A-List: Live-Action Children’s Films
By Sean Collier
January 19, 2009

Julia Roberts looks...different.

After watching Let the Right One In, the oddly beautiful Swedish film about a 12-year-old vampire, I got to thinking about how effective serious movies with child protagonists can be. It's very rare that a filmmaker has the courage to let children anchor a story, especially in America. Usually, a child star is paired with a grown-up veteran who can do most of the heavy lifting. But when the ultra-rare trifecta of the right director, the right script, and the right young performer comes together, the results are usually unique and engaging.

And, by and large, heartbreaking. Let the Right One In explores the beginnings of sexual curiosity via a doomed and violent friendship between 12-year-old Oskar and old-but-young-looking vampire Eli; it's moving and captivating, but bleak. I saw the film a week ago, and haven't been able to shake it. I think also of Twelve and Holding, which I recommended in my most recent A-List; that film puts its young cast through hell, trying to make kids deal with grown-up problems far too early.

Live-action children's movies, on the other hand, are often painfully saccharine. The usual crop of non-animated children's fare is formulaic and far too thrown together for adults to enjoy, to the dismay of parents everywhere. Somewhere along the way, animation became the only source for true "family" films, movies that could be enjoyed equally by all ages. High quality films for children that don't come from a computer are growing more and more rare.

Compiling a list of the best children's movies is, inevitably, going to have some personal choices on it. For many people, myself included, you discover films one at a time as a child, and want to watch nothing else; my earliest memory of having a favorite film was watching the 1960 Mary Martin version of Peter Pan quite literally every day between the ages of three and four. So, in compiling the list, I've tried to focus on the films I would gladly watch today, not those that captivated me the most as a child. Also, kids movies that are far more suited to adults – I'm thinking specifically of Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Pee Wee's Big Adventure, here – are out.

With a reminder to parents that Netflix can provide many fine entertainment options, thus dispatching with any need to go see Hotel for Dogs, The A-List presents the best live action children's movies.

The Wizard of Oz

There really wasn't a way to not include The Wizard of Oz. Estimates on this kind of thing are rough, but due to the huge popularity of TV screenings of Victor Fleming's masterpiece, it's been credibly guessed that The Wizard of Oz is the most-seen film of all time. A full 70 years later, just about everything in the film is as effective as ever. Every child deserves to be introduced to Oz as early as possible, and there's plenty for adults to rediscover as well, particularly the still-impressive majesty of the Oz sets and the perfect vaudeville performances by Garland, Morgan, Bolger, Lahr and Haley. I'm not sure any movie has made more children fall in love with film than The Wizard of Oz.

The Swiss Family Robinson

To be honest, I can't separate what happened in The Swiss Family Robinson from my memories of wandering through the ridiculously awesome Robinson Tree House at Disney World. If I have kids, we're paying Disney whatever they want just so I can walk through that thing again. Anyway, the 1960 film, a loose adaptation of a 19th century German novel, is so imaginative as to remain engaging today, despite a somewhat rambling plot. Children will be hooked by the adventure and the exotic locales, while adults will be able to appreciate a true classic made with care and true artistry (sometimes rare in Disney's early live-action offerings.) Every kid's adventure movie aspires to the standard set here; very few hit it.

Alice in Wonderland (1985)

Lewis Carroll's work has inspired so many variations and interpretations, in every medium, that the story is almost a genre unto itself. (Among all of them, I'm partial to the Tom Waits album Alice, mostly about the life of Carroll but with bits of Wonderland thrown in; however, that is distinctly not a film, and thus not eligible for A-List inclusion.) This film, released in two parts as a TV special in December of 1985, was a dark, somewhat somber retelling of the story; I'd be hesitant to show it to children today, as I was personally haunted by a number of the sequences when I was young (somehow, the Jabberwocky shows up, and it's terrifying.) What makes the film especially worth tracking down, though, is the bizarre cast. Among others, Alice features Sammy Davis Jr., Red Buttons, Shelley Winters, Ringo Starr, Sid Caeser, Roddy MacDowall, Imogene Coca, Steve Allen, Ernest Borgnine, Merv Griffin...I'll stop there. Okay, one more: John Stamos.

A Muppet Christmas Carol

I had a tough time deciding which Henson effort to include: The Great Muppet Caper, The Muppet Movie, Christmas Carol, or Labyrinth. All are movies I'd watch right now, and all have their merits – great comedy, good music, David Bowie's crotch, whatever. If I had to pick the best film, though, I'd go with A Muppet Christmas Carol. It's hilarious, it's a solid musical with songs that'll stick in your head for a week, and it's an entirely respectable retelling of the story. Screw Ralphie – this is what should be playing for 24 hours on Christmas Day.

The Sandlot

My favorite movie as a child, The Sandlot is, to me, the best kiddie sports film ever. Its heart is real, but it was ridiculous and funny enough to be irresistible, even to the tough kids. (Furthermore, it was vulgar enough to make kids think they were seeing something they weren't supposed to.) Much of its aesthetic and approach is borrowed from Stand By Me, but that's more homage than plagiarism. I have, very recently, blown off a full day because The Sandlot was on TV, and quotes from the film have so fully worked their way into my vocabulary that I sometimes forget I'm making a reference until someone calls me on it. I will always, always love The Sandlot.


If there's any children's story that's been adapted more than Alice in Wonderland, it's Peter Pan. Most every version of the classic story is pretty good; the aforementioned Mary Martin musical was certainly not the only telling of the story to captivate me as a child, and the 2003 version was a fine addition to the tale's history. Easily the best film adaptation, however, is Spielberg's 1991 effort. While the presentation and the film's title would have you believe that the villain is the focus, the true brilliance is the twist on the protagonist – how can you still tell the story of Peter Pan if Peter Pan has grown up? The performances are brilliant, the direction is perfect, and the story has never had so much depth. Peter Pan will be told forever, but never better.