Compiling this year’s list, Top Ten Animated Family Features of the Century for this week’s episode of Salt + Light Radio Hour has been the most fun I’ve ever had creating a movie list! (You can listen here or look for the June 30, 2018 episode here.) A few years ago, I wouldn’t have said that animated features were a genre I particularly enjoyed, but as I put together a list of contenders to consider, review, and in some cases to see for the first time, I realized that the number of quality animated films being made (or being made available) has grown exponentially. I will always be grateful to Disney for the wholesome animated films I grew up with (and for their continuing commitment to children’s entertainment, although sometimes widely varying in quality and value), but now there are a lot of other wonderfully gifted animators producing intriguing animated features. And due to the Motion Picture Academy creating a “Best Animated Feature” category in 2001, more animated films have become more easily available.
As readers familiar with my blog know, I use specific criteria when I offer a commentary on films. To make this top ten list, I especially considered these factors:
- great artistry as an animated film, including animation, plot, voices, music, etc.
- authentic, meaningful, multilayered story that offers insight into he human experience of being created in the image of God; thus I chose films that specifically explore the dignity of the human person and the giftedness of life
- solid entertainment and/or engagement so that the whole family (or in some cases most members of the family) can watch, enjoy, and perhaps discover something more.
Another reason many of these films made it onto this list is that they deal with the universal theme of family, and the importance of family in our lives—a theme that can be appreciated by everyone at every age. However, the films on this list do more than highlight the importance of family; they also show the great beauty of a loving family life and even offer us models of what a loving family can look like—in the midst of difficulty and misunderstanding—and how that love we experience in our family becomes the foundation upon which we build our lives.
I could easily have written a “top 20” list instead! Someday I’ll write a post about all the honorable mentions that are well worth seeing but for various reasons didn’t meet the criteria for viewing by the whole family.
So, check out the countdown! I hope the list helps you pick out a couple of films to watch with your family this summer. I’d love to hear your thoughts on these top ten—please vote in the poll below!
10. Kubo and the Two Strings (2016; PG)
directed by Travis Knight, from Laika Entertainment.
Kubo and the Two Strings is the magical quest of young Kubo, a young boy who supports himself and his fragile mother by entertaining the nearby villagers with his musical stories that literally come to life as animated origami figures when he plays his three-stringed shamisen. Kubo has only one eye and has grown up listening to the fantastical stories that his mother tells him about his past, especially that he must hide from the evil spirit of his grandfather (also known as the Moon King), who stole one of Kubo’s eye when he was a baby, and who wants to steal his other eye. Kubo doesn’t know what is real and what is not, but when he accidentally stays out after dark, his mother gives her life protecting Kubo—both physically and magically.
In his adventurous quest to overcome his grandfather, Kubo is joined by two unusual companions, who help him to find a magical suit of armor that his mother hoped would protect him. Eventually Kubo returns to the village to confront his grandfather. The beauty of the ending is how Kubo is able to escape his grandfather’s evil plan.
Reasons to Watch: Darker than your typical Disney film, Kubo and the Two Strings unerringly weaves together the light and dark motifs of the story: both Kubo’s resilience and ability to play (even in the midst of a life-and-death chase), and his sorrow at the loss of his parents. Incredible animation by the Laika Entertainment Studio, a compelling and brave protagonist, origami figures that fly to life, and a lighthearted tone that balances its approach to the deeper themes of family and loss of loved ones, Kubo and the Two Strings has something for everyone in the family. The importance of family, the respect due to elders and those who have gone before us, the power of stories and the importance of memories, all lead to a wonderful resolution to the story that doesn’t rely on physical violence or “winning.”
9. The Breadwinner (2017; PG-13; based on the children’s novel by Deborah Ellis)
Directed by Norah Twomey, from Cartoon Saloon.
The Breadwinner is about eleven year old Parvana who becomes determined to help her family survive under the oppression of Taliban control after her father is unjustly imprisoned. (Her worn-out mother, her older sister and Parvana herself are not legally allowed to go out without a male accompanying them, so when Parvana’s father is arrested in retaliation for protecting Parvana, their family—including Parvana’s toddler younger brother—are in real danger of starving to death.) The dramatic tension of this film never lets up, and yet, the gentle animation style, Parvana’s unselfish love for her family, her stories for her little brother, and the kindness that she finds—both in her father and in unexpected places—broadens the film’s power, appeal, and accessibility for audiences young and old.
Cartoon Saloon is a relatively new but gifted animation studio that has its own unique style and consistently produces masterpieces, all visually delightful and extraordinarily engaging in their storytelling. The Breadwinner is their third feature. (Their first feature is higher on this list.)
Reasons to Watch: An honest and troubling depiction of life under Taliban control, this is not a film for young children. Parents would do well to watch the film alone first, to evaluate if their youngsters are ready for such a true-to-life story. Watching and then discussing The Breadwinner together as a family would be especially helpful. (This important story should be disturbing for audiences of all ages, as it is worthy to note that, though the film is set in the 1990s when the Taliban first took power, today Taliban presence is once again growing rapidly and controls or influences a large part of the country of Afghanistan.)
Parvana’s loving commitment to family, her courage in both seeking work and providing for her family, and her refusal to give up on seeing her father again, are beautiful and hopeful qualities that show the true heart of Afghan mothers and daughters. My favorite parts of the film were the specially-animated sequences of the story that Parvana tells her younger brother. Though Parvana does not seem aware of it, her story becomes a metaphor for her own life, and her storytelling is how she fights the despair and hopelessness of living in such a dire situation.
(Honorable mention goes to Cartoon Saloon’s second animated feature, Song of the Sea, a much lighter, delightful Selkie fairytale about the magical quest of Ben and his little sister Saiorse, who never speaks. Having lost their mother to the sea when Saiorse was born, Ben treasures the seashell his mother left him. When Saiorse blows into it, the children begin a quest to unlock the mystery of their mother’s whereabouts and Saiorse’s silence.)
8. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013; PG)
Directed by Isao Takahata, from Studio Ghibli.
An ancient Japanese folktale about a tiny princess who is sent to earth as a punishment. An elderly bamboo cutter discovers her magically growing in a bamboo plant. He brings her home and raises her with his wife in the idyllic country side where she happily plays, but the little princess grows too rapidly from a tiny girl into a lovely young woman.
Despite their happy country existence, her father feels his lovely daughter deserves the best money can buy. He finds a rich home in the city for his daughter, and has her trained in the ways of wealthy society. The princess unwillingly obeys her father, torn by her love for her previous life in the forest with her friends, and her desire to obey and make her father happy. But the inhuman process of choosing a husband merely for appearance and status becomes greatly distressing to the princess. The ending is not a “happily ever after,” but it offers hope and also mystery.
Reasons to Watch: I have not yet found a Studio Ghibli film I didn’t like (here is a list of some of the best Studio Ghibli films I have enjoyed), but The Tale of Princess Kaguya is the studio’s most visually exquisite film. With all the hallmarks of a great Studio Ghibli film, there is every reason to watch: a beautifully told story, complex characters, incredibly symbolism in the visuals, and deep themes, including:
- choices have consequences
- the nurturing and love important for a child in the family
- a critique of living by appearances and seeking social status
- the value of a simple life of harmony and love
- the incredible beauty and gift of nature
The Tale of Princess Kaguya is a gentle, delightful film for the whole family.
7. The Incredibles (2004; PG)
Directed by Brad Bird, from Walt Disney/Pixar Animation.
In some ways, this entire list could be made up of animation giants Disney & Pixar, and it was hard to choose which of their films to highlight. The Incredibles makes it onto the list because it is truly a story for families: a more-than-fun story about a family of superheroes who hide their abilities and try to live a “normal” life. The Incredibles is a coming of age story, but not just for one child or teen. Rather, it’s an entire family’s “coming of age” story, as each family member has his or her own special gift and each member must “grow into” and value their own gifts and those of the other members of their family. Today, The Incredibles is an unusual portrait of a family that has problems and is far from perfect, but is ultimately quite healthy and loving, and who grow closer together—both with their special abilities and simply as the persons they are.
Reasons to Watch: A lighter choice on our list, nevertheless this “family coming-of-age” story offers insights for every member in the family—both animated characters and the flesh-and-blood viewers—all in the context of a loving family with a father and mother who are not only great parents, but understand that their family (not just themselves as individuals) has an important role in the mission of saving the world. (Plus, the sequel is in theaters right now!)
6. Coco (2017; PG)
Directed by Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina, from Walt Disney/Pixar Animation.
Disney/Pixar has made many outstanding films, and it was hard to choose which to include (see #2 on the list for my top Disney/Pixar pick!) (A couple of excellent runners-up: Finding Nemo, Moana, and Wall-E were serious contendors.) Coco is here on the list because of its wonderful homage to Mexican families. Authentic cultural touches include the Mexican music; the tradition of celebrating the Day of the Dead that, while certainly not a Catholic tradition, does point to the importance of honoring our ancestry; the bright colors and artistic design; and even small gestures of the characters, such as the grandmother throwing her shoe to rebuke her stubborn grandson.
The film centers around young boy Miguel’s dream to become a musician, which is a problem because his large, loving family has a generations-old ban on music. Miguel is a well-drawn, recognizable figure of a young boy who is torn between family and his dream. Well-developed characters, the magic of interacting with family ancestors who are already deceased, all create a wonderfully well-rounded picture of family and highlight the importance of family—even in following one’s dreams.
Reasons to Watch: In addition to the great music, fun, and family themes, Coco’s emphasis on the importance of both love and forgiveness in one’s family is beautifully drawn here.
* The Book of Life (2014; PG) was a runner-up for this spot, and deserves recognition for being the first animated feature film to bring Mexican culture to the mainstream big screen. (I suspect that The Book of Life’s release and DVD sleeper hit status helped Coco’s success.) A refreshingly entertaining and wholesome story with deeply Christian themes, The Book of Life has an astonishing, original, and vivid style of animation; a not-very-predictable plot with unexpected twists and turns, and a few emotional moments that completely hushed a theater full of families with young children. Yet, The Book of Life wobbles a bit in overall quality and seems to lack some of the authentic touches that made Coco such a moving expression of Mexican culture (perhaps partly due to the choice of music).
Both The Book of Life and Coco are amazing films with remarkably similar themes, but they each carry those themes through their stories in entirely different ways. One feature of The Book of Life that I especially appreciated was the ending—a great ending, but not the “perfectly happily ever after” that is so problematic to find in all Disney films. (If you need more reasons to watch The Book of Life, check out my original review here.)
5. How To Train Your Dragon 1 & 2 (2010, 2014; PG)
Directed by Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders (How To Train Your Dragon 2 directed by Dean DeBlois), from Dreamworks Animation
(based on the book series by Cressida Cowell)
Son of a fearless Viking chief, Hiccup doesn’t fit the Viking mold. He should be learning how to fight dragons. But when he accidentally befriends a powerful Night Fury dragon that he injured, Hiccup discovers that the dragon-fighting Vikings have misjudged their greatest enemy. Instead of being their enemies, dragons could become precious allies—if only he and his Night Fury can overcome the prejudice and fears of the Viking people.
How To Train Your Dragon 2 begins with Hiccup still not “fitting in” to his village or his father’s expectations. Hiccup prefers to go exploring rather than preparing to become the new village chief, but on his explorations, Hiccup discovers both terrible threats and wonderful new discoveries that will change his village forever. But his greatest discovery is how he needs his family to deal with both.
I take secret delight in all stories with great dragon characters, and both of these films are personal favorites of mine, despite some of the films’ weaknesses (for example, some of the dragons get more character development than the stereotypical secondary characters). Above all, these films are unbeatable in the depth and realism with which they explore Hiccup’s character development and the key relationships in his life— above all with his father. I couldn’t choose between these two films is that the first one is really great, but the second film is not just a worthy sequel, but in some ways tops the first film.
The adventure and visual delight of vicariously flying on the back of a dragon, and the stunning attention to the world of dragons make both films artistic masterpieces.
Reasons To Watch: If you are not a dragon-story lover, these films are both profound coming-of-age stories that will resonate with both children and adults. They also delve realistically and deeply into parent-child relationships, the preservation and cultivation of the natural world, and the realistic consequences of dealing with danger, including loss. Although the films also include a good bit of fighting (because the protagonists are Vikings and dragons, after all), the resolution of each film’s major conflict comes not from physical strength or violence but rather by authentic leadership.
Both films are chockfull of fun and strong community and family values.
Note for parents: In addition to the fighting scenes and life-and-death danger of the animated characters, How To Train Your Dragon 2 specifically deals with loss of a beloved major character, and the influence of that loss on Hiccup.
4. The Secret of Kells (2009; PG)
Directed by Tom Moore & Nora Twomey (co-director), from Cartoon Saloon
The story of Brendan, the young nephew of the Abbot of the monastery at Kells, who is entrusted with a series of tasks to help save the Book of Kells from the destruction of Viking invaders (who did indeed attack the monastery several times. In the year 806, 68 monks were murdered at the monastery by the invaders). The film is an imaginative, fantastical fairytale that weaves together Celtic myth and legend and a delightfully playful imagination, centered around the Word of God and set within the context of actual historical events. Note to parents: as imaginative and playful as this film is, some of the animated sequences of the invasion could be very scary for younger children.
Reasons to watch: The Book of Kells is a real, ancient illuminated manuscript of the four Gospels with commentary and exquisite illustrations—thought to be completed by the monks at Iona or Kells around 800 A.D. (The Book of Kells has been called the greatest medieval treasure of Europe.) In the film, the Book of Kells is treated as much more than an artistic treasure. It was one of the precious copies of the Sacred Word of God, and the holy manuscript represents the light of the Gospel that transformed Western civilization. The focus of the film is the urgency of saving this precious copy of the Gospel from destruction. The playful, imaginative spirit of the film resonates well with the playful, imaginative illustrations found in the Book of Kells, such as the film’s mysterious white cat character, whose image is found in the illustrations of the Book of Kells. (I have always found monasteries and convents some of the most joyful places on earth.) The hand-drawn, exquisite style of animation draws on the illuminated art in the Book of Kells itself.
Themes include: art and the imagination, the Bible (especially the Gospel), the Gospel as a light of civilization and the importance of allowing it to continue to shine—in reading the Bible, in sharing Word of God with others, in trying to live the Word of God in the choices we make.
A possible family activity after watching the film would be to look online at some of the exquisite pages of the Book of Kells here or here (or other illuminated manuscripts such as the Lindisfarne Gospels), and invite each member of the family to choose a story from the Gospel to “illuminate.” Then, either create the illuminated story with text and image, or invite each member to talk about how they would illuminate that story—what symbols would they use, which words from the Gospel text would they emphasize, and how.
3. The LEGO Movie (2014; PG)
Directed by Phil Lord, Christopher Miller, from Warner Brothers.
This bright, primary-colored, youngster-friendly story is about ordinary LEGO construction worker Emmet Brickowoski, who accidentally discovers an important artifact (the Piece of Resistance) prophesied about at the beginning of the film. Emmet is identified as the “Special,” a Messiah-like figure who is expected to defeat President Business, who threatens to paralyze all in the LEGO worlds with superglue (the “Krackle”). Emmet’s ordinariness AND specialness are ultimately what will save the LEGO worlds and reinforce the truth that all of us are both ordinary and special.
For a film based on a bunch of interlocking block toys, The LEGO Movie is not just watchable by the whole family, but is truly engaging and has a deeper “something” for kids of all ages, throughout its sometimes zany, often unexpected twists and turns.
Reasons To Watch: Always true to its initial inspiration, The LEGO Movie is brilliantly written and masterfully executed, all with an uncompromising fidelity to primary colors and its young audience. A “spoof” of the popular superhero stories we have been inundated with lately, The LEGO Movie takes us on a journey with a block-like, ordinary construction worker who, by the end, grows into not only recognizing his own specialness, but by recognizing that every “person” (or LEGO character) is uniquely special. As a screenwriter, I am awed each time I see how The LEGO Movie filmmakers accomplish such deeply felt, surprising, and insightful moments, all in a fun way. For more reasons to watch, check out my initial review:
Emmet’s self-sacrifice near the end is a powerful image of selfless, Christ-like love. Where The LEGO Movie really stands out is its twofold message about yearning to be special. Being special is such a fundamental human desire that even grown-ups can resonate with Emmet’s pain when he’s harshly told that he’s not special. But Emmet doesn’t just discover that he’s special (an important message in itself for young viewers). He also discovers how his “specialness” fits with his being part of a community, part of a team. We are all special and unique, and yet we best express how special we are when we “fit” together and work with each other. This second message is delightfully reinforced by the ending, which is refreshingly nonviolent.
2. Up (2009; PG)
Directed by Pete Docter, Bob Peterson (co-director) from Walt Disney/Pixar Animation.
The first eleven minutes of this film make a powerful stand-alone film all by itself—not just a poignant introduction to the protagonist and a backstory that captures our hearts and imaginations, but also a touching tribute to the beauty of married life and an introduction to the themes of the rest of the film.
But those first eleven minutes are also the perfect set-up for a fantastic story about elderly Carl Frederickson, who, still grieving after the loss of his beloved wife Ellie, decides to carry out their childhood dream of following in the footsteps of a famed explorer and flying to the mysterious Paradise Falls in South America. On his fantastical flight (helium balloons lift his house and take him to South America), Carl unknowingly takes along a “stowaway,” young neighbor Russell, who challenges him to go beyond his grief to live a new adventure. And they truly do have a wonderful adventure—not just reaching Paradise Falls and meeting its mysterious inhabitants, but then growing beyond grief and fear.
Reasons to Watch: With its gentleness, spirit of adventure, poignance, laugh-out-loud humor, and talking dogs, there is no reason not to watch this uplifting film! At every moment, we are lifted up with the film’s positive, hopeful view of life—in all its beauty, meaning, and dignity, even at times of grief or sorrow. A gentle, genuinely affecting film made for viewers of all ages, Up is truly the perfect family summer film.
1. Spirited Away (PG, 2001)
Directed (and written) by Hayao Miyazaki, from Studio Ghibli
Spirited Away is considered by many to be the masterpiece of Studio Ghibli and of its most famous director, Hayao Miyazaki. Spirited Away is the story of 10 year-old Chichiro, who is driving with her parents to their new home. A despondent Chichiro already misses her friends, but becomes uneasy when her parents get lost and decide to explore an old building they come upon: an entrance to a seemingly abandoned amusement park, where they find abundant, delicious fresh food. Her parents dig in without question to the food…and eat so greedily that they lose their humanity and become pigs. Chichiro then discovers that she and her parents are trapped in a magical bathhouse for spirits. A seemingly friendly boy named Haku warns her that if she doesn’t leave immediately without her parents, she won’t survive unless she gets a job. So Chichiro signs a contract with the witch in charge, Yubaba, who steals Chichiro’s name and thus traps her there as well.
This short description of the first few minutes of the film doesn’t do it justice. The film is truly a magically animated adventure, filled with an incredibly variety of creatures and settings, wondrously animated with incredible and generous attention to detail.
Reasons to Watch: A truly fantastical adventure filled with strange creatures, Spirited Away is a sheer delight to watch, both for its lavish animation and the deftly developed plot which allows us to truly enter into Chichiro’s journey. And it is this magical, realistic journey of young Chichiro that makes this film resonate with viewers young and old, for it is the journey of a young, practically helpless ten-year-old girl whose pluck, determination, and persistence help her both to survive and to mature into a lovely young woman with intelligence, resilience, strength, and goodness. Both fable and fairy tale, every moment in this adventure is much more than it seems, just as each character is much more than they seem. Themes include: the respect that everyone deserves, the virtue of loyalty, the importance of balance, the consequences of gluttony, freedom, the importance of memory, and the reality that the choices we make have consequences.
(All of Studio Ghibli’s films are well worth exploring. Fun note: My personal favorite Studio Ghibli film is Howl’s Moving Castle, which has all the elements of the Spirited Away, plus a strong anti-war theme; the story is lighter, has a smaller cast of characters, and the entire film is more whimsical. Both films have somewhat similar plots, but are handled quite differently. For me, Howl’s Moving Castle is even more delightful that Spirited Away, but I had to give Spirited Away first place due its sheer scope, visual magnificence, and theme of family. Here is a previous post with a quick look at some of the other Studio Ghibli films.)
What do you think? Agree? Disagree? Is one of your family’s favorite animated features (from this century) missing? Please vote for your top three below…and write-ins are welcome!