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

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23. Star Wars (1977)
PG, 121 mins., directed by George Lucas
Starring Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Alec Guinness

You’ve prepared your child with imagination-building fantasy: Now it’s time to completely blow their mind. The first Star Wars presents the young moviegoer with one of the most lavishly realized fictional universes in movie history: Elaborate spaceships, attention-grabbing creatures, and most of all, sharply-drawn characters. And the inquisitive youngster might skip right along to The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, in the process developing an understanding for the kind of long-form story arcs that define basically every popular art form today. Warning: Showing them Star Wars probably means suffering through the fact that your kids will like the prequels more than you. —Darren Franich

24. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001)
PG, 152 mins., directed by Chris Columbus
Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint

You could introduce Potter before Star Wars, but why not delay just a tad so that the entire family can race through J.K. Rowling’s magical books first? For more than a decade, the Potter phenomenon captivated readers and movie audiences worldwide, and made us believe, and emotionally invest in, this wondrous world filled with wizards, Dementors, and goblins. It’s hard to imagine a child today not knowing the secrets of Hogwarts, the basic rules of Quidditch, and the name of he who must not be named. Harry was an orphan who never knew he was special, yet every kid will revel in his adventure. —Chancellor Agard

25. Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985)
PG, 90 mins., directed by Tim Burton
Starring Paul Reubens, Elizabeth Daily

Reubens’ Pee-Wee Herman schtick seems quaint now, but his outsize outsider persona remains 100 percent singular. It’s easy to get lost in Big Adventure’s Technicolor mania, and for all the classic schoolyard taunts (“I know you are, but what am I?”), there’s a deeply positive underlying message about not being afraid to express who you are—even if that drives you to dance to “Tequila” in a biker bar. Big Adventure is also an ideal set of training wheels for kids who are ready for a slightly more mature approach, as director Tim Burton slips in a tiny bit of Goth nightmare fuel that will appeal to the more adventurous. —Kyle Anderson

26. March of the Penguins (2005)
G, 80 mins., directed by Luc Jacquet
Narrated by Morgan Freeman

Narratives about the frailty of life are all over most Disney animated classics, and Penguins takes that approach and kicks it up a notch by turning the cameras on actual animals walking around in the wild. This film has a lot going for it: It’s deeply pretty to look at, features a cast of super-cute Arctic birds, and is narrated by the Voice of God himself (which is soothing no matter how old you are). It could also introduce your offspring to the wonders of documentary storytelling, and in a pinch, could act as a birds-and-bees conversation starter in case those issues are starting to come up. —KA

27. Home Alone (1990)
PG, 103 mins., directed by Chris Columbus
Starring Macaulay Culkin, Joe Pesci, Daniel Stern

Being left behind is every kid’s nightmare. Home Alone taps into that fear—with Macauley Culkin all alone at home after his entire harried family accidentally leaves for Paris without him—but then turns it into a hilarious, fun-filled celebration of unsupervised freedom. The adorable kid isn’t as helpless as he seems, and when two Wily E. Coyote-caliber robbers (Pesci and Stern) target his neighborhood, he turns his house into a giant Rube Goldberg machine of traps. The violence leaves marks, but it’s Three Stooges cartoonish. Plus, when your kids are older and they discover Martin Scorsese films, they’ll recognize Tommy DeVito as one of the Wet Bandits. —JS

28. The Black Stallion (1979)
G, 118 mins., directed by Carroll Ballard
Starring Kelly Reno, Mickey Rooney, Teri Garr

The Black Stallion combines the ever-popular lost-kid and beloved-pet movie sub-genres for one of the most winning and visually splendid films on this list. Though it’s rated G, the plight of young Alex (Reno)—whose ship sinks, father dies, and is stranded on a deserted island with a wild horse—has real weight, and this is a movie that never condescends to its younger audience. Stallion might be the best child/animal friendship movie ever made—a category of films that typically aims for only slightly above mediocrity—in part because it simply looks so beautiful, courtesy of cinematographer Caleb Deschanel. —JL

29. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)
G, 89 mins., directed by Mel Stuart
Starring Gene Wilder, Jack Albertson, Peter Ostrum

Skip Tim Burton’s 2005 remake and steer your children to this version, which so faithfully captures the spirit of Roald Dahl’s magical book, especially when it’s depicting the insufferable children who so badly want into Wonka’s factory but violate all the ethics required to stay there. This movie is a trip, primarily because of Wilder’s imaginative-yet-controlled performance as the eccentric Wonka, and the psychedelic Oompa-Loompa musical numbers remain an imperative childhood reference point. —NS

30. Yellow Submarine (1968)
G, 85 mins., directed by George Dunning
Starring the Beatles

This is what we call a twofer: Not only do kids get exposed to the idea that animation doesn’t just have to be all princesses and talking animals, but they also get their first taste of the definitive rock band. If anybody can really tell what’s going on in the story, that person would be the first, but Yellow Submarine is the easiest way to get your kids to stop singing “The Wheels on the Bus” and replace it with gems like “All You Need Is Love.” Should your kid immediately gravitate toward “Eleanor Rigby,” however, be warned: You’ve got a budding music blogger who will soon be graduating to Abbey Road. —KA

31. Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)
PG, 104 mins., directed by Robert Zemeckis
Starring Bob Hoskins, Christopher Lloyd, Kathleen Turner

Many kids movies trade in irony, but few face it as directly as the half-animated, half-live-action Roger Rabbit. Built around the odd-coupling of a toon-hating detective (Hoskins) and a cartoon rabbit, much of Roger Rabbit’s humor sends up the physics and slapstick of classic animation by contrasting it to a grim live-action world. It’s the perfect movie for the kid who wants to act like an adult, and has started to make fun of the “childish” things he or she used to treasure. But in its embrace of animation, Roger Rabbit also undermines the impulse to believe that mature things (and mediums) are more valuable, potentially throwing young sarcastics off their guard. Eddie Valiant fights for Toontown after all—and Roger Rabbit reminds us that when we grow out of old favorites, we don’t have to leave them behind. —Jackson McHenry

32. The Incredibles (2004)
PG, 115 mins., directed by Brad Bird
Starring the voices of Craig T. Nelson, Samuel L. Jackson, Holly Hunter

The Incredibles ranks among Pixar’s best for the way it cannily satirizes some of the most iconic genres in cinema history. Rarely does a minute of screen time pass without an allusion to superhero or spy movie tropes, subtle references that seem to grow in number with every subsequent viewing (particularly if the other movies on this list get consumed in the interim). But what separates the film from outright parody—and anchors it as a compelling narrative in its own right—is its undercurrent of Tom Perrotta-esque middle-class, middle-aged angst. It’s a fantastical mish-mash of genre blockbusters that also happens to have a soul. —Neil Janowitz

33. The LEGO Movie (2014)
PG, 100 mins., directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller
Starring Will Ferrell and the voices of Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett

Now that your kid is familiar with classic Chosen One tales like Star Wars and Harry Potter, it’s time to teach ‘em the pleasures of dissecting those very stories—then reassembling them to form something awesome. The LEGO Movie is a veritable trope stew, both a smart-mouthed send-up of blockbuster clichés and a gleeful adherent to them. It’s an antic, child-friendly way to introduce the joys of parodies like Airplane! or Blazing Saddles, as well as a relentlessly innovative film about the joys of relentless innovation. Bonus: The movie’s mind-bending ending is the perfect preparation for the complicated meta-realities your mini-cineast will encounter once she moves on to the works of Charlie Kaufman. Which should be any day now. —HB


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