Star Wars (1977)
For a good many people born since 1977, Star Wars is their first pop culture memory, a towering feat of imagination that will never be equaled in terms of the sheer raw power of its story in the young eyes of new viewers. Even now, families gather around over and over to watch George Lucas' original vision and it still works its magic. In terms of pure popcorn movie joy spread out across generations, it has no equal.
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
The Wizard of Oz might not be the most ubiquitous movie ever made, but it's a strong contender for the title. The iconic story of a girl whisked away to a magical land to defeat an evil witch with the help of a sentient scarecrow, tin woodsman, and talking lion is a classic not just because it's been deemed essential by film experts, but because new viewers can still be enchanted by it today. Sit down with the whole family to watch this film and children who are seeing it for the first time can still see it as something brand new and magical.
The Princess Bride (1987)
The story goes that the late, legendary screenwriter William Goldman asked his two daughters what he should write a story about. One girl said he should write a story about a princess, and the other said he should write a story about a bride. Knowing his audience, Goldman merged the two and produced one of the most beloved genre films of all time, full of moments adults will chuckle at but which still sweeps viewers of all ages off their feet.
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
Perhaps no other filmmaker in the last four decades has been responsible for more memorable visuals than Steven Spielberg, and when it comes to broad family filmmaking, E.T. might be his best achievement. It's a film about friendship and love and overcoming fear, things viewers young and old can latch onto, and in terms of sheer movie magic it doesn't get better than bicycles flying across the moon.
Pixar has been a family movie powerhouse for nearly 25 years now, but if you're looking for the best expression of genre storytelling within the studio's family friendly mold, look no further than this tale of a lonely robot and his search for something more. Wall-E is one of Pixar's great feats of visual storytelling, and the romance between two robots at the center of it will leave the whole family swooning.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)
J.K. Rowling's entire Harry Potter saga is meant to be a family experience, and that's enhanced by her decision to tell the story over seven school years with the characters aging in each passing installment. If you have to pick just one as a great family movie experience, though, it's Alfonso Cuaron's third installment in the film franchise, which merged Rowling's magic with the cinematic sensibilities of a true filmmaker for an unforgettable ride.
The Iron Giant (1999)
Before he won over viewers with The Incredibles, Brad Bird crafted one of the greatest science fiction films, one of the greatest animated films, and one of the greatest family films of the '90s. The Iron Giant can reduce five-year-olds and fifty-year-olds to tears with equal power. It remains one of the most powerful animated films of the last three decades, and it hasn't lost an ounce of emotional weight.
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy might be a shade too dark and violent for the youngest of viewers, but that aside the films are perfect for family fantasy viewing, and it's always best to start at the beginning. Fellowship strikes the perfect balance between heavy themes and plenty of juicy fantasy world building, which means adults can get swept up in the characters while kids can get lost in the amazing fight sequences. It's a victory for everyone involved.
Spirited Away (2001)
Hayao Miyazaki's films are not always the easiest to absorb for Western audiences, and sometimes young children in particular might have a little difficulty following them. In terms of pure, unfettered imagination, though, Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli simply can't be touched, and there's no better entry point into that world than Spirited Away. Even if younger viewers can't fully follow the story right away, they will be entranced by the level of artistry on screen... and will eventually want to come back.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
Walt Disney's original animated feature might not be the favorite film for the whole family in the Disney catalog now, but we still owe "Disney's folly" a huge debt. The film redefined family cinema, taking the cartoons that used to play before the movie and making them into the movie. Its success changed pop culture forever, and we wouldn't have a ton of other Disney animated classics without it.