If your kid’s attention span isn’t long enough to last through a Nintendo Labo cardboard-making session, then he or she might be up for a movie instead. Fret not, however. That doesn’t you have to sit through something dull, trite, made just for children.
A girl who becomes a seal when she goes underwater. A school for magic. A just-launched service for catching rabbits that prey on people’s gardens. A family of five very powerful individuals. A pilot who lands on a strange place and finds a lone prince. A family with buttons for eyes. These cannot ever be real, of course. But through these films, they are rendered as if to seem fiction is stronger than non-fiction. Indeed, sometimes, tall tales and stories are in some respects “realer” than our truth. Because they express things about life that violates the rules of our world. And in so doing, illustrates the infinite spectrum of our experience as humans.
Animated films have evolved a great deal in several decades past. They’re not just brain-dead pastel-drenched comedic eyecandy designed to make babies laugh while you tend to other things. Not anymore, at least. Animation firms like Pixar, Disney, and to a lesser but still true extent, DreamWorks, have really upped the ante on story. While they make films primarily for children, often these films come embedded with a pedigree of depth that even adults may connect with. Inside Out, for starters, tore out everyone’s hearts with its delicate, complex portrait of the inner turmoils of our emotions — literally. Coco, meanwhile, dealt so delicately with the beauty of commemorating and celebrating our departed loved ones. So on and so forth. Some are so good they win Oscars.
So, you get it now, right? Below is a list of films that’ll pique your kid’s low attention span while also making sure you as a parent can enjoy the experience with them. These films might also open up your eyes to the possibilities of animation. Especially in the way they are able to uplift, teach us how to chase our dreams, or how to care for the people we love. Leave John Wick be on your backlog for now. Share a moment with your kid as you follow dogs, cats, and all sorts of objects brought to life to illustrate the various journeys life brings.
A Wrinkle In Time
Though it fizzled in the box office, A Wrinkle In Time, directed by the fiercely skilled director Ava DuVernay, is a visually splendid adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle 1962 novel of the same name. It takes us back to Meg and her brother Charles, who have been without their scientist father Murry for five years ever since he discovered a new planet and used a concept called tesseract to get to that newfoundland.
Determined to find their father, Meg and Charles decide to seek their father, with the help of Calvin O’Keefe alongside three mysterious astral travelers known as Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which. The journey is dangerous. Perhaps even deadly. But can they make it armed with love, perseverance, and determination?
What follows is a magnificent, terrifying, but ultimately impassioned journey across worlds beyond their imagination. Worlds where they must defeat a powerful evil. The answer, however, might be much closer than Meg thinks.
Director: Ava DuVernay – Screenplay: Jennifer Lee, Jeff Stockwell – Cast: Storm Reid, Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon – Run Time: 1h 49m
The Incredibles 2
There was so much anticipation Pixar’s The Incredibles sequel that at one point it seemed as if the film could only be one of two things — brilliant or completely terrible. Thankfully, the folks at Pixar proved they knew what they were doing, delivering a high-octane, action-brimmed, visual blitzkrieg that failed to disappoint.
Granted, it had less interesting questions raised than the first film. The Incredibles was director Brad Bird’s deconstruction of formulaic superhero flicks, turning the cameras on and seeing what happens when superheroes fold up their super suits and resume lives in anonymity. While The Incredible 2 had none such a compelling premise, it did deliver on visuals, comedy, story, and of course, family.
Family is the connective tissue binding this sequel to the first, chaotic as it is. The greatest challenge these heroes face aren’t the bud guys blowing up plans or burrowing away underneath a quiet metropolis. It’s how to remain a family if yours isn’t like any other’s.
Director: Brad Bird – Screenplay: Brad Bird – Cast: Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Sarah Vowell – Run Time: 1h 58m
Another hit from Pixar, Coco is about Miguel, who, against his family’s wishes, dreams of becoming a musician, surreptitiously watching old clips of his idol, Ernesto de la Cruz, in hopes of one day being like him. In some force both tragic and magical, Miguel finds himself in the Land of the Dead, the place Mexican culture says is where relatives who have passed on live. In his quest to return, he stumbles upon sly but silly Hector, and together, they set off on a wild, heart-rending journey to uncover the true story behind Miguel’s family history.
Coco is the first Pixar film to heavily feature Mexican culture and traditions, and seeing as how this translates on screen beautifully, it definitely won’t be the last. The visual component of this film alone deserves a dissertation. Light and colors shine resplendent in the Land of the Dead, proving only Mexico can make the afterworld prettier than any of our Disneyland parks. At its heart, though, is a story of memory. How we remember the ones we love, how we celebrate them, and how we commemorate the fleeting, ephemerality of life itself.
Director: Lee Unkrich, Adrian Molina – Screenplay: Lee Unkrich, Jason Katz, Matthew Aldrich, Adrian Molina – Cast: Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Sarah Vowell – Run Time: 1h 45m
The Little Prince
Who could forget Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s delectable novel on isolation and, by extension, identity? The Little Prince, released in 2016, proves the tale endures, given its simple, straightforward, but multidimensional portrait of life and human nature.
If you haven’t heard the story yet, it’s about a pilot, here voiced by Jeff Bridges, who crash lands in the Sahara desert. There, he encounters a mysterious young boy who says he’s an extraterrestrial prince. That’s really all you need to know. Call your child, grab some popcorn, tissues, and prepared to be haunted by a deeply moving and poignant story about, well, life itself. On second though, grab more tissues than you think you need, because you’re going to cry along with your child. Watch it once for the story, watch it twice to observe its gorgeous animation style in better detail, then watch it a third time just for the heck of it. You’ll never tire of this Netflix gem, trust us.
Director: Mark Osborne – Screenplay: Irena Brignull, Bob Persichetti – Cast: Jeff Bridges, Mackenzie Foy, Rachel McAdams – Run Time: 1h 48m
Mary and The Witch’s Flower
Even from the first frame alone, this film’s Studio Ghibli underpinnings becomes sorely apparent. That, mind you, is no slight at this fine, delicate portrait of a young girl named Mary.
From Oscar nominee Hiromasa Yonebayashi, Studio Ghibli animator involved in calibre works such as Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, and Ponyo (he directed When Marnie Was there and The Secret World of Arrietty), this film tells the story of Mary a she discovers a giant flower that gives magical powers. The catch? That power lasts one night only. For Mary, an ordinary young girl in the countryside who’s bored out of her wits, a mysterious cat, an old broomstick, let alone a power-granting flower, are objects of sheer surprise, delight, and intrigue.
Soon after, Mary is whisked away to Endor College, a school of magic run by headmistress Madam Mumblechook and Doctor Dee. There, however, terrible things are happening, and Mary must be the one to set things right.
The film, based on Mary Stewart’s classic children’s book called The Little Broomstick, is as immersive as its source material, with magical, imaginative worlds and a crew of bizarre but adorable characters within sight and touch. At its core, though, is a heartrending story of a little girl in a big, sometimes almost infinite world.
Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi, Giles New – Screenplay: Riko Sakaguchi, Hiromasa Yonebayashi, David Freedman, Lynda Freedman – Cast: Hana Sugisaki, Ryûnosuke Kamiki, Yûki Amami – Run Time: 1h 43m
The Secret of Kells
In the mesmerizing The Secret of Kells, a fantastic, multi-layered tale, we follows Brendan, a young boy living in the medieval outpost under siege from barbaric raids. One day, a master illuminator arrives from the isle of Iona carrying an ancient but unfinished book, screaming with the promise of secret wisdom and powers.
This illuminator’s arrival sets off Brenadna as he embarks on a journey of self-discovery and overcoming fear in order to finish the magical book. The sojourn involves, among many fantastic flights of fancy, diving deep into an enchanted forest where mythical creatures are said to live. Here, he meets Aisling, a mysterious fair and wolf-girl, who helps Brendan along his adventures.
Soon thereafter, though, the barbarians start encroaching further, and Brendan must perform the almost impossible task of outwitting the evils and combating the darkness in ways still unbeknownst to his heart. If you’re not sold on the story yet, trust us — this film will end up as one of your absolute favorites, and if not you, your kid.
Director: Tomm Moore, Nora Twomey – Screenplay: Tomm Moore, Fabrice Ziolkowski – Cast: Evan McGuire, Brendan Gleeson, Mick Lally – Run Time: 1h 11m
My Life as a Zucchini
Originally shot in French, Will Forte, Nick Offerman, and Ellen Page voice over this fantastic, silly, but heartwarming stop-motion film so everyone who speaks English can witness how its simple, straightforward story brings a wallop of emotional vibrance.
We follow Zucchini after his mother’s sudden death, who soon after becomes friend with a police officer, Raymond, who accompanies Zucchini to his new foster home that’s brimmed with orphans just like himself. Initially, he finds difficulty belonging to a place whose inhabitants all share one thing — loss. But with the help of Raymond and new friends, he’s soon able to learn how to trust, love, and perhaps even find a new family of his own.
Shot in gorgeous stop-motion, this masterpiece is many things: a heart-filled tale of family, a portrait of resilience, a dark but funny meditation on overcoming, and more. But really, it’s about how strong the human heart is, despite the brain trying to convince itself that the body it belongs to is weak, frail, destined to be alone. Warning: will make your heart melt. So, please, bring some tissues if you’re going to pop this in. Bring more than you think you’ll need.
Director: Claude Barras – Screenplay: Céline Sciamma, Germano Zullo, Claude Barras, Morgan Navarro, Michael Sinterniklaas, Christian La Monte – Cast: Gaspard Schlatter, Sixtine Murat, Paulin Jaccoud – Run Time: 1h 06m
Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit
Wallace, an inventor, and his loyal but always-confuzzled dog, Gromit, star in this feature-length comedy about many things, but mostly adventure and friendship. At their West Wallaby neighborhood, a garden competition will be held, which is perfect timing for our pair of protagonists, who have just launched a new business venture. Their project, called “Anti-Pesto” involves humanely catching rabbits and other critters who feast on produce local gardens grow and giving them a new home.
When Lady Tottington, the woman hosting the competition, discovers that a huge tribe of rabbits has been making a mess of her garden, she orders Wallace and Gromit to move the bunnies elsewhere. Wallace is quite taken with her, but he’s not alone. So comes Victor Quartermaine, a sly but boastful upper-class man who wants to win Lady Tottington’s favor and wants to prove he can do a better job of writing the rabbits than Wallace. What follows is a absurdist but heartfelt comedy with a little bit of horror thrown in. Fret not, however: your kids can still watch this with you and spend a good chunk of the time belting out laughs.
Director: Steve Box, Nick Park – Screenplay: Steve Box, Nick Park, Mark Burton, Bob Baker – Cast: Peter Sallis, Helena Bonham Carter, Ralph Fiennes – Run Time: 1h 25m
Many folks mistake this for being directed by Tim Burton, and it’s not hard to see why. Coraline is terrifying. That’s really the first thing you should know about this film. We’d caution against letting your child watch this alone, because it’s even famously creeped out adults. Still, we included it here because of its dazzling, gothic story. It’s scrumptiously terrifying, which is to say it’s spooky but not in such way that it’s scary just for the sake of scaring you.
Here, we follow a little girl named Coraline, who’s just moved to a new house, called the Pink Palace, from Michigan. As a means of keeping her from pestering her hardworking writer parents, Coraline’s dad suggests she looks around the new house — count all the doors and windows, list all the things that are blue, and so on — just to let them work.
And she does. But, perchance, Coraline discovers something else, too: a little door. So little, in fact, that you have to crouch and crawl just to pass through. A wacky, fun-filled, delightful adventure awaits here on the other side, but little does Coraline know that horror is also biding there.
You’ve been warned: this film is really, really, really creepy. But we’d argue it’s still worth a watch. It’s one of the finest stop-motion films made in the last decade, if not one of the most unnerving films of all time. It captures the sublime terror of always being observed. Is there anything more terrifying?
Director: Henry Selick – Screenplay: Henry Selick – Cast: Dakota Fanning, Teri Hatcher, John Hodgman, Teri Hatcher, John Hodgman – Run Time: 1h 40m
Boy and the World
In the colorful, simplistic, but visually arresting Boy and the World, we follow Cuca as his cozy life comes to be destroyed when his father leaves for the city, coaxing him to begin a journey to reunite his family. This slow-burning journey is reflected vibrantly in the animation, beginning with simple backgrounds that blossom and explode like ink blots as he immerses himself in the big, wide-open world before him.
In this world, he finds and is fascinated by a million things. Industrial landscapes run by animal machines. Streets and shop windows. Advertisements, advertisements, advertisements out-lighting the starry night. Boy and the World is not just a lush, color-drenched frame-by-frame. It is also a deft, quiet portrait of the village life versus the city life. He discovers and sees life for what it is: tumultuous, frenzied, varied, in peril, but still otherworldly, ethereal, and as beautiful and ephemeral as the blots and splashes and fireworks of color and shapes that fill every frame.
Director: Alê Abreu – Screenplay: Alê Abreu – Cast: Vinicius Garcia, Marco Aurélio Campos, Lu Horta – Run Time: 1h 20m
In Wreck-It-Ralph, the villain is the star of the story. One day, Ralph, a video game character perennially playing the role of the bad guy in a video game called Fix-It Felix, becomes tired of the way things are. Felix gets all the love, friends, niceties, rewards, and the good reputation among players. For so long, Ralph has been wanting to take the spotlight, or at least share it with Felix. And for once, he decides to do something about it.
And so, he sets off on a journey across the arcade, hopping from one game to the next to find a place in the video game world. Along the way, he meets Vanellope von Schweetz, a glitching character in candy-brimmed racing game Sugar Rush, who’s also having trouble fitting in and finding a place in her own world. Together, they forge an unlikely friendship and slowly and painfully discover the true meaning of being a hero.
Wreck-It-Ralph may have some of Disney’s storytelling tropes, but it’s far too unique and smartly written to be labeled as common Disney fare. It’s endlessly creative, filled with humor some of which only adults will understand, and it offers up a heartfelt story of what it means to be someone’s friend, to be a hero, and to be there for somebody else at all costs. There are no powerful anthems here like Let It Go in Frozen, but there’s an abundance of things to love here, including Ralph himself, whose own journey proves that no matter who you are, you deserve a place in the world.
Director: Rich Moore – Screenplay: Rich Moore, Phil Johnston, Jim Reardon, Jennifer Lee, John C. Reilly, Sam Levine, Jared Stern – Cast: John C. Reilly, Jack McBrayer, Jane Lynch – Run Time: 1h 41m
We follow 11-year-old Parvana growing up under the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001. One day, her father is forcefully arrested, at which point Parvana cuts off her hair and dresses like a boy just to be able to support her entire family. With the help of her friend Shauzia, Parvana discovers a world where she can be free. But given the highly restricted laws of her place, everything has a cost. For her freedom, the cost is danger and peril.
But Parvana emits increible courage to thwart the daily vicissitudes life aims at her. Armed with a strong imagination, she embarks on a quest to find her father and bring back the family together again. The Breadwinner is a chilling, fantastical, and ultimately harrowing tale of trying to remain one’s own person against all odds, but also remaining vulnerable and strong enough not to let the external forces of evil to change your inner kindness, your innate solitude.
It’s a film with a lot of heart, and like Boy and the World, it proves that animation isn’t just a ploy to show you colorful, vivid drawings. Animation can give life to things in life that are harder to explain with life-like demonstration. Sometimes, you need to dress stories in the diaphanous, graceful form of drawing to be able to express them with heart and conviction.
Director: Nora Twomey – Screenplay: Anita Doron, Deborah Ellis – Cast: Saara Chaudry, Soma Chhaya, Noorin Gulamgaus – Run Time: 1h 34m
Bridge to Terabithia
In this fantasy and adventure film about friendship and family, we follow Jess Aarons, an outsider both at school and in his own family. Along, estranged, lonely, Jess’s life is thrown into disarray when a new girl, named Leslie Burke, arrives in school. She daringly enters the boys only racing competition and easily outpaces every kid there. Despite an initially glitchy relationship, they soon become fast friends.
Leslie loves tales of fantasy, magic, and wonder. Jess, meanwhile, loves to draw, which is something he has kept to himself until meeting Leslie. With her, Jess is able to enter a world with infinite imagination and merriment. Together, they create and dive into a world called Terabithia, a magical land accessible only by swinging an old rope over a stream in the woods near their homes.
In Terabithia, Jess and Leslie ruled the world. They fight the Dark Master and his creatures, and plot against the school bullies. But how long can this secret, imagined world last?
Warning: definitely bring tissues along before watching this one. We won’t spoil the movie’s plot, but it’s famously made a lot of people cry.
Director: Gabor Csupo – Screenplay: Jeff Stockwell, David Paterson – Cast: Josh Hutcherson, AnnaSophia Robb, Zooey Deschanel – Run Time: 1h 36m
Song of the Sea
Song of the Sea was made by the same folks responsible for The Secret of Kells that’s elsewhere in this list, so the animation style being similar is no surprise. In this story, we follow Ben, who mourns the loss of his mother, who dies after giving birth to Ben’s younger sister. Six years later, we find Ben talking to his beloved dog, Cu, as he reminisces about his mother’s stories, and also Saoirse, his sister, who just wants her brother’s attention.
One night, Saoirse plays a shell that used to belong to their mother and releases fairy lights that lead her to a hidden treasure — a white coat that brings her to the depths of the sea. There, underwater, Saoirse becomes a seal and, when on land, returns to her human form.
Those are the only things we’re leaving you with. Trust us, this film is better experienced than explained. The animation is delicately interwoven, the fantasy blending with reality with nary any friction between them. It all comes together in the story of family, set against the beautiful tapestry of Irish and Celtic folktales. Watch it if you want your breath to be taken away for an hour or two.
Director: Tomm Moore – Screenplay: Will Collins, Tomm Moore – Cast: David Rawle, Brendan Gleeson, Lisa Hannigan – Run Time: 1h 33m
Walt Disney Short Films Collection
If you want to see Disney’s amazing catalog of short films, load this one up the queue. If you haven’t been watching Disney animations in the theaters lately, you might not be aware that the company has been, for the past several years, showing short films before properly starting its full-length features. Some of the stories are emotional. Some are downright hilarious. Some are so heartrending they’ll leave you thinking for days, which might then become a full-blown existential crisis if you’re not careful.
Whatever emotion they bring, all these films were expertly made, and most importantly, created with immense heart, passion, a knack for storytelling, and they all do one thing — uphold, celebrate, and use the magic of animation to bring us closer together. To let us watch stories we won’t hear anywhere else. To step inside the shoes of someone else for a moment. To dive deep in a world so different from our own yet so familiar in the way they elicit emotion.
Director: Various – Screenplay: Various – Cast: Various – Run Time: Various