You probably arrived at this list because you are in search of a better class of kids’ movie—or at least something to break up the monotony. You have exhausted the catalog of golden age Disney movies on Disney+, classics like The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. Same goes for the most popular Pixar movies, namely the Toy Story films. Maybe you binged on the Harry Potter series before it disappeared from HBO Max.
If your kids are fans of musicals, the songs from Frozen and Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music are permanently lodged in your brain. You watch It’s a Wonderful Life and Home Alone every December, but this year you’re seeking even more holiday cheer because it’s no secret we all need it more than ever.
Those are all wonderful movies. This list contains none of them. This list strives to be a little less obvious, a little more surprising. It includes new movies you can look forward to this holiday season—including Pixar’s latest, Soul, streaming on Disney+ on Christmas—as well as beloved classics that you may have forgotten about or overlooked, hidden gems that may quickly become some of your favorite films. Here are 50 of the best family movies you can seek out right now.
Movies debuting during the 2020 holiday season
The latest from Pixar is a philosophical jaunt about life, death and what makes us who we are, co-directed by Pixar regular Pete Docter and playwright Kemp Powers. The animated movie stars Jamie Foxx as a jazz pianist and music teacher who has a near-death experience just before he’s set to get his big break at a legendary club, which lands him in a place called The Great Before. There, he’s tasked with helping a rudderless, pesky pre-human soul (Tina Fey) find what makes her tick so she can finally start her life on Earth.
Wolfwalkers (Apple TV+)
This ethereal Celtic-inspired fantasy ranks as one of the best-reviewed movies of 2020 (and one of TIME’s 10 best movies of the year). A little girl named Robyn who aspires to be a hunter befriends a wolfwalker, or a person who can transform into a wolf, and together they must fight an evil ruler who wants to cut down the forest and cage the wolves. The movie is rife with metaphors about the consequences of trying to tame nature, tame women, tame mystical forces, but at its core it’s a heartwarming tale of female friendship.
The Prom (Netflix)
Ryan Murphy’s adaptation of the 2016 musical centers on a group of Broadway actors who travel to a conservative town to support a lesbian student banned from bringing her girlfriend to the high school prom. The film version is unabashedly campy, glittery and over-the-top—shopping mall musical numbers and more sequins than perhaps any other release in 2020. If Murphy had a motto while making it, it was surely, “More!” It’s all in the service of an uplifting story of acceptance and generosity.
Based on the true story of a Clemson football player who moved his younger brother into his dorm after their mother went to rehab, Safety (from Marshall’s Reginald Hudlin) offers the sort of feel-good sports story of overcoming challenges on and off the field that has become a mainstay at family movie night.
My Neighbor Totoro (HBO Max)
Famed Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki and his team at Studio Ghibli possess an unrivaled talent for capturing the freedom and innocence of youth. In Totoro, a rotund mystical creature helps two sisters navigate life’s hurdles. Totoro is as ubiquitous as Mickey Mouse in Japan, and with good reason.
Kiki’s Delivery Service (HBO Max)
Both Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service are accessible entry points for young kids: this story centers on an intrepid young witch who starts her own delivery business, carrying packages on her broom.
Spirited Away (HBO Max)
Once your kids are ready for more existential fare, move on to the Oscar-winning film Spirited Away. Miyazaki’s work, and Spirited Away in particular, touches on many themes—environmentalism, pacifism and battling the corruptions of the adult world.
The Paddington movies (stream on TBS or rent on Amazon)
These whimsical and sweet movies about an immigrant bear named Paddington routinely make critics’ end-of-year lists, and not just because Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant make wonderful villains. Paddington quietly demonstrates the power of kindness and human (err, bear) decency.
The How to Train Your Dragon trilogy (Amazon Prime)
These magical movies about a boy who befriends a dragon named Toothless boast dazzling images and a big heart. At first blush, the plot may seem rote. But the trilogy takes risks on big emotional twists. It’s a near-perfect adventure story with a satisfying ending.
The Lego movies (HBO Max)
Yes, these movies are basically two-hour-long advertisements for Legos, but as corporate entertainment goes, they are simply so much fun. Phil Lord and Chris Miller bring their signature self-referential wit and out-of-the-box visual style to, most notably, Lego Movie, Lego Movie 2 and Lego Batman.
Pixar movies that deserve more credit
Picking a favorite Pixar movie is a bit like picking a favorite chid. But Ratatouille never seems to get the credit that it deserves. Not only is it arguably the best movie ever made about the emotions that food evokes, it somehow manages to take a really gross premise—rats in the kitchen—and turn it into an emotional tour de force of a film.
A widower flies his house into the sky with balloons and acquires new companions along the way, including a talking dog, a bird who loves chocolate and a boy scout. Up strikes the exact right balance between tugging at the audience’s heartstrings (particularly in the first five minutes) and telling a funny, beautiful tale about dreaming big.
Before Soul, Pixar toyed with questions about what happens after we die in Coco. This Day of the Dead story, featuring an all-Latino cast, disarms its audience by intermingling the ghoulish with the fantastic. For a movie about those who have passed on, it’s surprisingly full of life.
Disney movies you forgot
The Great Mouse Detective (Disney+)
It’s unclear why in the ’80s and ’90s studios churned out so many children’s movies about mice—The Rescuers Down Under, An American Tale, Stuart Little. Still, we ought to be grateful for this surprisingly witty take on the Sherlock Holmes tropes starring a mouse named Basil who lives on Baker Street and rides a hound.
Hercules is zanier and a bit less earnest than most of the other animated Disney films. But that’s what makes it fun. The ridiculously naive but super strong hero is surrounded by characters with schticks—a cynical femme fatale named Meg, a villain who talks like a Hollywood agent in Hades and Danny DeVito as a satyr who acts exactly like, well, Danny DeVito.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Disney+)
This somewhat solemn film about outcasts fighting against religious zealotry and threatened extermination has some gorgeous songs and scenery—the illustrations of Notre Dame are particularly poignant now, in the years after a fire consumed much of that landmark. But three wise-cracking gargoyles and a message of acceptance buoy this movie its uplifting conclusion.
Great Adventure Movies
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (Netflix)
The visually stunning, Oscar-winning movie breathes new life into the tired superhero genre. The movie offers up a new Spider-Man in the form of a Black, Puerto Rican Brooklyn teen named Miles Morales—well, technically it offers many new Spider-Men as parallel universes crash into one another. In the process, it conveys the valuable message that anyone can wear the mask, not just guys who look like Peter Parker.
Chicken Run (Hulu)
Would you believe me if I told you a story about chickens (literally) trying to fly the coop had some of the best action sequences in all of animated film? This witty piece of filmmaking from the Wallace and Gromit team refuses to play down to kids. Instead, it appeals to younger audiences with its frantic escape gambits while reserving the laughs for adults.
Kubo and the Two Strings (FX Now)
Kubo, the hero of this story who has suffered great loss in his young life, casts a spell on his audience with his ability to manipulate music and origami for the sake of storytelling and, when occasion demands it, battle. The animation of those pieces of paper flitting into shape, in particular, stands out. Disappointingly, the main characters are nearly all voiced by white characters despite the story being set in Japan. But the story itself has impressive depth.
Space Jam (Peacock)
No doubt this movie does not live up to the cleverest of the ’50s-era Looney Toons. But it has Michael Jordan and Bill Murray playing basketball against aliens, and that is just bizarre enough to be totally fantastic. Plus, LeBron James has a sequel coming out in 2021.
Duck Amuck (HBO Max)
One of the great offerings on HBO Max are the old time (and best) Looney Toons cartoons and movies. Duck Amuck centers on Daffy Duck, who is at odds with a mischievous animator who keeps changing Daffy’s locations, costuming and physical shape, forcing the duck to constantly adapt to new stories. It’s a great way to introduce kids to the concept of a meta text.
What’s Opera Doc? (HBO Max)
Arguably one of the best animated sequences of all time, in What’s Opera Doc? Elmer Fudd chases Bugs Bunny around the opera house to the tune of Richard Wagner’s operas, with added lyrics: “Kill the wabbit, kill the wabbit, kill the wabbit,” Elmer Fudd croons. A sneaky way to introduce your kids to classical music.
The Princess Bride (Disney+)
At the beginning of Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride, a grandpa tells his grandson (a young Fred Savage) that this story has it all—fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles. And it does. Perhaps the wittiest, funniest, most quotable adventure story ever put to film has delighted children and adults alike since its release in 1987.
Iron Giant (HBO Max)
Iron Giant ambitiously tackles a big topic—gun control—with immense empathy. The story of a robot who is capable of mass destruction but desperately wants to make love, not war will be fodder for years of discussions between parents and kids. And even the most cynical adults will dissolve into puddles of tears by the end of the film (as recently demonstrated by a scene in the wonderful Apple TV+ comedy Ted Lasso).
The NeverEnding Story (HBO Max)
A boy picks up a book and begins to read about a fantasy land that will disappear into nothingness if he doesn’t use the power of his imagination to save it. It’s meta, strange and a little menacing, though for every scary puppet creature, there’s something delightful like a flying dragon-dog. This film is pure fantasy at its best.
Heroes Who Aren’t Human
Who Framed Roger Rabbit (Disney+)
Perhaps it’s unfair to call Who Framed Roger Rabbit a hidden gem given its status as an outright hit when it was released. But the wonderful, bizarre and fairly adult animated-live action mashup can get outshined by the more mainstream Disney princess movies. This bracingly smart movie deserves its status as one of the best (partially) animated films ever made.
The Muppet Movie
There are a lot of great Jim Henson movies—The Muppets Take Manhattan and The Great Muppet Caper are zany as hell. Dark Crystal and Labyrinth are delightfully weird. Even Muppet Treasure Island, which features Tim Curry as a swashbuckling pirate, is a whole lot of fun. But none surpass the original 1979 Muppet Movie which strikes the perfect balance between positivity and wit.
The Witches (Netflix)
The Witches can instill real fear—not only are the children turned into mice, but one of those mice gets its tail cut off—but as a result the story has real stakes. Skip the watered-down remake that debuted on HBO Max this year in favor of the 1990 adaptation starring a charmingly wicked Anjelica Huston and featuring the always-wonderful puppetry of Jim Henson.
Enchanted (rent on Amazon Prime or Apple)
Enchanted is a surprisingly sharp self-parody of the Disney princess tale. Amy Adams is pitch-perfect as a fairytale princess who falls through a wormhole and accidentally winds up in modern-day New York City. The rest of the cast is excellent too: James Marsden plays Prince Charming, Susan Sarandon the evil stepmother and Patrick Dempsey a cynical New York divorce attorney whose heart Adams’ Giselle will inevitably melt.
This sleeper hit of a musical about a newsboy strike starring a Christian Bale is almost unbearably earnest. But the movie, which flopped in theaters, caught fire with theater kids on home video. Perhaps its pro-union message was just a bit ahead of its time. (Also see: the Broadway stage version, available to stream.)
The Muppets (Disney+)
So maybe the Muppets, on the whole, aren’t quite overlooked. But it can be hard to sort through the many attempts to resurrect the glory days of Jim Henson—many of which have largely fallen flat in recent years.The exception is Jason Segel’s lovingly made tribute musical, The Muppets (starring, yet again, Amy Adams). The movie works on two levels: it’s a delight to children and a love-letter to childhood for adults who grew up with Kermit and the gang.
Underdog Sports Movies
Mighty Ducks (Disney+)
The Mighty Ducks series qualifies as one of the franchises maligned by critics but beloved by those who grew up with this crew of hockey misfits on the Disney Channel. Even if the plot is pat and not particularly ambitious, an underdog story with a cast of kooky characters will always play well with young kids.
Little Giants (Hulu)
Rewatching Little Giants as an adult, I’m surprised by how much it focuses on sexism in sports: when a talented football player named Becky (a.k.a. Icebox) is passed over for the team, she forms one of her own, filled with rejects. The movie gets a bit derailed with a rather boring romantic subplot, but it’s still a meaningful watch for girls who love sports.
A League of Their Own (Amazon Prime)
Speaking of girls who love sports, this classic, directed by Penny Marshall and starring a terrific cast that includes Geena Davis and Tom Hanks, often veers into schmaltz. But it makes up for it with an inspiring story, funny gags and quotable one-liners, like Hanks’ character’s indelible motto: “There’s no crying in baseball!”
Elf (Starz or rent on Amazon Prime or Apple)
In a story that channels Big, Will Ferrell plays a human raised by elves in the North Pole and thus, essentially, a kid who loves to chug maple syrup stuck in a grown-up’s body. The movie comes to life when Ferrell first arrives in New York City to find his birth father: he delights in all the mundane and even disgusting parts of urban living, like spinning around in revolving doors and eating gum that’s been stuck to the bottom of the subway railing.
In a world of computer-generated images, Klaus is a lovely return to hand-drawn animation. The movie resists cliche by leaning into genuinely funny sight gags and winning dialogue. A charming and Oscar-nominated holiday movie that serves as an origin story for Santa Claus, it’s well worth adding to any yearly Christmastime rotation.
Little Women (Starz or stream on Amazon Prime or Apple TV)
If you didn’t get a chance to see Greta Gerwig’s lovely adaptation of the beloved novel—a staple on many children’s bookshelves—last year when it debuted in theaters, the holidays are the perfect time to revisit the story about an ambitious writer and her sisters learning the meaning of love and charity, particularly at Christmastime.
Movies you may have missed
The Breadwinner (Netflix)
The impressive visuals in The Breadwinner match its ambitious and brutally honest tale of an 11-year-old girl named Parvana living under Taliban rule in Afghanistan in 2001. Though the somber topic of the film means it may be too dark for young children, Parvana’s quest to find her wrongfully arrested father is spellbinding.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople (Netflix or Hulu)
Before he directed Thor: Ragnarok or Jojo Rabbit, Taika Waititi broke out with a series of charmingly offbeat movies set in his native New Zealand (and wildly successful at the box office there), including Hunt for the Wilderpeople. This mismatched buddy comedy centers on a boy (Julian Dennison) and his gruff foster father (Sam Neill) who become the targets of a manhunt. The story is filled with tragedy and danger but also spoofs and tender performances from its whole cast, including Waititi in a small role.
Secret of NIMH (Amazon Prime)
This fantastical tale has a dark premise: a rat named Mrs. Brisbee must move her family from their home, but her child is too sick to travel. She seeks help from a group of rats who have genius IQs after being subjected to dangerous scientific experiments at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). The drama plays out against gorgeous and often psychedelic backdrops.
My Life as a Zucchini (Starz or rent on Amazon Prime or Apple)
Written by Portrait of a Lady on Fire director Céline Sciamma, My Life as A Zucchini is an intimate and at times brutally real tale of a boy nicknamed Zucchini who finds himself in an orphanage. But this is no grim orphanage with evil caretakers. It’s a joyful place where Zucchini befriends other abandoned children, their bonds a tonic against the harsh realities of their world.
Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit (rent on Amazon Prime or Apple)
In this eccentric adventure tale, our heroes are a daffy inventor and his genius dog. They take on, well, a were-rabbit with menacing teeth in this action-packed tale filled with pratfalls, goofiness and a dog in a real aerial dog fight. The claymation stop-motion style, filmed without CGI, took near-masochistic dedication from its filmmakers, and it pays off.
Ernest & Celestine (Amazon Prime)
This gorgeously-rendered water color French film feels like a throwback: an old-fashioned story of unlikely friendship, this time between a burly bear and a mouse who is also a dentist. They bond over their inability to fit into their respective worlds. The elegant film is at times precious but ultimately proves to have emotional bite.
The Secret of Kells (Kanopy or rent on Amazon Prime or Apple)
The same studio that produced this year’s Wolfwalkers conjured up this other tale of Irish folklore. As a fortress in the remote Irish woods prepares for an attack by the vikings, a young boy is enlisted to complete magical tasks. The film, which draws inspiration from Medieval manuscripts, is a visual feast.
Coraline (Starz or rent on Amazon Prime or Apple)
Neil Gaiman’s creepy story comes to life in a stunning and suspenseful stop-motion classic. A girl discovers a secret door that leads to an alternate reality that mirrors her world in many ways, some for the better, some for the worse. The movie takes bold artistic risks.
Anime master Mamoru Hosoda’s story of a little boy in conflict with his baby sister takes the viewer on a time-hopping and enchanting journey. Told from a child’s eye view but with the wisdom of lived experience, Mirai examines the ties that bind families together.
Parent Trap (Disney+)
Nancy Myers’ winning remake of the 1961 film borrows Shakespearean plot points: twins switching places, mistaken identities and plots to rekindle a spoiled romance. Those age-old tropes work for a reason, and Lindsay Lohan turns in a winning performance (or pair of them) as the twin girls, separated at birth, who switch places in order to get to know the parent they haven’t seen for years.
Anastasia (Disney+ and HBO Go)
Does Anastasia have much to do with the real history of the Russian revolution? Not really. But it’s an enchanting tale about a street urchin who turns out to be Russia’s long-lost princess that combines the best aspects of My Fair Lady, including some enchanting songs, with the threat of a mystical villain to make the adventure churn.
Matilda (rent on Amazon Prime or Apple)
Roald Dahl had a dark sensibility. He was excellent at writing villains, as in The Witches or The Twits. Even his heroes, like Willy Wonka in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, were a bit menacing. This adaptation directed by Danny DeVito highlights one of Dahl’s few compelling and truly kind-hearted heroes, a girl named Matilda who has miserable parents and an even more horrible teacher but discovers she has the power of telekinesis.
Fantastic Mr. Fox (Disney+)
Perhaps Fantastic Mr. Fox is a “hidden gem” only in the sense that most critics think of Anderson as an adult filmmaker. But kids and adults alike will enjoy Wes Anderson’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s story of a fox outwitting threatening humans. The typically twee stylistic choices that Anderson makes shine in the animated format. And Anderson elevates the morality tale into a more adult contemplation of a hubristic and reckless fox confronting the responsibilities of fatherhood.
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