The 55 Essential Movies Kids Must Experience (Before They Turn 13)

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12. The Kid (1921)
Unrated, 68 mins., directed by Charlie Chaplin
Starring Charlie Chaplin, Jackie Coogan

Don’t let your kids go through life just generally knowing Charlie Chaplin as the guy with the Hitler mustache. Give them the foundation to understanding and appreciating cinema history with one of Chaplin’s most personal and accessible films. Chaplin’s Tramp—also an essential film icon—finds an abandoned baby on the streets and raises him as his own. The growing boy (Coogan) helps the Tramp with his window-repair business by smashing the windows in town, until events ultimately threaten their scheme and relationship. Storytelling may be more sophisticated now, but this film holds up as a brisk dramatic, comedic, and, ultimately enormously entertaining glimpse into Chaplin’s status as the consummate performer. And, as all parents know, silence is golden. —LB

13. WALL•E (2008)
G, 98 mins., directed by Andrew Stanton
Starring the voices of Ben Burtt, Elissa Knight, Jeff Garlin

Want your child to someday appreciate the vision of Kubrick’s 2001 and the sublime magic of Buster Keaton’s silent classics? Look no further than the geniuses at Pixar, who managed to create a simple, elegant tale of love and hope within a bleak dystopia with their earnest, Hello, Dolly-loving trash-collecting robot. With the manic punchline-a-minute tendencies of many modern animated films, WALL•E‘s nearly silent opening 30 minutes may seem daunting, but most children are transfixed from the start and exercising movie-watching muscles they never flexed before. The movie is a fable of wastefulness and endurance with an extraordinarily poignant truth at its heart. They’ll be ready for A Space Odyssey in no time. —LB

14. The Sound of Music (1965)
G, 174 mins., directed by Robert Wise
Starring Julie Andrews, Christopher Plummer

Forget Carrie Underwood. Get your kids in front of this classic, stat! Made in the heyday of the Hollywood musical, this sweet, heartwarming tale of the singing von Trapp family and their escape from the Nazis in WWII-era Austria has endured the test of time. Julie Andrews’ aspiring-nun-turned-supernanny is the heart of the film, transforming a militant household into a charming, caring family unit through unforgettable songs like “My Favorite Things,” “Do-Re-Mi,” and “Edelweiss,” and some inventive uses of curtains. It might not have much of edge—despite the whole Nazi business—but a childhood with a Sound of Music blind spot is worse than a dog bite, worse than a bee sting, worse than feeling sad. —LB

15. The Lion King (1994)
G, 88 mins., directed by Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff
Starring the voices of Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Matthew Broderick, James Earl Jones, Jeremy Irons

Table those academic discussions about how The Lion King is a Disneyfied version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and just let the kids soak up the incredible opening “Circle of Life” sequence, with gorgeous, old-school animation impressions of a lush African animal kingdom. Though most kids will by now be familiar with Disney’s tradition of untimely parental deaths, Mufasa’s violent demise isn’t hidden off-screen, making the drama that much more powerful. So expect some healthy tears to go along with all the music and laughter as Simba decides “to be or not to be” the lion king. —ES

16. The Wizard of Oz (1939)
PG, 102 mins., directed by Victor Fleming
Starring Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, Margaret Hamilton  

Sure, the shift from drab, gray-on-gray Kansas to glorious, Technicolor Oz is a metaphor for the magic of filmmaking itself—but this quintessentially American fairy tale is even more important as a sort of Urtext for references. Toto, the Wicked Witch of the West, the ruby slippers, the Yellow Brick Road, the Lollipop Guild, the Flying Monkeys, “Over the Rainbow,” “If I Only Had a Brain,” “There’s no place like home,” “We’re not in Kansas anymore,” “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain,” “Lions and tigers and bears, oh my,” “I’m melting! I’m melting!”—every facet of Oz has been endlessly recycled, revamped, and recontextualized. If it didn’t have a few scary sequences, this would be the perfect gateway film for a budding cinephile; as it is, expose the kid when he or she is slightly older, but still young enough to have a whole lifetime of Wizard rewatching ahead. —HB

17. Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
G, 103 mins., directed by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly
Starring Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, Debbie Reynolds

The magic and spectacle of the movies is all tied up in this epic musical romp, which manages to boast a subversive sense of humor and detached skepticism toward the same industry that’s somehow wrapped in a loving gaze. This is a movie about loving movies, and its energy vibrates from end-to-end, with the charm and charisma of Gene Kelly, rubber-faced Donald O’Connor, and a 19-year-old Debbie Reynolds. O’Connor is practically his own special-effect, showcasing his athleticism and showmanship in the riotous vaudevillian number “Make ‘em Laugh.” Shrill-sounding Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) demonstrates the infectious silliness of the talkie learning curve, but it’s Kelly’s buoyant dance with an umbrella that makes Rain an enduring must-see. —LB

18. Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
Unrated, 96 mins., directed by George Seaton
Starring Maureen O’Hara, Natalie Wood, Edmund Gwenn, John Payne

Yes, Virginia, there is a Christmas movie that isn’t made-for-TV holiday dreck. Miracle on 34th Street earned its place in film history thanks to a sweet but not overly sappy script, memorable scenes, and strong performances: Maureen O’Hara as a tough-nosed career woman (practically revolutionary for the time), a pint-sized Natalie Wood as her similarly no-nonsense child, John Payne as O’Hara’s love interest, and Edmund Gwenn’s indelible portrayal of Kris Kringle. Sure, there’s a message about believing in something even when it goes against logic, the over-commercialization of Christmas, and raising children properly, but Miracle on 34th Street conveys them with a wink and good humor, not a saccharine sledgehammer. —Kyle Ryan

19. The Iron Giant (1999)
PG, 86 mins., directed by Brad Bird
Starring the voices of Eli Marienthal, Jennifer Aniston, Harry Connick, Jr., Vin Diesel

At a time when animation was synonymous with Disney, and Pixar was revolutionizing the look of the genre, Warner Bros. tried to break into the field with The Iron Giant, a hand-drawn box-office flop that nevertheless made a lasting mark. Directed by Brad Bird, who later made The Incredibles and Ratatouille, Giant tells the story a lonely boy searching for a father figure and the gentle metal giant targeted by the U.S. government. Their friendship—and touching farewell—evokes a certain Spielberg classic, but Giant distinguishes itself with a different take on the Cold War sci-fi movies of the 1950s, taking the tropes and paranoid social attitudes from that era and putting them into a kid’s film. —JS

20. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
PG, 115 mins., directed by Steven Spielberg
Starring Henry Thomas, Drew Barrymore, Peter Coyote

E.T. will likely be every child’s first close encounter with Steven Spielberg and John Williams, two artists who will define the look and sound of the movies that will fill imaginations throughout adolescence. Think of the Spielberg Face, and the swelling Williams scores that will take them over the moon again and again. Spielberg’s classic, which tells the story of an unexpected friendship between a lonely child of divorce and a frightened left-behind alien, is simple and universal. Sprinkled with references to The Wizard of Oz, E.T. became an all-time classic in its own right. Special effects have come a long way since 1982, but when Elliott’s bike wheels leave the ground for the first time, that little gasp you hear from your wide-eyed child will remind you why movies were invented. —JL

21. Elf (2003)
PG, 97 mins., directed by Jon Favreau
Starring Will Ferrell, James Caan, Zooey Deschanel

Just seeing the oversize Will Ferrell in his green fur-lined Elf costume elicits chuckles, and his childlike antics—downing an entire liter of Coke and burping like a sailor, spinning wildly in a hotel’s revolving doors—will have your youngster doubling over with hysterics. Elf is a perfect example of silly for silliness sake, wrapped in a holiday package that generates such joy—not unlike the goofy joy Buddy the Elf brings to the hardened New Yorkers—that it’s as much fun in July as December. —NS

22. How to Train Your Dragon (2010)
PG, 98 mins., directed by Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders
Starring the voices of Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrera

Hiccup is no warrior. Compared to everyone else in his viking village, he’s skinny, sarcastic, and maybe even a little too smart. But when Hiccup befriends an injured dragon, Toothless, instead of killing it, he changes the lives of everyone he knows forever. Not that keeping a dragon as a pet is without its dangers. Unlike most animated movies, this hero isn’t invincible and even courageous risks have real consequences. This is a kids movie with one prosthetic foot planted firmly in the adult world. —JS


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