The ultimate family DVD list

We asked; you answered. Here's the most-awesome-ever summertime list of offbeat, kid-friendly movies available on DVD -- as chosen (mostly) by Salon readers.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published July 12, 2008 11:15AM (EDT)

Clockwise, from top left: images from "Time Bandits," "Iron Giant," "The Princess Bride," and "My Neighbor Totoro."

Back at the beginning of June, I posted a little note in my column asking for ideas for family videos that might be a little off the beaten track. I knew readers would be interested; it's a nearly universal question. What can parents, kids of various ages and other adults watch together during the inevitable summer-vacation downtime, without recycling the usual Disneyfied computer-animated spectacles or some product of the George Lucas universe?

I've got nothing against Buzz Lightyear or the Ewoks, honest. My 4-year-old twins, Nini and Desmond -- who inspired this idea, naturally enough -- are passionate followers of Lightning McQueen and his universe of vehicular pals. (Which is interesting, since they've seen the movie "Cars" exactly once.) But let's face it, I'm a pretentious art-film snob whose workday sometimes consists of watching obscure Slovenian and Japanese movies, and then reading other people's blog entries about Joseph Losey and Chantal Akerman. If I can't come up with something more interesting (not to mention less nauseating) than "The Little Mermaid" or "Pocahontas" on family movie night, I'm just about a worthless pop.

Some 250-odd responses later -- and they keep trickling in, weeks after the fact -- what we've got here is the first draft of a collaborative thingummy I call the Awesome Kids' Video Project. It's interactive! It's synergistic! It's me taking all the stuff you wrote and turning it into a list! I suspect it's the beginning or the middle of a conversation, rather than a finished product. What follows is a pseudo-democratic top 40 of not-quite-mainstream family videos that's largely drawn from reader suggestions, with a few picks I just decided to include because I thought they belonged.

A few words about what's not included. There are no Disney films made after the 1960s, and no major box-office hits of at least the last 30 years. There are quite a few family classics that could plausibly be included but got hardly any reader votes, probably because they seemed too obvious: "Mary Poppins," "The Sound of Music," "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang," "The Wizard of Oz," "It's a Wonderful Life." I've included a couple of foreign-language films that seem perfect for introducing the young 'uns to subtitles, but that almost demands its own category. There were a few things I might have included that just aren't available on DVD, like the Chuck Jones version of "Phantom Tollbooth" or the 1977 adaptation of Russell Hoban's "The Mouse and His Child."

I've got a runner-up list of movies that got votes but that I didn't include for a variety of reasons, which I'd be delighted to share in the letters or in a subsequent post. And Eric Beckman of the New York International Children's Film Festival has provided a thoughtful response to this list, and suggested some things he thinks I/we have overlooked. I agree with him about the Marx brothers, for instance (where's "Duck Soup" or "A Night at the Opera"?), and it's surprising, in retrospect, that hardly anyone voted for "A Hard Day's Night" or "Little Shop of Horrors." On the other hand, I can do without "Oliver!" (which actually did get votes). I wasn't much interested when it was a big deal 40 years ago, and I don't especially want to watch it now. So sue me!

Because my kids are young and just beginning to watch and understand a wide range of non-Lightning McQueen material, there's some inevitable excited-parent bias toward the younger end of the age spectrum, and not that much aimed at kids older than 11 or 12. (I would suggest "Smiles of a Summer Night," "The Wages of Fear" and "Throne of Blood" for that age group -- but that's just me.) Again, I suspect that movies for teens and tweens, poised so agonizingly on the precipice of adulthood, deserve their own category, but I've tucked in a few strong choices here and there.

As mentioned, I've included a few personal selections that got no votes whatever, but maybe those are balanced out by the ones I absolutely, definitely would not have chosen myself but that hordes of readers clearly love. "Mom and Dad Save the World" would be the champion in that category. And let's reserve a special prize for the bizarre outliers, suggestions so weird and inappropriate as to be seductive. I think the person who suggested "Last House on the Left" was kidding -- either that, or their kid is seriously advanced and/or sociopathic. Other what-the-hell ideas included "Top Gun," "The Hudsucker Proxy," "Night of the Living Dead" and, perhaps most peculiar of all, "Rear Window." Hey, if your kids want to see a thriller about paranoia, emotional paralysis and sexual repression, no problem. My parents took me to see Hiroshi Inagaki's 207-minute samurai epic "Chushingura" when I was 9 or 10. I was enthralled, and understood maybe 10 percent of what was going on. Explains a lot, I guess.


These four movies dominated the reader submissions -- so do they qualify as offbeat selections in any way? Controversy! Paradox! Debate! In any event, a great way to begin.

"The Iron Giant" Brad Bird's 1999 animation (based on a children's book by the late British poet Ted Hughes) about a boy's friendship with a giant alien robot has become a genre classic in less than a decade. Actually, the action sequences are a little intense for my twins, but most kids 6 and up, along with plenty of grown-ups, will enjoy it.

"My Neighbor Totoro" We got more votes for Japanese animation legend Hayao Miyazaki's films than for any other single director, but the gentle, magical universe of "Totoro" will enchant viewers of virtually any age. "Kiki's Delivery Service" and "Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind" are also terrific choices, and children mature enough for the more morbid and mystical elements in "Spirited Away" and "Princess Mononoke" will love those too. All ages.

"The Princess Bride" This 1987 fantasy spoof from director Rob Reiner and screenwriter William Goldman was our overall top vote-getter. Which means you probably know about it already! Still, there are few films that work so well for both kids and adults, without patronizing or winking at either group. And what a cast! Some readers have noted that the Rodents of Unusual Size and torture sequences (however jokey they may be) can frighten younger viewers. Shall we say suitable for 7 and up?

"Time Bandits" Misanthropic crackpot that he is, Terry Gilliam lands two films on this list, with this rip-roaring, three-quarters deranged time-travel fantasy among the reader faves. I'll cautiously say that "Time Bandits" is great for 11-year-olds, will click with the most intrepid 8-year-olds, and is likely to terrify younger kids.


This category reflects democracy in action: I wouldn't have picked any of these on my own, most likely, and there are quite a few I've never seen. To my mind, these are evenly divided between delightful, unexpected choices and what-the-hell head-scratchers. But you viewers at home out there in Salon-reader-land sure loved them, so here they are.

"The Adventures of Baron Munchausen" I'm of two minds here: I think Gilliam's insane fantasy-adventure, a box-office debacle in 1988 that permanently scorched his career, is one of those failures that's nearly a masterpiece. As a kids' movie? I guess that depends on you and your kids. So take my warning on "Time Bandits" and double it, be aware that the Robin Williams cameo as King of the Moon will scare the crap out of anybody, and have fun.

"The Adventures of Robin Hood" (1938) Clearly for older kids (and parents) who will be thrilled rather than troubled by the cheerful and continuous violence, but this cornball Technicolor classic with Errol Flynn remains among the great swashbucklers, and has most of the thrills of "Rush Hour" without, you know, being "Rush Hour." Adult movie geeks will enjoy the hambone performances by Basil Rathbone, Olivia de Havilland, Claude Rains, et al.

"Alice in Wonderland" (1949) I will argue that there is no perfect or even wholly satisfactory film or TV adaptation of Lewis Carroll's meta-literary masterpiece, although there have been almost two dozen efforts, dating back to 1903. We probably got more votes for the 1951 Disney version, a decent animated film that presents a thoroughly defanged form of Carroll's weirdness. So I'm overruling in favor of director Dallas Bower's intriguing Anglo-French version, an odd but effective mix of live action and puppetry with Carol Marsh in the title role. Of course, there's also the 1985 TV version with Sammy Davis Jr. as the Caterpillar; the 1999 version with Ben Kingsley, Whoopi Goldberg and Miranda Richardson; at least two black-and-white versions from the '30s; at least two made in Spanish and at least two silent films. Let the debate rage! And stay tuned: Tim Burton is planning to direct a new version for release in 2010.

"Born Free" I know I saw this multiple Oscar-winner about Kenyan game warden Joy Adamson and her lion cub Elsa, but I haven't thought about it much since. Still, I got a couple of insistent e-mails from people who said they were surprised to discover how well this 1966 film held up for contempo-family viewing. What would you say? Roughly 8 and up, with a few littler animal lovers in the mix?

"Bringing Up Baby" OK, I think there were two votes for Howard Hawks' 1938 screwball classic with Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, but what an awesome idea! One correspondent reports that his 10-year-old daughter talked like Hepburn for a week afterward, which is approximately the cutest thing I've ever heard.

"Labyrinth" I'm pretty sure all these votes came from adults who want an excuse to watch David Bowie's wild-haired Jareth the Goblin King match wits with Jennifer Connelly's teenage heroine in Jim Henson's 1986 fantasy adventure. And, hey, I've got no problem with that. Much too dark and scary for most little 'uns, I'd say, but a dynamite alternative to Potter and Shrek for the over-10 set.

"A Little Princess" (1995) Not the recent animated series or the 1930s Shirley Temple movie, but the Alfonso Cuarón film based on Frances Hodgson Burnett's beloved children's book. I've never seen it and don't know the source material either, but this got so many enthusiastic votes it clearly belongs. Available in a DVD set with Agnieszka Holland's version of Burnett's "Secret Garden," listed below.

"Microcosmos" Entirely depends on how your kids feel about bugs -- some love 'em, some are petrified. Absolutely the greatest documentary about insect life ever made, and while there's a tremendous amount of sex and violence in "Microcosmos," all of it involves invertebrate life forms.

"Mom and Dad Save the World" Never seen it, and am kind of dubious. But there's a tremendous reservoir of affection out there for this goofball 1992 fantasy-adventure with Teri Garr and Jeffrey Jones as suburban parents who must battle Jon Lovitz's evil Emperor Spengo. Many people wrote to say, essentially, that this is an unbelievably dumb movie but they love it. Sounds like a flick for the 8-12 group, but I'm only guessing.

"The Point" Apparently, I'm just the wrong age for this Pop Art-flavored 1971 animated feature based on Harry Nilsson's fable about a round boy in a pointed world, since I'd never even heard of it. Ringo Starr narrates the home-video version (it was originally Dustin Hoffman), with original songs by Nilsson. I gather this is likely to work with all ages, but correct me if that's wrong.


This category comprises two phenomena: A) Readers voted for a movie that seems like a natural choice, and B) I just put something on the list because it damn well belongs, whether or not anybody else likes it.

"The Adventures of Milo and Otis" This chopped-up, Westernized version of Japanese director Masanori Hata's puppy-and-kitten adventure may have a checkered artistic pedigree, but has become a universally beloved kids' flick, suitable for nearly all ages. I'd be curious to see Hata's reputedly darker original, but I suppose a subtitled version of this kind of movie is a hilariously pointless endeavor.

"Beauty and the Beast" (1946) I am among those who think that Disney's 1991 version is among the studio's better recent animated films -- but that sure ain't this movie. Yes, Jean Cocteau's magical masterpiece requires either French comprehension or the ability to read subtitles, but I say get 'em started young on both counts. Eric Beckman of the New York International Children's Film Festival says he's encountered strikingly little resistance to subtitles among audiences of second-grade age or older; it's usually the parents who aren't interested. And what a magnificent, moving experience this movie is, at any age. Roughly 9 and up, I guess.

"The Black Stallion" Carroll Ballard's 1979 adventure about a shipwrecked boy and a mysterious Arabian stallion is justifiably considered one of the greatest of all animal films. Clearly too intense for younger viewers, but a tremendous cinematic experience for, say, ages 8 and up.

"City Lights" Look, it is your bounden duty as a movie lover to expose your kids to Charlie Chaplin, and you can consider this a generic rather than a specific recommendation (although this 1931 comedy-romance is arguably his best silent feature). Littler kids will be more readily engaged by Chaplin's early slapstick shorts, which are available in several DVD collections, and "The Kid" and "Modern Times" are also great choices. Here's the thing: I know you've been procrastinating on this. You think it'll seem like dutiful edutainment, like a valuable slice of history and not like fun. When your kids are rolling around on the floor howling at the gags, or weeping profusely at the sentimental scenes, then let's talk.

"Dumbo" Sure, it's a Disney film, but a gorgeous one, perhaps Walt's greatest variation on the classic theme of tragic mother-love. (And, with "Pink Elephants on Parade," it includes one of the earliest acid-freakout sequences in animated history.) Yeah, the singin' and dancin' "Jim Crows" are kind of a problem, somewhere between racist caricature and genuine African-American cultural history. Such discussion topics are good, not bad, and anyway this is my daughter Nini's favorite movie. (The game where she plays Dumbo's mommy and I play Dumbo is so sweet I can't even talk about it.) I don't want her to read this in 10 years and believe that I was so busy watching semi-pornographic 1970s Italian horror films that I didn't notice. While we're here, let's shout out to a few other highly enjoyable Disney classics your kids may not have caught, like "The Jungle Book," "101 Dalmatians" and the box sets of vintage Donald and Mickey cartoons.

"Fantasia" There were only two or three votes for this, I guess because of my apparent anti-Disney fatwa. But let's get real: It's one of the most amazing films ever made, a sound-and-light spectacle that teeters between wordless narrative and experimental animation. Sure, it came into existence as a Hollywood-high culture hybrid, a way of introducing tots to the expressive power of classical music. But I decline to think that's a bad thing, especially when the results are this magnificent. In keeping with the Mouse policy of rotating the classics on and off the shelves, this isn't currently available on DVD, but used copies are plentiful and I can assure you a Blu-ray version is on the way.

"The General" You know, I waffled on including the great silent comic Buster Keaton's greatest film -- an action-packed, locomotive-ridin' spectacular for kids, grandmas and everybody else -- because of the evident Confederate sympathies in its Civil War plot. Well, screw that. If your p.c. buttons really get mashed over watching Keaton play a Reb, you can watch Keaton's "Steamboat Bill, Jr." (on the same DVD!), or collections of his shorts, or pretty much anything by Harold Lloyd. But this one's actually better.

"The Great Muppet Caper" Another quasi-random selection, in that any of the "Muppet Show" collections on DVD will serve just as well to introduce your tykes to the delirious and delightful Jim Henson universe. (I'm going to assume they've already worn out their copies of "Sesame Street: Old School," an essential assortment of grittier pre-1979 episodes.) By consensus, this 1981 film is the best of the Muppet features.

"Kirikou and the Sorceress" This animated film-fest fave from French director Michel Ocelot adapts a traditional African legend into an exciting quest narrative. It's available both in subtitled and English versions, with music by Afro-pop legend Youssou N'Dour. Ocelot's gorgeous animations incorporate both Western and African influences, but your kids won't require a lecture on cultural diversity to enjoy the yarn. There's considerable matter-of-fact nudity, which may create issues for some adult viewers.

"Meet Me in St. Louis" There was a lot of support for the general category of classic Hollywood musicals, but not much agreement as to specifics. (Great primer: "That's Entertainment!") So I'm nominating Vincente Minnelli's Technicolor wartime confection about a turn-of-the-century family that sticks together in changing times, darn it all -- and visits the famous World's Fair in St. Louis, Louie, along the way. Great musical numbers (many sung by Judy Garland) and a fantastical Halloween sequence will keep everybody watching, and the intimations of doom, while present, are pretty light.

"M. Hulot's Holiday" Technically in French but with virtually no dialogue you need to understand, Jacques Tati's beach-vacation slapstick masterpiece ought to be an ideal DVD for the rainy afternoons of your beach vacation. Several readers have testified that their kids dig it, but Beckman insists that junior audiences at his fest "loathed it." I lack empirical evidence. In theory, terrific for all ages.

"The Nightmare Before Christmas" More for teens and tweens than for little ones who don't want their Christmas (or Halloween) traditions messed with, I guess. Still, Henry Selick and Tim Burton's latter-day stop-motion classic will surely delight more than a few daring 8-year-olds.

"The Red Balloon" Finally available on DVD (in a lustrous Criterion version) after many years of scratchy VHS, Albert Lamorisse's Oscar-winning fable about a lonely boy and his magical balloon offers grown-ups and kids alike a haunting vision of mid-century Paris. When Nini and Desmond first saw this, they were enchanted -- also a little intimidated by the roving gangs of boys who pursue and persecute our hero, and sad about the red balloon's tragic fate (of course). But Lamorisse's magical, redemptive ending made it all worth it.

"The Best of Rocky and Bullwinkle, Vol. 1" Hey, Rocky -- watch me pull a rabbit out of my hat! I'm going to suggest beginning with this compact sampler, because if you start collecting the box sets of complete "Rocky & Bullwinkle" seasons, you may never stop. Fan mail from some flounder? The main question you'll face is whether you can get your kids to watch these eccentric masterpieces of early-'60s Americana as often as you want to. And now here's something we hope you'll really like.

"The Secret Garden" (1993) Although Frances Hodgson Burnette's classic about a prickly orphan who finds magic in her uncle's garden has been adapted for film and TV several times, Agnieszka Holland's version is, I think, now definitive. Best for ages 9 and up, wouldn't you say? Available on a DVD with Alfonso Cuarón's "Little Princess," listed above.

"The Secret of NIMH" Renegade Disney animator Don Bluth's adaptation of the beloved children's book "Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH" is widely viewed as one of the few great animated films of the '80s. (Eric Beckman thinks this is already in every parent's collection, but I'm not sure he's right.) A terrific fantasy-adventure, probably best for ages 8 and up, with a truly peculiar voice-cast that includes Derek Jacobi, Dom DeLuise, Hermione Baddeley and Shannen Doherty.

"The Secret of Roan Inish" Made on the northwest coast of Ireland with a largely non-professional cast, John Sayles' wonderful variation on the Celtic/North Atlantic "selkie" legend might be the best-loved film of his entire career. I guess its romantic-tragic elements won't interest the youngest viewers, but some as young as 6 or 7 will be entranced by the magic, the genuine folktale feeling and the sweet but unsticky sentiment.

"The 7th Voyage of Sinbad" If your kids are big enough to watch action-adventure flicks, it's time for them to learn how it was done before computers. Ray Harryhausen's stop-motion monsters, in all their herky-jerky glory, convey a kind of effortful realism totally absent from today's $300 million spectacles. Certain boys, and certain tomboyish girls, will watch this every day for a month. (And then you can move on to "Jason and the Argonauts.")

"Singin' in the Rain" Another Technicolor Hollywood-musical classic that'll stand up to dozens of viewings. This possibly requires greater powers of concentration than "Meet Me in St. Louis," but who cares about the inside-show-biz plot when you've got some of the greatest singin' and dancin' and glorious-feelin' sequences ever set to celluloid?

"Small Change" François Truffaut's episodic small-town ensemble drama from 1976, with its focus on teenage and child characters, makes for a charming and thoroughly accessible introduction to foreign-language films (perhaps as a companion piece to "Beauty and the Beast"). There's more sexual frankness than there would be in a kid-oriented American film, and one brief shot of an exposed breast. But, hey -- if they're old enough to read subtitles, maybe they're also old enough to talk about that kind of stuff with you.

"The Thief of Bagdad" (1924) We got votes for both the 1940 Technicolor version and the Douglas Fairbanks black-and-white silent, and I say if you're going to venture into this territory at all, go all the way. It's a swashbuckler classic, one of the greatest silent action films, and you can explain that the, um, cultural representations should not be taken too literally. Besides, the sooner your kids know where Baghdad is, the sooner they'll be ready to ship out!

"Winged Migration" Another amazing nature documentary made by Europeans, and an easier sell to many kids than "Microcosmos," I should think. Be alert for that scene where a migratory bird with a broken wing is set upon by crabs -- unless your kids are into that sort of thing. Possesses the great advantage of being easy to watch in small increments.

"Yellow Submarine" My adored big brother, who knew all about things like the Beatles, took me to see this when I was 7 or 8. If I've never thanked you, Michael, I'm thanking you now. If any of your kids or mine feel one-tenth the transports of ecstasy I felt at this inscrutable but completely friendly work of psychedelic candy floss -- which is somewhere between a triviality and a masterpiece -- we'll have some happy families. Which is a great place to end.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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