Jesse Cowell/My Damn Channel
June 23, 2014 at 06:39 PM EDT
Giovanni Rufino/The CW

20th Century Fox[/caption]

There are people out there who have never seen The Princess Bride. They walk among us, holding down jobs, contributing to society, and generally living happy, semi-fulfilled lives. But whisper a perfectly-timed “mawage” in their direction during a wedding, and the resulting blank stare or awkward chuckle will expose an inconceivable pop-cultural blind spot. Someone failed them when they were growing up.

In many ways it’s too late for them, but we can still save the next generation. The 55 Essential Movies Kids Must Experience (Before They Turn 13) is a starting point. This isn’t a list of the 55 “best” kids movies, nor a compendium of hidden gems. Rather, it’s a survival-guide syllabus of films that we all need to know to be able to speak the same pop-cultural language, listed in order by when they might be best introduced. It starts with a film that is a perfect introduction to the cinematic universe and ends with one that is an ideal capper before graduating into the world of PG-13 and R movies—and the age when kids begin to make their own theater decisions.

These are the cinematic building blocks for future film connoisseurs, movie-literate enthusiasts who can gracefully segue from a George Bailey impression into a spirited debate over whether Han Solo shot first. The important stuff.

Start with:

1. The Muppet Movie (1979)

G, 95 mins., directed by James Frawley

Starring the Muppets, Charles Durning

The Muppets are a perfect place to start a child’s pop-cultural education, and it’s crucial to baptize them with the original Jim Henson production before diving into the two most recent sequels. From the moment Kermit sings “The Rainbow Connection” from a log in his swamp—a song you’ll never grow weary of hearing your youngster sing over and over again—to the cross-country Hollywood adventure where he first meets his Muppet friends and eludes a ruthless fast-food schemer (Durning), The Muppet Movie is a kind of brilliant gateway-drug to all the wonderful things that movies can be. It’s hilarious, clever, sweet, musical, and full of love and friendship, and the only one happier than your child watching the Muppets for the first time will be you watching them laugh and smile at all the right moments. Kids will love it when they’re 4 years old, and love it even more—or at least in a different, deeper way—when they’re 12. —Jeff Labrecque

2. Toy Story (1995)

G, 81 mins., directed by John Lasseter

Starring the voices of Tom Hanks and Tim Allen

Hook ’em on Toy Story now so they can feel appropriately gut-punched when you give them Toy Story 3 in 15 years. Kidding! (Kinda.) But seriously, folks: When your child watches Pixar’s very first feature for the very first time, there’s a good chance they’ll be shocked to find that the TV’s been reading their mind. (Expect lots of very amusing attempts to “catch” toys coming to life after the kid has left his or her room.) And even as it inspires children’s imaginations to run wild, Toy Story also introduces kids to important entertainment tropes like mismatched odd couples (Buzz and Woody, voiced to perfection by Allen and Hanks), wisecracking leading men (Woody again), cultural references (that will go sailing over their heads), catchphrases (“To infinity, and beyond!”), and (delightfully done) product placement. It’s also fast-paced and jam-packed enough to reward repeat viewing—a good thing, considering how often they’ll want to watch it. Bonus: It’s never too early to fall in love with Randy Newman. —Hillary Busis

3. How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966)

Unrated, 26 mins., directed by Chuck Jones

Starring the voice of Boris Karloff

Children will encounter grinches of all sorts in their lifetimes—in other movies, at school, at work, you!—so it’s imperative they know the original green killjoy whose shoes were too tight. (They might even eventually stumble across Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and make a literary connection.) Based on Dr. Seuss’ classic Whoville-set story, it’s one of the most beloved Christmas TV specials, and Boris Karloff’s delicious narration will permanently imprint the short-film’s best lines on the childhood subconscious. You don’t necessarily need to outright ban the 2000 version with Jim Carrey, but introducing that mediocre live-action adaptation first is grounds for coal in your stocking. —JL

4. Babe (1995)

G, 89 mins., directed by Chris Noonan

Starring James Cromwell, Magda Szubanski, and the voice of Christine Cavanaugh

Babe contains a great moral lesson hidden under the distractions of adorable talking farm animals: stay true to yourself and stick up for others who are doing the same thing. It teaches kids that families can come in all shapes, sizes, and breeds, and that the little guy—in this case, a runt pig who wants to herd sheep—doesn’t always finish last. But Babe isn’t essential just because of its Kindergarten 101 life lessons; it’s a watershed emotional viewing experience due to the ripping apart of animal families, and a building-block movie for pop-cultural references that will last a lifetime. “Christmas means carnage!” is an anti-holiday call to arms, while “That’ll do, pig” forever warms hearts young and old. —Jake Perlman

5. Mary Poppins (1964)

G, 139 mins., directed by Robert Stevenson

Starring Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke, David Tomlinson

Though the backstory of why Mary Poppins exists on the big screen is more fraught than even the purported biopic can bear, the truth is, what ended up on screen became something else. It’s a classic charmer that belongs to the generations, and it’s practically perfect in every way—from its sing-along qualities (you know you need your children to latch on to a non-Frozen song at some point) to the relatability of being a kid just trying to get the attention of too-busy parents. Julie Andrews will inevitably play a major role in your child’s first decade of life, and they may even be intrigued by this whole “fly a kite” concept by the end. —Lindsey Bahr

6. Beauty and the Beast (1991)

G, 90 mins., directed by Gary Trousdale, Kirk Wise

Starring the voices of Paige O’Hara and Robby Benson

Chronologically, Belle comes after Ariel and decades after the original Disney princesses, like Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty. But if because your daughter is going to be indoctrinated by the Disney princess marketing machine, Belle is the place to start. Fiercely independent and with a great love of books, she’s a princess role-model parents can endorse. Plus, the first animated film to be nominated by the Academy for Best Picture features phenomenal, show-stopping music—“Be Our Guest,” “Beauty and the Beast”—making the film not only an essential building-block for the budding animation connoisseur, but a top-notch introduction to movie musicals. —Erin Strecker

7. The Little Mermaid (1989)

G, 83 mins., directed by Ron Clements and John Musker

Starring the voices of Jodi Benson, Samuel E. Wright, Pat Carroll

Your little one may not know or care that this dazzling animated musical ushered in the beginning of Disney’s fabled Renaissance period, but the kid will find him or herself spellbound by its feisty heroine (Benson’s Ariel, inspiring legions of girls to yearn for red hair), fearsome villain (Carroll’s Ursula, one of the most delightfully devious evildoers in the Disney canon), and, most of all, its insta-classic songs, which make up what may be the studio’s most flawless soundtrack ever. The Little Mermaid also contains one of Disney’s most underrated sequences: “Les Poissons,” designed to instill a lifelong fascination with French silliness. Just make sure to explain after watching that 16’s actually a little young to consider marriage, and it’ll be smooth sailing—er, swimming. —HB

8. Finding Nemo (2003)

G, 100 mins., directed by Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich

Starring the voices of Albert Brooks, Ellen DeGeneres, Alexander Gould

If Finding Nemo isn’t the best Pixar movie, it might be the most beautiful one. The undersea world is a dizzyingly glorious, vast universe of its own, filled with creatures of every shape and color. It’s in this world that a desperate father, a clown fish named Marlin (Brooks, as neurotically funny and emotionally convincing as he is in his live-action films), ventures into in order to find his missing son, Nemo. Partnering up with memory-challenged, ever-quotable Dory (DeGeneres), Marlin navigates sharks—one winkingly named Bruce (See: The Making of Jaws)—jellyfish, and laid-back turtles; while Nemo and some hardened “inmates” plot a great escape from a dentist-office fish-tank. Bonus: Your child will learn how to speak whale. —Jacob Shamsian

9. The Red Balloon (1956)

Unrated, 34 mins., directed by Albert Lamorisse

Starring Pascal Lamorisse

Pixar is all over this list, so instead of Up, look back to this delectable near-silent French short film, which clearly inspired the image of a man being carried away by a rainbow bouquet of balloons. Despite its dearth of dialogue and its foreign setting, expect young viewers to be enchanted by the charming “friendship” between a balloon and a boy, who has to defend his poppable pet from a bunch of bullies. The final airborne sequence alone will send imaginations soaring. —JL

10. Pinocchio (1940)

G, 88 mins., directed by Ben Sharpsteen and Hamilton Luske, et al.

Starring the voices of Dickie Jones, Christian Rub, Cliff Edwards

Not only is Pinocchio the perfect vehicle to teach a child the importance of telling the truth, it’s an excellent film to crack open the darker corners of their imaginations as well. From a wooden puppet who comes to life, to adventures inside a whale and on an island of misbehaving boys-turned-jackasses, Disney’s version of the Italian fairy tale mixes unnerving visuals with fantastical highlights that became Disney trademarks. With Jiminy Cricket, children meet the voice that will keep them out of trouble, and when he sings, “When You Wish Upon a Star,” they’ll hear the song that launched a billion-dollar empire. —JP

11. Annie (1982)

G, 127 mins., directed by John Huston

Starring Aileen Quinn, Carol Burnett, Albert Finney

Critics were never big fans of this big-screen adaptation of the hit Broadway play, but generations of kids have overruled that initial verdict. Annie is a chance to see dire—if glossed over—economic conditions through the eyes of children who may be hungry and unloved but still have enough energy to sing some catchy tunes, including the much-loved “It’s a Hard-Knock Life.” And Carol Burnett as the boozy, lonely den mother of the dilapidated orphanage may be a kid’s first introduction to a sympathetic villain. —Nicole Sperling

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