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Categories: Features

Everyone in the film industry seems to be looking for the ultimate “family film” with something for every age and level of humour, something that maximises a family trip to the cinema.

Disney, Pixar, DreamWorks and Tim Burton amongst many have built long reputations on their ability to keep all ages entertained. Some are adaptations of children’s classic novels and stories, while others break the mould by creating totally new characters and stories.

There are many films that have been made over the last 80 years that remain perennial favourites. Here are just a few examples:

  • Charlotte’s Web
  • Happy Feet
  • Ice Age
  • The Railway children
  • Harry Potter x 8
  • Wind in the willows
  • Frozen
  • Winnie the Pooh
  • The Jungle Book
  • Mary Poppins
  • Willie Wonker & the Chocolate Factory (two versions)
  • Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
  • Peter Pan
  • Tangled
  • Wizard of OZ
  • The Secret Garden
  • ET
  • Neverending Story
  • Sleeping Beauty
  • Snow white
  • Beauty and the Beast
  • Toy Story x 3
  • Up
  • Brave
  • Lion King
  • How to train your dragon
  • Bugsy Malone
  • Nightmare before Xmas
  • Jumanji
  • Coraline
  • The Addams Family x 3
  • Babe
  • BMX Bandits
  • Who framed Roger Rabbit?
  • Stuart Little
  • Labyrinth
  • Explorers
  • Princess Bride
  • Flights of the Navigator
  • Legend
  • The Jungle Book
  • Fairytale: a true story (the best ever live fairies)
  • Into the west
  • Spiderwick Chronicles

What makes a successful family film?

The story must appeal to a child’s sense of fun and adventure. Obviously it’s got to have children in it, facing terrible challenges or dilemmas with some of them representing out-of-this-world situations. Alternatively it has kids or characters in animal form such as in Happy Feet or Ice Age.

At all times, the characters must react and behave in a way that children recognise (not an adult’s view of childhood). However, adults can be child-like (George of the Jungle), child-friendly (Mary Poppins) and child haters (The Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang)child catcher

A family film also needs cuteness, whether that’s kid actors, dewy-eyed cuddly creatures or just an engaging story. That’s got to be balanced and antagonised by real world cruelty, ugliness and misfortune, provided by baddies, meanies and big scary things. Otherwise it’s gopping, saccharine-coated and quite frankly boring. If there is blood, guts and slime too, it all helps. Good and evil, happy and sad, there must be contrasts.

Magical realism and super powers are other useful ingredients.  The kids in ET escape because they can fly, Harry Potter’s a wizard, Princess Elsa in Frozen has ice queen issues etc.


What’s vital is that there are layers of comedy and entertainment for all ages, so children’s films are sprinkled with adult references to keep the grown-ups awake.

There’s usually a great song

Characters in family films often spontaneously break into song especially in animations, but this is fantasy so you go with it.

Some film historians claim that the Hollywood musical live on in children’s movies as a result, attracting some of today’s finest composers and performers who scoop a ton of awards along the way.

Happy ever after

Small children will happily cry through films because they are enjoying it. But everyone needs to leave a family film feeling uplifted by a satisfactory and happy ending that’s been properly earned. Tragedies just don’t cut it for kids – and it takes ages to cheer them up again.

How much is the film just a 90-minute commercial for the merchandising?

It’s a cynical view.

Children love to watch the same film again and again, learning the words, singing the songs, being part of it.

But they also like the merchandising, costumes, games and toys that seem to be the staple of every big family blockbuster. It’s big business.

BRAVE merch

Currently relying on animation and grown ups

It’s an odd statistic but in 2013, not one of the top 10 family films starred a live child in the leading role but featured either an adult or an animated character instead.

Coming to a cinema near you soon

Currently many family-friendly features are in some state of production including:

  • The Adventures of Tin Tin: Prisoners of the Sun
  • The Huntsman (sequel to Snow White & the Huntsman)
  • 2000 leagues under the sea: Captain Nemo
  • The 5th Wave (teenager vs. aliens)
  • The Brave Little Toaster
  • Alice Through the Looking Glass
  • The Jungle Book (Dir. Andy Serkis)
  • Pan (another Peter Pan spin off)
  • A Monster Calls
  • Puss in Boots II
  • The Little Prince
  • Why killed Nelson Nutmeg? (a crowd-funded live action indie filming now in Dorset – http://www.nelsonnutmeg.com/)

Only time will tell if they make it into the all-time greatest family films as well.

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