This past year has not only given me heightened anxiety, but also more free time. With that in mind, I found myself re-watching the films of my childhood, many of which offer me comfort and entertainment to this day. I wanted to share with you those childhood films that resonated with me beyond childhood, and which I still find enjoyable.
Some films we watch at a formative age stay with us, and some fade away. This is a tribute to those that continue to teach me and guide me well into my adult life.
Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron (Dreamworks, 2002)
This story is about a horse (Spirit, Matt Damon) and a man (Little Creek, Daniel Studi) who form a bond by facing persecution at the hands of the same US army troops who are trying to invade their Native American homeland.
I remember how much the friendship between the two fascinated me. They couldn’t speak to each other, but they knew they both faced the same difficulties, and both wanted the same thing—for the army to leave their land alone. The horse, Spirit, is distrustful of Little Creek initially; he sees him as just another person. However, he soon realises he is different and has a common enemy. He forms a bond with him and his horse, Rain, and they work together to fight for their freedom.
This is, in my personal opinion, one of the most underrated children’s films out there. It gives so much heavy information about the fight for indigenous land, but never feels like a heavy film. It’s easy to get invested in and the story still moves me. The storytelling is done in such a mature way that the story barely feels like it’s aimed at children at all.
Aside from the plot and character considerations, this film is beautiful. The animations are exquisite, and the level of detail showcases Indigenous American culture in a full and appreciative way.
The score of Spirit is also great. A collaborative effort between Bryan Adams and Hans Zimmer, the music strays far from feeling like ‘children’s music’, and instead gives us all the drama and emotion of any other film. To this day, there are songs from this soundtrack that I still listen to (non-ironically). In fact, I learned the piano when I was younger in order to play the title theme to this movie and it is still what I most like to play.
This film was my favourite film for many years, and I will always have the time to watch it fondly. It is very comforting and familiar, and the story still makes me feel the same feelings it did when I was a child. This is a story that still tugs my heart, and its message stands up to the test of time.
Anastasia (Twentieth Century Fox Animation, 1997)
When I was about ten years old my mum put this film on for me, hoping that it would keep me quiet. It was perhaps a risky choice because I do not and have never liked musicals, princesses, or fairy-tales. However, this film was different.
Anastasia is set against the backdrop of the Russian Revolution, and littered throughout are small historical accuracies that subtly introduce you to Russian history. The story is of course fictional, but these details make it feel more real.
The story is about a Dowager Empress (Angela Lansbury) who has been searching for her granddaughter (the last surviving member of the Russian royal family) ever since the family had to flee their palace during an invasion of 1916 when her granddaughter was just 8 years old. Dimitri (John Cusack), a man who has spent his life searching for “Anastasia”, the princess in order to claim a reward, used to work in the palace as a young boy. It is revealed later that his crooked nose was caused by defending Anastasia during the attack, and so, although he is exploiting the family’s loss as an adult, it is clear he once cared for the family very deeply.
During his search for “Anastasia”, he meets Anya (Meg Ryan), who does not realise she really is Anastasia. He and his friend Vlad (Kelsey Grammer) sculpt her into what they believe is the most believable version of the princess, without knowing she’s the real deal. Having inadvertently delivered the princess back to the queen, Dimitri finds that he has fallen in love with her along the way, and ultimately saves her life when she gets cornered by the evil Rasputin, who still wants the entire family dead.
I found the character of Dimitri immediately charming, and Anastasia’s lack of knowledge that she was indeed a princess enthralled me. As an adult, I see this for the cliché that it is, but my younger self lapped it up. The adventure they go on to arrange for Anastasia to meet the queen is filled with drama, scenery, and thrilling action scenes.
Something about the unconventional look of Anastasia, the very down-to-earth supporting characters, and the historical backdrop that the story is set against really sold it to me. I am someone who also usually finds musical interludes irritating, but in this film they manage to avoid most clichés. I particularly like the main song, ‘Once Upon A December’. It’s one of those tunes that you can forget about and then somehow find yourself humming five years after you last heard it.
Of course, and this goes without saying, there is also a great romance in this film. While this too is not usually my thing, something about the relationship between Dimitri and Anastasia that I still struggle to put my finger on had me invested from the start. Perhaps because they felt natural and never forced, perhaps because it was a relationship out of pure lust not convenience, or perhaps how much they were ultimately willing to sacrifice for one another. Whatever it was, I still love them.
Balto (Universal Pictures, 1995)
This film (the first, original film) became the first film I ever fell in love with. It has all the hallmarks of a classic children’s story—a problem, a dramatic fight or resolution, and light at the end of the tunnel. However, it has two key features that set it apart. Firstly, this is based upon a true story, and secondly, the saviour characters are real dogs.
I must have been just four or five years old when I first watched Balto. Seeing the Central Park statue in the park at the beginning and end enthralled me, and hearing that it was a real story and the statue was real meant something significant to me. It was one of the first times I had really considered the tragic events of the real world. I remember being deeply invested in the fight for medicine and really feeling the plight of the children in the hospital.
Balto tells the story of how a sled team brought Diptheria medicine to a village and saved the lives of many children. Balto was the lead sled dog but was looked down upon for appearing ‘feral’.
More so than the title character himself, I fell in love with the character of Jenna (Bridget Fonda), a beautiful, red, female dog, owned by a very sick young girl. A perhaps untraditional role-model, Jenna is caring and tries to befriend Balto (Kevin Bacon) despite warnings that he looks unkempt and aggressive. There is a much deeper message here about how we judge based on appearances. Because he was half wolf and assumed to be dangerous, Balto was only respected after he saved the lives of dozens of children.
When I revisit this film now, I don’t find it particularly childlike, patronising, or unbelievable—all flaws that have led me to outgrow some childhood films I once loved. This could be because the story it tells is broadly true (I imagine the dialogue between the dogs has been edited), and also because the danger that was faced felt so close to home. This story wrenched my heart, almost unbearably.
Brother Bear (Walt Disney Pictures, 2003)
This is a story about the strength of the relationships we form with those around us, the value we place on ourselves, and the beautiful cultural practices of Inuit culture.
The story follows Kenai (Joaquin Phoenix), who kills the bear that killed his brother. As karma for doing so, he becomes a bear himself. During this time, he not only learns that revenge is a destructive force, but he also learns the value of perspective. Now that he is also a bear, he can see the value of the life that he took, the impact this had on the bear’s family, and, ultimately, learns that the bear was simply behaving how a bear would behave. It is a story about understanding, respect for nature, and the lessons we are forced to learn when we make rash judgment calls.
Every time I watch this film, I am enthralled by one scene in particular. Near the end, Kenai is finally allowed to become a human again. During his transformation, we see spirit animals fill the sky, bright lights of the aurora borealis, and wonderful colours and shapes. To this day, seeing the northern lights remains at the top of my bucket list.
While distributed by Disney, it has a very different feel to it than most Disney-produced films. It is not western-centric, it explores Inuit culture in-depth, and the lessons it teaches go beyond what is usually found in Disney films. The depth of the redemptive theme goes above and beyond to make this a memorable and dazzling piece of cinema.
This will always be an exceptionally beautiful film, with an exceptionally poignant message. I still comfort watch it from time to time, and never tire of the images or the lessons.
Pirates of the Caribbean (Walt Disney Studios, 2003, 2006, 2007, 2011, 2017)
Now, of course, this is not one film but a franchise. However, the first time I was introduced to the franchise I watched the first four all at once, aged about 12. For this reason, separating them out has always been hazy for me until the later films. What this is is a shoutout to them all and the joy they still bring to me. That being said, the score to At World’s End specifically blew my mind. I remember the Hans Zimmer soundtrack to Pirates of the Caribbean being one of the first CDs I ever bought.
Johnny Depp was the perfect choice for Jack Sparrow, creating mannerisms and facial expressions that became iconic.
The adventures the pirates have are always intensely comedic and are always light enough to get a laugh out of me. Even when Sparrow finds himself in perilous danger, his actions are always straight out of a comedy sketch (I’m looking at you, kebab roast scene).
I had always resisted Disney, perhaps natural rebellion because of how much my mother wanted to watch Disney films with me. It was a childish resistance but it made me reluctant to watch these films for a long time. I was never interested in stories of princesses or quests and that’s what I thought I was in for. In this case, at least, I was wrong.
This is the only film on my list that is not animated. I’m grateful for that because some of the facial cues and subtle body language just wouldn’t have been the same as animation. I think the costume design and casting brought this to life perfectly, not to mention the spectacular locations.
I don’t believe a film has to have a strong message of goodwill in order to be a good film, even if it’s aimed at children. Some films are created purely for entertainment, and that’s great. This is definitely one of those. However, I’ve always found that films with a strong emotive message or a real-life calamity to solve resonate with me more and stay with me for longer. Pirates of the Caribbean is my only exception.
So, this brings me to the end of my favourite childhood films. I still remember them all fondly and watch them from time to time. The films that touched me the most were the ones about invisible struggle, complex friendships, and believable or real desperate scenarios.
These childhood films all have very different stories and messages, but all of them create a space to feel comfort and joy. If there are any that you have not watched, I recommend them all—even as an adult these films are great. As with any films aimed at children, the plots are engaging, fast-paced, and beautifully creative. Give them a go!