This is problematic in all the ways Disney is generally problematic — skinny white princess heroines, love stories that aren’t appropriate for young kids, excessive excitement and drama, etc. — but if you’re looking for a big, entertaining feature film to watch over the winter holidays, it’s enjoyable nonetheless. I know some people think Frozen is a feminist film, but I really don’t see it that way (for reasons similar to this writer here.) I include it as a recommendation mainly because it has encouraged my kids’ love of singing. I really dislike the music — but anything that gets the kids singing, and practising the songs until they get better, is a win in my book. It’s hard to predict what kids will be scared of, but my 3 year old, who is scared of most TV and movies these days, was not scared of Frozen — perhaps because she had heard so much about it before she watched? (I, on the other hand, had nightmares about it!)

Age: 3+, though it really depends on what your kids find scary
Child rating: 9/10
Parent rating: 7/10 for enjoyability, but 4/10 for perpetuating problematic social values and encouraging kids to want merchandise
Running time: 109 minutes
Where to find it: You can buy it on youtube or google play


The Aristocats

This is (vintage) Disney, so it goes without saying that there are sexist stereotypes, casual racist stereotypes, and unnecessarily sexy animals – but if you’re prepared to overlook that, it’s an enjoyable film. The illustrations are quite nice (especially the backgrounds), the story is fine, and the music (by the Sherman Brothers) is pretty good. (My main question is: why are there so many drunken characters? I saw drunk cats, a drunk goose, and a drunk guy at a Parisian café – and I was only watching about half the time! Of course this went over the kids’ heads – but I still wonder why they’re there at all. Drunkenness isn’t appropriate for 4 years olds, or 10 year olds – but this is clearly a film for kids, not adults. I guess we can chalk this up to 1970?)

Age: 4+
Child rating: 8/10
Adult rating: 8/10
Running time: 78 minutes
Available: I rented it from Google Play

Frogs and Toads: Max’s Magical Journey (Kikkerdril)

This is a slightly odd, but enjoyable film that follows 6 year old Max and his friend Jesse on their adventures in the countryside as they try to find frog spawn for Max’s older brother, who claims he needs it to regain his voice after surgery. I love the kids’ adventures and the beautiful natural scenery, but there’s a little bit of mild rudeness (between brothers, and between Max and Jesse before they become friends) which I find unnecessary. The film is originally in Dutch, and dubbed in English. I’m glad not to have to read out subtitles to my kids, but the mismatch between the kids speaking and the dubbed-over voices is a bit disconcerting. I do recommend this film – but it’s not perfect.

Age: 5+
Child rating: 9/10
Adult rating: 8/10
Running time: 33 minutes
Available: I had to order the DVD for this one


This is a lovely feature-length animation from Studio Ghibli, based on the story The Borrowers by Mary Norton. It tells the story of the growing friendship between Arrietty, a mouse-sized “borrower” girl, and a human boy, Sho. When the Arrietty’s borrower family is discovered by the unfriendly housekeeper Haru, Sho helps them escape to safety. As in most Studio Ghibli films, there is lots of beautiful natural imagery, including some cute potato bugs (giant in comparison to Arrietty), lush greenery, and evocative rainstorms. The music is, by contemporary movie standards, pleasingly sparse, and I appreciated that there were long passages with no music at all. The story is intended for kids 4 or 5 and up, but there is nothing too scary for younger kids, and my 22 month old enjoys it as much as my almost-5 year old.

Age: 2+
Child rating: 9/10
Adult rating: 9/10
Running time: 94 minutes
Available: only on DVD, so far as I know

The Wind in the Willows (1983)

br-wind-in-the-willowsThis is a very nicely done stop-motion animated version, which sticks closely to the book. We watched about half an hour of it, and then M. (4 years old) complained that it was “boring.” I tried to convince him that there’s no such thing as boring, that this was a very nice film, and that he should give it a chance. And then I burst out laughing because I realized that I had always found The Wind in the Willows (whether as a book or a movie) boring too. I include this here because it is good, and I wish we liked it – but we just do not seem to be a Wind in the Willows family. (It’s not that we’re immune to the charms of early 20th century anthropomorphic British animals – we just seem to prefer the Beatrix Potter tales!)

Age: 1+
Child rating: N/A (we’re not the right ones to judge)
Adult rating: N/A
Running time: 79 minutes
Available: there are various free versions online

All Aboard! The Sleigh Ride

BR All Aboard! The Sleigh RideIf you are looking for an extremely slow-paced, meditative film for a wintery or Christmasy night, this is it. All Aboard! The Sleigh Ride consists of nothing but two hours of footage of Sami reindeer herders following an ancient postal route through the taiga forest of Northern Norway, beautifully filmed by BBC Four. The soundtrack is simply a recording of the journey, with no music or voiceover. Occasional written texts provide some contextual information. M. was entranced for the first hour, which is really quite a long time for a toddler to watch nothing but a couple people and a couple reindeer moving through the snow. Then he was ready to move on to something else (though he continued to ask questions about reindeer for several days afterwards).

Age: 0+
Child rating: 8/10
Adult rating: 8/10
Running time: 2 hours
Available for free on the BBC Four website


BR MicrocosmosThis is a great whole-family film, which consists entirely of stunningly beautiful close-up footage of insects and other invertebrates. We always watch videos on the computer, but this made me wish for a larger screen.

There is nothing scary, and the level of drama is appropriate for a toddler: a dung beetle trying to push a ball of dung which gets caught on a thorn, a crow eating ants, stag beetles fighting, etc. There’s a famous scene of two snails having sex, about which M. asked “are they hugging?” We said yes. (We would have answered more if he had asked more, but that was all he wanted to know). M. was particularly captivated by the moths, the rhinoceros beetle, and of course the dung beetle.

The soundtrack is by French composer Bruno Coulais, and contains a nice balance of recorded insect sounds and insect-inspired instrumental sounds, with occasional more typical movie-style music for the dramatic sections. The film contains very few words, so don’t worry if you can’t find the English version. I’m rating it as age 2+, because I think a younger child wouldn’t appreciate it as much, but there would certainly be no harm in watching it with younger kids around.

Age: 2+
Child rating: 9/10 (M. did get restless at one point, but I think it was because he wanted to eat dessert).
Adult rating: 10/10
Running time: 80 minutes


BR PonyoM. (3 years old) and I were both home sick today, so we decided to watch another Miyazaki film, Ponyo together. It’s the fastest-paced, most dramatic movie he’s watched yet, and if I had it to do over again, I might wait until he was 3 1/2 or 4. I don’t think M. thought it was too fast paced, but he did want me to keep reassuring him that everything in the film was just magic, and not real. Of course he also wanted to watch it again as soon as it was over. (Update: we started watching it for a second time several weeks later, and M. decided it was too scary, and he’d rather watch Totoro. I’ve updated my age rating to 4+.)

Ponyo is loosely based on the Hans Christian Anderson fairytale “The Little Mermaid,” and tells the story of Ponyo, a goldfish-girl, who wants to become a person, and her friend Sosuke, a 5-year old boy. (I’m a little bit confused how she can be a goldfish who comes from the ocean, but can be kept alive in a bucket of fresh water. I guess magical goldfish-people can live in both salt and fresh water?) Ponyo’s attempt to become a person unleashes both the intense worry of her father, the wizard Fujimoto, and all kinds of wild energies, which take the form of storms at sea, a great flood, and a sea full of Devonian-era fish. In order for Ponyo to become permanently a person, Sosuke must promise that he loves her, both as a fish and as a person. He does, she is permanently transformed, and order is restored to the world.

I’m generally not a huge fan of animated films, but this one is hand drawn, and has many very beautiful scenes. My favourites were all the underwater scenes. M. loved these too, and he especially loved recognizing copepods and other plankton in the introductory section, which are what his dad studies as an oceanographer.

I know that needing to be loved by a human (man) to become a human (woman) is a common fairy tale trope, and in this case comes directly from The Little Mermaid. But it does come across as a bit strange in the context of a modern retelling, which involves 5-year old children rather than adults. It’s the one place where this feels almost too much like this is a retelling of an existing story, transposed into a new setting, rather than an independent story in its own right.

In short, I would recommend this, and will be happy to watch it again with M., but it’s not quite as perfect as Totoro.

Age: 4+
Child rating: 10/10
Adult rating: 9/10
Running time: 101 minutes

Mary Poppins

BR Mary PoppinsM. has really been enjoying songs recently, and Mary Poppins seemed like a good first musical to try. M. loved it. He said his favourite parts were the one-man-band, the penguins, and the tea party in the air. There are a few parts, especially towards the beginning, where adults are shouting at each other – if I were more organized, I might skip over them. The overall message is good — do fun things with your family, instead of trying to earn as much money as possible. The songs, by the Sherman Brothers, are enjoyable, though a bit ear-wormish. We watched it a week ago, and I’m still trying to get them out of my head! (Update: we watched this almost three weeks ago, and I still have Let’s Go Fly a Kite stuck in my head!)

Age: 3+
Child rating: 10/10
Adult rating: 10/10
Running time: 139 minutes