Every Friday night, my family had a living room picnic. My mom would usually make hot dogs and french fries, we would lay a table cloth on the floor, and we'd eat while watching a movie. Back to the Future, Star Wars, Indiana Jones; all the classics. But it was the '90s, and there were countless contemporary masterpieces we enjoyed, as well. Movies that would become synonymous with my childhood. Now that I'm the mom, every Friday night my children, partner, and I have movie night, too, and there are '90s movies we'll definitely force our kids to watch.
Honestly, there are countless '90s films I will consider required viewing for my children, but today I want to focus on movies I could show them as children (let's say between toddlerhood and 12). My kids are 2 and 5 now, so not everything I list here is appropriate at the moment, but I look forward to the day in the not-so-distant future when I can relive my own girlhood vicariously through them.
Some things you should know about my list to get the full scope of what you're about to read:
- I'm actually an '80s baby, but I feel very entitled to take on this list because I was between the ages of 8 and 17 throughout the '90s. Most of my memories of childhood come from this time;
- These movies are largely very whimsical, because I am a whimsical free-spirit and I do not apologize for it;
- Approximately 24 percent of these movies star or feature Robin Williams, because that man was a national goddamn treasure.
But let's get right to it, shall we? Without further ado: enjoy the list of '90s movies I will foist upon my children. I urge you to consider doing the same.
Hook is one of those movies that is often ranked within the pantheon of terrible movies by wonderful directors, but let me assure you that I am willing and able to physically fight anyone who tries to tell me this movie is not an extraordinary, beautiful, modern masterpiece. Oh, you want whimsy? Check. You want some of the best actors of a generation? We've got Robin Williams, Dustin Hoffman, Maggie Smith, Bob Hoskins, and even Glenn Close in an often overlooked cameo and Gwyneth Paltrow in a bit part. You want memorable quotes? "Rufio! Rufio! Rufiooooooooooooooooo!" Do you want a scene with mermaids that was, in retrospect, a kind of turning point in my then burgeoning bisexuality? Boom. This movie has every base covered (including actual bases in the baseball game scene).
But seriously, lest you accuse me of relying solely on nostalgia, I re-watched this movie in the last year, as critically as I could, and it holds up. It makes no bones about the fact that it's very much a fairy tale and, as such, is intentionally heavy-handed and over-the-top at points. I see absolutely nothing wrong with that. And I challenge any parent to watch Moira's mini-monologue about the fleeting nature of childhood and not tear up.
Is there a nerdy kid on the face of the planet who did not relate to Matilda Wormwood in some way or another? While nothing will ever beat the Roald Dahl book, the 1996 film is a fun and relatively faithful adaptation that is charming, fun, and will no doubt have my children trying really hard to develop telekinetic powers when no one is looking.
'FernGully: The Last Rainforest'
I mean, really, were you truly a child of the '90s if you didn't, at one point, walk up to a tree stump, touch it tenderly, and say, "Can't you feel it's pain?"
An all-star cast brought up this early-'90s environmental morality play. Fern Gully is about a teenager with a mullet who gets shrunk by magic while working a summer job marking trees to be cut down in the rain forest. Then he meets a fairy who also kind of has a mullet and they defeat a smoke and sludge monster named Hexxus that wants to destroy the planet. It sort of touches upon all issues you'd expect from an environmentally minded movie: human's disconnect with the natural world, pollution, deforestation, oil dependence, and animal testing. I was down with that as a kid, but I was mainly down with the fairies.
Of course, in the current political climate, Hexxus is basically heading up the EPA, so I feel like the blatant, dire message of this movie really needs to be spread far and wide.
This is a rare instance of a movie being very loosely based on a children's book and turning out decently. It also gives parents the opportunity to bewilderedly scream "WHAT YEAR IS IT?!" (something I have felt the need to scream a lot lately, by the bye) and kids to giggle and get the reference. Jumanji is just good, simple, adventurous family fun (and a house overrun by wild jungle animals is a great metaphor for parenting).
I need to be very clear here: just the first movie. Forget the fact that subsequent movies were ever made. But good ol' Jurassic Park is one of those rare movies that kids and adults can love in equal measure. Sure, kids probably aren't going to be super interested in the whole "ethical considerations that must be taken into account as we delve further into unraveling the mysteries of life," but I like to think it plants the seeds for them to get into it later on. (True story: I'm really interested in genetics due in no small part to Jurassic Park.) But who doesn't want to see dinosaurs rampage?!
Bonus: as a parent, you will absolutely relate to anyone being chased by the super-smart raptors. Because that's pretty much what I feel like life with two children is like. Just like with raptors in the movie, the day they learned to open doors was absolutely horrifying.
I mean, whatever you think of the movie itself, it's basically one of Robin William's defining roles and a cultural touchstone in general. I would be remiss in my duty as a human, let alone parent, to keep my children from seeing this movie.
'Can't Hardly Wait'
This is a movie that will be viewed in late childhood, but still must be watched. Not so much because it's an incredible movie (It is, in fact, formulaic as hell, but in a soothing, fun way), but need my children to see this movie to show them exactly what high school (most specifically high school fashions) were like for mommy and daddy who graduated in 2000 and 2001 respectively.
Like, "You see those shoes? I had those shoes. What's that? What's the deal with those jeans? Those are called Jncos and they were all the rage. Oh, and that was a pay phone. We didn't have cell phones."
'The Addams Family'
True story: when I saw The Addams Family in 1991, Morticia Addams became my first fashion icon. This movie (and its sequel, incidentally) are macabre, campy fun, and I can probably still recite the entire thing from memory.
Hocus Motherlovin' Pocus. People can go on and on about what the "greatest holiday movie" of all time is, but if they're not saying "Hocus Pocus" they're almost certainly answering incorrectly. Even if they specify "No, I mean Christmas movies." The answer is still Hocus Pocus. The Sanderson Sisters transcend actual holiday.
Seriously, people, the costumes alone should be enough to make you love this movie. And if not the costumes, the amazing makeup. And if not the costumes and makeup then the musical numbers sung by the fabulous Sarah Jessica Parker and The Divine Miss M! And if not those things, then the fact that it's about witches that come back from the dead via magic, with a zombie, to steal the life essence out of little children... but in a fun way. How cool is that?! Also, there's '90s teen heartthrob Omri Katz. And baby Thora Birch. And a talking cat. This movie is solid AF.
'The Nightmare Before Christmas'
Remember when I said someone would almost certainly be wrong if they didn't say Hocus Pocus was the greatest holiday movie of all time? The only instance when they wouldn't be is if they said The Nightmare Before Christmas, which is also an acceptable answer. This movie plays in my house from September until New Year's Eve because it is a brilliant, lively feast for the eyes.
While Jack and Sally's relationship goals are something I will actively push against (think about it, dudes: it's really pretty bad), the music, animation, and characters in this movie are hypnotizing. Bonus: children singing along to "This Is Halloween" is heartwarming and adorable as hell.
Once a week, my mom would let me rent a movie from the video store (back when video stores were still a thing). I'd say I rented The Witches probably every week for about six months. I was initially drawn to this film because of the image of my queen, Angelica Houston, looking fabulous as hell in a flowing purple cape on the box. But then the movie not only contained fabulous Angelica Houston, but also terrifying, prosthetics-covered Angelica Houston, and dark magic, and intrigue, and a world that all children sort of imagine is "the real world": one that's dangerously against them, but which only they truly understand.
The Witches holds a special place in my heart, not only because I was mad obsessed with it for a long time, but also because I feel like it's one of the last great scary children's movies. I feel like the '70s and '80s were full of them, but the creep factor began to be scaled back in the '90s. The Witches does not flinch away from the fact that it's a movie about a cabal of deceptive and horrifying child murderers. So, it might traumatize my kids, but in a totally healthy way.
Is there a '90s movie that is more pure, distilled childhood than The Sandlot? You can't name one captures the essence of being a kid more than this one. Also, you just have to watch this movie to be able to groan "You're killing me, Smalls!" My kids haven't seen this one yet, but I still say that all the time. When they finally do so it, all the pieces of the puzzle will fit into place for them. It's gonna be great.
'A Little Princess'
This movie is gorgeous and sad and uplifting, and contains a quote that I feel way too many young women in my high school used as a senior quote:
Definitely a heaping dose of Orientalism going on in this movie, so certainly it's not perfect, but I also think that is a subject that can be addressed with kids in the watching. But Sarah's plucky, dreaming spirit and her melodramatic tale of heartbreak and hope is worth watching. (Also worth watching, Game of Throne's Liam Cunningham a.k.a. Davos Seaworth as Sarah's father. Guys I'm really, really good at recognizing actors but I never in a million years would have figured these two characters were played by the same dude.)
All Disney Animated Features ('91-'94)
Like, we're already doing this, right? You're not slacking, are you parents? These are super-important movies to be showing your little ones. If you haven't, get to your library right now, rent them all, and just have a day set aside for a marathon viewing. "What about the animated movies made after '94?" you ask. To that question I say "Meh."
Throw your tomatoes: I have excellent arguments why those movies either aren't all that great or just straight-up super problematic (I see you over there, Pocahontas...)
'Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade'
Every kid needs a good swashbuckler, and you can name few better than Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. I've held off on this one for now, just because of my son's propensity to want to be the bad guys and, as a former Holocaust educator, I really am just not ready deal with the possibility of having to explain to my child why it's not OK to even pretend to be a Nazi. Still, the time will soon come when we can show this one, giving him a solid foundation to love fantastical action movies along with a wildly inaccurate view of what an archaeologist's life is like.
Also, as much as we can say "Fighting Nazis is not only OK but essential," no one walks the walk better than Indy, right? These are important life lessons. Thank you, Dr. Jones.
All Pixar Animation
Most of Pixar's classics were made after 2000, but you have three solid features — Toy Story, A Bug's Life, and Toy Story 2 — that really require your child's full attention. You might want to turn away during Toy Story 2's "When She Loved Me" scene because realizing your child is going to grow up and leave you is, well, I mean it's just shattering every goddamn time.
This movie is as fun as it is clever. While this is another movie that I personally feel best to wait on (middle school feels right), I still very much feel it should be seen in childhood. If the only thing kids get out of this is a barrage of mid-'90s lingo that we all wore written across baby-tees back in the day (seriously, none of you had a t-shirt with "Whatever" on it? Just me?), I'll consider viewing it time well-spent. But it's so much more than that. Also, they'll get to bear witness to the fact that Paul Rudd doesn't age. Like, not at all. It's eerie, but in a really non-threateningly sexy kind of way.
Raise your hand if you didn't have an enormous crush on cartoon Dmitri. No one? Yeah, I didn't think so. I don't care what your typical preferences are (including "human and not a cartoon"): Dmitri rings everyone's bells.
The movie is a lot of fun and the music is awesome. Like, to the point that I'm willing to kind of gloss over the fact that it romanticizes a corrupt system of government and a time when non-royal Russians were starving to death.
'The Iron Giant'
I actually didn't see this movie as a kid. My partner made me watch it pretty recently and I sobbed. My kids are super into it — they've seen it at least 50 times — and I still cry at the end every single time. (They don't... they're either troopers or heartless monsters... my final assessment largely depends on the day.)
I feel like a lot of people (myself included) had a very different idea of what this movie was actually about/like and missed out on it in the '90s. It's not to late! Get on this! (If you watched and loved it from day one: congratulations! Now pass the tissues, the sad part is coming up.)
'The Secret Garden'
This is a super pretty, enchanting little movie about sad, sour, bitter people finding seeds of goodness and strength in themselves and coming back to life. It's also about a little girl and a garden. You can enjoy it on a whole lot of levels. Also, there's a strong possibility that if your kids watch this movie they will start speaking in a British accent, which, really, is the ultimate goal at all times, no?
'The Prince Of Egypt'
The soundtrack alone makes this one worth a watch. Now, as someone who has studied the Bible and Ancient history, I assure you this is not especially true to the source material, so if you're hoping to use this movie to skip Sunday School one day... don't.
Still, Prince of Egypt has a lot to recommend including, let us never forget, Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey singing together over the credits. What did we ever do to deserve that magic? Nothing, people. We have to live our lives doing good deeds in order to pay back the Universe for that gift.