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Movies can have a tremendous impact on our lives. Whether a fun comedy or a heart-wrenching drama, a movie can shift our moods and even our points of view. And nearly everyone has that one film they watched as a kid that left a lasting impression into adulthood.
As parents, it can be hard to determine what to let our kids watch. For guidance, I turned to recommendations from Into Film, a film-focused educational charity out of England, and Common Sense Media, a U.S.-based nonprofit that provides information, reviews and tools to help parents make smart media and tech choices.
The result is a list of films chosen primarily because they teach important lessons, are packed with positive messages, encourage imagination and curiosity, and are also just a blast to watch with the whole family. The next time you’re having a family movie night, here’s a list of suggested films to watch.
‘101 Dalmatians’ (1961)
Disney’s 1961 film adaption of the classic puppy tale is a must-see for every kid. Based on the 1956 novel by Dodie Smith, “101 Dalmations” tells the story of Pongo and Perdita, two liver-spotted Dalmatians who must save their pups from the evil villain Cruella de Vil. The iconic animated movie teaches young watchers about cooperation and teamwork, as well as the dangers of greed and animal cruelty. Good for children ages 5 to 11.
Pixar’s 2008 animated sci-fi flick follows WALL-E, a trash compactor robot left to clean up an abandoned, garbage-ridden Earth. But soon, WALL-E meets a slick robot named EVE and follows her across the galaxy aboard the starliner Axiom, where passengers are obsessed with consumerism and live automated lifestyles. It’s on this journey that WALL-E realizes that humanity can repopulate and clean up Earth. But he has to fight Axiom’s evil autopilot first in order to save the planet.
In addition to themes of friendship and courage, “WALL-E” teaches kids about the importance of protecting the environment from excessive waste and overconsumption. Good for children ages 5 and older.
“Zootopia” tells the story of rabbit Judy Hopps, an ambitious yet timid rookie police officer who joins forces with sly fox Nick Wilde to solve a series of mysterious disappearances. As they investigate each case, the unlikely duo begins to uncover a larger citywide conspiracy by prey animals to frame all predator animals as “dangerous and savage.” Reflective of modern social issues, Disney’s 2016 animated buddy cop movie teaches young viewers about prejudice and discrimination, and the importance of tolerance, inclusion and diversity. Good for kids ages 7 and older.
“Up” is a sweet and touching film about a widower who decides to fulfill a lifelong dream. After learning he’ll be evicted from his home, Carl Fredrickson embarks on an aeronautical adventure, only to find, unexpectedly, that he was joined by an 8-year-old stowaway named Russell.
Pixar’s 2009 animated feature uses their unlikely friendship to teach children about responsibility, loyalty, teamwork and “the spirit of adventure.” Good for kids ages 6 and older.
“Trolls” follows the story of a grumpy troll named Branch and his peppy friend Princess Poppy as they try to save their friends from a troll-eating monster.
DreamWorks’ 2016 colorful animated musical explores themes of happiness and perseverance through fun pop songs. “Trolls” also teaches kids to appreciate their individuality and love themselves for their unique traits. Good for children ages 6 and up.
‘Toy Story’ (1995)
Pixar’s “Toy Story” is a classic children’s film that should be in everyone’s movie collection. The iconic 1995 animated film follows Old West sheriff Woody and his fellow toy friends as they embark on an adventure to find Buzz Lightyear, a toy spaceman who Woody “accidentally” knocks out of a window out of jealousy.
Through “Toy Story,” kids learn about friendship, loyalty, community and courage. Good for children ages 5 and older.
‘A Little Princess’ (1995)
Loosely based on the Frances Hodgson Burnett novel of the same name, “A Little Princess” follows Sara Crewe as she attends a New York boarding school after her wealthy father enlists in the British army during World War I. But Sara is forced into servitude by the wicked headmistress Miss Minchin out of revenge after she learns Sara’s father had died in the war, leaving his daughter penniless. (That turned out to be a case of mistaken identity, though.) It’s during this time that Sara meets and befriends girls with wildly different personalities, teaching little ones the importance of acceptance, tolerance, compassion, friendship and gratitude.
Good for kids ages 7 and older.
‘The Lorax’ (2012)
In Dr. Seuss’ 1971 classic book, an unnamed boy listens to an odd, isolated man known as the Once-ler tell the tale of how the Lorax was lifted and taken away. Universal Pictures’ 2012 3D-animated adaptation expands on the story of how the boy, named Ted in the movie, came to find the Once-ler and learn the legend of the Lifted Lorax.
As with Dr. Seuss’ novel, “The Lorax” explores themes of conservation and teaches kids the importance of protecting the environment and natural resources. Good for kids ages 5 to 11 years old.
“Babe” is a heartwarming tale about an adorable orphaned piglet who learns the value of friendship and family.
The 1995 live-action adaptation of Dick King-Smith’s 1983 novel “The Sheep-Pig” follows Babe and his journey to becoming a sheep herder, despite being a pig, showing him overcoming tough odds. “Babe” teaches young ones that you can do whatever you set your heart to, even if other people say you can’t. But more importantly, the 1995 movie shows young moviegoers that a family is what you make it, which is a powerful message for kids who are adopted or in foster care.
Good for little ones ages 6 and older.
‘Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs’ (2009)
Based on the 1978 children’s book of the same name, “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs” is a delicious tale of quirky inventions and wild imaginations. The 2009 animated film follows wannabe-scientist Flint Lockwood, who develops a machine that allows treats to fall from the sky. But his invention suffers a mishap and that drizzle of sweets turns into a food downpour. Lockwood teams up with weather intern Sam Sparks to solve the tasty problem. “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs” teaches kids about self-acceptance, tolerance, dreaming big and perseverance in the face of setbacks.
Good for children ages 5 to 11 years old.
‘Diary Of A Wimpy Kid’ (2010)
Based on Jeff Kinney’s best-selling novel of the same name, “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” follows the story of middle-schooler Greg Heffley and his friends as they deal with bullies and pre-teen anxieties. Heffley tries to claim the popularity ladder but, by doing so, threatens the foundation of his one true friendship with his best bud Rowley.
“Diary of a Wimpy Kid” takes a look at the impact of personal choices and the importance of asking for — and offering — forgiveness. Good for kids ages 8 and up.
A classic in the Disney stable of films, “Dumbo” is based on the story of a real-life African elephant named Jumbo who was treated poorly by the circus magnate PT Barnum. In the 1941 animated flick, Dumbo is traumatically separated from his mother and left all alone, enduring bullying from other circus animals who make fun of his large ears. Eventually, the young elephant learns that his ears enable him to fly, helping him to embrace his differences.
“Dumbo,” which is getting the live-action treatment, not only teaches children about self-acceptance and the power of a parent’s love but also the importance of treating animals with care and respect. Good for children ages 5 to 11 years old.
‘E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial’ (1982)
Steven Spielberg’s classic 1982 fantasy flick is packed with lessons about trust, loyalty and sacrifice. “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” follows the story of a young boy named Elliott who befriends an abandoned extraterrestrial he found hiding near his home. The alien, who Elliott names E.T., can’t survive on earth, so Elliott and his friends hatch a plan to get him home. It’s not an easy journey, as the gang has to dodge government scientists who want to imprison and study E.T. “E.T.” is a well-done film that emphasizes the power of close friendships and the importance of compassion.
Good for kids of all ages.
This is one film children cannot let go of. Inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale, “The Snow Queen,” “Frozen” follows the story of sisters Elsa and Anna, two young princesses living in the mountain kingdom known as Arendelle. Elsa, who has ice-making powers and is set to become Queen of Arendelle, runs away after an emotional outburst, causing the kingdom to experience eternal winter. Her sister, Anna, embarks on a journey to find Elsa and save Arendelle.
Disney’s beloved 2013 animated film, which is getting a sequel, explores themes of courage, confidence and self-control all while teaching kids about the importance of sibling bonds and the power of love. Good for children 7 to 14 years old.
‘Free Willy’ (1993)
“Free Willy” is a beloved family film about a 12-year-old foster boy named Jesse who forms a special bond with Willy, a moody killer whale, while cleaning up a marine theme park he vandalized. Jesse tries to save his new friend’s life after park management tries to murder the whale to collect on an accidental-death insurance policy. With the help of fellow employees and his new foster family, Jesse frees Willy by releasing him into the open sea.
“Free Willy” teaches kids to stick to their convictions and take risks in order to do what’s right. More importantly, the 1993 movie emphasizes the importance of showing compassion, love and empathy. Good for children ages 7 to 14 years old.
‘Spirited Away’ (2001)
An award-winning coming-of-age film, “Spirited Away” follows the story of Chihiro, a 10-year-old girl who must save her parents from a realm ruled by witches and monsters. But Chihiro must first overcome her sullen and bratty attitude so she can enter this spirit world to save them.
Hayao Miyazaki’s 2001 animated fantasy teaches young viewers to overcome their fears, believe in themselves and learn to act selflessly. Good for children ages 9 and older.
Based on Adam Rex’s children book, “The True Meaning of Smekday,” “Home” is a sweet tale about the bond between a small purple alien and a 7th grader named Tip.
The 2014 animated fantasy film begins after the alien species known as The Boov inhabit the planet after running away from their enemies. Human families are torn apart because of forced relocations and Tip is separated from her mom. Now on her own, she meets and befriends Oh, an eager and friendly Boov, and after a rocky start, they team up to save Earth from being destroyed.
“Home” promotes diversity and inclusion, and teaches children about acceptance, friendship, tolerance and never giving up. Good for kids ages 5 to 11 years old.
‘Akeelah and the Bee’ (2006)
“Akeelah and the Bee” is a touching and inspiring drama directed by Doug Atchison that follows the story of Akeelah Anderson, an 11-year-old spelling whiz trying to fit in at her middle school while also dealing with a tough life at home.
Enlisting the help of his friend, Dr. Larabee, Akeelah’s principal takes the young girl under his wing, getting her prepared for the national spelling bee competition. As Akeelah studies with Dr. Larabee, she learns to accept her gift for spelling and strive for success.
“Akeelah and the Bee” teaches children about finding their voice, embracing their talents and fulfilling their potential in the face of adversity. Good for kids ages 8 and older.
‘How To Train Your Dragon’ (2010)
“How to Train Your Dragon” is an adorable fantasy tale about a young teen named Hiccup who captures the Night Fury, the most mysterious dragon of the Viking world. Hiccup and his pet dragon, who he names Toothless, enter dragon training, giving them a chance to bond. It’s during training that Hiccup learns that not all dragons are vicious creatures, and teaches his fellow recruits how to befriend, rather than control, their pet dragons.
Based on Cressida Cowell’s book series, “How to Train Your Dragon” teaches kids not to judge a book by its cover and to give everyone — even fire-breathing dragons — a chance. The much-loved animated film also explores themes of bravery, girl power and unconditional love. Good for children ages 7 and older.
“Moana” is a beautifully crafted animated film about a young Polynesian navigator named Moana who embarks on a journey to return the ancient Heart of Te Fiti stolen by the exiled demi-god Maui. Accompanied by a pet rooster, Moana has to navigate choppy waters as she sets out to find and deliver Maui across the sea. Maui ends up becoming Moana’s mentor, despite their rocky friendship, and shows her how to come into her power as a Wayfinder.
Honoring Polynesian culture, Disney’s 2016 adventure flick teaches kids — especially young girls — to trust their instincts, stay true to themselves and take risks for the greater good, all while laying a foundation for what it takes to be a strong leader. Good for children ages 6 and older.
The 1996 film adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic children’s novel follows the story of Matilda Wormwood, a smart and headstrong kid who has special powers. The self-reliant Matilda, who befriends the kind-hearted teacher Miss Honey, uses her exceptional abilities to stand up for her peers who are bullied by the evil school principal.
Although the content is sometimes questionable, “Matilda” does teach kids to treat others fairly and to stand up for those who may not be able to defend themselves. Good for children ages 9 and older.
Based on the children’s book series by the late Michael Bond, “Paddington” follows the story of an anthropomorphized bear who’s found at London’s Paddington station by the Brown family. The bear, who they aptly name Paddington, often finds himself in hilarious mishaps as he adjusts to life in England, at the same time trying to dodge an evil taxidermist.
Overall, “Paddington” teaches kids about courage, gratitude, kindness and cooperation. Good for children ages 6 and older.
‘The Muppet Movie’ (1979)
“The Muppet Movie” is one live-action film that everyone needs to watch at least once in their life. Jim Henson‘s 1979 film debut follows Kermit the Frog and his ragtag gang of Muppets as they embark on a road trip to Hollywood, all while fighting a bad guy who wants to take advantage of Kermit’s talents.
“The Muppet Movie” is a delightful and charming movie that not only teaches kids to follow their dreams but also that it’s OK to accept a little help from your friends. Good for children ages 6 and older.
DreamWorks’ satirical 2001 animated feature tells the tale of Shrek, a green and bad-tempered ogre banished from his home by the evil Lord Farqaad. Trying to right the situation, Shrek teams up with a fast-talking donkey named Donkey but is forced by the evil leader to rescue a princess if he wants to go back to his cabin in the woods.
Though a bit edgy at times, “Shrek” teaches children about acceptance, looking beyond physical appearances and keeping true to yourself. Good for kids ages 7 to 14 years old.
‘The Iron Giant’ (1999)
“The Iron Giant” is a touching animated film set in the late 1950s that explores the bond between 9-year-old Hogarth Hughes and a giant robot. Government intervention puts the robot and Hughes’ community in danger, touching on themes of paranoia and fear common during times of conflict.
Overall, Warner Bros.’ 1999 flick teaches children about individuality, self-acceptance, self-determination and friendship. Good for kids ages 7 to 14 years old.
‘Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey’ (1993)
“Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey” is a heartwarming tale about the adventures of a golden retriever named Shadow, a bulldog called Chance and a Himalayan cat known as Sassy. The 1993 live-action flick follows the unlikely trio as they embark on a long journey back home after escaping their babysitter’s house.
An emotional film, “Homeward Bound” teaches kids about teamwork, loyalty, courage and family ties. Good for children ages 6 and older.
‘Lilo and Stitch’ (2002)
“Lilo and Stitch” tells the tale of a little girl named Lilo who adopts a tiny blue alien who escaped his far-away planet and landed in Hawaii. Disney’s beloved 2002 animated feature follows Lilo and her buddy, whom she calls Stitch, as they get into mischief. At the same time, Lilo and her older sister, Nani, are learning to cope with the death of their parents and what it means to grow up in the aftermath of that loss.
“Lilo and Stitch” explores themes of loss, grief, family and rising above adversity. Good for children ages 7 and older.
‘The LEGO Movie’ (2014)
“The LEGO Movie” is a highly imaginative and fun animated featured based on everyone’s favorite childhood building blocks. The first big-screen LEGO film, the 2014 Warner Bros. flick follows Emmet, an average construction worker, who embarks on a journey to save his LEGO world from an evil overlord.
“The LEGO Movie” explores themes of play, creativity, imagination and the parent-child bond. Good for children of all ages.
‘Charlotte’s Web’ (2006)
A live-action adaptation of E.B. White’s classic 1952 novel, “Charlotte’s Web” follows a group of barnyard animals who are hesitant to become friends with the new arrival, a pig named Wilbur who’s fated to become the farmer’s dinner. But they warm up to the sweet and lovable Wilbur and become close friends — so much so that Charlotte, the barn spider, tries to save his life.
With the death of its main character, “Charlotte’s Web” explores themes of loss, grief and recovery, as well as loyalty, acceptance and remaining strong in your convictions. Good for kids ages 5 and older.
‘Finding Nemo’ (2003)
One of Pixar’s most popular animated films, “Finding Nemo” follows a clownfish named Marlin and his new blue tang friend, Dory — who deals with short-term memory loss — as they search for Marlin’s son, Nemo. Their journey through the sea is full of challenges that the duo overcome by being tenacious and courageous, despite feeling afraid. Ultimately,
“Finding Nemo” teaches kids — and parents — the value of compassion, friendship, gratitude and independence. The 2003 adventure flick also promotes diversity and inclusion by featuring a character with a disability. Good for children ages 5 and older.