The Wonderful World of Disney Films: Family Movie Night

by Tom Richards, contributing writer
by Tom Richards, contributing writer

More often than we’d like to admit, parents use the television as a baby sitter. Plop the kids in front of their favorite DVD and keep them occupied and out of the way—at least for a little while.

This, of course, was not Walt Disney’s idea of family entertainment, be it film, television, or theme park. True family entertainment is designed to appeal to both adults and children. In Walt Disney’s own words: “I don’t believe in playing down to children, either in life or in motion pictures. Children are people, and they should have to reach to learn about things, to understand things, just as adults have to reach if they want to grow in mental stature.” Film and literature offer excellent opportunities for children to reach and grow emotionally as well.

Parents may be surprised to find that there are many quality films - classic and contemporary - for families with children aged 7-14 to enjoy together. Look beyond the current spate of computer-generated, fast and furious, hip and forgettable films to find many meaningful stories just waiting to open the minds and touch the hearts of today’s children.

The following stories have stood the test of time, entertaining generations of children. They are best enjoyed when parent and child sit down together to enter the worlds that only literature or film can create. Thsee film choices include Disney and non-Disney films that will provide entertainment for chldren and adults alike.

The best adventure films combine make-believe excitement with believable, relatable characters. The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) is a rousing historical adventure full of excitement and romance. Errol Flynn’s Robin and Olivia de Havilland’s Maid Marian are well-rounded, believable characters for whom audiences can’t help but cheer.

Walt Disney’s 1950 filming of Treasure Island offers grand adventure as young Jim Hawkins and a band of rowdy pirates search for buried treasure. This suspenseful and engrossing film will please younger pirates for whom the violence of the newer Pirates of the Caribbean films is too intense.

Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, a complex adventure filmed by Disney in 1954, boasts excellent special effects and a genuinely gripping storyline to tell the story of Captain Nemo and the Nautilus. As an added bonus, Walt Disney World fans can relive their favorite long-gone attraction.

Through adventures, young people learn about themselves and the world around them. And in the process, they learn what it means to develop character. Swiss Family Robinson (1960) combines the escapist dream of living on a tropical island with themes of cooperation, family love, and perseverance in the face of adversity. It also provides a wonderful context for the Magic Kingdom attraction; watch the film and your next visit to Adventureland will be much more meaningful.

Third Man on the Mountain (1959) is a coming of age story set against the spectacular Swiss Alps. Young Rudi Matt must come to grips with the death of his father and learn the definition of true courage. Note to Disneyland fans: During on-location filming of this movie, Walt Disney was inspired to create his own Matterhorn.

Historical dramas provide windows into the past and more often than not, underscore the fact that human concerns and traumas, triumphs and joys are universal experiences. The 1994 adaptation of Little Women is a beautifully acted and lovingly filmed version of a timeless story that is as meaningful for adults as it is for children. Oliver Twist (2005) brings Dickensian London to vivid life as young Oliver confronts the evils of the world and learns to persevere even in his darkest hours. Another Dickens’ novel, David Copperfield, was filmed in 1999 by the BBC. Starring Maggie Smith, Bob Hopkins, and a pre-Harry Potter Daniel Radcliff, this incredibly faithful adaptation is a memorable introduction to the wonders of Masterpiece Theater.

One of Walt Disney’s best live-action films, Pollyanna (1960), brims with humor, warmth, and meaning. The charming Hayley Mills is unforgettable as Pollyanna whose faith in human nature never falters, even in the worst situations. Old Yeller (1957), another Disney production, confronts difficult situations with intelligence and compassion. The loss of a beloved pet is a rite of passage for many children, and this fine film subtly and realistically portrays young Travis Coates’ grief and loss. Another famous dog story, Big Red (1962), portrays the bond between dog and boy that helps from an equally strong bond between a boy and his adoptive father.

The realm of fantasy should not be relegated to the very young. Two relatively recent films about the boy who wouldn’t grow up—Peter Pan (2003) and Finding Neverland (2004)—infuse the well-loved fantasy with deep emotion and meaning. The Secret Garden (1993) is another beautiful, intelligent film that combines fantasy and drama in a story that subtly teaches many important life lessons.

The timelessness of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is intact in the 1962 film version of her landmark novel. Mockingbird is a film that needs to be a shared experience, for it is sure to lead to questions and concerns that older children must discuss with their parents at one time or another.

It is, in fact, this element of questioning that leads to open, honest dialogue between parents and children. While films like those listed above provide escapist entertainment, they also present important life lessons—about the joys of life as well as the harsh realities—in ways that children understand. Just as these stories worked their magic on parents in their youth, today’s children will learn about life and love, loss and heartache, joys and fears in meaningful ways through stories shared as a family.

Tom Richards is a life-long admirer of Walt Disney, something of a Disney historian, and a free-lance writer. His Disney interests include—but are not limited to—Walt Disney World, classic Disney animation, live-action films made during Walt's lifetime, and Disney-related music and art.