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

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34. The Princess Bride (1987)
PG, 98 mins., directed by Rob Reiner
Starring Cary Elwes, Robin Wright, Mandy Patinkin, Billy Crystal

Sure there’s a princess, pirates, an evil prince, true love, sword fighting, and giants, but The Princess Bride is a fairy tale for the meta-age. Your boys might initially resist this now-classic based on the title alone, but Peter Falk quickly squashes that gendered prejudice as he convinces his video-game-playing grandson to give the story a chance. When things get scary or unsure, Falk’s narrator steps in. When the kissing and the cheesiness start, the kid (Fred Savage) interrupts with an eye-roll. The tale within the tale is just as delightful, from Mandy Patinkin’s vengeance-seeking Inigo Montoya to Wallace Shawn’s scheming Vizzini. There will never be another Wizard of Oz, but Princess Bride might be its cooler, funnier older cousin. —LB

35. The Goonies (1985)
PG, 114 mins., directed by Richard Donner
Starring Sean Astin, Corey Feldman, Anne Ramsey, Josh Brolin, Corey Feldman

Something more than Gen X/Y nostalgia has propelled The Goonies to one of the most beloved adventure-comedies of all time. Whereas family or kids’ films now seem reticent to portray kids as they actually are—complex, occasionally foul-mouthed, and smarter than they get credit for—this rag-tag gang offers something more relatable. They’re kids from a variety of backgrounds, all faced with a challenge that’s all but insurmountable. Although it gets sentimental toward the end, Richard Donner’s film (based on Stephen Spielberg’s story and Chris Columbus’ screenplay) is an endlessly enjoyable adventure, full of highly quotable dialogue, great characters, and a surprisingly keen understanding of the traumas of adolescence. —KR

36. A Christmas Story (1983)
PG, 94 mins., directed by Bob Clark
Starring Peter Billingsley, Melinda Dillon, and Darren McGavin

If you’ve never seen A Christmas Story, then you must celebrate the holidays in Amish country. A staple during 24-hour Christmas Day TV marathons, the coming-of-age comedy balances slightly darker humor with an honest story of figuring out how to love your family when you’re still too young to know how or why. It’s like a classic Norman Rockwell painting—if said painting included a campy leg-lamp and pink bunny pajamas. Also, since it’s being told from the perspective of the protagonist as an older man—the comforting narration of Jean Shepherd—it also teaches the lesson that with enough time, something you once hated can stick with you for life. And I’m not just talking about a frozen flagpole. —JP

37. West Side Story  (1961)
Unrated, 152 mins., directed by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise
Starring Natalie Wood, George Chakiris, Rita Moreno

Musicals aren’t all singin’ in the rain and singin’ under the sea and singin’ while fleeing the Nazis on foot across the Alps. They can also be weighty, dramatic, and dark—and sometimes, they don’t come with a pat happy ending. Enter West Side Story, perhaps the finest movie musical ever made—a modernized Romeo and Juliet that shifts the action from fair Verona to the streets of New York City circa 1957. Although our list thus far has included plenty of indelible musical scores—admittedly, none finer than Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s work here—West Side Story can also serve as an introduction to the wonders of dance choreography, courtesy of Robbins’ poetic street ballets. —HB

38. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
Unrated, 130 mins., directed by Frank Capra
Starring Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore

A stealth missile that needs to be launched into every young child’s cultural development. It’s a Wonderful Life is one of the darkest bright movies ever made: The fact that it’s a Christmas movie only barely ameliorates how the movie turns Jimmy Stewart’s frustrated George Bailey into a failed American dreamer on par with Willy Loman. It’s a very simple film about very complex things—thwarted ambition, responsibility, mid-life frustrations—and a good introduction to the surprising toughness of Old Hollywood drama. You’ll thank yourself when your kid rewatches Wonderful Life as a grown-up and realizes that the title is kind of ironic. Serious question: Does watching It’s a Wonderful Life make you a better person? If not, it definitely makes you more interesting. —DF

39. Duck Soup (1933)
Unrated, 68 mins., directed by Leo McCarey
Starring the Marx Brothers, Margaret Dumont

The Marx Brothers’ DNA is woven into virtually every comedian from Bugs Bunny to Woody Allen, and Duck Soup might be their most brilliantly silly. Groucho plays the leader of Freedonia, who declares war on the neighboring country of Sylvania and competes with the Sylvanian ambassador for the love of a Freedonian aristocrat (Dumont, a Marx brothers regular). But the plot hardly matters. The real pleasures of the movie come from Groucho’s legendary one-liners and all the elaborate comic situations the characters—Chico and Harpo play amateur spies—get into. There’s plenty of slapstick, but the Marx Brothers are Trojan horses for sophisticated, quick-witted comedy. —JS

40. Back to the Future (1985)
PG, 116 mins., directed by Robert Zemeckis
Starring Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson

Robert Zemeckis’ signature film plays like a special-effects bonanza, but beneath the flux capacitor lies a story with a lot of heart. Marty McFly is the perfect rebel your kids can rally behind: He seems like a troublemaker, but really his greatest crime is hanging around with a scientist. Best of all, the story is easy to follow, but also ripe for deep-diving, which makes Back to the Future an ideal introduction to the very concept of science fiction. If questions about the space-time continuum start to pop up at the dinner table, you can be sure there are lots of William Gibson novels and screenings of The Matrix in the near future. —KA

41. Young Frankenstein (1974)
PG, 106 mins., directed by Mel Brooks
Starring Gene Wilder, Marty Feldman, Madeline Kahn, Peter Boyle, Teri Garr, and Cloris Leachman

The perfect thing about Mel Brooks’ monster mash is that it’s both a fine example of the director’s brand of zany parody and a loving homage to the Gothic black-and-white classics of the 1930s. In fact, an argument could be made that it’s actually better than the Frankenstein movies it aimed to lampoon. From a comedy standpoint, the film is chock full of bits and lines that are abnormally funny. Abby-normally funny, if you will, and it also features what is by far the best song-and-dance sequence featuring a Frahnk-enstein and his monster. —JL

42. Edward Scissorhands (1990)
PG-13, 105 mins., directed by Tim Burton
Starring Johnny Depp and Winona Ryder

Moving from the Gothic goofiness of Mel Brooks to the earnestly Gothic angst of Tim Burton might inspire a bit of whiplash—but your child will be too fascinated by Edward’s uniquely twisted universe to care. This film, essential ammo for any budding young weirdo’s arsenal, is one of the most stylish movies on this list, making it great for aspiring aesthetes. Its fairy-tale-inspired storytelling and moody romance also mean it’s a great transitional picture for viewers beginning to make the move from childhood to adolescence. Just don’t blame us if your kid suddenly develops a hunger for black eyeliner and Hot Topic. —HB

43. Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
PG-13, 178 mins., directed by Peter Jackson
Starring Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Orlando Bloom, Viggo Mortensen

Published in the 1950s, J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy is central to 21st-century pop-culture, thanks in large part to Peter Jackson’s ongoing cinematic adaptations (which include The Hobbit prequels), and The Fellowship of the Ring sets the bar high, introducing Frodo and Gandalf, as well as a Middle-earth full of dwarfs and elves. Like Star Wars, LOTR is a franchise with überpassionate disciples who are capable of quoting Aragorn’s Black Gate battle speech at the drop of a hat. Your child doesn’t need to drink the Kool-Aid—or own a Gandalf hat and fuzzy hobbit slippers—but ignoring the most important films in the fantasy canon simply shall not pass. —JL

44. The Karate Kid (1984)
PG, 126 mins., directed by John G. Avildsen
Starring Ralph Macchio, Pat Morita, Elisabeth Shue

Karate Kid wasn’t the first underdog movie, and it’s not even the best. (Rocky? The Bad News Bears?) But it’s the appropriate introduction to this crowded genre of youth-targeted sports-related films, with Macchio’s new kid in town, Daniel LaRusso, finding friendship and wisdom in Pat Morita’s pacifist handyman, Mr. Miyagi. Despite the on-screen bullying and violence (expect your kid to want to kick things), the film actually drives home a very positive message, the romance with Elisabeth Shue is impossibly adorable, and the Cobra Kai are the perfect villains to crane-kick in the face. —KA

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