So many movies. So little time.
Some of the movies on this list are a bit obscure, either ruined by a single test audience or poorly marketed by the studio. A couple of them were pretty big movies in their time. At least one of them might be considered a modern day classic. But it occurred to me, in creating this list, some movies that I consider a “everyone must have seen that, right?” are --- well -- old. One of the movies on the list came out in 1959 and the few that came out in the eighties are still thirty years aged!
Thirty years? Time flies, my friend. But anyway, if you have a ten or a twelve year old it’s very possible your kid has not seen a thirty year old film from the eighties. Even if that film was really popular at the time. So, a couple of the films might be a bit of a stretch to claim your children have, “never heard of it." And the term, “family film,” kind of implies that all the movies are designed for everyone in the family. That’s not entirely the case. But I try and point some appropriate ages in a few of the mini reviews below. Some will be more enjoyed by the young, some by pre-teens, some by kids who like to be scared, others for kids who do not like to be scared at all.
You get the drift.
Anyway, yes, some of the movies are old. Thankfully nostalgic cinephiles, such as myself, adore clinging to the past! I rattled the ol' memory cage around and kicked out a few bolts, some rust and a list of ten great family movies. And I took it very seriously. Very seriously, indeed. You see, I was always struck by a quote from late film critic Roger Ebert in his 1995 review for, “A Little Princess,” -- “Unlike the insipid devices of most family films ... (“A Little Princess”) ... understands that children take stories very seriously indeed, and that all stories are really about the uncertain place of the child in the mysterious world of adults.”
Well said, Mr. Ebert. Thank you for all the reviews and all the words. Your writing is missed. And so, with that in mind I put together a list of stories about the uncertain place of the child in the mysterious world of adults.
A Little Princess (1995): A Little Princess tells the story of young Sara Crewe who lives with her father in India. When her father feels duty bound to enlist with the British to fight in WWI, Sara is consigned to a servant’s life at the very same New York City boarding school her late mother attended. The film effectively juggles light fantasy with harsh realities such as poverty, abuse and parental loss. The movie is smart and refuses to pander to the audience, taking itself, and the young heroine -- as Ebert notes in the above quote -- very seriously. As a side note, the director of the film, Alfonso Cuarón, goes on to make the only great Harry Potter film, Prisoner of Azkaban as well as the exceptional (for adults) sci-fi drama, Children of Men.
Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959). Based on the Kavanagh book, Darby O’Gill and the Good People, wily old Irish codger Darby O’Gill matches his considerable wit against that of the leprechaun king. This is one of Disney’s under appreciated gems! The movie holds up surprisingly well given its age. Sure, the subplot is hooky -- a romance between a young Sean Connery & Janet Munro plays like a particularly bad Irish soap commercial. The pure delight of the film comes from the rivalry and game play of clever Darby and sly King Brian of the leprechauns. A personal project of Walt Disney and a technical marvel for it’s time.
Duma (2005): Duma is the greatest family adventure film you’ve never seen. No, seriously. Xan, a young South African boy, befriends an orphaned cheetah. When family trouble arises, Xan must return Duma to the wild. Let the adventure begin! The film uses live cheetah’s and zero CGI, which gives the movie an authentic richness. Guaranteed to make you and your family want to have a pet cheetah. Duma is a really lovely movie and it’s based on a true story. A note about the director, Carroll Ballard. He also made, The Black Stallion. another great movie exploring the relationship between animals and people.
Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989): A quaintly atmospheric and delightful movie for pre-teens, especially girls. Young Kiki, a promising good witch, strikes out on her own and lands in a fun little French(ish) town on the coast. But the townsfolk have a strict, “No witches allowed!” policy. What’s a young witch to do? A charming coming of age tale about a girl realizing her own power, not as a witch, but as a person.
My Neighbor Totoro (1988): Families of all ages can enjoy this but it’s created for young kids. My Neighbor Totoro is about sisters, Satsuki and Mei, who move to an old house to be closer to their ailing mother. The girls quickly discover their new country home is in a magical forest inhabited by spirits called Totoros. Together they go on unbelievably cute adventures. And I mean, unbelievably cute! Like, seriously, cute!
Paperhouse (1988): Young Anna Madden, while suffering from severe mono, draws a house on a blank sheet of paper. In her feverish dreams she finds herself visiting the house and talking to the disabled boy who lives within. As her fever gets worse and worse she has a hard time waking up and the dreams get darker and darker. The film handles childhood loneliness and feelings of isolation extremely well but the dark elements and the bleak landscape created in the dream world might be too intense for youngsters. This is one of my favorite films from that decade.
The Iron Giant (1999): Oh, this magnificent film is a story about a boy -- and his super awesome robot! His super awesome giant robot! Set in the red panic induced fifties, Brad Bird's first animated film warms him up for his genius, The Incredible, for Pixar. The Iron Giant has tremendous heart and emotion. It also happens to be exceptionally funny. I know many have seen it but it never had the popularity of a Pixar or Studio Ghibli film so I included it here just in case you have not yet had the pleasure. Everyone in the family will love it.
The Last Starfighter (1984): Oh, man. A movie about an arcade game that, if you get really, really good at, will whisk you away to have super awesome alien adventures? Sign me up! Young kids will love this movie. Older kids might be turned off by the dated special effects. If it means anything, every kid I grew up with has seen this movie, like, a dozen times. Because it’s great! Sadly, a modern day big budget remake looks to be out of the question. Screenwriter, Jonathan R. Betuel somehow maintained the rights to the film and refuses anyone to remake it. Even cinema giant Steven Spielberg was turned down.
The Secret of Kells (2009): Young Brendan lives in a remote medieval outpost under siege from barbarian raids. He is beckoned to adventure when a celebrated master illuminator arrives with an ancient book, brimming with secret wisdom and powers. This animated fantasy adventure is heavily rooted in Celtic mythology and based on the story of the origin of the Book of Kells, an illuminated manuscript Gospel book in Latin and it’s a really great story telling mixture of fact and fantasy.
The Witches (1990): A little boy and his kindly grandmother battle a coven of witches who want to rid Britain of children by turning them into mice. What a great plot! This movie is a forgotten cult gem. I think it was misunderstood when marketed. Parents thought it might be either too childish or too scary and stayed away. But a few fantastic performances, especially by Anjelica Huston; and a really sharp script push this to the top of my, “you really should witch this” list. Critics adored The Witches but audiences stayed home. Based on the Roald Dahl book of the same name. It should be noted, that, Mr. Dahl, ummm, was not a fan of the film, calling it, “appalling.” I think that was mainly because the film alters the end of the book. Well, the book is unread by me but I like the ending of the movie just fine.
A Little Princess (1995). Director: Alfonso Cuarón. Writing Credit: Elizabeth Chandler, Richard LaGravenese (screenplay). Frances Hodgson Burnett (novel).
Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959). Director: Robert Stevenson. Writing Credit: Lawrence Edward Watkin (screenplay, H.T. Kavanagh based on the “Darby O’Gill” stories).
Duma (2005): Director: Carroll Ballard. Writing Credit: Karen Janszen, Mark St. Germain (screenplay). Carol Flint, Karen Janszen (story). Carol Cawthra Hopcraft, Xan Hopcraft (the book, How It Was with Dooms, the true story of a young boy's friendship with an orphaned cheetah on the family's game ranch in Kenya).
Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989). Director / Writing Credit: Hayao Miyazaki (screenplay). Eiko Kadono (novel).
My Neighbor Totoro (1988). Director / Writer: Hayao Miyazaki.
Paperhouse (1988). Director: Bernard Rose. Writing Credit: Matthew Jacobs (screenplay). Catherine Storr (novel, “Marianne Dreams”).
The Iron Giant (1999). Director: Brad Bird. Writing Credit: Tim McCanlies (screenplay). Brad Bird (story). Ted Hughes (novel, “The Iron Man”).
The Last Starfighter (1984). Director: Nick Castle. Writing Credit: Jonathan R. Betuel
The Secret of Kells (2009). Director: Tomm Moore, Nora Twomey. Writing Credit: Fabrice Ziolkowski (screenplay), Tomm Moore (original story).
The Witches (1990). Director: Nicolas Roeg. Writing Credit: Allan Scott (screenplay). Roald Dahl (novel).