There are so many to choose. While I believe that a lot of the Disney classics, including the string of animated revivals in the 90s, are worthy selections, I'm going to focus on just one animated film in this list, for reasons I'll divulge then.
Personally, I grew up with some wonderful movies that were made for children in a time that wasn't as politically correct and forcefully censored for unknown reasons. Most children's movies in these contemporary times make the mistake of undervaluing and underestimating their core audience.
Children are smart. They understand sarcasm. They are imaginative and don't need everything force fed to them with a pat on the back and baby talk, explaining every fine detail.
It is VERY difficult to find a film made for children these days like the ones listed below.
For more context, I have two boys, now seven and four. They have seen and love all of these films, and many more (Ghostbusters, Back to the Future trilogy, etc.).
This is a film that deals with real issues in a child's life. The issue of divorce, acceptance, friendship, wonder, etc. And all of that is accompanied by high concepts developed by Steven Spielberg with grand special effects. It is the perfect hybrid of blockbuster and coming-of-age drama. It captures the imagination of children AND adults.
A grand adventure seen through the eyes of three young boys. The film deals with a broken home (Darren), the oddity of intelligence, parents, and family (Wolfgang), and pure imagination and enthusiasm, while dealing with everyday struggles in school, bullies, and young crushes (Ben).
We're given amazing adventure and science fiction elements as the boys look to the final frontier, space. Yet, it feels ever so personal.
Fun. Pure fun. We're given this unique set of friends who find a treasure map and go on the ultimate adventure. These kids are real. They can be crude, rude, and then have moments of sincerity and emotion. But let's be honest. This is all about adventure. Pirates, treasure, the evil Fratellis, caves, bootie traps ... er, I mean booby traps, gadgets, etc. It was about kids going on an Indiana Jones adventure. The ultimate fantasy for children at play. This movie truly defined my childhood in many ways. My friends and I created multiple Goonies adventures beyond this film.
The ultimate sports film for children. And what is great about it is that it's not about the big game and whether or not they'll win. No. It's about America's favorite past time in that day and age. Beyond that, it's really about the adventures of summer and the friendships that blossom.
Again, this was a film that dealt with divorce and step parents. It's about an outsider trying to fit in. It's about the summer trips to the public pool, the hot life guard that boys only dream of talking to, let alone sneaking a forbidden kiss. It's about camp outs, s'mores, old school neighborhood block parties, carnivals, etc. And at the heart of it all, baseball. And the purest form of the game ... the Sandlot.
You could list Bambi, Peter Pan, and then onto The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and The Lion King in the mix of the great animated children's films, among many others.
But I'm a firm believer that Pixar changed not just the technology of animated features, but also changed the storytelling.
My last pick here, Toy Story, is more of a selection to represent nearly all Pixar movies.
They represent what I feel is the best way to make a children's movie. They respect their audience. They don't undervalue or underestimate them. And the great thing is, the core audience isn't just children. It's the parents as well. And the teenagers. And the grandparents. EVERYONE.
Look no further than the first opening minutes of Up, where we see the portrayal of young love evolve as it is destined to. We see them struggle with money, miss out on their dreams, deal with the loss of a child, and the loss of each other due to old age. That's some heavy stuff.
And Toy Story started it all. This wasn't just a film about talking toys. It was about friendship, acceptance, coming to terms with change, etc. It even showcased a single mother family.
Pixar is amazing.
There are many more to choose from beyond these five, but if I had to choose just that amount, these are my personal top picks. And they have proven to be favorites for my two boys as well, proving that it's not just a nostalgic or generation thing. These films are timeless. They engage children. They make them think and view on a different level than an episode of Spongebob or any other children's show out there these days.