Streaming: the pick of the best children’s films for the summer holidays

Our critic surveys the streaming services’s current offerings to find the best family films – from Monsters, Inc to The Muppet Movie, Wolfwalkers to Wadjda

You’ve survived the heatwave, perhaps already been away, and still the school holidays stretch languidly into September, demanding plans and playdates and activities to fill the slowed summer hours. Sitting the kids in front of the TV for hours on end obviously shouldn’t be the only solution, but it needn’t be as passive as all that. A family film marathon can be a cheerfully sociable use of shared time – not to mention a cheap one, for parents burnt out on repeat cinema trips to Minions: The Rise of Gru. But which streaming platforms will serve you best this summer? And how few of them can you get away with subscribing to? Allow me to break down the best they have to offer.


The top option seems like a no-brainer: over the past century, Disney has evolved from a film studio into the key corporate influencer of childhood (and beyond, it seems, as adults’ thirst for Disney-branded superhero entertainment shows no sign of abating). A perverse part of me wants to tell you that Disney+ isn’t worth throwing monthly subscription fees into the coffers of a company that hardly needs the spare change. The more practical part sees how invaluable it is for parents of small children.

The highlights are obvious, beginning with the platform’s near-complete library of animated features from the Disney and Pixar stables. Perhaps the kids will insist on watching Frozen, Moana and Toy Story for the 17th time; perhaps you can wield your parental nostalgia rights and try out a classic that’s new to them. My own childhood loyalties compel me to plump for The Little Mermaid, though equally I’ve never seen a kid uncharmed by The Jungle Book. If you dare try Bambi, be mindful of the fact that it’s exactly as laceratingly sad as you remember.

Bambi, 1942.
Bambi, 1942. Disney/Allstar Photograph: Disney/Allstar

Should you be ready to move on to live action, large-scale musicals do the job just as well as when they were the four-quadrant blockbusters of the 1950s and 1960s. Disney+ has the essential pair of Julie Andrews vehicles. Mary Poppins, with its animated interludes, dash of teaching-moment suffragette politics and effectively bittersweet conclusion, is an ideal transitional film for young viewers, while The Sound of Music presents parents with a few more real-world complications to explain, but enough indelible songs and curtain-clad japery to make it all palatable.

Otherwise, the eternally endearing Muppets bridge the gap between juvenile whimsy and more grownup wit: Disney+ has 2011’s fresh, bouncy reboot The Muppets, but also 1979’s original The Muppet Movie, which plays just as spryly, and with more enduring songs. As for slightly older children willing to shed fantasy entirely, Robin Williams’s nearly 30-year-old smash Mrs Doubtfire remains antically funny and just rude enough, even if its gender politics haven’t aged quite as well as the star’s bravura performance. For quieter, thoughtful children, meanwhile, Mira Nair’s Queen of Katwe is among the Mouse House’s more underrated recent offerings. A stirring, kind-hearted true story of a Ugandan girl rising from poverty to international chess competitions, it’s like a sunnily wholesome Queen’s Gambit.

BBC iPlayer

For anyone unwilling to pay for Disney titles, the free BBC iPlayer has a couple of treats still on offer: Tom Holland’s first (and best) two outings as Spider-Man – Far from Home and Homecoming – are on the platform’s current film menu for the next two weeks, as is Monsters, Inc – still, for my money, one of the warmest and peppiest capers in the Pixar canon. Prefer to hit up the Beeb for more homegrown kids’ fare? You’re in luck: also on offer currently is Aardman Animations’ droll prehistoric comedy Early Man – no classic, but even Aardman’s boilerplate films have more character than most – and the original, still heart-lifting adaptation of The Railway Children, particularly well timed if you’ve been on a family outing to see the likable sequel in cinemas.


You can head to Netflix for the most deservedly beloved British family films of recent times. Paddington and Paddington 2, with their tender, visually inventive and occasionally riotous reinvention of Michael Bond’s bear-out-of-water tales, might just be the cream of the streamer’s children’s movies – though there’s a good deal to choose from, especially via their dedicated Netflix Kids platform. Netflix’s in-house animation has been particularly impressive of late. Last year’s zany The Mitchells vs the Machines, in which a dysfunctional family fights a robot apocalypse, was a clever, hyperactive delight; this year’s The Sea Beast, a rip-roaring, monster-hunting adventure on the high seas, sees them emulating classic Disney with splendid results. (No surprise there: director Chris Williams also gave us Moana.)

The Sea Beast. Netflix/AP
The Sea Beast: ‘rip-roaring adventure’. Netflix/AP Photograph: © 2022 Netflix, Inc.

Netflix’s real animation coup, however, is its exclusive streaming hold on the Studio Ghibli library, which caters to a usefully wide range of ages and sensibilities. For toddlers, the mellow, none-more-gentle My Neighbor Totoro is a safe bet, but older, more fanciful kids can thrill to the knottier, more perilous quest narratives of Spirited Away and the like.

Shifting back to American fare, there’s the robust, airborne adventure How to Train Your Dragon, and a number of worthwhile live-action titles, including the Bowie-starring neogoth fairytale Labyrinth, by now the source of multiple generations of childhood nightmares; Danny DeVito’s enduringly popular Americanisation of Roald Dahl’s Matilda; and the sensitive, rather sweet disability parable Wonder. Families with kids edging into teendom, meanwhile, can hardly do better than Greta Gerwig’s smashing, stout-hearted rejig of Little Women.

Apple TV+

Netflix’s subscription-based rivals lag somewhat behind in their family-friendly selections. Apart from the gorgeous, wild-spirited Irish animated folk fantasy Wolfwalkers and the attractively shot but unsurprising nature documentary The Elephant Queen, Apple TV+’s originals have largely passed over that market. At a push, you could also include this year’s dewy-eyed best picture Oscar winner Coda, an inclusive adolescent drama suitable for families who can handle a mild sex joke or two. Browsing the paid-VOD selections yields arguably richer rewards, among them Steven Spielberg’s still-luminous, somehow 40-year-old alien friendship tale ET the Extra-Terrestrial.

The ‘gorgeous, wild-spirited’ Wolfwalkers. Cartoon Saloon Photograph: Cartoon Saloon

Amazon Prime

Prime subscribers can stream Aardman’s gently irreverent Shaun the Sheep: The Movie and a pair of auteurist spins on Roald Dahl: Wes Anderson’s arch, stop-motion Fantastic Mr Fox and Nicolas Roeg’s sensational, viscerally macabre The Witches, as well as a buried gem from the 90s in John Sayles’s wistful, mistily atmospheric selkie tale The Secret of Roan Inish. But, as with Apple, you have to pay separately for some of the best picks: still, it’s worth a few extra quid for the marvellous farmyard romp Babe or the lavishly imagined, 80s-tastic fantasy trip The Neverending Story.

Best of the rest

On Sky/Now TV, subscribers have an easy solution in the full library of Harry Potter sagas, endlessly rewatchable to kids hooked on the mythos. But parents can also try out a solid-gold classic: now in its ninth decade, The Wizard of Oz continues to startle children with its transportive, iridescent world-building.

‘Heart-rending’: The Red Balloon.
‘Heart-rending’: The Red Balloon. Kobal/Shutterstock Photograph: Montsouris/Kobal/Shutterstock

Anyone wishing to go vintage with a more international bent can head to the free streaming platform Plex: their mixed bag of content somewhat surprisingly yields French film-maker Albert Lamorisse’s simple, lyrical and plainly heart-rending 1956 short The Red Balloon, which made me cry buckets aged five. Not much has changed.

Finally, at the arthouse end of the family-viewing spectrum, you might not expect to find anything for children on Mubi, but for adventurous parents and open-minded young ones, there are discoveries to be made. Children old enough to read subtitles would do well to try out the empathic, child’s-eye social realism of Saudi charmer Wadjda, while the stop-motion French animation My Life as a Courgette hits a rare balance between adult wisdom and youthful innocence in its portrait of a lonely misfit child finding comfort and community in a rural orphanage. Pair it with some surreal, mirthful wackiness from the platform’s selection of Hungarian animated shorts: Scenes With Beans will tickle kids with a penchant for the bizarre.

Over on the similarly highbrow BFI Player, two outstanding films fill that tricky gap for emotionally mature children gradually crossing into grownup storytelling. Spanish director Carla Simón’s vibrant, suitably seasonal coming-of-age drama Summer 1993 tackles complex themes of grief and self-worth with a soft, sure touch. Also set over a young girl’s formative summer, meanwhile, Céline Sciamma’s impeccable Tomboy offers an ideal entry point into a 21st-century understanding of gender identity, without ever feeling like a message movie. Who’s to say you can’t sneak a little learning into a summer movie marathon?

New this week on streaming and DVD

(Modern Films)
The winner of last year’s Caméra d’Or for best debut at Cannes, Croatian director Antoneta Alamat Kusijanović’s sun-bleached but steel-cool psychodrama promises big things from its Scorsese-endorsed writer-director, but isn’t out to show off. It’s the dry, watchful quiet that lingers in this study of a restless teenager caught between her oppressive father and an alluring, agenda-carrying stranger.

The Emigrants.
‘Compelling, old-fashioned sweep’: The Emigrants. Photograph: Film PR handout undefined

The Emigrants
Vilhelm Moberg’s literary saga of a Swedish immigrant farming family finding its way in the New World was rousingly filmed by Jan Troell in the 1970s. Norwegian director Erik Poppe’s new version retains its compelling, old-fashioned sweep and doubles down on the panoramic magic-hour visuals, but hasn’t quite its predecessor’s earthy soul.

The Outfit
(Spirit Entertainment)
As a humble but perceptive English tailor to the brassy gangsters of midcentury Chicago, Mark Rylance’s wry, dignified performance is the main attraction of this underworld chamber drama from Oscar-winning writer Graham Moore (The Imitation Game), which feels like it might have popped more as a stage piece.


Guy Lodge

The GuardianTramp

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