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Comfort and Joy: Family Films That Will Warm Your Soul

By Kevin Nelson · December 13, 2021

The holidays are upon us, which means that families are reuniting over feasts, sharing gifts and laughs, and hopefully not starting arguments over conspiracy theories. 

Regardless of your rituals or religion, a time-honored tradition that many families partake in this time of year is cozying up on the couch under a blanket with some comfy socks on, hot cocoa in hand, to watch heartwarming films that the whole family can enjoy

Here are some screenplays that will warm your soul all winter long.

Scripts from this Article

Little Miss Sunshine

The story behind Little Miss Sunshine’s spec sale is a fever dream that all screenwriters wish will come true. After graduating from the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU, screenwriter Michael Arndt worked as a script reader and personal assistant before dedicating himself full-time to screenwriting. Sounds familiar so far.

Legend has it, Arndt wrote the first draft in a matter of three days, then spent the next year rewriting the script based on feedback from friends, fellow writers, and family. He considered shooting the film himself using a handheld device because the story had such an independent feel to it, he wasn’t sure that Hollywood would embrace it.

He sent the screenplay to producers Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa who immediately set out to find a director. While Arndt waited, the script passed hands. They ended up finding two directors. Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris read the script and felt it was written for them. At the time, they were directing music videos and commercials. A couple of months later Arndt heard back from producer Marc Turtletaub, who then purchased the script for $250,000. 

Ah, dare to dream. 

If you read it, you’ll see it was worth every penny. The writing is poignant and funny with a warm heart that’ll bring you closer to your own family — despite their differences and idiosyncrasies. Embrace your inner weirdo.

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Paddington 2

Paddington 2 had a perfect Tomatometer Score on Rotten Tomatoes, ranking even higher than Citizen Kane until some curmudgeon came along who clearly hates nice things. For most people, you get what you expect with Paddington 2 — and so much more. The script, written by Simon Farnaby and Paul King, starts in a normally whimsical fashion until our protagonist gets framed for a crime and thrown in jail.

It’s not the conventional setting for a kid-friendly film, which makes it perfect for all ages. The script perfectly balances ridiculousness with heartfelt tenderness. You’ll ask yourself why you’re crying — it’s a story about a stolen pop-up book for cryin’ out loud. 

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Pee-wee’s Big Adventure

After the success of the chaotic The Pee-Wee Herman Show, Paul Reubens was hired to develop a feature-length film for the character. He went back and forth on an idea for the script until he started riding a bike around the Warner Bros. backlot. Struck by inspiration, he went back to the drawing board.

Around the same time, Tim Burton was fired by Disney after making the 30-minute featurette Frankenweenie because they felt like he wasted money on a short film that was way too dark for their target audience. After seeing the film, Paul Reubens hired Burton to direct the feature. Their sense of humor and personalities meshed well. 

Once Burton was on board, he and Reubens teamed up with Phil Hartman and Michael Varhol to revise the script that would become a visionary masterpiece of comedic genius — by following the advice offered by Syd Field’s classic tutorial Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting.

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The Goonies

It is hard to imagine the contribution that Chris Columbus has made in our lives with his films. As a writer, director, and producer — he’s helped create some of the greatest family films ever. The Goonies is a fun adventure that all ages enjoy. Adults get a rush of dopamine from the nostalgia and children create their own memories that they’ll look back on with each rewatch. 

Columbus has a signature storytelling style that conveys a certain level of sentimentality centered around unconventional families facing unfamiliar obstacles. The Goonies is a defining ensemble adventure comedy that shows the power of giving each character their own quirks and personalities.

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Big

Gary Ross and Anne Spielberg (Steven Spielberg’s sister) were neighbors when they co-wrote Big, which would go on to earn them a nomination for Best Original Screenplay at the Academy Awards. The screenwriters do a great job of keeping the action going, with Josh Baskin coming across the Zoltar machine on page 15, hitting the inciting incident with precision.

A great detail that I missed for all of these years until I read it on the page is during the scene when he makes his wish to be, “a grownup,” and a group of teenagers rushes past him, their laughter trailing off — signifying the teenage years he’ll lose with his wish. He’s only twelve. This is such an awesome detail. He receives a card indicating that his wish is granted, and something catches his eyes. The machine is unplugged, adding an air of mystery and magic.

This is followed by a nice transitional device with the use of wind. The wind starts as a breeze when he looks into Zoltar’s eyes, then turns into a gale during the transitory night shot outside of his house. We continue into the next morning in the aftermath of the storm as Josh wakes up to find his world slightly… smaller.

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The Princess Bride

William Goldman was a writer’s writer. His childhood wasn’t easy. His mother was deaf and his father committed suicide after a bout with alcoholism. After serving his time in the military after being drafted, he wrote novels, plays, screenplays, screenplays of his novels. 

Based on Goldman’s own novel of the same name, The Princess Bride was directed by none other than Rob Reiner, who knew that he wanted to adapt the book into a film ever since his father gifted it to him. He proved his worth with This is Spinal Tap and finally had the opportunity to pursue it. 

Previously, there were several failed attempts to produce the script but Reiner had just the right touch. He worked closely with Goldman to develop the screenplay. Take a read to witness all the memorable moments of action, intrigue, and dialogue.

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National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation

John Hughes is one of the most respected writers of all time. He single-handedly contributed classic films for multiple generations. He was the king of feel-good family films. It’s honestly mind-boggling what his mind was capable of producing in such a short amount of time. His genius is sorely missed. 

While working as a copywriter, he’d travel to New York City where he’d visit the headquarters of the National Lampoon magazine. Not long after, he began contributing short stories that were based on true stories from his life, such as Trains, Planes, and Automobiles, which was based on a real-life holiday travel nightmare.

His first addition to the Vacation Series was based on the short story Vacation ’58 which appeared in the National Lampoon magazineThe third film in the series (and perhaps the best one) was Christmas Vacation, which was based on the short story, Christmas ’59. He said that the studio begged him for another Vacation film, and he only said yes because he already had a good story to base it on. 

My family watches Christmas Vacation every year, so I may be a little biased. The script is an exercise in Murphy’s Law. If it can go wrong, it will go wrong. 

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E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial

Steven Spielberg was trying to come up with a follow-up to Close Encounters of the Third Kind when he began developing a film called Dark Skies with filmmaker John Sayles. The project never got off the ground but stayed with Spielberg. While filming Raiders of the Lost Ark in Tunisia, Spielberg found himself homesick. He missed his friends and family. It was then that past memories of his childhood resurfaced.

After his parents’ divorce, Spielberg created an imaginary alien friend who acted as a surrogate brother or father. He spoke with screenwriter Melissa Mathison and told her about his failed project Night Skies. The film would have ended with an alien becoming stranded on Earth, and it’s from there that Melissa Mathison started her story. 

It’s no secret that E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial was a massive hit, and that’s especially true if you read the script. It runs the gamut of emotions that all audiences feel — the scariness of discovering an alien in your home, the silly antics of an alien adapting to life on earth, the heartwarming friendship that develops, and the harrowing escape from government agents that leads to E.T.’s return home. 

Spielberg read Mathison’s rough draft and said it was perfect. Two more drafts made it the classic we know today.

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Mean Girls

An unconventional selection, I know, but if your kids are teenagers — first of all, good luck — second of all, this film should be required viewing for anyone entering high school. Based very loosely on Rosalind Wiseman’s nonfiction self-help book Queen Bees and Wannabes, Tina Fey knew she had to adapt it as she read it. She called Lorne Michaels, who then called Paramount Pictures, who then bought the rights to the book. 

Fey wrote much of the story from scratch, using the book as a base focusing on the cliques formed in school while drawing from her own high school experiences. The film highlights the dangers to be found in the wilderness of adolescence. 

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It’s a Wonderful Life

’Tis the season for families to come together and celebrate life. There may be no better example of this than It’s a Wonderful Life. 

The film is based on the story The Greatest Gift by Philip Van Doren Stern, who was rejected by every publisher he sent it to. Frustrated, he printed 200 copies of the story as a 24-page zine and sent it to everyone he knew. With some help from a guardian angel, it landed in the right hands and RKO Pictures bought the rights. Once Frank Capra got involved, conflicts began to arise. The art of writing by committee wasn’t as appreciated then as it is now. Bridges were burned, friendships ended, and credit arbitrations ensued. The result? A feel-good holiday movie about cherishing what matters most — love…and crowdfunding to pay the bills.

It’s a Wonderful Life has everything you need to make memories this holiday season.

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We all have those certain comfort films and shows that we return to time and time again to recharge and replenish our souls. Family films often tackle themes of separation and unification and ultimately about realizing the power of community and family over selfishness. 

No matter how far the protagonist may stray, they always come home. 

Read More Great Family Film Scripts!

Scripts from this Article