10 great family films of the 21st century

Charm, invention, a great story and a little magic are the perfect ingredients of the very best family films. If you’re searching for inspiration for seasonal viewing for kids of all ages, look no further than these 10 modern marvels.

Justin Johnson
Updated:

Paddington (2014)

Paddington (2014)

Fourteen years in, the century has already provided more than its share of great family films. In any one year, as family film programmer for BFI Southbank and the London Film Festival, I watch over 150 films geared towards younger audiences, many of which are subtitled and will never be screened in the UK outside of a festival environment. For this list, we’ve restricted ourselves just to films that are available here, and I’ve also not allowed myself more than one film each from giants like Pixar, Dreamworks, Studio Ghibli and Disney Animation.

There are so many titles I love that didn’t make the final cut, notably terrific films by Aardman and stop-motion greats from Laika such as Coraline (2009) and ParaNorman (2012). There are also a number of new British family films recently out or on their way that could have been included, but I’ve chosen the one that cuts the mustard (or should that be marmalade) when it comes to fulfilling the family brief. And because the very enjoyable Song of the Sea and Shaun the Sheep Movie don’t technically come out until 2015, I’ve saved them for another time.

Our list is split between animation and live action (albeit there are some choices that include both), with a number of countries represented. But at the heart of them all is a great story – which, if something is going to hold the attention of children great and small, is probably the most important thing of all. 

Spirited Away (2002)

Director Hayao Miyazaki

Spirited Away (2001)

Spirited Away (2001)
Credit: © 2001 Nibariki - GNDDTM

Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpiece is the film that won the Oscar for Japan’s Studio Ghibli and finally put them on the world map once and for all. The story tells of young Chihiro and her parents, who are en route to their new home but take a wrong turn and are spirited away into a magical world. When her parents are transformed into pigs and a flood prevents her from leaving, our feisty, 10-year-old heroine must fend for herself against Yubaba, the witch.

Spirited Away is a breathtakingly beautiful film, not least during Chihiro’s surreal visit to the spirit world and the vast bathhouse at its centre, where the gods are pampered. With echoes of Lewis Carroll, while always feeling original, there’s a visual richness here that rewards repeated viewing. All in all, a remarkable piece of filmmaking.

Someone like Hodder (2003)

Director Henrik Ruben Genz

Someone Like Hodder (2003)

Someone Like Hodder (2003)

The Nordic countries have a reputation for making some of the best live-action family films in the world and Someone like Hodder more than reinforces this theory. The world of nine-year-old Hodder Jacobsen is a strange place to live. It’s a solitary, routine existence featuring a daily trip to the bakers for a rum whirl, the random and seemingly impertinent questioning of his teacher, Miss Asta K, and a perplexingly optimistic approach to difficult circumstances.

As the established class scapegoat, Hodder finds that relationships with his peers don’t come easily but his life develops a sense of purpose when a fairy appears to him and tells him that he has been chosen to save the world. Frederik Christian Johansen as Hodder perfectly captures the silent strength but inner despair of the boy who finds reality and fantasy blurring around him in this amusing and offbeat story. Director Henrik Ruben Genz deals bravely with the themes of childhood loneliness and loss while also making something uplifting and wonderful.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)

Director Alfonso Cuarón

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)

The UK’s favourite boy wizard has been a literary phenomenon, and the big-screen franchise marked a turning point for the British film industry and its place as home of the best visual effects in the world. Seven books became eight films and this, the third instalment, marked a darker, more mature approach, the result of the appointment of Alfonso Cuarón as director. 

The brilliant performance by Gary Oldman as Sirius Black, the escaped prisoner of the title, and the introduction of the terrifying dementors add a new sinister layer to the story, and this is the film that maps out the template for what is to follow, leaving behind the breezier, more childish opening films. Michael Gambon takes over the role of Dumbledore from the late Richard Harris, bringing his own sense of flare.

Up (2009)

Director Pete Docter

Up (2009)

Up (2009)

Pixar’s first film in digital 3D begins with a tear-inducing backstory and is followed by a breathtaking scene where thousands of balloons lift octogenarian Carl’s house into the skies and take him on a journey of exploration, adventure and ultimately self-discovery in the jungles of South America. Carl has to be one of animation’s most unlikely heroes: an elderly widower determined to defy an order to send him to a retirement home and keep his independence.

On paper, this is a project that should never have worked but it is a true family film with something to appeal to the youngest and oldest ends of the scale. The fact that it was greenlit at all is testament to a studio who are prepared to take risks, and who push their creative team to tell the best story possible. In the safe hands of director Pete Docter, Up continued an extraordinary run of critically acclaimed Pixar films.

Where the Wild Things Are (2009)

Director Spike Jonze

Where the Wild Things Are (2009)

Where the Wild Things Are (2009)

It seemed almost unthinkable that Maurice Sendak’s 1963 picture book would ever be made into a feature film. But in 2009, Spike Jonze came up with a way of making a live-action version. What’s more, he earned the blessing of Sendak himself, who had previously looked down on the many attempts by Disney and others to make it happen.

Jonze made something magical, dreamy and completely unique using actors in costumes, animatronics and some CGI to create his vision. The distinctive voices of James Gandolfini and Catherine O’Hara among others help bring the wild things to life and their casting is consistent with a film that has taken a child’s literary property but refuses to ever talk down to its audience or compromise its intentions. Nonetheless, Warners had concerns over how suitable elements in the film were for families and ended up marketing the film to an adult audience, which seems to have confused and deterred a lot of its potential viewers.

How to Train Your Dragon (2010)

Directors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders

How to Train your Dragon (2010)

How to Train your Dragon (2010)

Cressida Cowell’s novels provided a great starting point for directors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders to follow up their success with Disney’s Lilo & Stitch (2002) in one of the best films to come out of Dreamworks Animation Studios’ 20-year history. Using The Black Stallion (1979) as inspiration for the key relationship between Viking Hiccup and Toothless, a rare ‘Night Fury’ dragon, the film plays on themes such as the relationship between father and son, reconciliation, forgiveness and believing in your own abilities.

With a smart script and a great producer in Bonnie Arnold, who brought in the first Toy Story for Pixar in 1995, so many aspects of How to Train Your Dragon are pitch perfect, though some of the violent elements may not be suitable for very young viewers.

The Muppets (2011)

Director James Bobin

The Muppets (2011)

The Muppets (2011)

It was always going to be a risky proposition to bring the muppets back to the big screen after a period in the wilderness, but the combination of Jason Segel’s enthusiastic and accomplished script, great songs from Bret Mckenzie and the introduction of Walter, a muppet in need of discovering his heritage, was enough to relaunch it both to those of who loved them already and a new generation discovering Jim Henson’s creations for the first time.

The story sees Walter tracking down Kermit the Frog and a subsequent journey to reunite the muppets in order for them to play a charity telethon in aid of preserving the old muppet theatre and saving it from the hands of a ruthless Texas oil baron. By keeping the tried and tested ingredients of big-name cameos, a road trip and plenty of hens, The Muppets is huge fun throughout and British director James Bobin, fresh from TV’s Flight of the Conchords (2007-), provides a nice balance between the nostalgic and the contemporary.

Ernest & Celestine (2012)

Directors Stéphane Aubier, Benjamin Renner and Vincent Patar

Ernest and Celestine (2012)

Ernest and Celestine (2012)

Bears live upstairs and mice live downstairs and never the twain shall meet. That’s just the way it is. But this delicate balance between the species is blown wide apart when Ernest, a large, solitary and rather grumpy bear, meets Celestine, a wide-eyed orphan mouse who previously never believed that big bears even existed. Eventually he welcomes her into his home, but, despite the company and support that they bring one another, this is a friendship that flies in the face of the established order of things. Before long the mice and bear authorities, fearing the change that they are confronted with, are forced to work together to address the problem.

Filmmaker Benjamin Renner joined forces with established team Patar and Aubier (A Town Called Panic, 2009) to create an exceptional film that brought life to Gabrielle Vincent’s enchanting characters and her beautifully drawn animal world.

Frozen (2013)

Directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee

Frozen (2013)

Frozen (2013)

Disney had toyed with the idea of using the story of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen since their early days, but it took the collaboration of directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee with Broadway musical magicians Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez (Avenue Q) to help make this outstanding musical family picture the highest-grossing animated film of all time. The karaoke tills are still ringing to the sound of key song ‘Let It Go’ and the inevitable theatrical reimagining is already on the cards.

Along with Tangled (2010) and Wreck-It Ralph (2012), its success has helped to bring confidence back to the Disney animated brand, having played second fiddle to Pixar for years. Anyone who hasn’t sung along as Elsa coolly whispers “The cold never bothered me anyway” has missed out on a treat.

Paddington (2014)

Director Paul King

Paddington (2014)

Paddington (2014)

We come right up to date with the first big-screen take on Michael Bond’s Paddington Bear. For some of us, the ring of Michael Hordern’s trusty voice and Ivor Wood’s lovely stop-motion animation in the 70s TV series still holds sway, but producer David Heyman and director Paul King have initiated a possible post-Potter franchise that breathes new life into our ursine hero. Within a few minutes, Paddington was as real to me as co-stars Hugh Bonneville and Sally Hawkins, a good sign for any CGI character.

As with the books, we witness the good-natured bear with impeccable manners arriving from Peru and bringing mayhem to London and the Brown family. Newspaper reports about BBFC concerns are probably best ignored (oddly, the censorship board originally advised caution because of “mild sex references”), as this is a charming family treat about a bear with a stare and a passion for marmalade.

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