Mark Kermode chooses 25 of the best films for children

From early animation to foreign-language gems via all-time classics, a range of movies to whet budding cinematic appetites

What is a children’s film? Is it a film aimed specifically at younger viewers, tailor-made to cater to their growing needs? Maybe it’s a film about childhood, a coming-of-age story that resonates with a wide range of viewers, young and old alike. Or perhaps it’s simply any film that a child could watch, anything that isn’t restricted by its nature to adult-only audiences.

When I was a kid in the late 60s and early 70s, there were two movie classifications that excluded younger viewers: the AA category, introduced in 1970, for which you had to be at least 14 years old; and X-certificate movies, which were restricted to over-16s or (after 1970) over-18s. Films that fell under these prohibitive categories included everything from the David Essex/Ringo Starr Brit-pop romp That’ll Be the Day to the violent Sam Peckinpah shocker Straw Dogs via such innocuous fare as Blazing Saddles, American Graffiti and Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. All of these were out of bounds in my preteen years. Yet there were plenty more strange and wonderful films that fell into the U or A certificate categories, making them available to anyone (or at least anyone over the age of five), sometimes under adult supervision, more often not…

From as far back as I can remember, I spent as much time in the cinema as possible, seeing anything and everything that I was allowed to watch – with occasionally traumatic results. I remember one Saturday morning in 1970, when I was eight years old. My mother dropped my brother and me at the local Odeon while she went and did the weekly shopping. She knew the film showing that morning would be suitable for us because it had a U certificate, meaning “universal” – fit for all!

Two hours later, she picked us up outside the cinema in floods of tears. The film we’d been watching was Ken Loach’s Kes – a milestone of British cinema that didn’t shy away from depicting the grim realities of its central character’s hard-knocks life, including beatings, taunting, naked humiliation, and (in the final reel) horrible animal death.

Despite my distress, I have never once regretted seeing Kes at such a young age (it has since been reclassified PG, meaning that parents should take care). Other movies that I saw around the same age included Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, Arthur Hiller’s Plaza Suite, Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville, Franklin J Schaffner’s Patton (Elvis’s favourite film!), Jess Franco’s The Castle of Fu Manchu and a string of catastrophe-filled 70s disaster movies from Airport to The Towering Inferno. None of these would generally be considered “children’s movies”, but I saw them all as a child, and they were all part of my cinematic education, for better or worse.

In compiling this list of 25 great movies for children, I have attempted to bear in mind the vast range of films that I was lucky enough to have encountered at an impressionable age, and to acknowledge that, until fairly recently, young moviegoers were raised on a diet of movies that played to audiences of all ages. To this end, I’ve used the current guidelines of the British Board of Film Classification (still the most reliable and accountable regulatory body in the world) as a yardstick, accepting for inclusion any film that they currently rate U, PG or 12/12A – the classifications of movies which can legitimately be watched by audiences under the age of 15.

My choices range from short animations to feature-length live-action films, from silent films to foreign-language classics (I’m assuming subtitles aren’t an issue) from a century of international cinema. Along with the more obvious contenders, I’ve included a few titles that some readers may not consider to be children’s films at all. Fair enough. But, crucially, these are all films that kids could watch, if they wanted. The list is arranged not by merit but by date, and I’ve included the most recent BBFC certificates for reference. Take a look, and then let me know your own choices.

Tell us about your favourite children’s films in the comments below or tweet us at @ObsNewReview

Unless otherwise indicated, the films listed can be found to rent or buy on one or more of the usual online streaming services

1. The Kid (1921, U)

Charlie Chaplin and Jackie Coogan in The Kid
Charlie Chaplin and Jackie Coogan in The Kid. Photograph: Allstar/Charles Chaplin Productions/Sportsphoto

Jackie Coogan stars as Charlie Chaplin’s sidekick/adopted waif in this timeless classic, widely regarded as one of the finest films of the silent era. In his first feature-length feature as director, Chaplin conjures “a picture with a smile – and perhaps a tear”, perfecting the blend of humour, pathos and tragedy that would make him a beloved icon around the world. No child or adult could watch this and remain unmoved.

2. The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926, PG)

The Adventures of Prince Achmed
German director Lotte Reininger used silhouette animation to striking effect in The Adventures of Prince Achmed. Photograph: Image Entertainment/Allstar

Lotte Reiniger’s 1926 German production is one of the oldest surviving animated features, and suffers from the kind of racial and gender stereotyping that beset so many films of this period. But for audiences mature enough to see beyond the outmoded politics, it offers a fascinating insight into the history of animation. Taking inspiration from One Thousand and One Nights, Reiniger’s film has influenced countless children’s classics, from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to The Sword in the Stone and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

3. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937, U)

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
‘An astonishing technical achievement’: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Photograph: Disney/Allstar

Disney’s first feature-length animation played to packed houses of all ages when first released. An astonishing technical achievement, it benefited from eye-popping artwork, spine-tingling music, and an occasionally horrifying narrative (the BBFC originally rated it A, and it only got an uncut U in 1987). This note of brooding darkness would continue throughout all the finest Disney films, connecting them to the great traditions of the Brothers Grimm, and proving that children appreciate a touch of fear with their fun.

4. The Wizard of Oz (1939, U)

Judy Garland and company in The Wizard of Oz
Judy Garland and company in The Wizard of Oz. Photograph: Alamy

Flying monkeys, terrifying twisters and melting witches – they’re all here in MGM’s brilliant adaptation of L Frank Baum’s fantastical source material. Shirley Temple was originally considered for the lead role of Dorothy, a part Judy Garland made her own. Despite winning an Oscar for best song, Arlen and Harburg’s Over the Rainbow nearly hit the cutting room floor after studio execs worried that the sepia-toned Kansas scenes were too long, and younger kids wouldn’t understand the complex emotions of the lyrics.

5. Pather Panchali (1955, U)

Subir Banerjee in Pather Panchali
Subir Banerjee in Pather Panchali. Photograph: Lifestyle Pictures/Alamy

Satyajit Ray’s directorial debut won the best human document award at the 1956 Cannes film festival, and became a key text in the evolution of modern Indian cinema. Adapted from the novel by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, Ray’s film portrays the struggles and smiles of impoverished village life with clarity and compassion, aided by a wonderfully natural performance from young Subir Banerjee. The film was followed by Aparajito and Apur Sansar, which together form the acclaimed Apu trilogy.

6. The Red Balloon (1956, U)

Pascal Lamorisse in The Red Balloon.
Pascal Lamorisse in The Red Balloon. Photograph: Montsouris/Kobal/Shutterstock

Albert Lamorisse’s short French film follows the adventures of a young boy who finds a balloon that seems to have a mind of its own. A beacon of hope amid a darkened landscape, it’s an endlessly intriguing and inspiring slice of poetic postwar cinema. Lamorisse won an Oscar for best screenplay, becoming the only person ever to triumph in this category with a short film.

7. The 400 Blows (1959, PG)

Jean-Pierre Léaud in The 400 Blows
Jean-Pierre Léaud in The 400 Blows. Photograph: Ronald Grant

Jean-Pierre Léaud is the restless spirit who comes of age in François Truffaut’s nouvelle vague masterpiece. The French title, Les Quatre Cents Coups, refers to an expression meaning “to raise hell”, capturing the rebellious nature of Antoine Doinel, an alter ego character drawn in part from Truffaut’s own youthful experiences. Léaud would play Antoine in a succession of subsequent movies spanning two decades.

8. Mary Poppins (1964, U)

Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins
Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins. Photograph: Collection Christophel/Alamy

Adapted from the books of PL Travers (who was famously sceptical about the film), Robert Stevenson’s sublime Disney musical is, in my opinion, one of the 10 greatest movies ever made. Garnering a whopping 13 Oscar nominations, the film scored several wins, including best actress for Julie Andrews and best song for the Sherman brothers’ composition Chim Chim Cher-ee. But it’s the heartbreaking majesty of Feed the Birds that underpins the film’s most extraordinary sequence – musically, technically, and emotionally.

9. Kes (1969, PG)

David Bradley in Ken Loach’s Kes
David Bradley in Ken Loach’s Kes. Photograph: Moviestore/Rex/Shutterstock

Barry Hines’s novel A Kestrel for a Knave is brought to the screen with astonishing verisimilitude by Ken Loach in this masterpiece of British social-realist cinema. David “Dai” Bradley is the young Billy Caspar whose dreams take flight when he trains and tends to a bird that becomes his closest companion. Despite an unforgivingly downbeat ending, Kes remains essential viewing for anyone who believes in the transcendent power of honest art.

10. Dougal and the Blue Cat (1970/72, U)

A scene from Dougal and The Blue Cat
A scene from Dougal and the Blue Cat. Photograph: Ronald Grant

Originally released in France as Pollux et le Chat Bleu, this feature-length spinoff from The Magic Roundabout arrived in the UK with the voices of Eric Thompson and Fenella Fielding. Together they transform Serge Danot’s peculiar stop-motion animation into a brilliantly bizarre and eerily haunting oddity that continues to attract new generations of fans. No wonder Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker chose Florence’s Sad Song (a track from the movie) as one of his selections on Desert Island Discs.

Only on DVD (Second Sight Films)

11. The Amazing Mr Blunden (1972, U)

A scene from Lionel Jeffries’s big-screen adaptation of The Amazing Mr Blunden.
A scene from Lionel Jeffries’s big-screen adaptation of The Amazing Mr Blunden. Photograph: No credit

Writer-director Lionel Jeffries works pure screen wonder with Antonia Barber’s novel The Ghosts. When a family become housekeepers of a derelict mansion, time-travelling magic forges friendships across the ages. While Jeffries may be more celebrated for directing The Railway Children (one of the most enduring British children’s movies), this is his true masterpiece.

12. The Street (1976, PG)

A still from Caroline Leaf’s Oscar-nominated short film The Street
A still from Caroline Leaf’s Oscar-nominated short film The Street. Photograph: National Film Board of Canada

Produced by the National Film Board of Canada, Caroline Leaf’s Oscar-nominated short – a mere 10 minutes in length – uses paint on glass animation to bring Mordecai Richler’s story (which addresses the taboo subject of death) to life with empathy and wit. In a 2003 interview, Leaf said that the key to her adaptation was “to drop as much of the text as possible, putting the storytelling into the images”.

Free at

13. ET: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982, U)

A scene from ET: the Extra-Terrestrial
Henry Thomas’s Elliott flies high with his other-worldly friend in ET: The Extra-Terrestrial. Photograph: Everett Collection/Rex

This tearjerking tale of a young boy’s friendship with a stranded space alien may technically be a sci-fi movie, but it also represents a very personal account of director Steven Spielberg’s down-to-earth feelings of childhood isolation and anxiety following his parents’ divorce. A wonderful script by Melissa Mathison and a surging score by John Williams help this to pack a mighty emotional punch.

14. My Neighbour Totoro (1988, U)

Hayao Miyazaki’s 1988 film My Neighbour Totoro: ‘pan-generational appeal’.
Hayao Miyazaki’s 1988 film My Neighbour Totoro: ‘pan-generational appeal’. Photograph: Photo 12/Alamy

It’s hard to decide which of Hayao Miyazaki’s matchless animations to include in this list (Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle and Ponyo are all classics) but this 1988 Studio Ghibli offering about young children befriending forest spirits retains a special place in many viewers’ hearts. As with all of the Ghibli films, My Neighbour Totoro boasts the pan-generational appeal that has made Miyazaki’s works so popular.

Only on DVD (StudioCanal)

15. The Secret Garden (1993, U)

A scene from The Secret Garden
A scene from the film adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. Photograph: Sportsphoto/Alamy

Frances Hodgson Burnett’s book has inspired several movies, from a 1919 production starring Lila Lee to a forthcoming version written by Harry Potter and the Cursed Child playwright Jack Thorne. But Agnieszka Holland’s 1993 adaptation, which earned a supporting actress Bafta nomination for Maggie Smith, is a particular delight, hailed by Roger Ebert as “a work of beauty, poetry and deep mystery… like entering for a time into a closed world where one’s destiny may be discovered”.

16. Little Women (1994, U)

Winona Ryder in Little Women
Winona Ryder in Little Women. Photograph: Allstar/Alamy

Gillian Armstrong’s hugely likable adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s novel about the lives of the four March sisters earned Oscar nominations for Thomas Newman’s score, Colleen Atwood’s costumes, and Winona Ryder’s starring role as Jo March. First brought to the screen in the silent era, the novel has inspired films by such luminaries as George Cukor and Mervyn LeRoy, with a new version written and directed by Greta Gerwig due to open in the UK in the new year.

17. Kirikou and the Sorceress (1998, U)

A still from Kirikou and the Sorceress
A still from Kirikou and the Sorceress. Photograph: Handout

Youssou N’Dour provides the music for Michel Ocelot’s international co-production, an animated fable, inspired by a west African folk tale, about a young boy who takes on a sorceress terrorising his village. The BBFC, who rated the film U, note correctly that it contains “mild violence, peril and natural nudity” – the last of which reportedly caused problems in some territories.

Only on DVD (BFI)

18. Whale Rider (2002, PG)

Keisha Castle-Hughes in Whale Rider
Keisha Castle-Hughes in Whale Rider. Photograph: Sportsphoto/Alamy

Keisha Castle-Hughes shines in Niki Caro’s breakout New Zealand hit, based on the novel of the same name by Māori writer Witi Ihimaera. A young girl fights for the right to become the leader of her tribe – a role traditionally reserved for men. Castle-Hughes earned a best actress Oscar nomination, making her at the time the youngest ever nominee in that category (a record later broken by Quvenzhané Wallis for her performance in Beasts of the Southern Wild).

19. Bend It Like Beckham (2002, 12)

Parminder Nagra and Keira Knightley in Bend It Like Beckham.
Parminder Nagra and Keira Knightley in Bend It Like Beckham. Photograph: Allstar/BSKYB/Sportsphoto

It’s arguable that Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging, Gurinder Chadha’s 2008 adaptation of Louise Rennison’s teen novels, better suits the “children’s film” remit of this list. But her 2002 classic about the friendship between two young women (winningly played by Parminder Nagra and Keira Knightley) who bond on the football pitch seems even more pertinent today than it did when the film first came out. A hit with audiences and critics alike, Bend It Like Beckham spawned a stage musical and continues to inspire new viewers.

20. The Cave of the Yellow Dog (2005, U)

A scene from The Cave of the Yellow Dog
A scene from The Cave of the Yellow Dog. Photograph: Everett Collection/Alamy

Byambasuren Davaa, co-director of The Story of the Weeping Camel, returns to her Mongolian homeland for this blend of fact and fiction, centring on a family of hard-working nomads whose work-life cycles are defined by the rhythm of the seasons. Whether making cheese, dismantling their yurt or playing with dried dung (a highlight for the kids!) the Batchuluuns remind us that, trite as it may sound, life’s true joys lie in the simple things. A lovely movie with the power to engross, educate and entertain.

21. Like Stars on Earth (2007, PG)

A scene from Aamir Khan’s Taare Zameen Par
A scene from Aamir Khan’s Taare Zameen Par. Photograph: Taare Zameen Par

Originally entitled Taare Zameen Par, this hugely popular Indian drama, produced and directed by Aamir Khan, follows young Ishaan (Darsheel Safary) as he faces up to educational challenges. India’s submission for the 2009 foreign language film Oscar, Like Stars on Earth was picked up by Disney on DVD, bringing it to the attention of a worldwide audience.

22. Wadjda (2012, PG)

Waad Mohammed as Wadjda
Waad Mohammed as the eponymous heroine Wadjda. Photograph: Collection Christophel/Alamy

Waad Mohammed is terrific as the titular Saudi girl who enters a Koran recitation competition in the hope of raising the funds she needs to buy herself a coveted bicycle. Written and directed by Saudi Arabian film-maker Haifaa al-Mansour, this Bafta-nominated treat is a little miracle – a film that challenges rules and stereotypes with a lightness of touch that makes it accessible to all.

23. Queen of Katwe (2016, PG)

Madina Nalwanga in Mira Nair’s Queen of Katwe
Madina Nalwanga in Mira Nair’s Queen of Katwe. Photograph: Moviestore Collection/Alamy

Inspired by the true-life story of Phiona Mutesi, this uplifting film follows a young woman living in the slums of Uganda whose life is changed by her talent for chess. Madina Nalwanga, David Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong’o head up a very engaging ensemble cast with whom director Mira Nair works wonders (fun fact: Moonlight helmer Barry Jenkins was at one point in the running to direct).

24. The Red Turtle (2016, PG)

A still from the 2016 French-Japanese animated film The Red Turtle
A still from the 2016 French-Japanese animated film The Red Turtle. Photograph: Alamy

UK-based Dutch animator Michaël Dudok de Wit directs this Japanese-French-Belgian co-production – a first for Studio Ghibli. A poignant, wordless tale of a man shipwrecked on a desert island, it boasts a sublime simplicity that unifies its complex elements into a singular, universal voice. Eloquent, profound and moving, The Red Turtle benefits from a wonderful score by Laurent Perez del Mar that says more than words ever could.

25. The Breadwinner (2017, 12A)

A still from The Breadwinner
A still from The Breadwinner. Photograph: PR

Adapted from Deborah Ellis’s much-loved YA book, Nora Twomey’s beautifully animated tale of youthful fortitude in Taliban-era Afghanistan has something of the defiant feminist spirit of the French-Iranian gem Persepolis. When her father is imprisoned, young Parvana is forced to don’s men’s clothes in order to provide for her family. A brilliant Irish-Canadian-Luxembourgish co-production from Kilkenny’s Cartoon Saloon, the geniuses behind The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea.


Mark Kermode

The GuardianTramp

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