David Hughes, Empire magazine critic, father of three and curator of Good Movies for Kids, picks the best flicks for tots and tweens on Netflix.
Note: not all titles will be available in every region
My older children – born in 1995 and 1998 respectively – were raised on VHS movies and DVDs, a deliberate attempt on my part to resist the TV-on-in-the-background culture, and make them selective about their viewing habits. When we did watch children’s programming on television, I was frustrated by the amount of toy and junk food advertising to which they were subjected, so we tended to tape stuff off the telly and fast-forward through the ads.
Now, thanks to streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, my third child – born in 2012 and about to turn six years old – has never actually watched television with advertising; her entire experience of movies come from streaming services, Blu-rays and DVDs, where the only advertisements you see are for other films and TV shows. The absence of advertising is arguably one of the great unsung benefits of Netflix et al for a parent – but of course not everything on the streaming services is worthy of your child’s attention.
They’ll tend to find their own favourites, of course, but for that wet Sunday afternoon when you want to select a movie for them, or – better yet – sit down and share one with them, here’s a selection of children’s flicks on Netflix that are all worthy of the coveted Good Movies for Kids Seal of Approval.
DreamWorks Animation almost squandered the promising start it made with “Antz” by following it up with tiresome two-dimensional tales like “The Prince of Egypt” and “The Road to El Dorado“. Thankfully, its second computer-animated adventure, “Shrek“, was an inspired adaptation of William Steig’s book about an endearing ogre with bad manners but a good heart, sets out with loudmouth ass Donkey on a quest to rescue the beautiful Princess Fiona, in order to win back their beloved swamp from the wicked Lord Farquaad. The script and the animation were top-drawer, but what really makes Shrek magical is the incomparable voice cast – Mike Myers (standing in for the late Chris Farley), Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz and John Lithgow.
Bonus Features: In addition to giving you “Shrek” at your beck and call, Netflix also has “Shrek 2” (pretty good), “Shrek the Third” (pretty bad), “Shrek Forever After” (excellent), plus a selection of “Shrek shorts“, so fans can take a deep dive into the swamp of post-modern fairy tales… with a twist.
Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)
“Rushmore” and “The Royal Tenenbaums” writer-director Wes Anderson didn’t seem like the obvious choice to adapt a lesser-known children’s story by Roald Dahl – but his stop-motion marvel Fantastic Mr. Fox is a delightful and distinctively Dahlian take on the source material, about a fox trying to outwit the farmer on his tail. The animation is a labour of love, and the voices are provided by regular Anderson collaborators like Bill Murray, Owen Wilson and Jason Schwartzman, with George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Michael Gambon and even Jarvis Cocker.
Arthur Christmas (2011)
Any child who has ever wondered how Santa Claus manages to deliver two billion presents in a single night (and a dozen other questionable facts about Father Christmas) will have all their questions answered – and their mind blown – by this computer-generated instant classic from Aardman Animation, about a race against time by Santa’s son Arthur to deliver a present to a little girl who accidentally got left off Santa’s list. Featuring a festival of quintessentially British voice talent, including Jim Broadbent, Hugh Laurie, Bill Nighy, Imelda Staunton, James McAvoy and Michael Palin, it’s easily the best kids’ Christmas movie on Netflix, and a must watch this holiday season.
Bonus Features: Other Aardman films on Netflix include “Chicken Run“, “Wallace and Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit“, “Flushed Away” and the infectious “The Pirates! Band of Misfits (aka The Pirates! in an Adventure with Scientists)“, all of which are well worth a watch.
If ever there was an author who showed children the joy of reading books, it was Roald Dahl, and if ever there was a little girl who personified the joy of reading, it was Matilda. Aged six and a half, Matilda (Mara Wilson) is already smarter than her parents (Rhea Perlman and Danny DeVito, who also directs), although that isn’t hard, as they’re both dumber than a basket of day-old puppies. And she soon uses her book smarts – and some other special powers she develops – to outwit not only her parents, but her true nemesis: her demented school principal. Matilda celebrates its 21st birthday this year, and it’s still as magical as ever.
James and the Giant Peach (1996)
At the risk of our list becoming a bit Roald Dahl-heavy, we have to include “The Nightmare Before Christmas” director Henry Selick’s inspired adaptation of Dahl’s tale of a downtrodden boy, his wicked guardians (Joanna Lumley and Miriam Margolyes), and the giant peach in which he escapes for a wild adventure with an earthworm (voiced by David Thewlis), a spider (Susan Sarandon), a centipede (Richard Dreyfuss), a ladybird (Jane Leeves), a grasshopper (Simon Callow) and a glowworm (Margolyes again). As you might imagine from that line-up, the voice work is exceptional (you’d be surprised how many animated films cast big stars without realising that their voices are not particularly distinctive), but it’s the mixture of live action and stop-motion that makes Selick’s adaptation truly an amazing adventure.
Gnomeo & Juliet (2011)
Here’s something you don’t see every day: a comic, computer-animated take on Shakespeare’s tragic love story, played out between garden gnomes involved in the middle of a turf war, soundtracked by the songs of Elton John and Bernie Taupin. That it works so well is largely thanks to an extraordinary cast of recognisable voices – you won’t find Maggie Smith and Ozzy Osbourne on the same cast list, outside of an as-yet-unproduced Downton Abbey/Donington Castle crossover – led by James McEvoy, Emily Blunt, Jason Statham and Michael Caine, and a near-constant sense of madcap invention keeps it moving at runaway lawnmower speed. Even better, there’s a belated sequel – Sherlock Gnomes – on the way next year.
Mouse Hunt (1997)
“Pirates of the Caribbean” director Gore Verbinski’s Mouse Hunt sees brothers Lars and Ernie Smuntz (Lee Evans and Nathan Lane, as brilliantly matched as Laurel and Hardy) inheriting their late father’s string factory, and a tumbledown house – only to find their new fortune at the mercy of a single scurrying rodent, who seems smarter than the two Smuntzes put together. The comic set-ups are wildly inventive, and Christopher Walken almost steals the show as the ultimate mouse hunter, and if you tune into its weird frequency, it’s a minor classic.
The Smurfs (2011)
When it comes to reviving beloved TV characters for a new audience by bringing them into the real world, “The Muppets” and “Paddington” really knocked it out of the park. But Raja Gosnell, who made 2002’s live-action “Scooby-Doo” and its sequel, managed not to smurf up “The Smurfs“, in which evil wizard Gargamel (Hank Azaria, in full panto villain mode) chases the tiny blue Smurfs out of their village and into New York, where they turn the lives of Patrick (Neil Patrick Harris) and Grace (Jayma Mays) upside down, with occasionally hilarious results. Harris, who basically has the Dave role from “Alvin and the Chipmunks“, is a great comic foil for the smurfs’ antics, but it’s Gargamel and his cat Azrael who arguably steal the show.
Bonus Feature: Netflix also has “The Smurfs 2“, which isn’t a patch on the first. You might want to skip it and wait until the all-CG “Smurfs: The Lost Village” smurfs up on Netflix instead.
Best of the Rest
“Jumanji“, “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2“, “Kung Fu Panda“, “Madagascar“, “Zathura“, “Bee Movie“, “How to Train Your Dragon“, “The Wild Thornberrys Movie“, “Hotel Transylvania“, “The Black Stallion“, “Alvin and the Chipmunks“.