Shrek and the gazillion new Disney princesses are great, but if you're looking for a classic family film that will keep the kids entertained while not boring you out of your skull, go to the classics. Here are eight terrific movies you may remember from your own childhood.
Wizard of Oz DVD - MGM
We used to watch The Wizard Of Oz on TV every Thanksgiving, and I remember being scared right down to the toes of my footie pajamas by those flying monkeys. Face it, all the greatest classics for children have orphans in peril, from Dorothy to Harry Potter. Poor Dorothy. A witch is on her trail, talking trees pitch apples at her and her shoes are stuck to her feet. Yikes. This is just an amazing film - the cast, the costumes, the characters, the sets, the music, and the story. Kids ought to see it at least once a year.
Doctor Doolittle DVD 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
All props to Eddie Murphy, but nothing tops the original Dr. Dolittle
- as Rex Harrison
, Samantha Eggar and Anthony Newley sing and dance their way through an adventurous movie that's quite faithful to the fanciful books
, and full of live animal action from Polynesia the parrot to Sophie the seal. I love the civilized tribe of islanders who regularly perform Shakespeare on their floating home, and the scene where the magistrate's dog barks out the family secrets in court. (If you really want to get your kids interested, you can tell them that during the opening "If I Could Talk to the Animals" sequence, the sheep crowding around Harrison were, um, tinkling vigorously on him. They'll love it.)
Arguably Disney's animation masterpiece, Pinocchio
is fine art done cel by cel. Don't get me wrong, I'm a huge Pixar fan and I love Shrek. I also know how poorly human animators were treated in the bad old days. But there simply has never been anything to match the exquisite artwork of this film. That's for you adults. For the kids, there's the enchanting story of the little wooden puppet
who wants to be a real boy, and whose nose grows when he tells a lie. And they'll love sassy, spunky Jiminy Cricket. Tell them they got the idea for the whale in Finding Nemo
from the magnificent Monstro the Whale in this classic animated movie.
Mary Poppins DVD - Disney
The music alone should keep you happy in this one, but Mary Poppins is pretty entertaining at any age. Plus, it's just chockful of excellent family values that go down pretty easily - with a spoonful of sugar, I suppose. The kids will be delighted by the giggly tea party on the ceiling and the special Mary Poppins method of straightening up the nursery. The unforgettable leap through the chalk drawing to reach the animated horse race, and the eye-popping dance of the chimney sweeps on the rooftops of London are spectacular, while Julie Andrews' rendition of "Feed the Birds" remains hauntingly lovely. Plus. It's a sneaky chance to teach the girls what a "suffragette" was.
Willy Wonka DVD - Warner Home Video
I love Johnny Depp, but his version just can't compare to Gene Wilder's original, mildly menacing candy impresario. Also, I love subversive kid lit, and this movie is a great way to introduce kids to author Roald Dahl - always inventive, if not always nice. In a contest to choose Wonka's successor as head of the world's greatest candy factory, a number of unpleasant children with very bad habits meet with nasty and very funny mishaps. Each is accompanied by a cautionary tale sung by the factory workers - the pumpkin-faced oompa-loompas (who all look as though they used bad self-tanning lotion.) Willy Wonka andthe Chocolate Factory is nicely off-kilter, and has grown to be both a cult hit and a children's classic.
Thief of Bagdad DVD MGM/UA Home Entertainment
In this 1940 version of the most famous tale
of the Arabian Nights, the special effects are dated yet still magical. This fantasy has all the requisite elements: a beautiful princess, a wronged ruler, the plucky young thief and of course, a gigantic genie who arises from his tiny lamp. The color cinematography is gorgeous, and while it feels a bit campy today, the magic carpets, flying horses, exotic costumes and sumptuous sets should still engage the kids. While the animated Jaffar of Disney's later Aladdin
is fine, he's not a patch on Conrad Veidt's wicked-to-the-core vizier. I came to this one late in life, but many old movie fans recall this as the film that hooked them on cinema as children.
Swiss Family Robinson DVD - Disney
In Disney's 1960 version, this happily shipwrecked family leads the life every child dreams of. The Swiss Family Robinson
live in a fantastic treehouse that they build themselves, and have races riding their ostrich, zebra, and two massive Great Danes. They use rescued scraps from their ship and the bounty of the island to make ingenious, Rube Goldberg
-type machines. (With the water slide and the swinging vines, the whole island looks suspiciously like a Disney theme park.) As if all that weren't enough, there's a tremendous pirate gun battle and sword fight, complete with elaborate booby traps. The acting is sub-par, and the pirates, inexplicably, are all Asian, but with everything else going on the flaws are easy to forgive.
Journey to the Center of the Earth DVD 20th Century Fox
and Arlene Dahl make excellent sparring partners as a scientist and the widow of his rival, plopping through a volcano in Iceland to make the title journey. They're accompanied, rather improbably, by Pat Boone
as one of Mason's students, and by a handsome, stoic Icelander with a pet duck. They're also tracked by a stealthy foe. Taken from the Jules Verne
book, it's full of adventure, but has no relation to actual science. My guess is there probably are no rolling oceans or giant gila monsters at the center of the earth, but it still makes a smashing film. Excellent choice if you want to inspire the children to go spelunking.