Must-See Movies For Kids: Grown-up Films Your Kids Should See

Wait - a list of must-see movies for kids that includes movies meant for grown-ups?! The gems will make you question your idea of "age-appropriate."

Neil Hedley

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Wait - a list of must-see movies for kids that includes movies meant for grown-ups?! Don't say that out loud in your parenting group on Facebook. Strangers will swoop down with the fire of a thousand suns for pushing the boundaries of what they consider "age-appropriate."

Sometimes, though, it's not about the movie; it's about the conversations that come after the end credits roll. I have a handful of examples that go on my "must-see movies for kids" list for precisely that reason. Each recommendation comes from having road-tested these movies in our own household. And often, my kids surprise me by being more sophisticated than I gave them credit for.

At the same time, it's worth noting that I, for one, had horrible experiences with movies as a child. The flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz gave me nightmares for years. What's more, the movies on this list are not recommended for parents like mine, whose idea of "watching a movie with the kids" meant hitting "Play" and checking in every 45 minutes or so to see if anyone was still awake.

What's also true about the movies on this list is that watching them through the eyes of a child might illuminate things that escaped you, for whatever reason, the first time around.

Must-See Movies For Kids #1: 42

The official poster from the film "42" features actor Chadwick Boseman as baseball icon Jackie Robinson. The image shows Boseman as Robinson, sliding triumphantly into home plate with his right fist raised, scoring the winning run in a game against the Philadelphia Phillies.

With the unofficial subtitle of The Jackie Robinson Story, this film introduced much of the world to Chadwick Boseman. Released in 2013, I took my daughter to see it in a theater when she was nine years old. She grew up as the one of the only white kids in her daycare, and it was clear to me that the color-blind nature of her friendships might be shielding her from an important perspective. Is there foul language and racial epithets? Absolutely. As a matter of fact, that was part of the point. I spent most of those two hours watching her reactions out the corner of my eye, and there was no question the film had left those eyes wide open. Afterward, the discussion reassured me the film had, as expected, knocked it out of the park. (Ahem.)

The cognitive dissonance between what was in the movie, versus her perception of her friends' lives, paved the way. She asked, "Was that real?" Given that I told her on the way to the theater that it was based on a true story, she needed confirmation. While there are those in 2022 who would prefer to whitewash unflattering pieces of our history as though it were as benign as pretending we didn't have that second piece of cake, even my nine year-old understood that she was completely blind to a critical piece of her friends' heritage. We talked about how things used to be, how far we've come, and how much work is still left to do. The film changed her perspective, and I'm grateful the shift came at an early age.

#2: Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

#2 on our list of Must-See Movies For Kids, features the movie poster for Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, where a Klingon Bird of Prey flies over the Golden Gate Bridge, with a collage of the film's stars overhead

I showed my daughter this one when she was six, though in theaters it was rated 'PG'. At the time, most believed that eight was somehow the cutoff for 'PG' movies. Additionally, some thought Star Trek was mostly over the heads of young children. With that said, show your kids this one if you're going to show them anything Trek-related that isn't Prodigy. The scariest thing in the entire film might have been Bill Shatner's hairpiece. Otherwise, it's a fun story about whales, and people in funny costumes trying to fit in where they don't belong.

At the age of six, this film sparked an interest for my kid in animals as more than pets or cute playthings. To me, that's what gets it a spot on a list of must-see movies for kids. It instilled a sense of living creatures as part of a whole ecosystem. She became conscious of the environment. (She even questioned whether the cloaked Klingon ship might be killing the grass at Golden State Park.) Because most of the film happens in 1986, there were plenty of contemporary references for her. The jokes stuck too. It became common for her to pick up the mouse on my desk and say "Computer?" into it, in one of the worst fake Scottish accents ever.

Among the worst language transgressions has Kirk yelling, "Double dumb-ass on you!" at an aggressive cabbie. (There's an S-bomb or two in there as well, but nothing too horrific.) There's some almost cartoonish "violence", when Spock applies his trademark nerve pinch to incapacitate an inconsiderate jerk on a city bus.

This one, though, required very little in terms of a post-game show. The message was spelled out pretty clearly by the movie itself, in a way that a first-grader could identify with.

Must-See Movies For Kids #3: October Sky

The poster for the film "October Sky" features Laura Dern and 17-year-old Jake Gyllenhall watching a rocket take off.

Disclaimer: Some parents loathe this movie. It's absolutely not filled with great adult role models. Then again, neither is The Little Mermaid, but I digress. In fact, this film basically says to kids, "Don't listen to your parents." However in context, it actually says, "Don't listen to your parents if they say you can't achieve great things."

I thought it made sense to put this one here, after a true story and a movie about space. This movie combines the two. It's the true story of Homer Hickam, the NASA engineer who trained the first Japanese astronauts. If you've read along so far and the language and violence in 42 didn't scare you away, then October Sky might be right up your alley. Homer, inspired by the 1957 Sputnik 1 launch, starts building his own rockets against his father's wishes. Against the backdrop of a mining town in West Virginia, it's a powerful story of dreams and overcoming obstacles.

Kids tend to latch on to the "build your own rocket" story, with added elements they won't get from Phineas & Ferb.

#4: Planet of the Apes (1968)

#4 on our list of Must-See Movies for Kids, the poster for the 1968 classic, "Planet Of The Apes" starring Charlton Heston in his astronaut uniform, with a smaller image of him in a loincloth, struggling with his alien captors.

This one originally wasn't going to appear on this list, until a friend told me that it's on his list of must-see movies for kids. The way he got the kids into it was, well, kind of diabolical. The discussions that came out of it, he says, were irreplaceable. It began with a conversation with his 7 year-old about special effects. A devoted sci-fi fan, Dad was watching an old episode of Star Trek, and the kids were laughing about how terrible the effects were. Dad says, "That's nothing. There was a movie where actors had to wear monkey suits." There was no CGI in Charlton Heston's day. And I don't recall anyone questioning how realistic it was for an ape to have Roddy McDowall's accent.

What started as a lark to poke fun at outdated special effects turned into much deeper subjects. Treatment of animals. Ignorance. The importance of communication. Cruelty born from prejudice. Arrogance. If you choose to start a conversation about science versus religion, there's certainly a ton of source material there for that, too. There's very little blood, the language is tame by 2022 standards, unless "Damn" is a hot button for you. And people still say it's one of the best ending scenes in movie history.

Must-See Movies For Kids #5: Moneyball

The poster for "Moneyball" shows Brad Pitt as Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Beane, sitting in the stands at a baseball stadium, looking over his shoulder.

Aside from a couple of F-bombs, what's not to love about this movie? Especially if your kid is nerdy like I was. Another film that's based on a true story, Brad Pitt plays baseball executive Billy Beane, the first General Manager in Major League Baseball to successfully employ an approach more grounded in science and statistics when it came to finding talent.

Under Beane's leadership, the Oakland A's went from having the highest payroll in the sport in 1991 to the 24th in 2006, when that 24th-highest payroll earned them the fifth-best record in the game. This year, in 2022, there will be a dozen or so individual players in Major League Baseball who make more than the entire Oakland payroll combined. What's more, the team has finished in the Top 3 in their division the last four seasons in a row with a payroll ranked at 30th, 25th, 26th, 24th out of 30.

Until the sale of the Oakland A's in 1995, baseball was largely a "gut" sport when it came to evaluating players. Moneyball deals with the integration of statistical analysis the A's used to squeeze the best results they could out of a very limited budget. It might even be one of the better "get revenge on the bullies" stories, as one of the most important figures in big-league sports in the 90s was a guy with a Harvard degree in Economics.

As you'd expect with a professional sports story, there's a little cursing here that's not entirely out of place. But there's more than enough baseball action for fans of sports movies. Not to mention it's a great tale of believing in yourself, even when no one else does.

#6: The Pursuit of Happyness

#6 on our list of Must-See Movies for Kids, the poster from "The Pursuit Of Happyness" shows Will Smith as real-life Dad Chris Gardner, and Smith's son Jaden portraying Christopher Gardner Jr. The father is carrying a briefcase in his right hand, using his left to hold hands with his son.

I've never been a fan of gratuitous coarse language, whether that's in films, music or everyday discourse. However, there's nothing about the occasional cursing in the extraordinary real-life story of Chris Gardner that gives me pause. One of the reasons this film had to make this list of Must-See Movies For Kids is its status as perhaps one of the greatest tales of sacrifice and redemption. Gardner's rise from homelessness to multimillionaire in the name of caring for his son is the very definition of overcoming the odds. It's also a massive testament to the power of love.

For children of divorce, or children of lesser means, this film offers hope. It also offers reassurance - if you choose to identify it - about the nature of unconditional parental love.

As of this writing, Happyness star Will Smith is still something of a pariah in Hollywood. His live assault of comedian Chris Rock during the broadcast of The Oscars is still top-of-mind. That might be one more reason to ensure its position on this list. My very strong hunch is that kids are having difficulty navigating what we've come to call "cancel culture". A Will Smith movie is a great way to start the discussion about separating art from the artist, and the artist from the person. What's more, Chris Gardner's story is a great example of what truly defines a person. Combining the two stories might be a terrific way to set some guideposts for your kids.

Must-See Movies For Kids #7: A Christmas Carol (2009)

The poster for the 2009 release of Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" features Jim Carrey as Ebenezer Scrooge, flying over the city at the behest of one of the three spirits that visit him on Christmas Eve.

I saved for last, the one I'm most likely to take flak over. Especially because I saw it with my daughter when she was six.

For context, here's why it worked as a choice for us: Nearly twenty years ago, working at a radio station in Connecticut, I produced a one-hour radio adaptation of Dickens' A Christmas Carol. It was a script I'd written at least a decade before that, and the update featured my daughter as the child at the end who says things to Scrooge like, "The one as big as me?" when he asks about the prized turkey in the butcher shop down the street.

So by the age of six, my daughter had already been in a radio play, had seen the Alistair Sim film in my office while I edited the radio script, and was very interested in the different methods of storytelling used across the various productions.

When commercials started showing up on television for the Carrey version, she kind of demanded that we see it. I cautioned her that it'd likely be scary. In the way that only a six year-old can, she put my fears to rest. "Really, Dad? You're not afraid of ghosts, are you?" she asked.

I gave her the "scary images" warning about a half dozen more times before we settled into our seats. I'm glad I did; there was one scene where she literally jumped out of her chair. (If you've seen it, you know which scene that is.) The rest, though, was filled with cartoonish screaming and effects that wouldn't be completely out of place in a Ninja Turtles episode. Now, thirteen years later, I see no evidence that she suffered any ill effects from those 96 minutes. However, your mileage may vary.

In Summary: "Parent" is also a verb.

I'm one of those who believes that if we shelter our children from everything scary, the real world will come as a shock. Not everyone thinks that way. And not everyone should. Ultimately, you know your kid better than anyone in your Facebook parenting group. Just because something is on their list of must-see movies for kids doesn't mean it's required viewing at your house. On the other hand, don't let a website decide which movies are inappropriate for your children. After all, when it comes right down to it, aren't many of the Mother Goose fairy tales downright disturbing? Have you read the lyrics to "Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater"? Do you know what "Ring Around The Rosy" is about? What kind of sicko bakes four and twenty blackbirds into a pie?

Before you allow anyone to throw stones at you about your entertainment choices for your kids, remind them that Little Red Riding Hood uses a bunch of those same stones to savagely drown the big bad wolf in a river.

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