Got a ‘lil film buff on your hands? We thought so. Thankfully, there are plenty of classics and new family favorites to make each popcorn and New York pizza–packed movie night better than the next. To help you make your selections, we’ve compiled a list of the best kids' movies to please all generations squeezed on the couch (plus the babysitter, if she’s left in charge).
As you can probably guess, the competition was pretty fierce—you’ll see a number of blockbusters that are in your regular rotation alongside some newer kid-pleasing picks, and we have no doubt we may have missed some of your favorite flicks. Weigh in below and let us know what titles you think deserve recognition (or to give us two thumbs up on our selections), and while you’re at it, check out our ideas for other free things to do with kids in New York.
Best kids' movies: 50–41
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (2001)
Literature's greatest boy wizard is turned into one of the movie's most charismatic under-12 heroes (a tip of the pointy hat to Daniel Radcliffe) as J.K. Rowling's world of muggles, monsters and mystical goings-on at Hogwarts is brought to life on screen. Things will get seriously PG-13 dark by the time this eight-film series ends, but Chris Columbus's kid-friendly adaptation of book ones truly makes viewers of all ages believe in magic. Rated PG.
A magical board game unleashes a world of adventure on siblings Peter (Bradley Pierce) and Judy Shepherd (Kirsten Dunst). While exploring an old mansion, the youngsters find a curious, jungle-themed game called Jumanji in the attic. When they start playing, they free Alan Parrish (Robin Williams), who's been stuck in the game's inner world for decades. If they win Jumanji, the kids can free Alan for good– but that means braving giant bugs, ill-mannered monkeys and even stampeding rhinos! Rated PG.
Yes, it contains what may be the single most traumatic moment of any kids' movie, but the story of a young doe remains a prime example of Disney's ability to mingle sugary cuteness—we're looking at you, Thumper—with suspenseful storytelling. It's a movie near and "deer" to many viewers' hearts. Rated G.
The Goonies (1985)
A group of childhood friends, a treasure map, a scary (but ultimately sweet) giant named Sloth, thrills, spills, chills: This '80s adventure bears all of the hallmarks of exciting YA-lit drama and producer Steven Spielberg's brand of derring-do. Rated PG.
Rapunzel joins the Disney stable of princesses, only this young lady with the long, flowing locks isn't the passive type; she's adventurous, curious about the world outside her window and wields a mean frying pan. Disney's animation has rarely looked more gorgeous, and Alan Menken's raucous "I Have a Dream" number proves the old Mouse House magic still works wonders. Rated PG.
Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
A perennial Christmas favorite, this fairy tale about a department-store Santa who claims to be the real Kris Kringle never ceases to bring the seasonal cheer. Edmund Gwenn makes for the perfect jolly old elf, but it's joyful nine-year-old Natalie Wood that exemplifies what the holiday is really about: faith in the kindness of your fellow man. Not rated.
Our favorite of the many versions,1982’s Annie features a young girl who must live in an awful orphanage during the 1930s. Annie’s life is governed by a tyrannical woman named Miss Hannigan, but her luck seems to change when she’s selected to live with a wealthy local businessperson, Oliver Warbucks. Rated PG.
The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
Part warped Broadway musical and part My First Goth Party, this stop-motion animated gem—courtesy of the prince of goofy darkness, Tim Burton—watches as Halloween's witches, zombies and showtune-singing skeletons try their hand at St. Nick's regular beat. The holidays have rarely seemed so ghoulishly giddy. Rated PG.
Little Fugitive (1953)
A seven-year-old Brooklyn kid (who erroneously thinks he's killed his prankster older brother) wanders through '50s Coney Island all by his lonesome—and in one fell swoop, this delicate independent movie reminds you of how confusing, painful, wonderful and glorious childhood can be. Not rated.
National Velvet (1944)
The original girl-meets-horse movie, in which Mickey Rooney and young Elizabeth Taylor turn a wild gelding into a contender at the Grand National Steeplechase, remains a charming, quaint look at going for equestrian gold. It still goes down as smooth as its title. Rated G.
Best kids' movies: 40–31
Alice in Wonderland (1951)
Disney's adaptation of Lewis Carroll's fantasy takes you down the rabbit hole with a whirligig of dazzling color, delightful wordplay (a very merry unbirthday to you, Mad Hatter) and visual absurdities around every corner. Looking for a way to introduce kids to a great work of literature? Go ask Alice. Rated G.
The NeverEnding Story (1984)
The power of books will quickly become apparent to your reluctant readers as they watch a mysterious tome take young Bastian on an incredible adventure. This German-made cult classic is set in the odd world of Fantasia, inhabited by characters like the young warrior, Atreyu, a gnomish scientist and a luckdragon. As he reads about the Childlike Empress' diminishing health, he gets sucked further and further into the tale—until he finds himself with Fantasia's fate in his hands. Rated PG.
Roald Dahl's pint-size heroine comes to life courtesy of Mara Wilson, who plays the telekinetic moppet with just the right amount of braininess and brashness. Director Danny DeVito goes broad with the vulgarian caricatures but, wisely, never forgets the story's message: Kids need both books and encouragement to develop a smart mind. Rated PG.
Old Yeller (1957)
No offense, Lassie, but when it comes to screen dogs, we'll always have a soft spot for that golden Lab so beloved by Tommy Kirk and his family. Those weren't tears, by the way; we just got, er, something in our eyes toward the end of the film. Rated G.
The Jungle Book (1967)
In this Disney classic, Mowgli, a young boy who was raised by a pack of wolves, develops a sense of curiosity that may prove to be dangerous to himself and his jungle family. Wise panther Bagheera attempts to get Mowgli back with his own kind, but the boy's stubborn ways are encouraged by Baloo, the carefree bear. Will he make it to the man-village before the jungle's feared predator, Shere Khan, tracks him down? Rated G.
Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
A nostalgic look back at "the good old days," Vincente Minnelli's Americana musical doubles as a stirring tribute to family ties; you won't finder a sweeter, more touching scene of sibling affection than Judy Garland singing "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" to Margaret O'Brien and comforting her sister as she cries over her snowmen. Not rated.
The Hunger Games (2012)
When a disillusioned girl from District 12 takes her younger sister's place in the dreaded, annual Hunger Games, she's determined to return and keep her family safe. Based on the uber-poular YA series, this dystopian flick was destined to be a success, but with Jennifer Lawrence playing the spunky heroine, even sophisticated readers root for Katniss Everdeen as she fights against Panem's totalitarian ways. Rated PG-13.
Freaky Friday (1976)
The first let's-switch-places comedy remains one of the funniest, with daughter Jodie Foster and mom Barbara Harris magically trading bodies (don't ask) and learning firsthand how the other lives. The 2003 remake starring a prescandal Lindsay Lohan is good too, but we prefer the original. Rated G.
Beauty and the Beast (1991)
Be Disney's guest and dive into its Broadway-ish take on this folkloric staple, complete with singing cutlery, a take-no-guff bookworm heroine and the world's most soulful monster. Like Jean Cocteau's dreamy 1946 version, the it's-what's-inside-that-matters message comes through loud and clear. Rated G.
The Princess Bride (1987)
Could Rob Reiner's simultaneous send-up and celebration of fairy tales have better captured the imagination of all who live for the phrase "Once upon a time..."? In-con-ceiv-able, we say! You won't find a sweeter love letter to the glories of cross-generational storytelling. Rated PG.
Best kids' movies: 30–21
Ever since she was a girl, Elsa (Idina Menzel), princess of Arendelle, has had literally chilling powers. With a wave of her hand she can cover everything around her in ice and snow. However, when her frosty abilities nearly kill her sister, Anna (Kristen Bell), Elsa is confined to a room in her castle, not to emerge until she comes of age for her queenly coronation. On that day, unsurprisingly, things go very awry, and the two sisters—with help from a friendly snowman who dreams of spring—must work together to save the kingdom from eternal winter. Plasticine CG animation brings the icy world to life in this Walt Disney musical production, which sparked a nationwide frenzy to scoop up any and all themed merchandise. The almost instantaneous popularity speaks to the film’s success with the peanut gallery—not to mention countless parents who admittedly sang along to Menzel’s showstopping, self-actualizing ballad “Let It Go” more than a few times. Rated PG.
A Christmas Story (1983)
Thank goodness Bob Clark's goof on Christmases past keeps delighting generations of starry-eyed youngsters and their parents: How else would children learn not to lick icy poles in the winter or know of the perils of Red Ryder BB guns? "You'll shoot your eye out, kid!" Rated PG.
The Princess and the Frog (2009)
E.D. Baker's children's book—a sly riff on the Grimm brothers' tale about smooched amphibians turning into royalty—is relocated to the Bayou and rendered in bold, beautiful colors by Disney's animation team. More important, the studio that made Song of the South finally gives us an African-American princess, a lovely (and long overdue) addition to the canon. Rated G.
Why are there so many odd holes in the desert, and how does the juvenile detention camp—and one of its residents, Shia LaBeouf's framed teenager—tie in? The answer is slowly revealed in this surprisingly smart adaptation of Louis Sachar's popular YA novel, one that refuses to condescend to the material while keeping the story's fantastic elements intact.
Finding Nemo (2003)
Helicopter parents undoubtedly watch this Pixar entry through their fingers, but the adventures of a neurotic clownfish searching for his lost son halfway across the ocean not only contain a valuable lesson about letting children make their own mistakes; it also brings the family-friendly funny, thanks to Albert Brooks's nebbish hero and Ellen DeGeneres's forgetful-to-a-fault regal tang. Rated PG.
Bright Eyes (1934)
The original child superstar, Shirley Temple was never better than in this prototypical Temple-esque tale of a curly-haired orphan trying to live with her kindly pilot godfather. To watch the moppet perform "On the Good Ship Lollipop" is to witness onscreen precociousness at its finest. Rated PG.
Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989)
Father and failure-plagued scientist Wayne Szalinkski works tirelessly on a shrink-ray invention in his attic laboratory to no avail—until one day the contraption finally works. His kids and the neighbors unknowingly wander into the lab and are hit by the laser beam, shrinking to 1/4 of an inch. As the concerned parents search for their youngsters, the kids must make their way through the now larger-than-life world around them, tackling perilous obstacles like mud puddles, an ant and a bowl of Cheerios. Rated PG.
Home Alone (1990)
Kids will love mischief-maker Kevin McCallister, an 8-year-old boy whose family accidentally leaves him behind when rushing out of the house for a vacation in France. Alone in their Chicago home, Kevin learns to fend for himself. Eventually, Kevin must protect his home against burglars Harry and Marv, who plan to burglarize the entire neighborhood. Kevin’s mother Kate tries to rush home as soon as she realizes his absence, but while she’s gone, plenty of chaos ensues. Rated PG.
Mrs. Doubtfire (1993)
Troubled that he has little access to his children, divorced Daniel Hillard (Robin Williams) hatches an elaborate plan. With help from his creative brother Frank (Harvey Fierstein), he dresses as an older British woman and convinces his ex-wife, Miranda (Sally Field), to hire him as a nanny. "Mrs. Iphegenia Doubtfire" wins over the children and helps Daniel become a better parent—but when both Daniel and his nanny persona must meet different parties at the same restaurant, his secrets may be exposed. Following the recent news of Williams’ untimely death, we can only imagine that this hilarious flick will once again be on replay everywhere, garnering belly laughs from audiences young and old over a decade after he first took on his role as the sassy Scottish nanny. Rated PG-13.
While kids' movies were making pop-cultural references before this DreamWorks toon came out, none of them were quite as savvy as this ogre's tale in dismantling legendary bedtime stories—and in a way that kids would find both clever and funny. It's like a collegiate Postmodernism 101 course, only aimed at elementary-school students and with better fart jokes. Rated PG.
Best kids' movies: 20–11
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)
Every kid wants to run rampant in a candy factory, and this nutty adaptation of Roald Dahl's book is a golden ticket to a dream come true: riding a boat through chocolate rivers, burping your way out of a soda room and getting lots of musical life lessons from Oompa Loompas. Not even Tim Burton and Johnny Depp could top the original's psychedelic goofiness. Rated G.
Mary Poppins (1964)
Julie Andrews had already set the bar high for onscreen child care (see No. 10), but her super-nurturing nanny upped the ante even further: Children have expected their hired guardians to dance with penguins, fly through the sky and serve medicine with spoonfuls of sugar ever since. Rated G.
From its stunning first shot through a cosmic cloud of debris to its second-coming-of-civilization climax, this Pixar movie radiates both a sense of eco-responsibility and a warm, humanistic vibe. All this despite the fact that its hero is a robot, albeit one in love, and the story is a sci-fi take on a worst-case scenario for the planet Earth. That it is, somehow, still kid-friendly is quite a feat. Bravo. Rated G.
While we tip our hat to Wilbur, the porcine protagonist of Charlotte's Web, our favorite screen oinker has to be the star of this Australian insta-classic: a talking pig who saves his bacon (literally) by learning to become a sheepdog. Seriously, Babe, you deliver a message about finding your inner champion and help keep this family film from turning into saccharine slop. That'll do, pig. That'll definitely do. Rated G.
Those who know Will Ferrell from his raunchy roles in grown-up comedies may be surprised to see the star playing a sweet, innocent naf like Buddy the Elf. But it's the actor's childlike, gosh-all sense of wonder that sells this story of Santa's helper in the big, bad city and gives the movie its heart—as well as goosing the funny bone of viewers regardless of their age. Rated PG.
Chicken Run (2000)
Britain's Aardman Animations has always had a sly sense of anthropomorphist humor (see their sensational Wallace and Gromit shorts), so it's no surprise that the company's parody of The Great Escape—this time, the POWs are chickens breaking out of a farm—is hilarious. What is shocking is how what could have been a one-joke comedy becomes, in Aardman's deft clay-molding hands, something moving and absolutely poult-errific. Rated G.
Kiki's Delivery Service (1989)
When a witch-in-training turns 13, she is required to do a residency outside of the house; for Kiki, the irrepressible heroine of Hayao Miyazaki's supernatural anime, that means grabbing her black cat and heading into the big city. The watercolor-like animation and gentle lessons about being on your own and the importance of helping out the community helped confirm what many people were beginning to realize: When it came to complex, emotionally resonant kids' movies, Miyazaki could truly deliver. Rated G.
The Black Stallion (1979)
Many films pair youngsters and animals, but The Black Stallion is one of the few that makes you aware of how tight that interspecies connection can be. in this version of Walter Farley's kid-lit classic, the titular gorgeous horse ends up saving a young Kelly Reno from snakes and keeps him company until they're rescued. When the twosome return to the States, he trains the horse to compete in a race. Rated G.
The Little Mermaid (1989)
Hans Christian Andersen's fable about a mermaid who longs to be human is chock-full of morals about letting kids follow their bliss, as well as tons of catchy songs courtesy of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman. (Just try not to sing "Under the Sea" right now. We dare you.) But it also provided a vibrant new template for Disney's animated features, one that helped the Mouse House kick off a fertile new era of family entertainment. Rated G.
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
It's a simple story, really: Boy meets alien. Boy and alien become best friends. Boy says goodbye to alien when his outer-space buddy has to go home, causing audiences everywhere to sob uncontrollably. How Steven Spielberg tells it, of course, makes a world of difference, as he infuses this family blockbuster with a childlike sense of awe. If you can think of a more magical '80s movie moment than E.T. and Elliott biking past the moon, we'll personally buy you a bag of Reese's Pieces. Rated PG.
Best kids' movies: 10–1
The Sound of Music (1965)
As the camera swoops down from the heavens toward a young woman running through a field, this angel opens her mouth to exclaim "The hills are a-liiii-ve..."; from that moment on, Robert Wise's Oscar-winning musical has you right in its grasp. Julie Andrews's star was born as soon as she trilled the first line of Rodgers and Hammerstein's score, but this classic really is an ensemble affair: Every one of the von Trapps, from dear old dad Christopher Plummer to 16-going-on-17-year-old Charmian Carr and the youngest, five-year-old Kym Karath, pitch in to this juggernaut of sing-along fun. To hear the cast belt out staples like "So Long, Farewell" and "Do-Re-Mi," and watch a family band together to prove that it takes more than Nazis to break up a tight-knit clan, is to understand why, generation after generation, this movie continues to be one of our favorite things. Rated G.
Despicable Me (2010)
This animated gem from Universal Pictures spawned perhaps the world's most lovable villain, Gru, as well as an endless supply of branded merchandise, thanks to his yellow, gibberish-speaking Minions. When the evil mastermind (voiced by Steve Carell) puts his plot to steal the moon into motion, he's interrupted by the presence of three adorable orphans who just might melt his wicked heart. Rated PG.
Star Wars (1977)
You don't need to be a kid to enjoy George Lucas's old-fashioned tale of outer-space adventure, as the global cult of adult wanna-be Jedis and devoted Droidaphiles can attest. Lucas, though, has readily admitted that he was trying to capture the thrill he had as a child watching Saturday-afternoon matinees, and that's the real target audience for this beloved pop-culture totem: a seven- to ten-year-old who gets to experience a hero's journey from boyhood to manhood for the very first time. The rest of us are simply re-experiencing our nostalgia for that first time we saw it, which is why seeing the first Star Wars with your own child is such a rewarding experience. The second that opening symphonic blast comes on, we're all seven years old, sitting in the dark and bonding over the knowledge that the force is within each and every one of us. Rated PG.
The Lion King (1994)
Elderly lion Scar plots to usurp his brother, King Mufasa (James Earl Jones), from the throne, only to find his route blocked by newborn cub Simba (Jonathan Taylor Thomas). Scar orchestrates Mufasa's tragic demise in a stampede of wildebeests, then makes Simba believe he is to blame. The young lion is overwhelmed by guilt and flees his home, ending up in the jungle where he befriends Timon (Nathan Lane) and Pumbaa (Ernie Sabella). Years later, the now full-grown Simba (Matthew Broderick) is persuaded to return to the Pride Lands to overthrow the despotic Scar, and save the pride from extinction with the help of his new friends. The emotional film has the best-selling soundtrack album of any animated movie in the U.S., featuringmemorable songs—written by Elton John and Tim Rice—that only further cement it as one of the best Disney movies of all time. Rated G.
The Muppet Movie (1979)
Kermit the Frog & Co. were already household names in 1979, thanks to their popular television variety show; once you watch Fozzie Bear, Miss Piggy and the rest of their felt-skinned friends crack wise, mingle with famous faces and narrowly avoid danger in their first feature film, though, you suddenly understand why folks from age five to 95 loved them. There was a residual countercultural coolness in their self-referentiality—at one point, they check to see what happens next by consulting the movie's script—yet they were still kid-friendly. Jim Henson's approach made the Muppets seem both hip and harmlessly square, but more important, he understood the timeless appeal of putting on a show: Even contemporary kids who don't know from Hare Krishna jokes still giggle at a monster bursting through a movie screen and still sway to the strains of "The Rainbow Connection." Rated G.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
Walt Disney had already made a name for himself, having worked on a number of animated shorts (he actually had high hopes for a rodent character he'd just created, Mickey something or other), but in early 1934 he felt it was time to move into the big leagues. Disney announced that he and his team would be starting on their first feature-length film: an adaptation of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale about a princess and her septet of pint-size friends. The rest, as they say, is history. When you watch this extraordinary effort today, you can see the company's decades-old recipe for success forming before your very eyes: the heroine in peril, the moving musical numbers ("Some Day My Prince Will Come"), the humorous (Dopey), the horrifying (the Wicked Queen) and the happily-ever-after ending. It all starts here. Rated G.
The Red Balloon (1956)
We've seen gajillions of American movies about boys and their pet dogs, horses, freed whales, monsters and alien friends; it took the French, however, to realize the poignancy of making a short film about a boy and his balloon. Clocking in at a mere 34 minutes, Albert Lamorisse's featurette follows a child named Pascal, who encounters the title's floating red object tied a railing. After untying the balloon, the lad and his newfound companion traipse around Paris, riling up his classmates and even meeting his female counterpart (though her helium-filled friend is blue). Lamorisse treats childhood as one big adventure, with Pascal and pal wandering innocently throughout an urban landscape filled with adults to bother, buildings to explore and streetside bazaars to peruse. This is the city as a playground and a place where magic happens; even when tragedy strikes, The Red Balloon still has one trick left up its sleeve, ending in a sky ride that simply must be seen to believed. Not rated.
My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
We tend to take for granted that Japan's Studio Ghibli is practically peerless when it comes to making tender, touching, totally eye-popping anime movies for children. But if you caught this movie upon its original release or when it hit these shores in a dubbed version in 1993, you'd almost have felt like you were seeing a kids' movie for the first time. Hayao Miyazaki's tale of two sisters who befriend a forest full of magical creatures—including a kindly, cuddly king of the "totoros"—never looks down on its young protagonists, sentimentalizes their predicament (Mom is sick in the hospital) or milks it for easy tears. It doesn't treat the various spiritual-world denizens they encounter as monsters; even that odd-looking catbus couldn't be friendlier. And most important, the movie displays an emotional complexity about children interacting with the world(s) around them that's usually absent in American family films. Miyazaki would go on to make countless masterpieces over the years. This one still moves us the most. Rated G.
Toy Story (1995)
You didn't have to own a cowboy doll or a space-ranger-ish action figure to appreciate Pixar's first feature film. (It certainly doesn't hurt if you did, however.) As much as director John Lasseter and his team of computer animators use both baby boomer and Gen-X nostalgia to their advantage—hey, I had that Slinky Dog and Mr. Potato Head as a kid too!—this is a movie that's very much about the importance of having your buddy's back. But it's also about the bond that every kid has with the playthings of his or her youth, and how these inanimate objects are given life by a child's imagination. (Never mind that Pixar seriously raised the bar in terms of storytelling, animation style and character development in kids' flicks.) What matters most is that they paid loving tribute to the plastic, movable building blocks that help tomorrow's scientists, scholars and CEOs engage with the world while thoroughly thrilling us. The next two Toy Story films would build off this premise beautifully, but it's here that the seeds of next-gen quality family entertainment are planted and the bounty reaped. Rated G.
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
A girl stuck on a farm in dreary, sepia-toned Kansas dreams of a more exciting life somewhere over the proverbial rainbow; she gets her wish and then some when a tornado deposits the Midwesterner and her little dog, Toto, too, into a Technicolor wonderland. For over 70 years, this Hollywood classic has continued to wow one generation after the next. Its staying power has been attributed to many things, but what keeps enthralling each new wave of underage viewers is the sheer vibrancy and charm of the movie's imaginary world: flying monkeys and good witches, fleet-footed scarecrows and fraidy-cat lions, eye-poppingly pastel towns of Munchkins and a garishly green Emerald City. And then there's its timeless message: You can go out and see the world, have adventures, make new pals and experience life at its most grand. But in the end, there's no place like home, and no one quite like your family and friends. That, more than anything else, is why millions of folks keep returning with their kids to this classic—and why many more will keep following the yellow-brick road for decades to come. Rated G.