Hollywood’s always had a thing for spectacle, but it wasn’t until 1975 that Jaws stormed multiplexes, wresting attention away from epics and setting the template for the modern blockbuster that now dominates theaters. That template generally includes huge budgets, amazing special effects, and, often, a degree of violence and terror that makes many, many non-animated blockbusters tough to watch for younger kids.
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Sure, parents might be able to shrug off Indiana Jones splattering Nazis, but for kids, it’s a bit much. The films below have their fair share of thrills (parents, as always, should approach with caution), but stand the test of time as big-budget spectacles parents can feel good about watching with kids.
Star Wars (1977)
Bad news: The kid-friendliest movie of the Star Wars series is the one with the pod races and Jar Jar. The good news? Advancement in technology and grittier storytelling have rendered the original relatively tame by comparison, a space opera with an easy-to-follow hero’s journey, a strong princess, and enough creatures to capture the imagination. Future installments get bogged down in the series’ own mythology and self-importance. The original, taken on its own, is a complete story that parents can use to test the waters of a child’s interest without setting the expectation of bombastic (and surprisingly dark) action and annoying Gungans in future installments.
Perhaps the perfect distillation of what makes early Spielberg so endlessly entertaining, E.T. remains, nearly 40 years later, a grand adventure filled with an iconically weird creature, a cast of scrappy (and slightly profane) kids, and a message of acceptance and friendship that’s timeless. It’s the perfect entry point into Spielberg, whose early work is massively appealing to kids, but is generally more violent than many parents who haven’t seen it in a while remember (Doctors Jones and Malcom). There are some slightly scary moments — that medical exam on a presumed-dead E.T. remains as traumatic as playing the old Atari game — but nothing most kids can’t handle (or close their eyes for), especially when the John Williams score swells behind the iconic bike ride through the sky.
For some parents, waiting for a child to become old enough for Ghostbusters is excruciating. But once the time comes — typically when a kid’s old enough to separate fantasy from reality, and has an appreciation of spookier things — it’s a glory to watch a new generation become enraptured with the wisecracks, fascinated by the apparitions, and behold the horrors of Zuul. The innuendos will go right over their heads, and the ghosts are likely to draw wonder more than fear, which explains why the movie spawned endless kid-forward cartoon series. Just be prepared to ease them into it, and turn it off if that demon dog brings the fear.
The Goonies (1985)
The Goonies is very certainly of a different time: one where a tale of foul-mouthed kids being pursued by comically murderous gangsters was a PG affair, and where Corey Feldman didn’t automatically make you sad. But this is a kids’-eye-view adventure that most parents remember fondly for a reason, and between the pirate ships, gadgets, and the genuinely lovely sense of unfettered wonder, it’s one that still appeals to generation after generation of grade-schooler.
Back to the Future (1985)
There’s a certain degree of Boomer wish-fulfillment at play in Back to the Future, which sees Michael J. Fox’s ’80s outcast sent back to the ‘50s for a little poodle-skirt nostalgia, a lot of dodging the advances of his teenage mother, and a healthy dose of Johnny B. Goode. But now it’s become Millennial nostalgia, with kids who grew up on the movie showing it to their own children. Great Scott, that’s a lot of layers. Good thing the movie absolutely holds up, from the hilarity of the fish-out-of-water time traveling to the excellent Huey Lewis theme song. It’s (sigh) timeless.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)
Robert Zemeckis’ blending of old-school film noir and eye-popping animation was groundbreaking both in its special effects and in beating Marvel the idea of a shared universe — here including Looney Tunes, the Disney crew, and everyone in between — to the punch by a good 20 years. The film walks a fine line between kiddie fare and more adult storytelling — this is, after all, a murder mystery chock full of winking innuendos and not-so-subtle va-va-vooming from Jessica Rabbit — but it’s in essence a live-action cartoon, and one that will leave kids laughing in the dark while adults laugh at the darkness.
Apollo 13 (1995)
Ron Howard’s earnest retelling of the Apollo mission and its near tragedy has managed is an oft-overlooked classic that manages to take blockbuster spectacle and present a solid, well-told history lesson that imparts themes of teamwork, period politics, and a love of science onto pretty much any viewer. For kids interested in space, it’s a must-see. For kids not exactly interested in space, well, it might just change that situation.
Men In Black (1997)
Yeah, it’s basically just Ghostbusters with the The Fresh Prince, complete with some gross-out gags and a few scares. But despite its PG-13 rating, this is a relatively joyful little romp, with cartoonish creatures and a blessedly brisk running time. And like Ghostbusters, it’s got an extremely catchy theme song that parents won’t be able to escape for some time.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001)
The Harry Potter series is unique in that the audience — and the characters themselves — grew up as the series progressed, going from whimsical tales of magic and adventure to grimmer, graver things as time wore on. The original entry might have a few mild scares, but it’s very much a children’s film. Just be careful with bingeing — the movies put a year between installments when they were released, giving kids who started with Sorcerer’s Stone time to prepare for the Death Eaters to come.
In a post Infinity War era, Sam Raimi’s take on the wall crawler seems relatively tame, with its gee-whiz hero and popping color palate. But time has also softened the origin story into something infinitely more appealing for a younger crowd, one where heroics run high and violence is kept to a relative minimum, with that “great power” mantra proving a good lesson. The recent Homecoming is a solid offering for the younger set, but the original’s still got the best ability to stir young imaginations.
The Jungle Book (2016)
Jon Favreau became quite the game-changer since his forlorn days of Swingers. He kicked off the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Iron Man, and he took the idea of reimagining Disney classics as live-action spectacles started by Alice in Wonderland and Cinderella and raised the bar with The Jungle Book. Yeah, it’s still a little disjointed, as was the original cartoon, but the interactions between a live-action Mowgli and startlingly realistic creatures makes for a grand adventure full of song, some peril, and tons of beautifully realized action. Plus, this features Bill Murray as an easy-going bear. What more do you need?