25 Underappreciated Family Movies of the Last 20 Years

From Flushed Away and Hunchback to Titan A.E. and Sky High - the family movies that don't get the love they deserve...

This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.

When I sit through a film such as Zootropolis, Rango, Frozen, Wreck-It Ralph, Eddie The Eagle, or Coraline, I can’t help but be thankful somebody has bothered. As a parent as well as a movie lover, I’ve grown to really dislike family movies that just turn up to act as a surrogate babysitter for 90 minutes, with no intention of becoming anybody’s favorite film. The films I’m going to talk about are the family movies therefore that I think both try and do something a bit more, yet continue to fly under many people’s radar. 

A bonus mention before we get going, and number 26 in the list, much to my surprise: Alvin & The Chipmunks 4. I was expecting next to zero from it, courtesy of the most annoying movie trailer of the last year. What I got was John Waters, some knowing winks to the grown ups in the audience and – whisper it – quite a good movie.

Thus, if you can’t tell already, this is quite a personal list. My criteria for underappreciated here is mainly that these are movies I rarely hear discussed. Some flopped, some were decent hits, but I reckon all 25 of these are the foundation of an excellent family DVD collection. Without further ado…

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25. Get Santa

Around the UK, most major chains have a Saturday and Sunday morning kids’ club screening, where they show a recent release at a much reduced price. I constantly scour the listings to try and find lower profile films that I may have missed. Which is why I ended up watching Get Santa on a warm March Sunday morning.

Get Santa arrived in British cinemas to do battle with Nativity 3: Dude, Where’s My Donkey? It duly got trounced. And what a pity, too. Whereas Nativity 3 is only redeemed by not being quite as much as a chore as Nativity 2 was, Get Santa is really rather good.

It’s from Christopher Smith, a director more known for horror movies such as Severance and Creep. And it’s a father and son story, where they come together when they discover Santa – the always terrific value Jim Broadbent – fast asleep in their garage. Santa is on the run in this movie too, but it’s the relationship between Rafe Spall and Kit Connor that sits at the heart of a really funny and rather sweet movie.

24. The Borrowers

Jim Broadbent pops up in this one too, a 1997 movie adaptation of The Borrowers that has a groundswell of fans, but not as many as it deserves. Directed by Peter Hewitt (Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey!) this is based on the books of Mary Norton.

The cast is impressivefor a start. You get a pre-Harry Potter Tom Felton in there, movie trivia fans, but it’s John Goodman, Celia Imrie, Hugh Laurie, Mark Williams and the aforementioned Broadbent who are excellent in a company that clearly commits to the material.

Most of all, though, Hewitt’s film is really good fun. Appreciating that The Borrowers has been revisited since, and no doubt will be again, it’s a pity we didn’t get to see further chapters of this impressive incarnation.

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23. Spirit: Stallion Of The Cimarron

DreamWorks Animation launched just as the CG arms race in animation was getting underway. That said, it managed four hand-drawn animated features before it switched to fully-computer animation, and Spirit just edges out the fun The Road To El Dorado as the second best of them for my money.

Co-director Kelly Asbury would go on to make the fun Gnomeo & Juliet (The Statham as a garden gnome!), but Spirit – centred on a horse of the same name, voiced by Matt Damon – is a really enjoyable adventure, with a terrific soundtrack, and a suitably welcome family message. It’s worth it just for the opening scene too…

22. Oddball And The Penguins

This one snuck into UK cinemas at the start of the year, and for the most part, pretty soon snuck out afterwards. An Australian comedy drama, that comes with bonus Alan Tudyk and the original title Oddball, it’s the story of an island whose penguin sanctuary finds itself under severe threat, as numbers keep dwindling. Numbers keep dwindling, as it happens, due to the foxes that keep eating them, and with the aim of a dog called Oddball – don’t panic, this isn’t a Beethoven sequel or anything – a plan is formed to try and protect them.

A movie that really took my by surprise, this one, courtesy of one or two slight story turns I wasn’t expecting, a willingness to address the issues surrounding the film, and an emphasis on treating its young target audience as grown-ups. Hopefully, its disc release will give it the wider audience it deserves.

21. The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists

I’ve left Aardman’s Arthur Christmas off this list, given that it’s an Aardman release that hit big in the UK, and is starting to get a regular airing – deservedly so – every Christmas. But The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists followed Arthur Christmas into cinemas by a few months, and didn’t quite get the same hold. A real pity too, because it’s a wonderful, witty, hand-crafted piece of work.

Directed by Peter Lord (Chicken Run, Morph) and based on the novel of the same name by Gideon Defoe, this stop-motion animated tale of not entirely competent pirates got caught in a bit of a marketing muddle at Sony Pictures. The studio released the film under a different title in the US – The Pirates! Band Of Misfits – which didn’t help give the impression it knew quite what it had. Yet every time the film comes around, I watch it, chuckle continually, and marvel at the sheer craft that goes into such a charming piece of work.

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The muted box office performance for The Pirates! scuppered any plans to bring more of Defoe’s series to the screen. I remain gratified that at least one adaptation made it through the system, though.

20. Horton Hears A Who!

Blue Sky Studios is best known for the Ice Age films primarily, but it’s got some other interesting films under its belt, such as Robots and the recent Peanuts outing. It’s also got the best animated Dr. Seuss adaptation of recent times to its name, courtesy of Horton Hears A Who!

What a delight the movie is, too. A good hit on its original release, Jim Carrey voices Horton the elephant here (having played The Grinch in the disappointing yet wildly successful 2000 live action movie of the same name), and it’s his job to protect his microscopic community from a bunch of people who didn’t even know it’s there. It builds up – rarely! – to an excellent third act, too.

Horton Hears A Who! is by distance better than the likes of The Lorax. Naturally, it was The Lorax that made a lot more money…

19. Titan A.E.

A film that nearly put 20th Century Fox off the animated movie business altogether. Titan A.E., it’d be fair to say, was ahead of its time in its thinking, a space adventure blending 2D hand-drawn animation with some startling CG work. After the movie failed at the box office, Fox shut down Fox Animation, and it was only later through the likes of Blue Sky Studios and its tie-up with DreamWorks Animation that it got going again with its animated output.

Titan A.E., though, remains a very entertaining sci-fi adventure, from directors Don Bluth and Gary Goldman. Set over 1000 years in the future, with the A.E. standing for after Earth, the movie certainly has a few problems, but it’s carried along by its stylish visuals, its solid story, and a welcome pace. Definitely worth checking out, this one.

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18. Monster House

Gil Kenan’s Monster House was acclaimed by critics on its release in 2006, with many citing it as a spiritual successor to the likes of The Goonies. Driven by performance capture, the movie centers on three teenagers, who are curious as to the spooky looking house in their neighborhood. I’ve no intention of spoiling what happens, but will say that Monster House then throws in a few welcome surprises, and genuinely keeps you on your toes right through to its ending.

A solid box office performance followed its release, but still, Monster House has a lot more ambition to it than the bulk of multiplex fodder, and it proves that even in the midst of the-then unpopular performance capture technology (how times have changed there), it was possible to flesh out real characters to root for.

17. Treasure Planet

A notable Disney commercial underperformer, released at a time when Walt Disney Animation Studios was seen to be losing its confidence somewhat. Not that directors John Musker and Ron Clements were: they transposed the story of Treasure Island into space, and married it up to some really breathtaking visuals. Even removed from a big screen though, by keeping the foundations of their movie in such a classic novel, that’s a welcome underlying narrative thrust to Treasure Planet that retains interest even when the gloss of the visuals has worn off a little.

This one is well worth rediscovering. Further proof that even though many people were writing Disney animation off in the early 2000s, the films were better than they were given credit for.

16. The Parent Trap

Proof that not every remake goes wrong, Nancy Meyers’ remake of The Parent Trap is a really good movie, as is the 1961 original (both are based on the same German novel, Lottie And Lisa). A lot of credit to Lindsay Lohan here, who at a relatively young age successfully conveyed the characters of two sisters, unaware of their existence of each other. They live different lives on different sides of the ocean, until movie fate inevitably intervenes.

Surprisingly for a 128 minute live action family movie, The Parent Trap never drags along, and Lohan demonstrates a real charm and talent for comedy. Be warned, though: once watched, The Parent Trap is just the kind of film that ends up on the family rewatch pile for the rest of time. Right next to the similarly strong Freaky Friday.

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15. Mousehunt

Ah, cracking little film this. From Gore Verbinski, who would go on to make three Pirates Of The Caribbean films (and Rango, which only doesn’t make this list because we still – thankfully – see lots of love for it) – Mousehunt teams Nathan Lane and Lee Evans, as a duo attempting to clean out an antique house. What they don’t expect is the resistance coming from one of its smallest occupants.

A really lively knockabout comedy this, with Verbinski showing a fondness for the likes of Tom & Jerry and Looney Tunes with his approach. Christopher Walken, also, is terrific.

14. James And The Giant Peach

The big Roald Dahl-based cinema success of the 1990s was Danny DeVito’s excellent adaptation of Matilda. To this day, that’s a film that plays regularly on television, and gets a deserved amount of attention. Henry Selick, off the back of directing The Nightmare Before Christmas, also turned his attention to Dahl, with his excellent take on James And The Giant Peach. This one never had quite the same impact, but that’s a real pity.

Primarily a stop motion film, with a few live action elements to it as well, inevitably – as it does with the book – the story soars once James climbs aboard the giant peach of the title and goes off on his adventure. Stop motion is a perfect platform in which to realise this (Dahl stories lend themselves well to this. Exhibit B is Wes Anderson’s acclaimed Fantastic Mr. Fox), and Selick captured the spirit of Dahl’s writing, and married it up to his compelling visual style. Few directors have ever got Dahl quite as well. Steven Spielberg, with The BFG, will do well to match this.

13. Meet The Robinsons

It’s generally regarded that Bolt was the movie where John Lasseter’s impact on Walt Disney Animation Studios began to be felt, and indeed, he had a far larger impact on that particular production. But for me, the current Disney hot streak’s roots lie in Meet The Robinsons.

This was the movie that saw an orphaned 12-year old (yep, there’s a mild taste of Big Hero 6 to it now), whose inventions keep putting off potential new parents. And thus he decides to try and track down his real mother.

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It’s a sweet, funny, lively film this, that might clobber you a little bit with its message come the end, but heck, it’s actually got a message worth clobbering you with in the first place. It’s also criminally overlooked. You’re not going to discover something quite up to the standard of Disney’s last few animated ventures, but you will, I’d argue, find an awful lot to enjoy. And maybe a few things in there to love, too.

12. Flushed Away

There’s a story and a half still to be told about just what went on behind the scenes of Aardman’s first CG-animated movie. Delightfully crafted, and full of the lovely Britishisms that Aardman detail their movies with, Flushed Away was also the project that ultimately ended with the studio ending its deal with DreamWorks Animation early. Strong suggestions were that the culture of the two studios wasn’t particularly compatible, and as such, they went their separate ways (leaving DreamWorks with the rights to make The Croods, which it duly did).

All this noise somewhat overshadowed Flushed Away, and I to this day find that a real shame. It’s the story of a posh rat who ends up getting flushed down the toilet, and having to adjust to life in the sewers. And it’s an awful lot of fun, with directors David Bowers and Sam Fell keeping the movie pacy and witty, while never losing the sheer crafted feel inherent to Aardman. There’s still no Blu-ray release, either, with Flushed Away one of many DreamWorks Animation titles inexplicably overlooked for a high definition disc release.

It’s not the last time I shall be making that point in this countdown either…

11. Paper Planes

What a delight of a movie this one is. An Australian movie based on a true story, it follows a young boy and his dad (the latter played solidly enough by Sam Worthington), who we learn are dealing with the loss of said boy’s mum. But one day at school, Dylan – for that is the boy’s name – is introduced to the idea of the paper plane throwing competition. And the gauntlet is duly thrown. With the help of a wonderfully reckless granddad, and with the expected rivalries such stories command, a really cherishable 96 minute live action drama ensues.

It’s based on a true story, one told with fairly obvious story beats, but a whole lot of style, heart and character. It snuck into British cinemas quietly, but is just the kind of film that needs reader of a site like this to go and bang the drum for. Seek it out, and then please do.

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10. George Of The Jungle

The golden rule of having what is essentially a one-joke comedy is to make that one joke very funny, and to repeat it with a big, goofy grin on your face. All behind George Of The Jungle, including title star Brendon Fraser, absolutely got this memo.

The joke? That George, a man raised by apes with a big wink to Tarzan, keeps flying into trees. Actually, there’s a bit more to it than that, not least superbly wry voiceover narration. But crucially, George Of The Jungle is just extremely good fun, and a healthy reminder that few actors had the movie star charisma in the late ’90s to really carry this off.

Avoid the sequel, of course. A crappy Disney straight to DVD effort, and not to be encouraged.

9. The Emperor’s New Groove

Few Disney films have done such dramatic about turns in production as The Emperor’s New Groove. Originally envisaged as an environmental musical by the name of Kingdom Of The Sun, Sting wrote a collection of songs for the film, all but one of which was eventually thrown out of the final cut.

When Pocahontas and The Hunchback Of Notre Dame failed to take off in the expected way at the box office, Disney opted to retool The Emperor’s New Groove, as we looked at in more detail here. This was infamously charted in Trudie Styler’s unreleased documentary The Sweatbox, but it all overlooks what came out of the end of all this conflict: a very, very, very, very, very funny animated comedy.

I have recollections of it being fairly cautiously marketed too, as if Disney had lost a little faith in the project. The end result though remains a really tremendously fun movie. I thought at first it was because my expectations were low, but every time I watch it, I guffaw. Not quiet guffaws, either.

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8. Sky High

We explored the brilliant Sky High in more detail, here. But: if you’ve ever sat through a recent comic book movie and wished for a) more fun and b) Kurt Russell, then ahead of Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol 2, then Sky High aches to be watched. You really do have a treat ahead of you.

7. Rise Of The Guardians

Commercially at least, Rise Of The Guardians – an adaptation of William Joyce’s writing (and Joyce was originally co-directing with Peter Ramsey, before Ramsey steered the film to completion) – was the turning point in the fortunes of DreamWorks Animation. It took $300m at the global box office, but this was at a stage when the studio was routinely expecting a good $150 million more than that.

Films such as Turbo and Mr. Peabody & Sherman followed, similarly struggling to catch box office gold. Yet Rise Of The Guardians is one of the most ambitious DreamWorks films to date, a story that opens darkly, and explores themes such as loneliness and fitting in quite wonderfully. The last act may go a bit too fast and be a bit too blockbuster-y, but there’s a heart, soul and pulse to this film that surely qualifies it for a better reputation and more prominence. Plus: the score is flat-out gorgeous.

6. Millions

Marketed as a Danny Boyle film you could take the family too (this coming not too long after Shallow Grave and Trainspotting), Millions is a terrific adaptation of Frank Cottrell Boyce’s novel of the same name. It’s just on the edges of family entertainment, earning a 12A rating, but if you take your offspring to 12A comic book movies, then Millions shouldn’t be overlooked.

The basic premise is of a seven-year old who finds a big bag of money lying around. What should he do? Whose it is? Does he return it or spend it? These are just some of the decisions and questions at the heart of an entertaining, often funny and beautifully played, heartfelt movie. I contend it’s one of Danny Boyle’s best, and I also accept that’s not a sentence you throw around lightly.

5. The Prince Of Egypt

The original plan was that The Prince Of Egypt would be the first movie from DreamWorks Animation, an ambitious hand-drawn statement of intent for the studio, that was launching into a market that was Disney-dominated at the time. But a release date shift for Antz meant the excellent The Prince Of Egypt would be second out of the traps.

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A telling of the biblical story of Moses, The Prince Of Egypt is slightly held back by one or two of its songs (three soundtrack albums were released in the end), but otherwise is a genuinely ambitious piece of storytelling, and a bold film in its own right. Some of the animation is simply exquisite, but crucially, the story works, and captures the size and scale of the story the movie is trying to tell. It understands that it needs darkness too, with one or two quite haunting sequences.

The Prince Of Egypt was a good hit on its original release, but again, it’s a film you rarely see discussed now, and neither does it have a Blu-ray release for some reason. Hopefully that’ll change on both counts soon.

4. Bill

We’ve put together a fair few words over the past year championing Bill, and fully intend to deploy a few more. Starting here. A British family comedy in the playful spirit of Monty Python, Bill comes from the team behind Horrible Histories and Yonderland, and picks up the story of William Shakespeare, just before he got famous.

Whether you’ve seen the work of Matt Baynton, Laurence Rickard, Simon Farnaby, Jim Howick, Martha Howe-Douglas, and Ben Willbond before or not, you’re really in for a treat here. The key sextet take on a multitude of roles, and with real gusto, mine grins, giggles and full-on guffaws from a deliciously fun piece of genuine family entertainment.

We really do love Bill a lot. We think you will too.

3. Zathura: A Space Adventure

Jon Favreau has scored another deserved success this year with his live action take on Disney’s The Jungle Book, yet I’d still argue that his standout family movie is the underseen Zathura: A Space Adventure.

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Based in the same world as Jumanji, which led to some confused marketing around the time of the movie’s release, Zathura follows two boys and one girl (a young Kristen Stewart and Josh Hutcherson amongst them), who find an old Zathura boardgame and decide to play it. Not the best choice as it happens, as their house ends up in space.

Favreau keeps his effects mainly practical, and also gets terrific, believable performances from his leads. In the midst of the sci-fi adventure, there’s a very human story here, and bonus Tim Robbins as well.

I’d suggest, personally, skipping Jumanji entirely and heading straight for Zathura if you’ve not had the pleasure of either. The latter is comfortably the better film, and also a rollicking good family adventure.

2. The Hunchback Of Notre Dame

Go around any Disney theme park, any Disney store, in fact any hint of recent merchandise, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that The Hunchback Of Notre Dame, its 1996 adaptation of Victor Hugo’s book, simply didn’t exist. The reunion of directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise following Beauty And The Beast, I contend that it’s a superb piece of work this one, taking bold choices that surely could only have got through the Disney system courtesy of the astonishing hit streak the studio was enjoying at the time.

This was Disney in the time of The Little Mermaid, Beauty, Aladdin, and The Lion King. Hunchback was deep into production by the time Pocahontas landed in 1995, and had disappointed at the box office. A major course change was never really likely, and instead, Hunchback landed in cinemas with remarkably grown-up subject beats, an outstanding score, and a story that simply doesn’t feel compromised. The Hellfire song remains astounding, for many reasons.

We looked at more detail at The Hunchback Of Notre Dame, here. It is the underrated treat of Disney’s very fruitful 1990s.

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1. The Iron Giant

Oh, where do you start? It’s a little gratifying that, since it flopped on its original cinema release in 1999, that The Iron Giant has earned a growing audience. But still: while it may be a film familiar to many readers of this site, it remains one of the most wonderful family movies of the last 20 years – and relatively few people have seen it.

A loose-ish adaptation of the Ted Hughes novella of the same name, The Iron Giant is a hand-drawn animated film, the feature directorial debut of Brad Bird (The Incredibles, Ratatouille). And it’s just wonderful. In 75 minutes, or slightly longer if you get hold of the new Signature Edition, it tells the story of young Hogarth Hughes, as he befriends a giant, one that one or two others happen to be on the trail of.

I’m deliberately keeping it vague, as The Iron Giant is just best worth discovering as freshly as possible. Not for its plot twists or anything of that ilk, rather that this is a superb story, told exquisitely. Everything just works, as simple as that sounds. It’s emotional, funny, exciting, and does more in its short running time than a good dozen or so blockbusters.

It’s not just one of the most underappreciated films of the last 20 years, it’s one of the best movies full stop. Please seek it out, and please spread the word. “Superman”…

Our more detailed look at The Iron Giant is here.