By EW Staff
June 23, 2014 at 06:39 PM EDT
Jesse Cowell/My Damn Channel
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

12. The Kid (1921)

Unrated, 68 mins., directed by Charlie Chaplin

Starring Charlie Chaplin, Jackie Coogan

Don’t let your kids go through life just generally knowing Charlie Chaplin as the guy with the Hitler mustache. Give them the foundation to understanding and appreciating cinema history with one of Chaplin’s most personal and accessible films. Chaplin’s Tramp—also an essential film icon—finds an abandoned baby on the streets and raises him as his own. The growing boy (Coogan) helps the Tramp with his window-repair business by smashing the windows in town, until events ultimately threaten their scheme and relationship. Storytelling may be more sophisticated now, but this film holds up as a brisk dramatic, comedic, and, ultimately enormously entertaining glimpse into Chaplin’s status as the consummate performer. And, as all parents know, silence is golden. —LB

13. WALL•E (2008)

G, 98 mins., directed by Andrew Stanton

Starring the voices of Ben Burtt, Elissa Knight, Jeff Garlin

Want your child to someday appreciate the vision of Kubrick’s 2001 and the sublime magic of Buster Keaton’s silent classics? Look no further than the geniuses at Pixar, who managed to create a simple, elegant tale of love and hope within a bleak dystopia with their earnest, Hello, Dolly-loving trash-collecting robot. With the manic punchline-a-minute tendencies of many modern animated films, WALL•E‘s nearly silent opening 30 minutes may seem daunting, but most children are transfixed from the start and exercising movie-watching muscles they never flexed before. The movie is a fable of wastefulness and endurance with an extraordinarily poignant truth at its heart. They’ll be ready for A Space Odyssey in no time. —LB

14. The Sound of Music (1965)

G, 174 mins., directed by Robert Wise

Starring Julie Andrews, Christopher Plummer

Forget Carrie Underwood. Get your kids in front of this classic, stat! Made in the heyday of the Hollywood musical, this sweet, heartwarming tale of the singing von Trapp family and their escape from the Nazis in WWII-era Austria has endured the test of time. Julie Andrews’ aspiring-nun-turned-supernanny is the heart of the film, transforming a militant household into a charming, caring family unit through unforgettable songs like “My Favorite Things,” “Do-Re-Mi,” and “Edelweiss,” and some inventive uses of curtains. It might not have much of edge—despite the whole Nazi business—but a childhood with a Sound of Music blind spot is worse than a dog bite, worse than a bee sting, worse than feeling sad. —LB

15. The Lion King (1994)

G, 88 mins., directed by Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff

Starring the voices of Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Matthew Broderick, James Earl Jones, Jeremy Irons

Table those academic discussions about how The Lion King is a Disneyfied version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and just let the kids soak up the incredible opening “Circle of Life” sequence, with gorgeous, old-school animation impressions of a lush African animal kingdom. Though most kids will by now be familiar with Disney’s tradition of untimely parental deaths, Mufasa’s violent demise isn’t hidden off-screen, making the drama that much more powerful. So expect some healthy tears to go along with all the music and laughter as Simba decides “to be or not to be” the lion king. —ES

16. The Wizard of Oz (1939)

PG, 102 mins., directed by Victor Fleming

Starring Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, Margaret Hamilton  

Sure, the shift from drab, gray-on-gray Kansas to glorious, Technicolor Oz is a metaphor for the magic of filmmaking itself—but this quintessentially American fairy tale is even more important as a sort of Urtext for references. Toto, the Wicked Witch of the West, the ruby slippers, the Yellow Brick Road, the Lollipop Guild, the Flying Monkeys, “Over the Rainbow,” “If I Only Had a Brain,” “There’s no place like home,” “We’re not in Kansas anymore,” “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain,” “Lions and tigers and bears, oh my,” “I’m melting! I’m melting!”—every facet of Oz has been endlessly recycled, revamped, and recontextualized. If it didn’t have a few scary sequences, this would be the perfect gateway film for a budding cinephile; as it is, expose the kid when he or she is slightly older, but still young enough to have a whole lifetime of Wizard rewatching ahead. —HB

17. Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

G, 103 mins., directed by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly

Starring Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, Debbie Reynolds

The magic and spectacle of the movies is all tied up in this epic musical romp, which manages to boast a subversive sense of humor and detached skepticism toward the same industry that’s somehow wrapped in a loving gaze. This is a movie about loving movies, and its energy vibrates from end-to-end, with the charm and charisma of Gene Kelly, rubber-faced Donald O’Connor, and a 19-year-old Debbie Reynolds. O’Connor is practically his own special-effect, showcasing his athleticism and showmanship in the riotous vaudevillian number “Make ’em Laugh.” Shrill-sounding Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) demonstrates the infectious silliness of the talkie learning curve, but it’s Kelly’s buoyant dance with an umbrella that makes Rain an enduring must-see. —LB

18. Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

Unrated, 96 mins., directed by George Seaton

Starring Maureen O’Hara, Natalie Wood, Edmund Gwenn, John Payne

Yes, Virginia, there is a Christmas movie that isn’t made-for-TV holiday dreck. Miracle on 34th Street earned its place in film history thanks to a sweet but not overly sappy script, memorable scenes, and strong performances: Maureen O’Hara as a tough-nosed career woman (practically revolutionary for the time), a pint-sized Natalie Wood as her similarly no-nonsense child, John Payne as O’Hara’s love interest, and Edmund Gwenn’s indelible portrayal of Kris Kringle. Sure, there’s a message about believing in something even when it goes against logic, the over-commercialization of Christmas, and raising children properly, but Miracle on 34th Street conveys them with a wink and good humor, not a saccharine sledgehammer. —Kyle Ryan

19. The Iron Giant (1999)

PG, 86 mins., directed by Brad Bird

Starring the voices of Eli Marienthal, Jennifer Aniston, Harry Connick, Jr., Vin Diesel

At a time when animation was synonymous with Disney, and Pixar was revolutionizing the look of the genre, Warner Bros. tried to break into the field with The Iron Giant, a hand-drawn box-office flop that nevertheless made a lasting mark. Directed by Brad Bird, who later made The Incredibles and Ratatouille, Giant tells the story a lonely boy searching for a father figure and the gentle metal giant targeted by the U.S. government. Their friendship—and touching farewell—evokes a certain Spielberg classic, but Giant distinguishes itself with a different take on the Cold War sci-fi movies of the 1950s, taking the tropes and paranoid social attitudes from that era and putting them into a kid’s film. —JS

20. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

PG, 115 mins., directed by Steven Spielberg

Starring Henry Thomas, Drew Barrymore, Peter Coyote

E.T. will likely be every child’s first close encounter with Steven Spielberg and John Williams, two artists who will define the look and sound of the movies that will fill imaginations throughout adolescence. Think of the Spielberg Face, and the swelling Williams scores that will take them over the moon again and again. Spielberg’s classic, which tells the story of an unexpected friendship between a lonely child of divorce and a frightened left-behind alien, is simple and universal. Sprinkled with references to The Wizard of Oz, E.T. became an all-time classic in its own right. Special effects have come a long way since 1982, but when Elliott’s bike wheels leave the ground for the first time, that little gasp you hear from your wide-eyed child will remind you why movies were invented. —JL

21. Elf (2003)

PG, 97 mins., directed by Jon Favreau

Starring Will Ferrell, James Caan, Zooey Deschanel

Just seeing the oversize Will Ferrell in his green fur-lined Elf costume elicits chuckles, and his childlike antics—downing an entire liter of Coke and burping like a sailor, spinning wildly in a hotel’s revolving doors—will have your youngster doubling over with hysterics. Elf is a perfect example of silly for silliness sake, wrapped in a holiday package that generates such joy—not unlike the goofy joy Buddy the Elf brings to the hardened New Yorkers—that it’s as much fun in July as December. —NS

22. How to Train Your Dragon (2010)

PG, 98 mins., directed by Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders

Starring the voices of Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrera

Hiccup is no warrior. Compared to everyone else in his viking village, he’s skinny, sarcastic, and maybe even a little too smart. But when Hiccup befriends an injured dragon, Toothless, instead of killing it, he changes the lives of everyone he knows forever. Not that keeping a dragon as a pet is without its dangers. Unlike most animated movies, this hero isn’t invincible and even courageous risks have real consequences. This is a kids movie with one prosthetic foot planted firmly in the adult world. —JS

23. Star Wars (1977)

PG, 121 mins., directed by George Lucas

Starring Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Alec Guinness

You’ve prepared your child with imagination-building fantasy: Now it’s time to completely blow their mind. The first Star Wars presents the young moviegoer with one of the most lavishly realized fictional universes in movie history: Elaborate spaceships, attention-grabbing creatures, and most of all, sharply-drawn characters. And the inquisitive youngster might skip right along to The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, in the process developing an understanding for the kind of long-form story arcs that define basically every popular art form today. Warning: Showing them Star Wars probably means suffering through the fact that your kids will like the prequels more than you. —Darren Franich

24. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001)

PG, 152 mins., directed by Chris Columbus

Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint

You could introduce Potter before Star Wars, but why not delay just a tad so that the entire family can race through J.K. Rowling’s magical books first? For more than a decade, the Potter phenomenon captivated readers and movie audiences worldwide, and made us believe, and emotionally invest in, this wondrous world filled with wizards, Dementors, and goblins. It’s hard to imagine a child today not knowing the secrets of Hogwarts, the basic rules of Quidditch, and the name of he who must not be named. Harry was an orphan who never knew he was special, yet every kid will revel in his adventure. —Chancellor Agard

25. Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985)

PG, 90 mins., directed by Tim Burton

Starring Paul Reubens, Elizabeth Daily

Reubens’ Pee-Wee Herman schtick seems quaint now, but his outsize outsider persona remains 100 percent singular. It’s easy to get lost in Big Adventure’s Technicolor mania, and for all the classic schoolyard taunts (“I know you are, but what am I?”), there’s a deeply positive underlying message about not being afraid to express who you are—even if that drives you to dance to “Tequila” in a biker bar. Big Adventure is also an ideal set of training wheels for kids who are ready for a slightly more mature approach, as director Tim Burton slips in a tiny bit of Goth nightmare fuel that will appeal to the more adventurous. —Kyle Anderson

26. March of the Penguins (2005)

G, 80 mins., directed by Luc Jacquet

Narrated by Morgan Freeman

Narratives about the frailty of life are all over most Disney animated classics, and Penguins takes that approach and kicks it up a notch by turning the cameras on actual animals walking around in the wild. This film has a lot going for it: It’s deeply pretty to look at, features a cast of super-cute Arctic birds, and is narrated by the Voice of God himself (which is soothing no matter how old you are). It could also introduce your offspring to the wonders of documentary storytelling, and in a pinch, could act as a birds-and-bees conversation starter in case those issues are starting to come up. —KA

27. Home Alone (1990)

PG, 103 mins., directed by Chris Columbus

Starring Macaulay Culkin, Joe Pesci, Daniel Stern

Being left behind is every kid’s nightmare. Home Alone taps into that fear—with Macauley Culkin all alone at home after his entire harried family accidentally leaves for Paris without him—but then turns it into a hilarious, fun-filled celebration of unsupervised freedom. The adorable kid isn’t as helpless as he seems, and when two Wily E. Coyote-caliber robbers (Pesci and Stern) target his neighborhood, he turns his house into a giant Rube Goldberg machine of traps. The violence leaves marks, but it’s Three Stooges cartoonish. Plus, when your kids are older and they discover Martin Scorsese films, they’ll recognize Tommy DeVito as one of the Wet Bandits. —JS

28. The Black Stallion (1979)

G, 118 mins., directed by Carroll Ballard

Starring Kelly Reno, Mickey Rooney, Teri Garr

The Black Stallion combines the ever-popular lost-kid and beloved-pet movie sub-genres for one of the most winning and visually splendid films on this list. Though it’s rated G, the plight of young Alex (Reno)—whose ship sinks, father dies, and is stranded on a deserted island with a wild horse—has real weight, and this is a movie that never condescends to its younger audience. Stallion might be the best child/animal friendship movie ever made—a category of films that typically aims for only slightly above mediocrity—in part because it simply looks so beautiful, courtesy of cinematographer Caleb Deschanel. —JL

29. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)

G, 89 mins., directed by Mel Stuart

Starring Gene Wilder, Jack Albertson, Peter Ostrum

Skip Tim Burton’s 2005 remake and steer your children to this version, which so faithfully captures the spirit of Roald Dahl’s magical book, especially when it’s depicting the insufferable children who so badly want into Wonka’s factory but violate all the ethics required to stay there. This movie is a trip, primarily because of Wilder’s imaginative-yet-controlled performance as the eccentric Wonka, and the psychedelic Oompa-Loompa musical numbers remain an imperative childhood reference point. —NS

30. Yellow Submarine (1968)

G, 85 mins., directed by George Dunning

Starring the Beatles

This is what we call a twofer: Not only do kids get exposed to the idea that animation doesn’t just have to be all princesses and talking animals, but they also get their first taste of the definitive rock band. If anybody can really tell what’s going on in the story, that person would be the first, but Yellow Submarine is the easiest way to get your kids to stop singing “The Wheels on the Bus” and replace it with gems like “All You Need Is Love.” Should your kid immediately gravitate toward “Eleanor Rigby,” however, be warned: You’ve got a budding music blogger who will soon be graduating to Abbey Road. —KA

31. Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)

PG, 104 mins., directed by Robert Zemeckis

Starring Bob Hoskins, Christopher Lloyd, Kathleen Turner

Many kids movies trade in irony, but few face it as directly as the half-animated, half-live-action Roger Rabbit. Built around the odd-coupling of a toon-hating detective (Hoskins) and a cartoon rabbit, much of Roger Rabbit’s humor sends up the physics and slapstick of classic animation by contrasting it to a grim live-action world. It’s the perfect movie for the kid who wants to act like an adult, and has started to make fun of the “childish” things he or she used to treasure. But in its embrace of animation, Roger Rabbit also undermines the impulse to believe that mature things (and mediums) are more valuable, potentially throwing young sarcastics off their guard. Eddie Valiant fights for Toontown after all—and Roger Rabbit reminds us that when we grow out of old favorites, we don’t have to leave them behind. —Jackson McHenry

32. The Incredibles (2004)

PG, 115 mins., directed by Brad Bird

Starring the voices of Craig T. Nelson, Samuel L. Jackson, Holly Hunter

The Incredibles ranks among Pixar’s best for the way it cannily satirizes some of the most iconic genres in cinema history. Rarely does a minute of screen time pass without an allusion to superhero or spy movie tropes, subtle references that seem to grow in number with every subsequent viewing (particularly if the other movies on this list get consumed in the interim). But what separates the film from outright parody—and anchors it as a compelling narrative in its own right—is its undercurrent of Tom Perrotta-esque middle-class, middle-aged angst. It’s a fantastical mish-mash of genre blockbusters that also happens to have a soul. —Neil Janowitz

33. The LEGO Movie (2014)

PG, 100 mins., directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller

Starring Will Ferrell and the voices of Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett

Now that your kid is familiar with classic Chosen One tales like Star Wars and Harry Potter, it’s time to teach ’em the pleasures of dissecting those very stories—then reassembling them to form something awesome. The LEGO Movie is a veritable trope stew, both a smart-mouthed send-up of blockbuster clichés and a gleeful adherent to them. It’s an antic, child-friendly way to introduce the joys of parodies like Airplane! or Blazing Saddles, as well as a relentlessly innovative film about the joys of relentless innovation. Bonus: The movie’s mind-bending ending is the perfect preparation for the complicated meta-realities your mini-cineast will encounter once she moves on to the works of Charlie Kaufman. Which should be any day now. —HB

34. The Princess Bride (1987)

PG, 98 mins., directed by Rob Reiner

Starring Cary Elwes, Robin Wright, Mandy Patinkin, Billy Crystal

Sure there’s a princess, pirates, an evil prince, true love, sword fighting, and giants, but The Princess Bride is a fairy tale for the meta-age. Your boys might initially resist this now-classic based on the title alone, but Peter Falk quickly squashes that gendered prejudice as he convinces his video-game-playing grandson to give the story a chance. When things get scary or unsure, Falk’s narrator steps in. When the kissing and the cheesiness start, the kid (Fred Savage) interrupts with an eye-roll. The tale within the tale is just as delightful, from Mandy Patinkin’s vengeance-seeking Inigo Montoya to Wallace Shawn’s scheming Vizzini. There will never be another Wizard of Oz, but Princess Bride might be its cooler, funnier older cousin. —LB

35. The Goonies (1985)

PG, 114 mins., directed by Richard Donner

Starring Sean Astin, Corey Feldman, Anne Ramsey, Josh Brolin, Corey Feldman

Something more than Gen X/Y nostalgia has propelled The Goonies to one of the most beloved adventure-comedies of all time. Whereas family or kids’ films now seem reticent to portray kids as they actually are—complex, occasionally foul-mouthed, and smarter than they get credit for—this rag-tag gang offers something more relatable. They’re kids from a variety of backgrounds, all faced with a challenge that’s all but insurmountable. Although it gets sentimental toward the end, Richard Donner’s film (based on Stephen Spielberg’s story and Chris Columbus’ screenplay) is an endlessly enjoyable adventure, full of highly quotable dialogue, great characters, and a surprisingly keen understanding of the traumas of adolescence. —KR

36. A Christmas Story (1983)

PG, 94 mins., directed by Bob Clark

Starring Peter Billingsley, Melinda Dillon, and Darren McGavin

If you’ve never seen A Christmas Story, then you must celebrate the holidays in Amish country. A staple during 24-hour Christmas Day TV marathons, the coming-of-age comedy balances slightly darker humor with an honest story of figuring out how to love your family when you’re still too young to know how or why. It’s like a classic Norman Rockwell painting—if said painting included a campy leg-lamp and pink bunny pajamas. Also, since it’s being told from the perspective of the protagonist as an older man—the comforting narration of Jean Shepherd—it also teaches the lesson that with enough time, something you once hated can stick with you for life. And I’m not just talking about a frozen flagpole. —JP

37. West Side Story  (1961)

Unrated, 152 mins., directed by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise

Starring Natalie Wood, George Chakiris, Rita Moreno

Musicals aren’t all singin’ in the rain and singin’ under the sea and singin’ while fleeing the Nazis on foot across the Alps. They can also be weighty, dramatic, and dark—and sometimes, they don’t come with a pat happy ending. Enter West Side Story, perhaps the finest movie musical ever made—a modernized Romeo and Juliet that shifts the action from fair Verona to the streets of New York City circa 1957. Although our list thus far has included plenty of indelible musical scores—admittedly, none finer than Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s work here—West Side Story can also serve as an introduction to the wonders of dance choreography, courtesy of Robbins’ poetic street ballets. —HB

38. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

Unrated, 130 mins., directed by Frank Capra

Starring Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore

A stealth missile that needs to be launched into every young child’s cultural development. It’s a Wonderful Life is one of the darkest bright movies ever made: The fact that it’s a Christmas movie only barely ameliorates how the movie turns Jimmy Stewart’s frustrated George Bailey into a failed American dreamer on par with Willy Loman. It’s a very simple film about very complex things—thwarted ambition, responsibility, mid-life frustrations—and a good introduction to the surprising toughness of Old Hollywood drama. You’ll thank yourself when your kid rewatches Wonderful Life as a grown-up and realizes that the title is kind of ironic. Serious question: Does watching It’s a Wonderful Life make you a better person? If not, it definitely makes you more interesting. —DF

39. Duck Soup (1933)

Unrated, 68 mins., directed by Leo McCarey

Starring the Marx Brothers, Margaret Dumont

The Marx Brothers’ DNA is woven into virtually every comedian from Bugs Bunny to Woody Allen, and Duck Soup might be their most brilliantly silly. Groucho plays the leader of Freedonia, who declares war on the neighboring country of Sylvania and competes with the Sylvanian ambassador for the love of a Freedonian aristocrat (Dumont, a Marx brothers regular). But the plot hardly matters. The real pleasures of the movie come from Groucho’s legendary one-liners and all the elaborate comic situations the characters—Chico and Harpo play amateur spies—get into. There’s plenty of slapstick, but the Marx Brothers are Trojan horses for sophisticated, quick-witted comedy. —JS

40. Back to the Future (1985)

PG, 116 mins., directed by Robert Zemeckis

Starring Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson

Robert Zemeckis’ signature film plays like a special-effects bonanza, but beneath the flux capacitor lies a story with a lot of heart. Marty McFly is the perfect rebel your kids can rally behind: He seems like a troublemaker, but really his greatest crime is hanging around with a scientist. Best of all, the story is easy to follow, but also ripe for deep-diving, which makes Back to the Future an ideal introduction to the very concept of science fiction. If questions about the space-time continuum start to pop up at the dinner table, you can be sure there are lots of William Gibson novels and screenings of The Matrix in the near future. —KA

41. Young Frankenstein (1974)

PG, 106 mins., directed by Mel Brooks

Starring Gene Wilder, Marty Feldman, Madeline Kahn, Peter Boyle, Teri Garr, and Cloris Leachman

The perfect thing about Mel Brooks’ monster mash is that it’s both a fine example of the director’s brand of zany parody and a loving homage to the Gothic black-and-white classics of the 1930s. In fact, an argument could be made that it’s actually better than the Frankenstein movies it aimed to lampoon. From a comedy standpoint, the film is chock full of bits and lines that are abnormally funny. Abby-normally funny, if you will, and it also features what is by far the best song-and-dance sequence featuring a Frahnk-enstein and his monster. —JL

42. Edward Scissorhands (1990)

PG-13, 105 mins., directed by Tim Burton

Starring Johnny Depp and Winona Ryder

Moving from the Gothic goofiness of Mel Brooks to the earnestly Gothic angst of Tim Burton might inspire a bit of whiplash—but your child will be too fascinated by Edward’s uniquely twisted universe to care. This film, essential ammo for any budding young weirdo’s arsenal, is one of the most stylish movies on this list, making it great for aspiring aesthetes. Its fairy-tale-inspired storytelling and moody romance also mean it’s a great transitional picture for viewers beginning to make the move from childhood to adolescence. Just don’t blame us if your kid suddenly develops a hunger for black eyeliner and Hot Topic. —HB

43. Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

PG-13, 178 mins., directed by Peter Jackson

Starring Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Orlando Bloom, Viggo Mortensen

Published in the 1950s, J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy is central to 21st-century pop-culture, thanks in large part to Peter Jackson’s ongoing cinematic adaptations (which include The Hobbit prequels), and The Fellowship of the Ring sets the bar high, introducing Frodo and Gandalf, as well as a Middle-earth full of dwarfs and elves. Like Star Wars, LOTR is a franchise with überpassionate disciples who are capable of quoting Aragorn’s Black Gate battle speech at the drop of a hat. Your child doesn’t need to drink the Kool-Aid—or own a Gandalf hat and fuzzy hobbit slippers—but ignoring the most important films in the fantasy canon simply shall not pass. —JL

44. The Karate Kid (1984)

PG, 126 mins., directed by John G. Avildsen

Starring Ralph Macchio, Pat Morita, Elisabeth Shue

Karate Kid wasn’t the first underdog movie, and it’s not even the best. (Rocky? The Bad News Bears?) But it’s the appropriate introduction to this crowded genre of youth-targeted sports-related films, with Macchio’s new kid in town, Daniel LaRusso, finding friendship and wisdom in Pat Morita’s pacifist handyman, Mr. Miyagi. Despite the on-screen bullying and violence (expect your kid to want to kick things), the film actually drives home a very positive message, the romance with Elisabeth Shue is impossibly adorable, and the Cobra Kai are the perfect villains to crane-kick in the face. —KA

45. Stand By Me (1986)

R, 89 min., directed by Rob Reiner

Starring Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Kiefer Sutherland

It’s rated R, but there’s nothing in Stand By Me that tweens haven’t heard or talked about with their friends when you’re not around. Four oddball pals in the 1950s set out to find the dead body of a local missing boy, and they come back home changed forever. Aside from mentions of Annette Funicello and Wagon Train, the tale is perfectly contemporary and suitable for a modern audience, and actually a timely primer into the warm bath of pop-cultural nostalgia—especially pop music—that coats so much of the entertainment they will consume for the rest of their lives. Finally, Stand By Me is based on The Body by Stephen King, and it’s about time for your young reader to pick up some of the master’s other literary works. (A suitable distaff alternative is My Girl.) —JL

46. Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

PG, 87 mins., directed by Wes Anderson

Starring the voices of George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray

Every frame of this stop-motion animated film based on the classic Roald Dahl book could be paused and hung as great art. But this comedy—penned by Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach—is as rich in wit and well-developed characters as it is beautiful to look at. The clever interplay between a wily fox who has promised his wife to curb his chicken-stealing ways and settle down with his family but who has trouble reconciling his own innate nature (“Because I’m a wild animal”) may resonate more with parents than children, but all will be equally delighted by the whimsical charm that pervades every minute. And cuss it, you’ll want more. —Sara Vilkomerson

47. Big (1988)

PG, 104 min., directed by Penny Marshall

Starring Tom Hanks, Elizabeth Perkins, Robert Loggia, John Heard

Enjoy it while you can, kids. Don’t be in such a rush to grow up, sweetheart. Parents can say those words over and over, but it’s a hard lesson to take when adulthood seems to offer so much freedom. Penny Marshall’s film makes the point more directly, by magically transforming 12-year-old Josh Baskin (David Moscow) into a thirtysomething man overnight. He gets a job as a toy company exec, a dream loft apartment, and a very adult girlfriend who has no clue of his inexperience. The film catapulted Hanks into superstardom—reason enough to study it closely—and Big is a sweet and timeless meditation on growing up. —KA

48. Some Like it Hot (1959)

Unrated, 120 mins., directed by Billy Wilder

Starring Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, Marilyn Monroe, George Raft, Joe E. Brown

Tony Curtis is a much prettier woman than Jack Lemmon, but let’s not be shallow about it. The two actors play Chicago musicians who go on the run in drag with an all-ladies band after they witness a mob slaying. Both immediately fall for Marilyn Monroe’s tipsy, ditsy bombshell—an iconic performance if ever there was one—but Lemmon’s “Daphne” attracts her own amorous affection from a daffy Florida millionaire (Brown). The cross-dressing is a big part of the film’s humor, but Billy Wilder always reaches for the bigger laugh behind the obvious joke, while gracefully dancing across sexual innuendo. “Nobody’s perfect,” is the film’s famous last line, but this is one comedy that is. —JL

49. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

PG, 115 mins., directed by Steven Spielberg

Starring Harrison Ford, Karen Allen

Cinematic action changed forever when Steven Spielberg joined forces with George Lucas to create Indiana Jones, Harrison Ford’s globe-trotting archeologist in pursuit of the titular, biblical artifact. The pace is relentless from the opening jungle sequence, and there’s plenty of laughs (“Why’d it have to be snakes?”), gasps (melted faces), and romance—thanks to Karen Allen’s wonderfully feisty portrayal of Indy’s lost love, Marion. More than three decades later, it’s still the Citizen Kane that every modern adventure movie aims to emulate. —SV

50. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)

PG-13, 143 mins., directed by Gore Verbinski

Starring Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush, Orlando Bloom, Kiera Knightley

Remember when you were maybe 10 or 11, and your friend told you about the dirty bits in Disney movies—the stuff the animators snuck in, embedded deep into the firmament of the G-rated adventure? Capt. Jack Sparrow is all of that in human form. Immediately after introducing your little ones to Harrison Ford’s old-school adventure hero, immediately throw them into the deep end with Johnny Depp andro-goth high-camp wack job, one of the craziest performances to ever sneak into a family-friendly adventure film. The first Pirates is a fun ride—leaner and wackier than the ever-more-bloated sequels—and between Depp’s performance and Verbinski’s Looney Tunes-inflected style, it’s the film most likely to ensure that your 12-year-old burgeoning cinephile becomes a 13-year-old Monty Python-quoting absurdist. —DF

51. The Avengers (2012)

PG-13, 143 mins., directed by Joss Whedon

Starring Robert Downey Jr., Samuel L. Jackson, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Tom Hiddleston

Where to begin with the superheroes? Do you give your kids the pre-history of Superman and Tim Burton’s Batman? Do you start them off with the lighthearted Spider-Man or the darker-tinged X-Men? Here’s an idea: Start with the one with all the superheroes. Avengers cuts out the usual heroes’-journey/origin story routine in favor of a kitchen-sink ensemble. Special bonus: Avengers doubles as a kid-friendly introduction to the world of Joss Whedon. —DF

52. Titanic (1997)

PG-13, 194 mins, directed by James Cameron

Starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio

The best way to teach your kid about grand Hollywood epics like Gone With the Wind and Lawrence of Arabia? Find a film that both emulates those classics, but couches them within a modern sensibility—and also features Winslet and DiCaprio at their most bewitching. Even nearly 20 years later, the sheer scope of James Cameron’s masterpiece—the sets, the costumes, the score, the effects—is breathtaking. And if the script hasn’t aged quite as well… eh, we’ll always have “I’m the king of the world!” Warning: Unless you yearn to make your child (and, uh, yourself) incredibly uncomfortable, go grab a snack during the “draw me like one of your French girls” scene. —HB

53. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

PG-13, 120 mins., directed by Ang Lee

Starring Michelle Yeoh, Ziyi Zhang, Chow Yun-Fat

The problem: How to open up your cusping-on-the-teen-years youngster to the world of foreign cinema, which requires them to leapfrog over the basic human desire to never watch a movie with subtitles? The solution: Crouching Tiger, a film that cross-blends Chinese martial-arts mythology and John Fordian Western adventure into a thrilling tale. Even better: Crouching Tiger is an action-movie starring not one, but two strong heroines. Show your kid Crouching Tiger, and in no time at all, he or she will be deconstructing the French New Wave and learning about the Bechdel test! —DF

54. To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

129 minutes, directed by Robert Mulligan

Starring Gregory Peck, Mary Badham, Philip Alford, Brock Peters

There are ugly things in this world, and Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning classic examines them through the eyes of a child. The film—with a screenplay by Horton Foote—has rightly carved out a place in the Great Movie pantheon and is justly required viewing, regardless of when the book is introduced. Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch is a moral beacon for his two motherless children, Scout and Jem, in segregated 1930s Alabama—best demonstrated when he defends a black man accused of raping a white woman. But the smaller teachable moments—when Atticus accepts hickory nuts as payment from a man who can’t afford to pay, or when Scout and Jem learn the truth about reclusive Boo Radley (Robert Duvall’s screen debut)—are every bit as heart stirring. —SV

55. Jurassic Park (1993)

PG-13, 127 mins., directed by Steven Spielberg

Starring Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum

Steven Spielberg is one of the most successful horror directors of all time. That doesn’t gibe with his family-friendly image, but consider the evidence. Duel and Jaws are real-life monster movies; he maybe-directed Poltergeist; every Indiana Jones has at least one nightmare-haunting moment; and then there’s Jurassic Park, maybe the scariest movie ever sold as a thrill ride. It’s a good way to introduce your child to the grown-up terrors of the horror genre, without actually showing them a gory horror movie. It’s also a guaranteed crowd-pleaser with a relentlessly quotable script, from Hollywood’s greatest director working at the top of his game. —DF

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