But this bewitching fantasy – about a little boy who lives at a medieval monastery – is the best place to start. 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.
Harry Potter – Series (2001 – 2011)
The story of the Boy Who Lived is a generation-defining fantasy saga – and across eight films, directors Chris Columbus, Alfonso Cuaron, Mike Newell and David Yates did an admirable job of bringing the Wizarding World from page to screen. The series has adventure, friendship, and – of course – magic aplenty, and while the early films deal in charming technicolour whimsy, the tail end of the series is decidedly for older kids once Dark Lord Voldemort rises. If we had to pick just one it would be Cuaron’s Prisoner Of Azkaban from 2004, the tipping point between childhood adventure and dark YA fantasy, with a cracking time-twisting adventure, Gary Oldman as escaped murderer (or is he?) Sirius Black, and one of the series’ greatest creatures in Buckbeak the hippogriff.
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.
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.
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.
Paddington 2 (2017)
How do you follow up a family film as quaint, wondrous and perfectly formed as Paddington? Pile on yet more charm, an even more emotional plot, and cast Hugh Grant in his best role since… well, possibly ever. Paddington 2 is as light as air, never once collapsing under the weight of its own whimsy – even as it hops from delightful prison scenes (really) to Grant’s nefarious actor Phoenix Buchanan in a variety of madcap disguises. A purely wonderful treat for all ages.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This list was compiled by Empire's editorial staff – trust us, we've watched a lot of movies.