14 Unexpected Family Films From Major Directors

Revisiting the family-friendly films of Martin Scorsese, Robert Rodriguez and others who usually make more grown-up fare…

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

This feature contains mild spoilers for all the family films discussed, so if you haven’t seen one then proceed with caution.

Some family-friendly films come from the least expected sources. From Steven Spielberg to Robert Zemeckis, there are a fair few filmmakers whose output spans from grown-up films to G and PG-rated movies, but in the main, directors tend to become attached to films for similar demographics to their previous work.

This could be due to several big family-friendly properties, from franchises to adaptations of beloved stories, grouping in the four-quadrant center of the movie market. For instance, Transformers might have been a departure for the director who brought us the Bad Boys movies, except that all of Michael Bay‘s entries in that franchise are aimed squarely at the PG-13 market, where parents can take kids and (sigh) adults don’t think it’s “for kids.”

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Still, when major filmmakers do make movies for a younger audience after making more mature fare, it’s often intriguing to see how their sensibilities are present when channelled into something for everyone. What do they change and what stays the same?

Recently, Joe Cornish has followed up his John Carpenter-influenced actioner Attack The Block with a delightful family film in the shape of The Kid Who Would Be King. And, for better or worse, this year will also see Guy Ritchie get into the Disney live-action remake game with his take on Aladdin.

Looking at some earlier examples, it’s appealing to imagine that every filmmaker has a great kids’ movie in them because it opens up all kinds of possibilities.

So, until Paul Thomas Anderson makes the Peppa Pig movie we know he has somewhere in his head or Werner Herzog stuns us all with his take on The Tiger Who Came To Tea, here are 14 different departures from form by directors who normally skew a little older…

Babe: Pig In The City

Babe: Pig In The City

Director: George Miller Between: Lorenzo’s Oil (1992) and Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

The original Babe marked the beginning of a highly unexpected family-friendly phase in George Miller’s career. Based on Dick King Smith’s The Sheep Pig, the film was essentially the Mad Max creator’s pet project, but it was Chris Noonan who directed the Oscar-nominated first film. Miller wound up taking the reins for the sequel, a movie which grows proportionally more berserk under his stewardship.

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Transplanting the action to an Oz-like urban environment mashed up from many different architectural influences, the sequel has a decidedly macabre tone, even as it continues to follow a little pig who charms just about everyone he meets. We happen to think that Pig In The City is a severely underrated gem, but that’s not how the higher-ups at Universal Pictures seem to remember it, including former studio head Ron Meyer.

Babe: Pig In The City was [one of] the shittiest movies we put out,” said the guy who greenlit Battleship.

After making the Babe sequel, Miller moved onto developing Mad Max: Fury Road, which was originally slated for a 2002 release, but as pre-production for that film dragged on well into the 2010s, Miller made two more detours into family-friendly fare in the shape of Happy Feet and its sequel. It’s fun to imagine that the Oscar-worthy madness of Fury Road was going on inside his head the whole time he was watching animated penguins dance.

Watch Babe: Pig in the City on Amazon

Fantastic Mr. Fox

Fantastic Mr Fox

Wes Anderson Between: The Darjeeling Limited (2008) and Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

George Clooney provides the silky voice of Mr Fox, as he tangles with loathsome farmers Boggis, Bunce, and Bean, while also “cussing” all over the shop and pondering what it all means anyway. If nothing else, Wes Anderson did a great job of turning a family favorite by Roald Dahl into… a Wes Anderson movie.

Although I know I’m in the minority in not loving this one, there’s still lots to like in this stop-motion animated feature. Even with a lead character in the throes of a mid-life crisis, there’s an appealing scrappiness that counters the shoe-gazing aspects of Anderson’s adaptation.

Plus, Anderson has continued to explore and finesse the sort of stuff we see him doing here in his subsequent films. On top of Boy’s Own adventures like Moonrise Kingdom and last year’s Isle Of Dogs, The Grand Budapest Hotel occasionally feels like the closest thing we’ll ever see to an R-rated Tintin movie, which is nice.

Watch Fantastic Mr. Fox on Amazon



Director: Martin Scorsese Between: Shutter Island (2010) and The Wolf Of Wall Street (2013)

Winning several Oscars and even bagging a nomination for Best Picture, Martin Scorsese’s Hugo is arguably more acclaimed than most of the adult fare for which he’s better known. That’s testament to the quality of his one and only family film, but this 3D extravaganza also turned out to be one of his more personal efforts.

Adapted from Brian Selznick’s popular novel The Invention Of Hugo Cabret, the film follows Asa Butterfield’s eponymous young orphan as he lives and works in a train station in Paris, attempting to repair an automaton left to him by his late father. Befriended by Chloe Grace Moretz and chased around by Sacha Baron Cohen, there’s a fair amount of slapstick, but a far greater amount of heart.

For those familiar with the source material, it’s clear what attracted an avid film historian and preservationist like Scorsese to bring it to the screen. And for those who don’t know, the other shoe drops with the reveal of Ben Kingsley’s character, which gives moving context to Scorsese’s heartfelt ode to the origins of cinema.

Watch Hugo on Amazon



Director: Francis Ford Coppola Between: Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) and The Rainmaker (1997)

Whatever possessed the filmmaker behind The Godfather and Apocalypse Now to make Jack, you may wonder. In short, he wanted to work with Robin Williams. While this off-kilter star vehicle is nobody’s idea of a typical Francis Ford Coppola film, it does give Williams an acting challenge in playing a 10-year-old with a bizarre genetic disorder that makes him age four times faster than his peers.

Williams had played the boy who never grew up in Spielberg’s Hook, but in this case, putting a comedian in a classroom with a bunch of children isn’t too far off the same premise as Billy Madison. Although there is comedy in here, Jack largely plays for sentimentality and pathos in a way that never quite sticks.

As mentioned, there aren’t too many films based on original screenplays on this list and as odd as it may be, this is one that attracted one of the most respected and accomplished makers of grown-up films to work on something that the whole family could be baffled by together.

Watch Jack on Amazon

Legend Of The Guardians: The Owls Of Ga’hoole

Legend Of The Guardians: The Owls Of Ga’hoole

Director: Zack Snyder Between: Watchmen (2009) and Sucker Punch (2011)

Looking back, Zack Snyder had an exceptionally productive spell immediately following 300, not only managing to wrangle something filmed out of the “unfilmable” graphic novel in Watchmen but also finding time to steer this CG-animated fantasy adaptation to the screen the following year, adapting Kathryn Lasky’s Guardians Of Ga’hoole novels up in his usual visual flair.

Snyder told Film School Rejects in 2010: “My feeling was if you do a Lord Of The Rings film for kids, it’s a talking owl movie. You know, it wears a disguise a little bit; it’s in the trappings of a kids movie, but then it ends up taking you on another adventure that maybe you didn’t expect.”

If nothing else, it beats the heck out of Sucker Punch. Although the usual hardcore sensibility that Snyder brings to his films is suitably toned down, it’s still detectable in the bird-on-bird battle sequences. Combined with its sumptuous aesthetic, it’s the gnarliest talking owl movie you’ve ever seen and an underrated diversion in Snyder’s filmography.

Watch Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’hoole on Amazon



Director: Danny Boyle Between: 28 Days Later (2002) and Sunshine (2007)

Some may argue whether or not Millions belongs on this list, or whether it’s merely more family-friendly than Danny Boyle’s other films. But as with other films we’ll discuss, it comes down to whether you think it’s a film about or for children, or whether it’s both.

As it stands, the certificate was only given because of a scene in which an apparition of St. Clare smokes a joint while chatting about morality, which works within the magical realist tone of Frank Cottrell Boyce’s screenplay. In retrospect, the most far-fetched thing about it is that it takes place in the weeks before the United Kingdom officially adopts the Euro.

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As sterling currency is collected and destroyed throughout the UK, two young brothers Damian and Anthony unwittingly intercept a huge bag of cash that has been stolen by a gang of robbers and have just weeks left to spend it all.

Beyond the expected wish-fulfilment of two kids going on a big daft spending spree, it’s a film about faith, hope, and charity, in which Damian, the more conscientious of the brothers, believes the money is a gift from God and grapples with what he believes it was meant for. Charming and thought-provoking, this is a film with a heart of gold.

Watch Millions on Amazon



Director: Robert AltmanBetween: HealtH (1980) and Come Back To The Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982)

This is a really weird one. At the turn of the 1980s, Robert Altman probably seemed an unlikely choice to adapt Popeye into a live-action musical, but he jumped at the chance to steer the sailor man to the big screen. The result – a historic co-production between Disney and Paramount that gave Robin Williams (him again) his first leading role in a movie and also co-starred Shelley Duvall as Olive Oyl – is absolutely nuts.

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Wishing to avoid being curtailed by producers, Altman took the production to Malta in order to retain creative control. Written off as an expensive misfire at the time, the result is the very definition of a cult classic, which features terrific performances from Williams and Duvall as well as deliberately uncatchy songs written by Harry Nilsson.

It’s a truly bizarre blend of the director’s sensibilities and the manic slapstick that Popeye fans knew from the Max Fleischer cartoons of the 1930s, and one which turned fans off at the time. Critics have written at length about how Popeye fits within Altman’s filmography as a film about an individual struggling against the system, but ultimately, the deceptive sweetness and depth of feeling on display in this bonkers auteur-driven musical comedy are the main reasons why it has so charmed later viewers.

Watch Popeye on Amazon



Director: Gore Verbinski Between: Pirates Of The Caribbean: At World’s End (2007) and The Lone Ranger (2013)

Following his back-to-back Pirates sequels, Gore Verbinski was curious about doing a smaller project using computer animation. What started as an experiment wound up being a $135 million feature and an eventual Oscar winner. Featuring the voice of Johnny Depp in the title role, the film follows a chameleon who accidentally becomes the sheriff of a town of animals in the Mojave desert.

Verbinski previously made Mouse Hunt, a Laurel and Hardy-inflected slapstick romp that more than proved his family-friendly chops, but Rango is something altogether more unexpected. Suffused with grown-up influences ranging from the Dollars trilogy to Chinatown, this demented spaghetti western also offers some eccentric character designs that genuinely seemed to terrify younger children.

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It’s certainly the most unlikely winner for Best Animated Picture since the category was introduced, eschewing the usual Pixar and DreamWorks approach to do something far more scrungy and scuzzy, with character designs that genuinely seemed to terrify some younger viewers.

“Does animation have to be family entertainment? I think at that cost, yes,” Verbinski mused in a Hollywood Reporter roundtable interview. There’s the bulls-eye you have to hit, but when you miss it by a little bit and you do something interesting, the bulls-eye is going to move. Audiences want something new; they just can’t articulate what.”

Watch Rango on Amazon

School Of Rock

School Of Rock

Director: Richard Linklater Between: Tape (2001) and Before Sunset (2004)

Unquestionably the most beloved film of this particular bunch, School Of Rock is also Richard Linklater’s most successful film at the worldwide box office. In contrast to Linklater’s independent films, the film is a big, studio-backed Jack Black vehicle at the height of the star’s popularity.

In a 2017 PBS special about his film work, Linklater admitted that the initial call from Paramount went something like: “Here’s a script. Jack Black’s attached. What do you think?’ I’m like, ‘Eh, I dunno if I want to do this.’ I’m like, ‘Pass.’”

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When producer Scott Rudin insisted they wanted him for the film, Linklater reconsidered and gave us one of the best kids’ comedies of the last 20 years. In the film, Black plays a music-obsessed slacker who impersonates his substitute teacher roommate in order to make a quick buck but winds up starting a band with his class.

Shot around the time that he was embarking on Boyhood, School Of Rock similarly showcases Linklater’s affinity with young actors. The independent spirit that he brings to a big family-friendly studio comedy is one of the chief reasons why the film holds up so well.

Watch School of Rock on Amazon

Speed Racer

Speed Racer

Directors: Lana and Lily WachowskiBetween: The Matrix Revolutions (2003) and Cloud Atlas (2013)

And then there was that time the visionaries behind The Matrix followed their defining trilogy with a great big anti-capitalist action comedy based on a 1960s anime and manga series. The Wachowskis’ approach to this four-color extravaganza is to make more of a live-action cartoon than any other film you could possibly describe in that way. Typically, it bombed at the box office and we had to wait until Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse, before anything else as vivid as this arrived on the big screen again.

While the film’s singular visual style could have wound up looking a bit Lazy Town, this is a striking piece of work that looks spectacular, once your eyes adjust to it. You were never going to get anything grittier than this out of Speed Racer, so it’s fascinating to watch the filmmakers take a wild swing on a big, crazy kids’ movie like this. Overlong and brilliantly ill-advised in places, it’s still a really engaging watch.

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But perhaps the most surreal thing about it is the fully committed performances from all concerned. Even in a film that ranges from John Goodman’s Pops defenestrating a ninja (“Terrible what passes for a ninja these days”) to Roger Allam’s barking, Trumpian CEO monologuing about profits, the family story at the centre of it all is surprisingly heartfelt. In any list that didn’t also have Popeye in it, it would be the maddest thing you’ve ever laid eyes on.

Spy Kids

Spy Kids

Director: Robert Rodriguez Between: The Faculty (1998) and Once Upon A Time In Mexico (2003)

Few filmmakers are as productive and eclectic as Robert Rodriguez, who has swung wildly from violent grindhouse throwbacks to candy-colored kids’ confections ever since 2001’s Spy Kids. Surprisingly, all sequel fatigue aside, the first film about the gadget-fuelled antics of the Cortez family holds up pretty well.

Youngsters Alexa Vega and Daryl Sabara make likeable leads, and there’s nice supporting work from Antonio Banderas, Carla Gugino, and Alan Cumming. Also, Danny Trejo’s Uncle Machete is canonically the same character as the one who appears in the Machete movies, making this part of cinema’s wildest extended universe.

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A Harryhausen-inspired follow-up The Island Of Lost Dreams and an anaglyph 3D throwback Game Over followed the first film into cinemas in successive years, forming a whole trilogy before Rodriguez went back to more adult fare to close out his El Mariachi trilogy with Once Upon A Time In Mexico. Further family-friendly efforts, like The Adventures Of Shark Boy And Lava Girl, Shorts, and a Spy Kids reboot all fell short of his first, best family-friendly outing.

Watch Spy Kids on Amazon



Director: Matthew Vaughn Between: Layer Cake (2004) and Kick-Ass (2010)

After making his directing debut with Layer Cake, Matthew Vaughn was courted for a few big blockbusters, including X-Men: The Last Stand and Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix, but in the end, he chose to adapt Neil Gaiman’s post-modern fantasy, Stardust, as his follow-up.

While the source material suggests something in Vaughn’s genre-smashing wheelhouse, it’s somewhat surprising that he made a cast-iron PG-certificate crowd-pleaser instead. In the film, a pre-Daredevil Charlie Cox leads an all-star cast as Tristan, a young man who ventures from his quaint English village into a magical kingdom in pursuit of Claire Danes’ fallen star.

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Vaughn and co-writer Jane Goldman do a great job of turning this into a Princess Bride for the 21st century. Funny, endearing, and heart-warming, it’s the sort of film that some of us wish the director would make more often, especially those of us who groaned when we heard about something called a ”Kingsman universe” being in development.

Watch Stardust on Amazon.

Where The Wild Things Are

Where The Wild Things Are

Director: Spike JonzeBetween: Adaptation (2002) and Her (2013)

It took a while to get Where The Wild Things Are made. There are animation tests for an animated version of Maurice Sendak’s iconic picture book going as far back as John Lasseter’s stint as an animator at Disney in the 1980s. Finally, it was Being John Malkovich and Adaptation director Spike Jonze who brought the 10-page book to life in a feature-length film.

Jonze has stated that he set out to make a film about childhood, rather than a film for children, but it was very much marketed as both. As it stands, there’s lots for parents and kids to enjoy in the story of Max, an emotionally volatile young boy who runs away and winds up on an island where he becomes the King of the similarly changeable Wild Things.

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Visually speaking, using puppets, animatronics, and CGI in tandem to create the Wild Things gives them real physical weight, which complements the emotional heft behind Jonze’s take. Furrier than it is cuddly, it feels targeted towards those who have grown up with the book than younger readers who have just discovered it, but there’s a universal feeling to its junior coming-of-age story.

Watch Where the Wild Things Are on Amazon.

The Witches

The Witches

Director: Nicolas RoegBetween: Track 29 (1988) and Cold Heaven (1991)

To finish, let’s look back at a mildly deranged children’s horror film from the late, great Nicolas Roeg. Based on another Roald Dahl story, The Witches follows young Luke Eveshim and his aunt Helga as they run across an international coven of witches during their seaside holiday and uncover a plot to turn all the world’s children into mice.

With stellar puppetry from Jim Henson’s workshop and an iconic performance by Anjelica Huston as the Grand High Witch, this is about 99% as ghoulish as you would expect it to be. The controversial happy ending is almost its undoing (Dahl famously hated it, protesting that the original, filmed ending was already a happy one), but this is still a gloriously gruesome adaptation.

We recently learned that The Witches is up for the remake treatment with Robert Zemeckis directing and Anne Hathaway stepping into Huston’s role. It remains to be seen if they’ll restore Dahl’s ending, but frankly, it’s hard to imagine it being any weirder or wilder than Roeg’s riotous version.