Animated movies are truly amazing, and they are getting even better. Animated movies are also timeless in ways non-animated movies can never be. Although there are many “old movie” fans and countless wonderful old movies – pieces of art – these movies can show their age. And, there is always one family member who simply won’t popcorn up for black-and-white movies. Honestly, I prefer color myself.
Few things are more relationship-building than Family Movie Nights. But, what to watch? Here are my choices for the best family-focused animated movies. Dim the lights. Start the movie. Snuggle up as a family. In addition to the visual artistry and the wonderful, sing-able music, these movies share life lessons that children and parents can talk about – and the movies do not deliver these lessons in an over-bearing manner.
The Oldies But Goodies
I have defined an “Oldie But a Goodie” as a movie before 2000.
Choice #1: The Lion King (1994, Rated G)
First, The Lion King is a classic story of growing into adulthood. It incorporates ideas from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, classical mythology, and African folk tales – all good things. The story is of a lion cub’s acceptance of his royal destiny.
Simba begins life as the honored prince and son of powerful Lion King Mufasa. But, Simba’s happy childhood changes when Scar kills Mufasa and drives Simba from the kingdom. Sent away, as the young lion grows up, he meets a variety of new friends and comical characters Timon (a meerkat) and Pumbaa (a warthog) and lives carefree until he is visited by his father’s spirit. He is told defeat Scar and claim his destiny.
The Lion King works as a movie, but it is also a Disney musical. And, the songs are great. Well-known Elton John’s work on songs such as “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” and “The Circle of Life” are classic.
Choice #2: Beauty and the Beast (1991, Rated G)
This tale is “as old as time” and is a Disney Studios’ classic. Beauty and the Beast is a movie about seeing past exteriors to what someone really is, but is also about acting well regardless of circumstances you find yourself in. The 3D imagery is quite special if you can take advantage of this technology. The music is great as well, and the Celine Dion and Peabo Bryson duet “Beauty and the Beast” is an all-time favorite.
The movie is the story of a beautiful young – but also geeky – Belle, a bit of a village outcast who lives happily with her widowed father. When he disappears, she finds he has been locked up in a Beast’s castle. Belle is forced to make a choice, and she gives up her own freedom to release her father as a prisoner of the Beast. But castle life is a surprise. Belle befriends an enchanted teapot, a candelabra, and a mantel clock. Her challenge, and the heart of the story, is that she must see beneath the Beast’s ugly exterior to discover his heart. She does, and the movie ends happily as the Beast is transformed into a prince. [In many ways, the 2017 remake is better because it shares the characters’ backstories, which give viewers more insight into the actions of the characters; but, the remake movie is not animated. Watching both in tandem can be a nice treat.]
Related: 5 Great New Animated Family Movies
Choice #3: The Little Mermaid (1989, Rated G)
The Little Mermaid is the daughter of Triton, king of the Sea – a teenager named Ariel. Like many teenagers – human or fish – she ignores her Father’s wishes and journeys outside her own world to the surface. Here she falls in love with Prince Eric, a handsome young human and is tricked to enter an agreement with evil sea witch Ursula to become human herself and trade her voice for legs and a chance for Prince Eric’s love. The movie has a work-against-time element because Ariel has three days to get Eric to kiss her or she’ll return to her old mermaid self, but this time as Ursula’s slave.
Like other great Disney movies in this group, The Little Mermaid is also a great musical, including the Oscar-winning “Under the Sea.” Older parents like myself will love hearing the voices of some great actors, now passed, such as Buddy Hackett. Disney’s ending is happier than the classic Hans Christian Andersen story, but not until a fight between Ursula and Triton settle things.
As a note: the box-office success of The Little Mermaid allowed Disney studios to also make such Disney animated classics as Beauty and the Beast (noted here) and others not listed, but also great, such as Aladdin and Pocahontas. The Little Mermaid was the winner Disney needed to regain its reputation – started with Snow White – in animation movies.
Choice #4: Toy Story (1995, Rated G)
Toy Story has a great “cast” of toy characters, but what makes this Pixar movie great is it’s great storytelling, which includes character development seldom seen in animated movies. Woody, a pull-string talking cowboy, is proud to be six-year-old Andy’s favorite toy. But, he and Andy’s other toys are worried new toys will replace their status in Andy’s eyes. Woody, as leader, tries to calm the other toy’s anxieties, until charismatic space-cowboy Buzz Lightyear arrives.
Buzz is simply so cool that Woody plots his removal. Of course, and you can see this coming, when Woody and Buzz are forced to the “outside world” they must join forces to find their way home. The movie tells these two former rivals’ adventures to escape evil neighborhood Sid, a Frankenstein-like kid who breaks toys apart to build “monster” toys from their parts. To no surprise, Woody and Buzz become strong friends as they overcome obstacles to ensure their own survival.
This movie is for adults as much as for kids – in fact, perhaps adults will like it better than children. It is filled with nostalgia – both baby boomer and Gen-X. Who hasn’t had a Mr. Potato Head? It also follows a time-honored premise of “odd couples” that become great teams [think Mel Gibson and Danny Glover Lethal Weapon movies]. Finally, Toy Story pays homage to the imagination of children to bring their toys to life.
Choice #5: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937, Rated G)
This movie started Walt Disney on his way, and more than eighty years later still works. Before Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, no one believed anyone would sit for two hours watching animated “cartoons.” But, they did. Disney’s choice of a well-known Grimm’s Fairy Tale seemed silly at the time, but genius Walt had a vision and invested three years and $1,500,000 to make it happen. Hiring more than 500 artists, Disney created the instant classic Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which earned almost $10,000,000 during the era of the Depression.
Disney’s artists did something different – even for Disney. They drew “human” characters human [Snow White and Prince Charming moved realistically] but continued to draw the movie’s “funny” characters in the round, caricatured style of former Disney cartoons [the Seven Dwarfs, for example]. Disney chose this style to have it “both ways.” He believed a serious story could be told in a way that worked for adults, and funny and musical elements would speak to children. As it worked, both groups were happy.
One warning for parents, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is a horror movie. It might really be scary for young children. The Wicked Queen’s jealousy of Snow White’s beauty pushes the story forward. The Queen is, as Disney artists drew her, a true witch and acts like one. In this movie, Disney told a good story, drew artistic characters, and created sing-able music – including “Whistle While You Work” and “Some Day My Prince Will Come.” In many ways, Disney’s formula still works and is part of the other movies I have listed as great family fare.