“Family films” and “animated films” are no longer completely interchangeable terms, as they were for much of the 20th century. Some of the finest animated films of the 21st century so far are not really children’s films at all. For example, the 2013 Studio Ghibli masterpiece, The Wind Rises, is an incredibly adult (as in mature, rather than pornographic) tale about Jiro Horikoshi, the Japanese aircraft designer whose beautiful, aerodynamic planes ended up being used by kamikaze pilots at the end of World War Two.
Nevertheless, there have been many marvellous animated (and a few non-animated) children’s films made since the turn of the millennium, which have made children and adults alike gape and guffaw together. Given the genre’s 4 quadrant appeal, family films hold an important place in the industry, and with contests like ScreenCraft’s Family-Friendly Script Competition currently in progress, we thought now would be a good time to take a closer look at what we consider to be the ten best.
Written and directed by Paul King, based on the original Paddington stories by Michael Bond
As a live action film (or to be more precise, a live action/CGI animated film), Paddington is the exception on this list, which otherwise consists of animated films (or to be even more precise, completely animated films). Such is the reverence in which Michael Bond’s fictional Peruvian bear is held – particularly in Britain, where the original stories were set and written – that there was some doubt that any film adaptation could capture the sheer joy of the books. However, Paul King, who both wrote and directed the movie, proved that he was perhaps the biggest Paddington fan of all by beautifully translating the story of the marmalade-loving bear to the screen.
One of King’s cleverest tricks was to go right back to the beginning of the Paddington story, indeed to a time before Paddington even existed, with a wonderful backstory or origin story to explain how Paddington hears about Britain in the first place. The opening scenes in which a Victorian explorer, played by the British actor Tim Downie (whose marvellous moustache is the epitome of imperial facial hair), discovers talking bears are wondrous, as is a later scene in which Paddington watches footage of the explorer’s visit and seems to literally enter the film, which is one of the most brilliant “film within a film” sequences in recent cinema.
With Ben Wishaw sensitively voicing Paddington, Hugh Bonneville and Sally Hawkins forming the odd couple who take him in when they find (and name) him at Paddington station, and Nicole Kidman virtually chewing the green screen as the villainess of the piece, Paddington is a delight. And given its subtle insistence that the loveable bear is an immigrant deserving of a home, it will be fascinating to see how the forthcoming sequel portrays Paddington in post-Brexit Britain.
DESPICABLE ME (2010)
Directed by Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud, and written by Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio
Back in 2010, there were two cartoon super-villains competing for children’s affection (and their parents’ hard-earned cash), but in the end the supposed contest between them proved to be something of a no-contest. That was because Despicable Me’s Gru effortlessly trumped the titular antihero of Megamind, proving himself to be not merely more villainous but also infinitely more charming.
As with the aforementioned Ben Wishaw’s verbal embodiment of Paddington, so much of the brilliance of Despicable Me is in the voicing of the main character by Steve Carell. Gru is arguably Carell’s finest big-screen comic creation (just edging Anchorman’s simpleton, Brick Tamland) and it is all down to his faux-Eastern European accent, which absolutely exudes contempt for his fellow man, until Gru is finally humanised, indeed tenderised, by his adoption of three orphaned sisters. Initially he takes them in only as a ruse to outwit his nemesis, Vector, but eventually, when Vector kidnaps them, Gru realises that they are even more important to him than the stolen, shrunken moon, which is the original, rather wonderful McGuffin at the heart of the film.
And then there are the Minions. In a film that satirises the whole concept of the “criminal mastermind”, they are collectively one of the very best jokes, answering the age-old question of where super-villains, such as those in the Bond movies, get their helpers. Remarkably, they are all voiced by one of the film’s co-directors, Pierre Coffin, who proves that he is not only a master of visual storytelling but of magnificent verbal (and non-verbal) comedy.
Directed by Nathan Greno and Byron Howard, and written by Dan Fogelman, based on Rapunzel by the Brothers Grimm
It is fascinating to consider how many of the greatest children’s films, including those made in the 21st century, are based on the greatest fairy-tales. The combination of the kind of high-speed storytelling that only cinema can provide with the simple but deeply satisfying, almost elemental stories that fairy-tales tell is clearly a winning one, and Tangled exemplifies that.
Tangled is a cinematic adaptation of one of the finest fairy-tales, Rapunzel, which remains the name of the film’s heroine. She is stolen from her royal parents by Mother Gothel, a witch who uses the magical power of Rapunzel’s apparently endless long hair to sustain her own youth. The film grafts on to that storyline a wonderfully ingenious and funny plot involving an apparently dashing but in reality hopelessly inept thief, Flynn Rider, who steals Rapunzel’s unworn crown, betrays his brainless partners in crime and then has to take shelter in the gigantic tower in which Gothel has hidden Rapunzel.
The whole story is literally animated by the simple desire of Rapunzel (who has no idea of her own lofty status) to see “the lights” in the distance, which in reality are the blazing lanterns that her devastated parents release into the sky each year on her birthday. Although it is probably stretching things a little to say that these glowing lights are comparable to the “green light” that The Great Gatsby looks out upon (which in reality is the light on the dock that belongs to his lost love, Daisy Buchanan), they nevertheless impart a beautiful, yearning quality to the story that is entirely in keeping with the magical nature of the original fairy-tale.
TOY STORY III (2010)
Directed by Lee Unkrich and written by Michael Arndt
As a general rule, most sequels to children’s films, like most cinematic sequels full-stop, are not great, with the sheer originality of the original movie usually being replaced by Hollywood’s utterly unlovable desire to cash in on a proven product. One of the few exceptions to this rule is Toy Story III, in which Pixar achieved with the Toy Story series what Francis Ford Coppola failed to do with The Godfather series, namely making a truly great cinematic trilogy. Indeed, apart from Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy of films, it is perhaps the greatest cinematic trilogy of all.
Just as Ray’s great trio of 1950s Indian films charted the growth of a young Bengali boy into manhood, so the three Toy Story films tell the story of an American boy, Andy, as he grows up and leaves supposedly childish things, like toys, behind. In fact, Toy Story III opens with the now adolescent Andy about to leave home for college. He plans to take his beloved toy cowboy, Woody, with him and store the remaining toys in the attic, but, in a sequence that almost every parent can identify with, a dreadful mix-up means that the toys, including Woody, are instead sent to a day-care centre.
The day-care centre is called Sunnyside, but “Darkside day-care” would be more appropriate, as the apparently happy toys there are gradually revealed to be either bullies or the victims of bullies. The bully-in-chief is “Lotso”, which is short for Lots-O’-Huggin’ Bear, but he is more interested in crushing other toys than embracing them. Indeed, it must be acknowledged that at times Toy Story III is simply too dark for some children, especially very young children, as Woody and his pals have to escape from Lotso’s dark grip and then from a garbage incinerator before finally making it home. But escape they do and the ending of the movie, in which Andy donates his toys to another child, is a simple but powerful reminder that toys are meant to be played with and not put away for posterity.
Directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee, and written by Jennifer Lee
First, a word on that all-important writing credit. Whereas Tangled openly acknowledges its source material as the classic fairy-tale, Rapunzel, Frozen is a little more ambiguous, with its makers claiming only to have been “inspired” by Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, “The Snow Queen”. And yet the debt to Anderson’s story is surely greater than that, because Frozen’s very real and very powerful themes of betrayal, treachery and loss of self-control surely emanate from the original fairy-tale.
That credit quibble aside, there is very little else to criticise Frozen for, and yes, that includes its musical score. The soundtrack soon became seemingly ubiquitous, as the film became the biggest box-office cartoon smash ever, to the point that parents everywhere would lamely tell their children (especially their daughters) to “Let it go” when they asked to see Frozen just one more time. In reality, the songs on Frozen are among the finest written for any modern cartoon, and even bear comparison with those written by the legendary Sherman brothers for such ‘60s Disney classics as the original Jungle Book.
Frozen is also arguably the first truly feminist children’s animated film, with its real story being the complex relationship between two sisters, Elsa and Anna, rather than the supposed “romantic” relationship between Anna and her love interest, Hans. Indeed, in what is one of the most shocking developments in any children’s film of any era, Hans turns out to be not a “goodie” at all but instead the baddest of baddies. It is a plot twist worthy of Hitchcock or Clouzot, and I cannot be the only parent to have watched this utterly unforeseen development with mouth wide open, while my youngest daughter (who had already seen the film at least 17 times) looked on smugly.
THE INCREDIBLES (2004)
Written and directed by Brad Bird
“A family of superheroes” is the simple premise of The Incredibles, but this children’s cartoon actually has a lot in common with the so-called “Citizen Kane of Comics”, Watchmen. Like Dave Gibbons and Alan Moore’s masterpiece, The Incredibles depicts a world in which ordinary people have grown bored and even frightened of supposed “superheroes”, because of the damage and disruption they cause while fighting crime, forcing them either underground or, worse, into a kind of “super-witness” protection programme.
Of course, The Incredibles do not stay hidden forever, as they are eventually tempted out of hiding (and back into their superhero suits) by the mysterious Syndrome. He is a Tony Stark-type inventor who develops a series of deadly robots and other technologies to turn ordinary people like himself into superheroes, thus rendering actual superheroes like The Incredibles redundant, which is surely a wry but ultimately frightening joke about the capacity of 21st technology to render all humans redundant.
The Incredibles has all the requisite action and plot twists to keep even the most fidgety children riveted. However, like all the films on this list and indeed all the greatest children’s films, its real trick is not only to entertain any watching parents but to educate them a little. The speech in which Mr Incredible admits that he has been searching for some new superpower (or something else equally unattainable) all his life, only to realise that his greatest superpower is simply to be a good father, is genuinely moving and one of the greatest speeches in all of 21st century children’s cinema so far.
ZOOTROPOLIS (ZOOTOPIA) (2016)
Directed by Byron Howard and Rich Moore, and written by Jared Bush and Phil Johnston
Zootropolis was originally called Zootopia, and it retained that title in America. However, Zootropolis is an infinitely better title, because it accurately conveys not only the setting of the film – a big city, albeit one inhabited by animals rather than people – but, in its similarity to the title of Fritz Lang’s silent classic, Metropolis (1927), the sense of a city that has simply grown too big and too dangerous for its inhabitants.
Zootropolis doesn’t invent the genre of “cartoon noir” (that was achieved by Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, back in 1988), but it thrillingly updates it for the new century by having a cop rabbit team up with a typically crafty and criminal fox to solve what initially appears to be a simple missing person’s case. However, as in the greatest neo-noir, Chinatown (1974), that is only the tip of a very nasty iceberg, as the pair eventually uncover a plot to upset the delicate co-existence between former predators and prey by turning the predators back into frenzied flesh-eaters once more.
So many great children’s films, even some of those on this list (such as Despicable Me), have produced relatively inferior sequels or spin-offs. However, if any children’s film could justifiably sustain not only an entire series of sequels but a whole other universe of TV and internet spin-offs, it is surely Zootropolis. Then again, because the original film deals with what in the animal world is the biggest crime of all – turning supposedly peace-loving animals back into, well, animals – there is perhaps nowhere for any sequel or spin-off to go. If that is the case, it is a shame, as the world of Zootropolis is as lovingly realised as that of any other great noir.
BIG HERO 6 (2014)
Directed by Don Hall and Chris Williams, and written by Jordan Roberts, Dan Gerson and Robert L. Baird, Based on the Big Hero 6 comic by Man of Action
Like Zootopia, Big Hero 6 is a rather misleading title. The Big Hero 6 in question are a team of tech students turned superheroes, but in reality the film is all about a teenage boy, Hiro, and the Michelin Man-like robot, Baymax, who protects him after his older brother, Tadashi, is killed in a fire. Perhaps the insistence on the group title, Big Hero 6, reflects the origins of the story, or rather the identity of its original creators, the “Man of Action” group of comic book and superhero movie writers, which includes the likes of Duncan Rouleau and Joe Casey.
The world of Big Hero 6 is almost like a child’s version of the world of Bladerunner (the world so thrillingly brought back to life by Denis Villeneuve in his recent Bladerunner 2049 sequel). Like Bladerunner’s Los Angeles, the setting of Big Hero 6 – San Fransokyo – is a hybrid of American and Asian cities, just as several of the main characters, including Hiro himself, are a hybrid of American and Asian physical characteristics. However, just like in Bladerunner, the real star of the film is not a human at all but rather a fabulous human creation, a super-lightweight robot who is initially designed to do good by providing medical assistance, but eventually (if briefly) becomes all bad, as Hiro refits and reboots him in order to seek revenge for his brother’s death.
Fortunately, given that it is a children’s movie, Big Hero 6 owes as much to Scooby-Doo (the original TV cartoons, rather than the fairly lamentable big-screen, live-action adaptations) as it does to Bladerunner, with Hiro receiving support from his brother’s friends as they form a “crime-fighting” group to try and track down his brother’s killer. (In a particularly funny plot development, the apparently impoverished Shaggy-type, Fred, is revealed to be the son and heir of super-rich parents, whose fortune can bankroll his and his friends’ transformation into superheroes.) Ultimately, however, it is Beymax who steals the show and the viewer’s heart by reminding Hiro of his true humanity when he threatens to become consumed by anger, guilt and grief. In that respect, he is again like the replicants of Bladerunner, in that he is arguably more human and certainly more humane than the actual human beings he is designed to help.
Directed and written by Brad Bird
Brad Bird, who also wrote and directed The Incredibles (see No.5 above) is perhaps the closest that 21st century children’s cinema comes to a Walt Disney-type figure. For a start, both men have names that appear to have been invented but are actually their real names (even if “Bradley” is actually Bird’s middle name). But far more importantly, both men have created truly magical cinematic worlds that entrance both children and adults alike. Perhaps it is better to think of Brad Bird as a kind of post-modern Walt Disney, in that he takes the relatively simpler and more innocent themes of the early Disney movies and then deepens and darkens them, to show how cartoon characters have become progressively more complex and less, well, childish in the ninety years or so since Walt Disney first brought Mickey Mouse to the screen.
The premise of Ratatouille is magnificent: it is the story of a rat who wants to become a chef. And not just any old chef, but a real French, Michelin-starred chef. Consequently, he takes a humble sous chef, Alfredo, and (by hiding under his chef’s hat and pulling his hair) transforms him into a true gourmand and a truly great chef. In the process, however, Alfredo evokes the suspicion of the head chef, Skinner (a very un-French name, which is perhaps a clue to his true, nefarious nature), who sets out to discover the real genius behind the extraordinary food that Alfredo suddenly begins to make.
It probably says everything about the sheer greatness of Ratatouille that one of the very greatest film critics, Philip French of The Observer, absolutely adored it. And he was not alone. One reason for that is that is the superlative cast (or rather, “vocal cast”), which is perhaps the finest of any children’s film. Ian Holm voices Skinner but even more wonderfully Peter O’Toole voices the marvellously named Anton Ego, the typically irascible restaurant critic who Skinner, like every chef in Paris, is so desperate to please. Voicing Ego was one of O’Toole’s last screen performances and it is arguably his last truly great screen performance, with his final, achingly poignant monologue, delivered after he discovers that it is in fact a rat that has prepared the exquisite dish that he has so enjoyed, one of the most moving speeches made in any movie in the last 20 years.
Directed by Chris Williams and Byron Howard, and written by Dan Fogelman and Chris Williams
Bolt may appear an unlikely winner of the title, “Best Children’s Film of the 21st Century (So Far)”, but I will defend the decision to the death, because of all the children’s films that I have seen in the last decade or so (mainly with my children, but occasionally on my own) it was the one that had the greatest effect on me personally. Quite simply, it is not just a great film but a perfect film.
Bolt is a stunt dog, who helps his owner, a little girl called Penny, to escape from the clutches of the infamous Dr Calico. However, Calico is not real – he is a screen villain in the TV show that Penny and Bolt are the stars of. The trouble is that Bolt, being a dog, does not know that, and so when he is separated from Penny by a series of misfortunes, he thinks that she has been kidnapped by Calico and so has to get her back, which means travelling across the whole of America, from New York (where he ends up after all his misfortunes) to Los Angeles, or more precisely Hollywood.
The genius of Bolt is that it is a coming-of-age film, or more accurately a “coming-to-one’s-senses” movie, in which the central character (in this case, a dog) gradually comes to realise that the world that he had thought was real is actually only an illusion. Of course, in that respect it is a brilliant metaphor for the journey that every human being makes (if they live long enough) from innocence to maturity, and the gradual, painful gathering of awareness that, like Bolt, they are not “super” or “special” after all, but simply, rather mundanely “human” (or, in Bolt’s case, canine).
In this combination of a physical journey (across the American continent) with a deeper, more metaphorical journey (the transition from thinking that you are special to realising that you are not), Bolt is worthy of comparison with some of the greatest works of literature, let alone cinema, such as Homer’s The Odyssey or John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. And it has the added bonus of featuring the most unlikely cartoon animal ever – Rhino, who is not a rhinoceros at all but (in keeping with the rest of the film’s exploration of identity and heroism) a hamster, complete with plastic ball.
Of course, as in the greatest stories Bolt finally realises that being himself – authentically, truly himself – is itself a form of heroism and he duly uses his own unique “superpowers” (in particular, a loud bark) to save Penny when he finally finds her, only to discover that she is in real rather than pretend danger. And in the process, Bolt, in his own small way, becomes one of the greatest heroes of 21st century cinema – not just children’s cinema, but all cinema.