Let’s kick this off by acknowledging that this isn’t really a list of the decade’s best kid movies because — let’s face it — kids like nearly everything they see in a movie theater, as evidenced by the upcoming “squeakuel” to 2007’s Alvin and the Chipmunks. While we’d all like to think that our progeny shall be born with very our own impeccable taste, that’s just not how it works, but I do suppose that bodily function jokes are an inevitable rite of passage that most adults learn to either tolerate or ignore and, in unfortunate cases, never outgrow. At this point, I could put together a sanitized list of films that avoid such jokes and call it sufficient, but that’s not of much use here. After all, when it comes to a list like this that concerns films that have been in circulation for a matter of years, most parents/aunts/uncles/siblings are already well aware of where the line is when it comes to what’s appropriate for kids to watch. Besides, this list includes movies that (with the exception of two) have already been reviewed here at Pajiba, so I’m going to assume that any parents who are interested in our take on these movies have already done so.
With that said, I wasn’t about to put together a list that, long after the fact, lectures perfectly capable parents on the films that their kids should watch. Instead, this list is about the aught’s best movies that also happen to be kids movies. That most of these films avoid poop jokes is rather incidental, for these movies are on an altogether different level. Instead, these are the movies that remind of us what it’s like to be a kid. Such a film will quite often break you down and build you back up. Such a film may make you cry your eyes out during the first fifteen minutes, so that, for the rest of the film, you’ll also feel the exhilaration of the old man who fastens thousands of balloons to his house and flies to South America. Some of these films will send chills up your spine as you remember childhood fears with a bittersweet longing, and still others might even scare the living hell out of you, but you’ll be grateful for it. For better or worse, all of these films just happened to be marketed towards a childhood-level audience.
Finally, it must be noted that this is not a list of the aught’s most critically-praised children’s movies. If that were the case, I’d simply list nearly every Pixar movie made, but there are a few of those included here too. Above all, this is a list of kids’ films that are much more than tolerable for adults or, at least, the best ten of them.
10. The Tale of Despereaux (2008): This isn’t the story of the film industry’s eagerness to replicate the success of Ratatouille. Instead, The Tale of Despereaux is Universal’s adaptation of the 2004 Newbery Medal-winning novel and is brought to life through respectable computer-animation. Despereaux relies upon a subdued method of storytelling that would cause the Brothers Grimm to beam in something resembling pride. Indeed, this is quite the darkened tale of a two gentleman, an atypical rat and an even more unorthodox mouse, who become unlikely friends and unite for a most noble cause. It’s a rather complex story of courage, grief, longing, forgiveness, and a pair of rodent friends who, together, seek to right a set of wrongs that occur when something natural is banished from the human world. This film suffers and prospers from its own twin sword, that is, it fails to conform to the usual holiday children’s fare. In addition, the film lacks those ubiquitous twin principles of irony and deconstruction to form a typically charming story with a prepackaged happy ending. Naturally, I found the utter lack of contemporary pop-culture references to be rather refreshing, since all of those whipper-snapper allusions have gone into overkill within children’s films. Speaking as a parent, when these films eventually come out on DVD and are played into the triple digits, that shit gets old. So, forgive me for speaking of the virtues of a more timeless tale that takes great care to place value upon its own merits instead of scoring brownie points by mentioning so many other kick-ass stories in the process. — Agent Bedhead
9. Charlotte’s Web (2006): The unavoidable comparison is to Chris Noonan’s Babe, the 1995 film (undoubtedly influenced by Charlotte’s Web) about a pig spared the slaughterhouse due to his unusual and useful ability to herd sheep. Babe is a pig who earns his life and his keep through determination, perseverance, and hard work; Wilbur, by contrast, deserves to live because he is kind, so very kind that he inspires others to act on his behalf. Kindness, of course, is a virtue all too often undervalued, and one that small children probably should be reminded of as often as possible. Still, for dramatic purposes, it creates an imbalance: Wilbur’s is the life at stake, yet he passively waits for Charlotte and the barn rat Templeton to find a way to save it … Still, Winick does much to capture the wonder and whimsy of White’s book, creating a simpler world in an undefined past where both small creatures and small touches matter. The film’s rural setting has the magic realist quality of a Grant Wood landscape, and its human characters, though sometimes dense and often credulous, aren’t stupid; they’re just decent, unsophisticated folk trying to live their lives the best they can. Though the quality of the computer animation is highly variable, the movie gets the important things right, making Charlotte’s web-spinning a glittery, gorgeous feat and Templeton’s adventures gathering his cast-off treasures both gently amusing and just a little bit disgusting. — Jeremy C. Fox
8. Where the Wild Things Are (2009): Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are is a dark, melancholic film. At times playful, at other times profound, it’s also often aimless and slow, building toward an achy and complicated emotional wallop far heavier than anything Maurice Sendak ever envisioned in his ten-sentence storybook. Nevertheless, it’s a magnificent, unconventional art film, captivating, beautifully shot, and layered with emotional bruises, a dark fairytale that’s likely to appeal to fans of Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers (who co-write the script) alike. But it’s a lousy children’s film. And anybody that tells you that Spike Jonze’s film is faithful to the essence of Maurice Sendak’s storybook has a far different interpretation of Where the Wild Things Are than either my two-year-old son or I do. If you’re expecting 90 minutes of effervescent joy, or a window into your own childhood, forget about it. There’s a few glimpses into the childlike reverie, into that sense of wonder that you might remember as a child, free from responsibility and living in your own world of imagination, running through a forest or howling at the sky. But they are few and far between, bookended by preadolescent traumas and the heavy emotional burdens of growing up.— Dustin Rowles
7. Piglet’s Big Movie (2003): Finally, the dimunitive Piglet — the “It’s Not The Size That Matters But What You Do With It” king of the Hundred Acre Wood — gets his due in this original feature film based upon A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh books. This movie’s story revolves around our protagonist’s Napoleon complex, which is triggered when the other anthropomorphized creatures — Winnie, Tigger, Eeyore, Owl, and Rabbit — tell Piglet that he’s too small to join in the semi-dangerous task of gathering honey. So, Piglet becomes quite depressed and pulls something of a disappearing act; later, the gang forms a search party with the help of Piglet’s own diary, which sends the group on a journey through Piglet’s versions of past events (three vignettes), in which Piglet saved the day but never really got the recognition that he deserved. Consistent with the familiar anecdotal tone of Milne’s stories, the movie teaches its lessons in anecdotal form, and the effect is gently affectionate without approaching nauseating territory. The gang learns that their initial dismissal of Piglet was rather hasty and insensitive, and they learn to set aside selfishness and modify behaviors to make Piglet realize that his measure of usefulness is not affected by his small stature. Of course, the animals still inherently retain their own selves, and so Pooh doesn’t quite realize that the amended “Pooh and Piglet’s Corner” perhaps isn’t the proper way to make things completely right, but that’s just part of Pooh’s endearing nature and flawed charm. These imperfect but well-intentioned animals are all too recognizably human. — Agent Bedhead
6. Monsters, Inc. (2001): Pixar isn’t just damn good at creating visually impressive computer animation. Above all, this studio never forgets the indispensible well-written script with a genuinely emotional backbone. In Monsters, Inc., the energy of Monstropolis is harvested from the screams of children, which are captured by air tanks when monsters use portals to gain entrance though closets and into the bedrooms of children. Unfortunately, human children are becoming quite difficult to scare, so the best “scarer” of them all, Sulley, must go to increasing lengths to produce more scares and avoid a “scream shortage.” Of course, Sulley isn’t a very scary monster at all and, in fact, is a big ol’ softie and the true heart of the story. Things are further complicated by the notion that monsters are deathly afraid of human children, who are believed to be able to kill monsters with a single touch. When a little human rascal named Boo finds her way to Monstropolis, Sulley figures out that, while certainly annoying, the female child doesn’t pose a danger to monsters, and he decides to help her get back home and avoid elimination by the Child Detection Agency. Soon enough, Sulley grows fond of Boo, and they make quite the team for the ages. — Agent Bedhead
5. Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs (2009): This adaptation of Judi and Ron Barrett’s 1978 children’s book has been necessarily fleshed out quite a bit for the movie screen. The result is much more satisfying than expected, as Cloudy relishes its own absurdity while delivering vibrant visuals and offbeat humor with an exuberant abandon. Cloudy, without delving into preachiness, also manages to teach kids a few valuable lessons about the wages of gluttony and the dangers of overindulgence. Furthermore, girls will appreciate that, midway through, weathergirl Sam decides to stop hiding her smarts and looks just as beautiful (or even moreso) in geeky glasses and a ponytail than as a generic perky television weather girl. A lot of themes have been packed into this tamale, but Cloudy’s cast carries the load well, and their voice work here is rather amazing in that most of these names are instantly recognizable, but voices don’t jump out at you to the point of distraction. Anna Faris seems to have a voice made for animation, and her Guatemalan cameraman, played by Benjamin Bratt, adds a wry counterbalance to Faris’ perkiness. Mr. T is pretty great in his first credited role since 2002 as the town police chief, and Neil Patrick Harris delivers laughs as Flint’s monkey assistant. Hell, even Andy Samberg fares well as the local sardine can mascot, “Baby” Brent, who is sort of a hybrid between a former-child-star-on-the-skids and that one-girl-on-each-arm guy from David Lee Roth’s “Yankee Rose” video. So, take a bottle of anything and a glazed donut to go, and catch this little movie. — Agent Bedhead
4. Igor (2008): As a whole, this deliciously twisted little film owes no favors to its incompetent marketing department. Outside of its proper element, Igor is, to be perfectly honest, demented as all hell and not quite suitable for younger children, but if parents are willing to discuss sorta heavy themes afterwards, this is acceptable viewing for mature 8-year-olds and above. I pretty much dug Igor, which might be a cautionary warning in itself. Certainly, some parents won’t want their kids witnessing this film’s somewhat brazen sexual innuendo or abundant use of violence, including a character who routinely, albeit comically, attempts to commit suicide by way of dynamite, electrocution, and repeatedly blowing a hole through his own head. Exactly. With that said, Igor is a darkly comic attempt to evoke Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein with some slightly gothy touches and a bit of steampunk madness. Igor is much like a Tim Burton animated film that’s been intravenously fed a moderate dosage of antidepressants; as a result, a nice little Prozac sheen floats over the top of what would otherwise be described as an utterly unhinged adventure. As far as I can tell, Igor restricts itself to just one quick and indirect reference to toilet humor, which is, whether we’re talking about a family or an adult film, is quite rare these days. In addition, as a children’s film, Igor possesses a certain twisted charm despite its darker leanings. In the end, several lessons are offered up by Igor, but parents should be prepared for those inevitable in-depth conversations with any children they choose to expose to this story. — Agent Bedhead
3. Up (2009): Directed by Pete Docter with co-direction from Bob Peterson, Up is the most storybook tale to come from Pixar’s stable in a while, which makes sense: Docter’s previous turn at the helm of a Pixar vehicle was 2001’s Monsters, Inc., which explored the flipside of the mythos of children’s stories. His new film calls back to that in everything from structure to character design, most notably in the form of Carl Fredricksen (Ed Asner), an elderly retiree who is three heads high, meaning his body from the neck down is exactly twice as tall as his head. The world of Up is stretched and squished just enough to give it personality but not so much that the characters cease being people. The film opens with a gut-wrenching prologue of Carl’s life from youth to the present, and it’s a powerful sequence that covers the span of decades with nothing more than carefully selected images, scenes, and music. Docter brings a purity of intent that’s inherent in Pixar films as Carl grows up, gets married, and eventually turns to a life of widowed solitude. It’s a heartbreaking set-up that makes Carl into a solid character in minutes, and the movie becomes his story. — Daniel Carlson
2. Penelope (2008): Originally scheduled for release in 2006 but postponed until 2008, Penelope is a sparkling solitaire, an indistinct breed of gemstone that, for its failure to resemble its peers, suffers mainly for lack of appraisal. The film is at once, in its dazzling colorfulness, like an early Tim Burton film, and also, through the slightest of opaque shades, a little like The Ugly Duckling and Beauty and the Beast. First-time director Mark Palansky carefully avoids wallowing in past tales that carry outdated ideals of princesses, who can only be rescued from themselves by way of a prince. In its own way, Penelope manages to forge its own contemporary fairy tale without an endless rehashing of cutesy, wink-wink meta references towards the audience. By refusing to be shocked into submission by its own purported cleverness, the end result of Penelope is an unusually appealing cinematic creature. This novel approach, although quite invigorating, is unorthodox by the today’s children’s cinema standards, which could explain why Penelope never saw a darkened theater until some clever studio exec realized the newfound box-office potential of Atonement’s James McAvoy. The film’s lesson — about establishing one’s own way in life without necessarily becoming half of a couple — isn’t a disposable one, and in the end, Penelope may just intercept a few impressionable young girls before they fall prey to the homogenized, slut-worthy mindset of today’s Hollywood princesses. — Agent Bedhead
1. Coraline (2009): Eyes are the windows to the soul, or so we’ve been told countless times. Sometimes, however, we cannot trust even our own eyes, for looks can often be deceiving. This disturbing duality forms the basis for Coraline, a spooky film with an ominous “be careful what you wish for” tagline that sets the tone for the cautionary tale within. Simultaneously anxiety-inducing and affecting, Coraline is an exquisitely attractive film that never achieves its visuals at the expense of the story itself. This seemingly impossible feat occurs through an astonishingly effective collaboration between Neil Gaiman, author of the 2002 horror novella, and director-screenwriter Henry Selick. So much could have gone wrong on the way to the big screen in the hands of a lesser director, but Selick has achieved the fairly tenuous balance between his own craftsmanship and Gaiman’s work. This total integration took seven bloody years to achieve, and the result is an achingly gorgeous film, crafted in diligent detail and accompanied by Bruno Coulais’ deathly beautiful score. Much like the film’s heroine herself, Coraline is clever and inquisitive but more than slightly surly at times. Actually, a good measure of the third act comes with quite a bit of scariness for children under ten years. Coraline may come with a PG-rating, but this is really more of a PG² sort of movie. Don’t be surprised if, after watching this film, you awaken with a nightmarish start, only to discover that a whimpering child is attempting to climb into your bed in the middle of the night. Whew. — Agent Bedhead
Agent Bedhead lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She and her little black heart can be found at agentbedhead.com.