Kids are an impressionable bunch, so it’s important to get their “subjective” movie tastes in proper order with a healthy serving of family friendly sci-fi! Sounds like a killer plan right? It is, but you have two distinct obstacles to overcome. Problem number one: kids aren’t stupid, and they’ll recognize a ball cheese for what it is…a ball of cheese. Children of the 1970s and 1980s are more forgiving with family movies that came out around their respective time period. Kids these days, well, they’re spoiled. They get stuff like The Avengers and X-Men: Days of Future Past, while people growing up in my age group were completely blown away with films like Masters of the Universe and Labyrinth (the latter is considerably better, but that’s beside the point). That stuff won’t cut it for this generation. Problem number two: kid-oriented sci-fi has a tendency to be stupid (I’m looking at you, Treasure Planet and Transformers). For some reason, film studios think that kids can’t appreciate the qualities of “high concept” science-fiction, and that’s a bunch of bologna. Sure, a six-year-old would probably consider a viewing of 2001: A Space Odyssey as some form of cruel and unusual punishment, but kids love the “big ideas,” the mythos, the deep stuff. They may not possess the processing power to fully appreciate things like the subtle ironies of time travel or the political allegory of a dystopian future, but that’s okay. There are plenty of well made and intelligent sci-fi films that your kids are going to love. To aid you on this quasi-brainwashing journey, here are ten timeless and genuinely awesome sci-fi films totally safe for the G – PG crowd.
10. Muppets From Space
Muppets From Space is a highly underrated sci-fi film. Seriously! Sure, it’s incredibly silly, but it’s also genuinely funny, and it has some pretty big ideas to boot. In proper Muppets tradition, the entire movie spoofs a slew of highly regarded sci-fi classics, including everything from Close Encounters of the Third Kind to The X Files. But there’s more to it than that–by detailing the existential journey of the always-undervalued Gonzo on his quest of extraterrestrial self discovery, Muppets From Space tackles one the biggest sci-fi questions ever: are we alone in the universe? Yes, the film attempts to answer this with a barrage of sight-gags and pun-induced one-liners, but at its core the subject is never taken for granted. Muppets From Space also addresses notions of family, tolerance and perceived reality, so there are plenty of thematic elements ripe for discussion. It also features intergalactic fish–from space! That alone makes it a must-see.
9. Galaxy Quest
Proof that Tim Allen used to be funny, Galaxy Quest pits the fictional cast of a Star Trek-like TV show against an intergalactic warlord. Sounds like a good time, right? It totally is, and kids will get a kick out of the silly “good guy” aliens who think that the TV cast are actually space heroes, while adults will undoubtedly appreciate the allusions of vintage space-exploration sci-fi. Galaxy Quest is first and foremost a comedy, but it brings up an interesting idea: how would our fictional media look to unsuspecting extraterrestrials? Would they understand the notion of stories made up for human entertainment, or would they act like the aliens in Galaxy Quest and interpret shows like Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica as historical documentation? Behind the tomfoolery, Galaxy Quest challenges questions of interstellar perspective, a fascinating sci-fi trope that becomes all too relevant in today’s media heavy, YouTube-esque world.
8. Short Circuit
Before there were Transformers, there was Johnny Number Five, a defense-grade robot who becomes self aware and sort of cuddly. Short Circuit feels rather dated, as is the problem with many a 1980s sci-fi film, but the questions it asks are timeless: beyond the realms of biology, how do we define “life?” Can it be artificially simulated? If it can, how should people react to it? Throughout Short Circuit, Johnny Five pieces together his (its?) sense of belonging and develops a personality, a fictional take on a phenomenon that is probably closer to reality than one would expect. Short Circuit features themes found in plethora of other robot sci-fi films like Blade Runner, Robocop and–more recently–Her, but without any of the violence, gore, and/or sex. Make sure to stay away from the sequel, though. It’s terrible, and has no business sharing a name with this unapologetically sweet sci-fi classic.
7. Jetsons: The Movie
As a TV show, The Jetsons were about as close to sci-fi as The Flintstones were to an anthropology 101 lecture. This feature film from 1990, however, places the family-of-the-future in a thought provoking situation that thematically rivals (and at time, surpasses) more recent animated sci-fi offerings. Jetsons: The Movie takes George and Co. to a desolate mining operation in deep space that has fallen victim to acts of mysterious sabotage. When the culprits behind all of this destruction are revealed, the film effectively parallels real-world issues like corporate greed and ecological destruction–almost two decades before James Cameron’s Avatar explored similar ideas and became the highest grossing movie of all time. Jetsons: The Movie wasn’t highly regarded among critics at the time of release, but it surprisingly holds up well today, thanks to the timeless nature of hand-drawn animation.
6. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow
Adventure films are a dying breed, which is unfortunate considering how many great sci-fi films were built upon this particular genre framework. Thankfully, the format gets a resurgence every now and then, as in the case with Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, a pulpy, plot-driven spectacle of a film that mixes a Jules Verne-esque narrative with The Wizard of Oz and Jurassic Park. Except for the human actors, all the visuals in Sky Captain were designed via the magic of computer animation, giving the film a look and feel completely unrivaled by just anything else. It’s an adventure film, so the story isn’t particularly deep, but kids are bound to love all the weird and interesting situations that the protagonists find themselves in. Who knows, they may even feel compelled to seek out the sources that inspired Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow–that is, pulp sci-fi from the 1930s and 1940s–and develop new-found appreciation towards popular offerings like Star Wars and Indiana Jones.
5. Titan A.E.
As Don Bluth’s last film, Titan A.E. acts as the final bookend to the classic storyteller’s seminal career, making it an especially important movie for those who really care about movies. Titan A.E. is the rare animated film that takes a “hard” sci-fi approach, all the while remaining safe and compelling enough to cater to just about any age group. Set in the far future, the film focuses on the idea of intergalactic displacement, more specifically for humans after the destruction of Earth. Think Battlestar Galactica with cartoon aliens. Titan A.E. flopped when it came out in 2000, but that shouldn’t deter anyone from giving this wonderful film a try. That said, it’s certainly not Bluth’s greatest film, nor his greatest sci-fi offering. Both of those accolades absolutely have to go to…
4. The Secret of N.I.H.M
…this fantastic film, which was released in 1982 and remains as classic and thought provoking today. Some may question
the relevance of the “sci-fi” moniker–talking, anthropomorphic animals usually fall under a fantasy classifier–but lest we forget the reason as to why the mice can speak and have societal culture…oh, you don’t know? To reveal such a detail would be a grave disservice to virgin minds! It is a secret, after all. Kids and adults alike will be enthralled by the details in The Secret of N.I.H.M., and it’s an absolute must-see for those who haven’t yet done so. Let’s just say that this isn’t a Cinderella story.
Pixar is, without a doubt, one of the greatest animation studios to ever grace the wonderful world of filmmaking, and WALL-E is one of their greatest achievements. That’s saying a lot–these are the same guys who made Up, Finding Nemo and Toy Story–but WALL-E really is something special. Younger children will appreciate the slapstick adventures of the title robot hero, and will likely be distracted enough to forgive the film’s rather deep anti-corporate sentiments. The production was easily developed with kids in mind (WALL-E itself strikes a strong resemblance to Johnny Five from Short Circuit), but the ideas are pure sci-fi: uncontrolled capitalism, artificial intelligence and speculative evolution all play an important role. WALL-E is not only one of the best family-friendly sci-fi films ever made…it’s one of the best sci-fi films, period.
2. The Iron Giant
Based on a classic children’s book by Ted Hughes, The Iron Giant is notable for achieving critical acclaim, flopping at the box office and featuring Vin Diesels only decent role (as the titular robot who barely speaks at all). The entire affair is beautifully hand-animated (with only a tinge of CGI mastery), and it tells a timeless story of friendship, trust, and acceptance. The Iron Giant also evokes sentiments of Cold War paranoia–a historical notion not found in many family movies. Not too shabby for a film that originally started as a Pete Townshend rock opera. Director Brad Bird would go on to develop The Incredibles for Pixar, another film that should, at the very least, get an honorable mention on this list.
1. E.T. the Extraterrestrial
Admit it…you knew that E.T. was the obvious choice to top this list. Call it a cup-out if you must, but Steven Spielberg’s E.T. is the kind of family-friendly sci-fi film that only comes out once every few decades. This film set the standard for family-oriented sci-fi, and to this day remains one of the acclaimed director’s greatest achievements. Kids and adults alike fell in love with this movie, and it should be required viewing for anyone who hasn’t had the chance to meet the friendly alien that just wants to go home. Don’t let the age of this film fool you, it holds up.
So what do you think, did I miss anything? Are there any movies on this list that don’t work for you? What would you put here instead? Let us know in the comments!
Image Source: Marc-Anthony Macon from Flikr. Used under Creative Commons License.