Growing up, I wasn't a huge television/movie watcher. We had TVs in our house, of course, this is America, but my sister and I spent most of our childhood outside climbing trees and playing street hockey with the neighborhood boys like the wily, feral children we were.
Movies were for rainy days and special occasions. On special Sunday nights, the whole family would gather round our big, boxy television for a movie night.
My parents, in plaid pajama sets, would share the paisley-printed sofa while my younger sister, Shelby, and I slumped on the floor in footie'd onesies with cartoon pillowcases. (Pocahontas for me, Barney for her.)
Favorite childhood films always hold a special place in our hearts. There's a reason we're still allowing hackneyed Internet artists to churn out boring reimaginings of the Disney princesses on a near daily basis. We maintain a certain warm, nostalgic fondness for the characters who meant so much to us when we were young.
Some of the films and television I loved as a kid haven't held up particularly well. Like, please do NOT go back and watch any Power Rangers. You will immediately wonder if your brain even functioned as a child. I also highly recommend that you don't YouTube half those Disney Channel originals you remember loving. Just spare yourself!
However, the movies that meant the absolute most to me as a child have all held up well, in my opinion. Maybe it's the rose-gold glow of nostalgia, but it seems to me these films are all legitimately good, no matter your age. Here's my top five fondly remembered films of yore.
1. We're Back: A Dinosaur Story
Full disclosure: This is the only Stephen Spielberg-affiliated, dinosaur-themed movie I've ever seen. (I'm saving Jurassic Park for marriage! JK, I just haven't seen it. Maybe one day!)
"We're Back" was released in 1993, which worked out perfectly since I was born in 1990 and my sister 1992. We probably watched this movie at least once a month throughout our childhoods. In the movie, an intelligent and benevolent scientist (Captain New Eyes) travels back in time to rally up some dinos so he can feed them his patented Brain Gain cereal, turning them non-violent, intelligent, and damn-right cuddly before unleashing them on New York City.
After finding their way into a Manhattan parade, Ferris Bueller-style, the group of friendly dinosaurs accidentally meander into the lair/circus tent of Captain New Eyes' evil brother, Captain Screw Eyes. Captain Screw Eyes turns them back into "monsters," much to the horror of their new little kid friends, Louie and Cecilia.
If this plot doesn't make you wanna watch it right away, you should know "We're Back" features the voices of talents like John Goodman, Jay Leno, Rhea Pearlman, Walter Cronkite, Julia Child and more!
I've watched it countless times as an adult (I have it on DVD, natch) and it still manages to make me laugh and cry every time. It's a hilarious, heart-warming, musical adventure for everyone.
2. The Emperor's New Groove
Of all the Disney movies thrust upon us as children, I feel confident recounting that "The Emperor's New Groove" was my and my sister's childhood favorite. My sister and I, to this day, can quote this movie back and forth for far longer than two independent, grown women should.
Featuring the voices of David Spade, John Goodman (again!), Eartha Kitt (!!!) and more, "The Emperor's New Groove" tells the story of the pompous and pitiful Emperor Kuzco who gets turned into a llama and embarks on an epic adventure with the kind-hearted Pacha to become human again. My sister and I have maintained a lifelong obsession with llamas, and I'm sure this film's to blame.
Also, at one point when my family lived briefly in the country, we lived down the road from a llama farm. That was really fun. Llamas, man. Hilarious.
The movie has, of course, an important lesson: At its core, it's an upbeat and humorous takedown of the cruelties inevitable in a capitalistic society. Under capitalism, there can be no ethical consumption! Also, llamas are great, am I right?
3. The Secret Garden
I'm not really sure what it says about me as a child that I loved this movie so much, which features an incredibly spoiled and bratty young girl as its protagonist. Something about it, though, stirred my young heart.
I credit this film for instilling in me my lifelong love of gardens. To this day, I'm truly at my happiest when surrounded by all things green and flowering. This probably also has a lot to do with overexposure to the Dixie Chicks classic, "Cowboy, Take Me Away" as a tween. Anyway, I digress.
In case you've somehow made it this far in life without learning the story: "The Secret Garden" tells the tale of small and spoiled Mary Lennox, who tragically loses her parents (who are frankly terrible) to an earthquake in India and is then sent to live with her reclusive uncle on a quiet estate in England.
After spending some time at her new home, Mary discovers a beautiful and, obviously, secret garden. With help from one of the house staffers and her sickly cousin, Mary works to restore the garden to its former glory while she learns the history of the family who came before her.
This film's visuals are simply breathtaking. As a child, I dreamed of escaping to an isolated British castle where a neglected but picturesque garden, with a huge swing suspended from a large branch, awaited me and my bratty but ambitious disposition. I still watch this movie on the regular. (I actually have two copies of it on DVD. Who wants one?) To this day, watching "The Secret Garden" leaves me feeling wistful and usually results in me spending a few hours googling Air BnB's in the English countryside.
As a bookish and quiet kid, Matilda was an inspirational role model for me. Though my familial situation was very different (My parents are the best people in the world! They're the anti-Wormwoods!), I still related to her feelings as an outsider. I probably spent a decent amount of my childhood staring as hard as I could at various household objects, waiting for my mind's power to move them. I mean, I looked just like Matilda so it only seemed natural that I would have her powers too, right?
"Matilda," based on the Roald Dahl book, tells the story of a small and gifted young girl who discovers she has magical powers. She uses said powers to overcome the difficulties of her terrible parents and even terrible-er school principal.
"Matilda" is a heart-warming, smart, scrappy film with a cast dominated by women. From the comically dastardly Principal Trunchbull (Played by the same woman who plays Aunt Marge in the Harry Potter films! You know, the really mean one that Harry accidentally inflates!) to the appropriately sweet Miss Honey, "Matilda" features a bevy of gifted actresses.
And Matilda's parents are played, perfectly-to-a-tee-of-course, by everyone's favorite (former) (sigh) Hollywood power funny couple, Rhea Perlman and Danny DeVito. Matilda herself is played by the lovable Mara Wilson, a rare talent who managed to avoid the pitfalls of a child actor's life and meld herself a life as a successful writer, playwright, and Twitter superstar.
"Matilda" is full of slapstick jokes, clever humor, tender moments and an overarching, important moral-- money and material goods are OK, but being kind and smart are the only things that really matter in the long run. And, of course, reading is great!!
5. A Little Princess
When questioned about my favorite movie, this has been my answer for 20 years now and I have no plans to change my mind. This is my favorite movie ever made. Even at 25 years old, I still watch this movie once a week. (I have it on DVD too! I don't have wifi at my apartment, so DVDs are important to me!)
Directed by the Oscar-award winning Alfonso Cuarón, who you might know from a large number of critically acclaimed films, including a little flick called "Gravity," "A Little Princess" is the most flawless and beautiful film ever made and I will accept no arguments on this front.
It tells the story of Sarah Crewe, who is sent to live at a boarding school while her father after he is sent off to fight in WWI. Run by a severe headmistress, Sarah struggles to fit in at her new school until the other girls discover her knack for thrilling and creative story-telling, a skill she picked up during her childhood in India.
After her father is killed in battle, the headmistress tells her she no longer has the funds to continue her stay as a student at the school and banishes her to the attic where she can live while she works as a servant to pay her cost of living.
Even in the face of tragedy and adversity, Sarah never loses her hope. Dressed in rags and carrying a mop, she still insists all girls are princesses -- a mantra her kind and doting father instilled in her from a young age.
It's difficult for me to do this movie justice. The story itself is great and the film as a whole is impeccable. The visuals, the soundtrack, the performances -- all of it combined makes for a movie that's highly emotional and powerfully compelling, no matter how old you are. After all, no matter your age or what you're wearing, you're a princess, too.
Also, here's a cute story: As a kid, my parents got me this movie on VHS for Christmas when I was five. The VHS came with a locket, modeled after the one Sarah's father gives her in the film. I kept that locket and wore it all the way through my first few years of college, until I lost it during a move when I was about 20.
My boyfriend at the time scoured eBay for months until he found a pristine copy of the original VHS, with locket intact, to give me for Christmas. We broke up years ago, but we're still friends and I still think of that VHS as the best present I've ever received. Way to go, ex-boyfriend.
I could go on and on, since I'm essentially still, like, seven years old, but I'll stop for now. This was a really fun trip down my memory lane of films.
- Have any of your favorite childhood films remained in your top five?
- Do you wanna talk about "A Little Princess" with me?