My Top Five… Family Movies

My Top Five… Family Movies June 13, 2013

I’m starting a new “top 5” series for movies. Eventually I hope to do so for songs as well. In both cases, I’ll break it down by genre.
Finding good movies can be difficult. I’m here to offer some of the best picks from my own experience as a passionate cinephile who’s also not ashamed to suggest that there are some movies no Christian should watch, at the risk of being called a fundamentalist. To start off, here are my top five family movies.


A great family movie must…
1. Have only negligible content issues, if any.
2. Be well-made (of course this applies to all, but family movies certainly aren’t exempt!)
3. Be fun.
4. Be something even small kids could appreciate (this is why I chose to leave off movies like The Princess Bride, because a 3-year-old won’t really “get” a lot of the fun in the movie).
5. Have a happy ending.
So without further ado, I present….

The List

5. The Aristocats
When people get misty-eyed and nostalgic over “old Disney,” I always want to reply, “Oh, you mean the 60s? Yeah, that was great!” But I know they’re really talking about the 90s, which to them is like, a hundred years ago or something. I guess I’m just an old soul, but in my opinion, the older the better. No, Snow White wasn’t the greatest Disney film ever made, but they improved fast. I may be committing heresy by not putting Bambi on this list, and indeed, I think it’s perhaps the best animated film ever made. But The Aristocats is even more fun and attention-holding for the younger viewers, hence I prefer it as a family film.
The characters are all memorable: Duchess as the sweet but classy rich girl, charismatic leading “man” Thomas O’Malley, Edgar the butler as a devious villain out for cash, the three adorable kittens, Roquefort the loyal mouse,  Scat Cat and his lovable gang of ragged rejects… and more! Something’s happening in every frame, the music is instantly fresh and memorable, and the voice acting is spot-on. Phil Harris is the voice behind Thomas O’Malley and will charm your socks off. O’Malley and Baloo the bear were two characters of his I grew up on. Here’s the show-stopping musical number “Everybody Wants to Be a Cat” (written by the ubiquitous Sherman brothers). I understand that some scenes from Paul Winchell’s Chinese cat have been scrubbed from recent editions for politically correct reasons. What a shame. I loved that character.

4. The Black Stallion
Although I enjoy the book, I believe the film surpasses it, if only because of Caleb Deschanel’s breath-taking cinematography on the “island half” of the movie. If I were making a list of the best-shot movies, this would be hovering somewhere near the top. (Despite which, Deschanel wasn’t even nominated at the Oscars. For a nice film-lover’s rant on just how unforgivable a crime this was, see here.) The score by Carmine Coppola is fascinatingly understated, incorporating elements of Middle Eastern music for an atmospheric effect. Together, they create moments of surpassing beauty that require no dialogue. As for the Black… well, just look at him! He and his small rider capture the mystic union of man and beast as perfectly as it’s ever been captured on film. 3. Homeward Bound
Based on the novel The Incredible Journey, this is an off-beat adventure romp that never fails to be entertaining, exciting and poignant. I still come back to it over and over. Don Ameche, Michael J. Fox and Sally Fields truly make their animal characters come alive on the screen. Toss in a great score, and you’ve got the whole package of family film excellence: a reminder that “sacrifice, friendship and even love are more than just the mushy stuff.” Here’s a montage of some of Michael Fox’s classic moments as the exuberant young bulldog Chance (through whose eyes we see the story unfold): Okay, okay, I have to include the last scene. “Best movie ending of my childhood” does kind of sum it up.

2. Star Wars
Yes, we’re going aaaaaall the way back to 1977 for this, the one, the only, the original, the true Star Wars. Need I say more? I have to give credit to George Lucas: He may have ended up ruining his own good idea, but he did have one good idea, and that’s the movie that started it all. Combining elements of the western genre, Japanese comics, and pure fantasy, plus ground-breaking special effects and arguably the greatest American movie score ever composed, this was quite simply lightning in a bottle. Everything worked. And it launched the career of one of Hollywood’s most successful leading men (I’m speaking of course of Mark Hamill). Here’s a swatch of the film that wasn’t ruined by Lucas’s re-edits.
1. The Sound of Music
If only all of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s musicals were as good as this one. Brilliant songs, stellar acting all-round, and an epic tale of love, patriotism and integrity. The perfect family film, still holds up as a bona fide classic after all these years. It’s surprisingly hard to find clips from the movie online, but someone has put the whole thing on dailymotion with Asian subtitles. To watch the very best scene, click here and scroll to about 35:30 minutes, where Captain von Trapp addresses the audience at the family’s last performance and then begins to sing “Edelweiss.” When he is unable to finish, Maria continues for him as the crowd joins in (with the Nazis in the front row looking very uncomfortable). It’s a powerful moment. I don’t care if you’re not Austrian, I question your patriotic spirit if that scene doesn’t stir you and/or bring a tear to your eye.
Looking back over this short list, I notice that a common element of all five films, even the non-musicals, is great music. I guess that shows that an excellent score can take a film that’s already great and give it that X factor that really makes it stick with you.
[2014 Update: A Rodgers and Hammerstein channel has now posted short clips of some of the film’s best songs. Click here for the opening title number and check out related videos for more!]
So what are your top 5 family movies?

Honorable Mentions

The Jungle Book
The Adventures of Robin Hood
Lassie Come Home
Mary Poppins

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  • Deanna Haney

    I don’t very often go to the movies. I instead wait until they are out on DVD. But I did see “Sound of Music” in the theater many years ago, and have the DVD, which I’ve played many, many times. I think it’s safe to say that this movie will always remain my #1. Second would be “Sleepless in Seattle”. Next would be “August Rush”, then “Fly Away Home”, and finally, “Field of Dreams”. I don’t remember if there was any forgettable music in the last one, but the other four have beautiful music, and maybe that’s why I love them the most!

  • Sleepless in Seattle is a cut above other modern comedies, though it still suffers from a little of the innuendo problem. I remember watching it when I was very little (and the innuendo flew over my head!) but then still appreciating it later. I’d recommend it as a fun comedy for older viewers, but I’m not sure I’d put it together with other great family films simply for the reason that there’s still some questionable dialogue in there, plus a casual acceptance of extra-marital sex.
    I’ve heard of Field of Dreams but haven’t seen it. The other two I haven’t heard of.

  • Deanna Haney

    Field of Dreams is a baseball story, and you would really like August Rush because of the music. It’s about a little boy (musical prodigy) who’s looking for his parents who are each musicians…one classical, one soft rock. Fly Away Home is about a girl whose mother dies in an accident, and she is sent to live with her father in Canada, where she raises a flock of geese and has to find a way to teach them how to migrate in the fall. It’s a wonderful story for everyone.

  • Oooooh, actually I have seen the one about the geese now that you mention it. I remember it being a nice story, though there are some leftist stereotypes built into it (bad game warden, good tree huggers-hippies-animal rights activists, etc.)

  • The first movie I saw as a child and will never forget is Mary Poppins. My dad took me to the cinema (leaving mom and little brother at home so I felt really grown up at age six) and we had a great night. It will always be my all time favorite.
    Another one I loved was “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” … I wanted that flying car! 🙂

  • I love Mary Poppins! I also love Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Both star Dick Van Dyke (can’t be a coincidence).

  • Melissa Selby

    I’m not really a movie person, so I can’t really add much to the discussion, but any list I might make of my favorite family films would be worthless without “The Wizard of Oz” topping the list. That movie caught my heart when I was just a toddler, and 55 years later, it still weaves the same magic it did back then — only now, I can actually experience the wonder when the B&W turns to Technicolor. That wasn’t an option when our only TV was a 1955-model Motorola!

  • Charlie S

    Field of Dreams (with Kevin Costner) is very good. It’s probably rated PG.
    One of my favorites!

  • Saved Girl

    I think Sound of Music fully deserves its place as #1. Although when we watch it as a family, we either groan through or skip the Mother’s song “Climb every mountain”. 🙂
    Wow, and thanks for the The Black Stallion clip. I’d forgotten how good that movie was. I watched it when I was young and starry-eyed about horses; to be honest, at the time I thought it was kind of boring. I guess it moved a little slow for me. It looks a lot more interesting now. Now I appreciate that gorgeous cinematography. The Black Stallion book was such a good idea… gone bad. I guess some books just shouldn’t have a series made out of them. I wonder if Walter Farley intended to write a sequel at first; it seems like once he started writing the sequels, he went into a lot of eastern mysticism type ideas. Definitely not the type of material that made that first book so good.
    I would have put another one on this list. Singing in the Rain is just a classic in my opinion. With fun that even little ones can enjoy too.

  • Lydia

    Not to take this too seriously or be a party pooper, but I have to offer a dissent on “Field of Dreams.” I really disliked it. The background is smarmily politicized. There’s an entire sub-plot about the main family’s conflicts in local school board meetings with political and religious conservatives. The latter are portrayed as cartoonishly stupid, dirty-minded, and wicked, and the mother of the family gets a big charge out of saying, “Shut up, you Nazi cow” or some such phrase to one of these cartoonish Christian conservatives in a town meeting. The protesters are objecting (on grounds of content–naturally we’re supposed to assume that the objections are narrowminded and bigoted) to the inclusion of books in the school library written by some fiction author who is revered by the enlightened protagonist family. As I recall it (it’s been some years since I watched it), the controversial author, whom the main character actually goes and visits, is portrayed as a sort of hippie guru who gives him the idea for growing the “field of dreams.” Toss in ghost baseball players and a bit of time travel, and that’s about it. I really can’t recommend it.

  • LOL. That is unfortunate, but I believe it.

  • It’s not the greatest song in the movie I’ll admit. But the melody is good. 🙂
    I agree about the _Black Stallion_ series. The first one was so successful that Farley was kind of shoe-horned into writing more. I actually did enjoy some of the sequels (I remember especially liking _The Black Stallion’s Filly_), but they were nearly all forgettable, or worse. (Like the one where that island horse is abducted by aliens. Seriously, whose brilliant idea was THAT??) The first book was good because it was fresh and youthful. Farley wrote it when he was a highschool student. Sure, it was implausible, but it was a young man’s book. Come to think of it, a little like the first _Star Wars_, while we’re discussing my list.
    I really like _Singing in the Rain_ too, but one factor that edges it out of the top 5 for me is the prolonged Broadway number in the middle that just goes on, and on, and on…. It was obviously just an excuse to insert that famous lizard-like lady actress so they could put her face on the promo material and make more money. However, there are some great songs, as well as a priceless performance by Donald O’Connor as the comic sidekick. As a little kid, I couldn’t get enough of “Make ‘Em Laugh!” Not to mention that screamingly funny actress who plays Lina Lamont. If I’m not mistaken, she was actually nominated for an Oscar for that.

  • Yes! Classic moment. And a sweet performance from Judy Garland. I remember putting the pieces together later and figuring out that the singer whose voice I was hearing on my Gershwin CD was Dorothy from _The Wizard of Oz_!