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20 Must-See Movies to Watch Together as a Family

When her sons were little, Ms. Meyers wanted to share her favorite family movies with them. That's when she started Mom's Movie Night.

A family movie night can serve as a springboard for important conversations.

A family movie night can serve as a springboard for important conversations.

Start Mom's Movie Night at Your Home!

When my boys were 4 and 6, I instituted a tradition in our family that I dubbed Mom's Movie Night. I'd select a film, either because it had a powerful message I wanted my sons to hear or simply because it was fun, entertaining, and well-made. Each Friday evening we'd order a pizza, blend some smoothies, pop some popcorn, and watch it together as a family.

We'd cuddle on the couch in our pajamas—lights off and comfy blankets engulfing us. I'd keep the title a closely guarded secret during the week to build up anticipation. We'd all look forward to this Friday night tradition as a relaxing way to decompress after a long week and as a joyful ritual to kick off the weekend.

Begin Now Because They Grow Up So Fast!

Today, my sons are teenagers whose Friday nights involve going to football games, hanging out with buddies, and catching up on the latest YouTube videos. I have little influence on their cinematic choices (one favors Quentin Tarantino flicks and the other, musicals). I wouldn't be able to coerce them to sit still for a movie of my choosing if I paid them.

Therefore, I'm grateful for those early years when we shared the magic of movies together. I urge you to do the same with your children while you have the chance. To get you started, here are 20 of my family's all-time favorites. They are the ones that I know my sons will be sharing with their own children some day. Enjoy!

1. Charlotte's Web—1973 animated musical

I first watched Charlotte's Web as a girl growing up in Oakland during the 1970's. The movie transported me from the only world I knew—the inner-city—to life out in the country on a farm. Like so many urban kids, I only knew that food came from the supermarket without any knowledge of its origins beyond that. Therefore, I was thoroughly mesmerized by this tale of a compassionate spider who wants to save her pig pal from becoming a ham dinner.

Based on the beloved book by E.B. White, Charlotte's Web tells the story of an unlikely friendship between a brilliant spider, Charlotte, and an adorable pig, Wilbur. It's fitting that White, an award-winning author, created a tale that celebrates the power of words. Charlotte, a writer herself, spins messages in her web to protect the life of Wilbur.

Released in 1973, this animated musical has stood the test of time to become a classic. Your children will remember it fondly just as I do all these decades later. Watching it may get them excited about reading other E.B. White books such as Stuart Little and The Trumpet of the Swan.

Charlotte, the heroine of the tale, is a talented writer who uses her skills to save the life of a friend.

Charlotte, the heroine of the tale, is a talented writer who uses her skills to save the life of a friend.

2. Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory—1971 musical

It's unfortunate that many children today have only seen Tim Burton's 2005 version with its creepy performance by Johnny Depp as Willie Wonka. The original film from 1971, starring the superb Gene Wilder, is immensely superior: memorable, musical, and magical for all ages. Like Charlotte's Web, it comes from a beloved book written by a talented author, Roald Dahl. Other works by Dahl have also become films: James and the Giant Peach, Matilda, and Fantastic Mr. Fox.

A child's love of candy is at the heart of this tale. Kids relate to young Charlie who longs for a golden ticket so he can tour Mr. Wonka's amazing factory where world-class sweets get produced. Youngsters will see themselves and their peers mirrored in the characters: a spoiled rich girl who demands too much, a chubby boy who eats too much, and a hyperactive kid who watches too much television. It's Charlie, the sweet-natured boy with a poor but loving family, who wins our hearts and the respect of Mr. Wonka. Although made more than four decades ago, this film holds up beautifully and is an undisputed classic.

3. Mrs. Doubtfire—1993 comedy

The immensely talented, Robin Williams, left us with many outstanding movies to treasure. Mrs. Doubtfire is the perfect showcase for his talent as he dons a wig, makeup, a dress, and stockings to play a female housekeeper—all so he can spend more time with his three kids. While the film shifts effortlessly from hilarity to poignancy, it's most impressive in the deft way it handles a subject that impacts many children: divorce.

Robin Williams and Sally Fields play parents who love their kids deeply but no longer want to remain a married couple. There's no miraculous reunification for them at the movie's close like in so many feel-good family movies of the past. Instead, we see them acting like mature adults—putting aside their differences for the sake of their kids. This alone makes Mrs. Doubtfire a must-see for children of divorce.

4. Bye Bye Birdie—1963 musical

This movie is a hoot for the entire family, depicting 1950's life in all its innocence. A rock 'n roll star (think Elvis Presley) visits a small town in America as a publicity stunt. He's there to kiss one lucky teenage girl on the Ed Sullivan Show before entering the army.

Based on the hit Broadway musical, this film is jam-packed with memorable songs, enthralling dance numbers, and enchanting romances. Kids today will delight in the fashions alone: white bobby socks with ruffles, full skirts and sweater sets, capri pants, and biker jackets. This movie is fast-paced, bright, and colorful with an electric performance by the phenomenal, Ann-Margret, in the role that made her a major star.

5. The Sound of Music—1965 musical

No family movie list would be complete without The Sound of Music. Based on the Broadway play by Rogers and Hammerstein, this wondrous film won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1966 and is still loved throughout the world today. It has all the elements of a grand cinematic experience: a splendid love story, glorious scenery shot in Austria, danger and intrigue as World War II looms, and magnificent songs that fill your heart with joy.

Because it's long (3 hours), it's best to break it up into 2 or 3 sessions for young children. I'm so glad I showed this masterpiece to my sons when they were little. They would never tolerate it now as teenagers, but I strongly believe it's a film everybody should see.

6. E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial—1982 science fiction

I can't watch this Steven Spielberg blockbuster without getting a lump in my throat. While filled with action and special effects, it's most powerful in its depiction of the intense friendship between a boy, Elliot, and the oddly adorable alien, E.T. Children will love this movie because it's kid-centric—told from Elliot's point of view. Elliot, his siblings, and friends are the protectors of E.T. who valiantly help him return to his home planet.

Kids will see their own lives mirrored in the characters' lives. Elliot is struggling with the recent divorce of his parents. His mom is doing her best to support the family financially and care for her three children, but she's spread thin. The family lives in a middle-class neighborhood of suburban tract homes. These are ordinary kids in an extraordinary situation, and that makes it pure cinematic magic.

7. Beauty and the Beast—1991 animated musical

The classic French fairy tale comes alive in this animated Disney musical. Our heroine, Belle, is a terrific role model for young girls: an avid reader, a loyal daughter, and a brave woman who judges others based on their inner beauty, not their outward appearance.

This timeless love story casts a spell on all who watch it—both young and old—with one unforgettable song after another. It was the first animated film to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. While it didn't win, it raised the bar for family films.

8. The Wizard of Oz—1939 musical

9. Star Wars—1977 science fiction

10. Toy Story—1995 animated

11. Finding Nemo—2003 animated

12. The LEGO Movie—2014 animated

13. Mary Poppins—1964 musical

14. The Little Mermaid—1989 animated

15. Babe—1995 fantasy/drama

16. Miracle on 34th Street—1947 drama/fantasy

17. The Lion King—1994 animated musical

18. Aladdin—1992 animated musical

19. A Christmas Story—1983 comedy

20. The Karate Kid—1984 drama

Final Thoughts

Adding Mom's Movie Night to our family routine was one of the best things I did as a parent. It was also one of the easiest. Now my sons, my husband, and I have a frame of reference based on these 20 films. We bring up the characters and situations in our conversations.

When I get frustrated with them and their generation, I might start singing the song from Bye Bye Birdie: “Kids...what's a matter with kids today. Kids...they don't listen to a think you say. Why can't they be like we were? Perfect in every way. What's a matter with kids today?” When my boys were younger, they'd flip off the television, saying: “I don't want to end up like Mike Teavee from Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory!”

Movies connect us in marvelous ways. By being thoughtful about what we watch together as a family, we enrich our lives. So experience these movies. Discuss them with your kids. Make them a part of your shared history...and don't forget the popcorn!

What do you think?

© 2016 McKenna Meyers