There has never been a better time to watch TV if you’re a kid—or a worse time to be the parent of a TV-watching kid.
Streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Video alone offer seemingly endless options for the under-10 set. Much of that content, however, is questionable in one way or another. For my 5-year-old, I find many shows too violent, age inappropriate, uncivil, or just plain weird (what is going on with this feature-length movie acted out entirely by toy plastic dinosaurs speaking English with Russian accents?). Even if you weed those out, you’re left with the uninspired, the inane, or worse, the annoying films.
Now, I understand that I’m not the target audience for the people who dreamed up hyperactive ninjas with bad attitudes, or fickle ponies with relationship issues. But I wondered: Is there something my son would enjoy that’s slightly less soul-destroying for me to watch?
I plunged into the daunting pile of streaming media. I started out with movies, figuring that the higher investment required to make a movie means producers are likely to put more care and creativity into it. And within that category I started with award-winners.
My criteria were not overly ambitious: The story had to be good, the animation better than shoddy, and the music not cringe-worthy. I turned up a few gems that far exceeded them. Anything made by Irish studio Cartoon Saloon is lovely. There are also streamed versions of some classics from Japan’s Studio Ghibli, as well as a handful of beautifully animated European films.
Some of them are slower than your average kid show, and include details and ideas that are likely to go over the heads of young children. If you go by recommendations by non-profit media rating group Common Sense Media—which, by the way, is a great resource—some of these movies are for kids older than five. I found them to be perfectly appropriate, particularly since we watched together, and I was there to deal with any confusing or unsettling bits. Of course every parent must determine their own child’s threshold for violence and conflict; sexual or romantic innuendo; and adult themes that may touch on death or disaster.
It took a bit of convincing to get my son to give up his frenetically paced shows to try these movies, but a few minutes in, he was hooked. So was I. As it turns out, our taste is not all that different.
Here are our favorite picks. The list is Euro-centric and Amazon-heavy, as those were the most readily available films. Please help us diversify it with your suggestions!
Song of the Sea
This tells the story of a pair of siblings and their quest to save fairies—and restore their estranged relationship. The animation, all hand-drawn, is delightful, and the music mesmerizing. Streaming service: Amazon. Age rating: PG.
An orphan boy who’s afraid of the dark takes a trip to the wondrous world where night is created. It includes a cast of improbable and clever characters, and lessons about facing your fears. Streaming service: Amazon. Age rating: NR.
Long Way North
A girl braves a harrowing journey to the North Pole in search of her lost grandfather, a famous explorer. The stark, streamlined animation is stunning, and the movie gets extra points for its plucky heroine. Streaming service: Amazon. Age rating: PG.
Ernest and Celestine
A bear and a mouse become friends despite the long-standing animosity between their species. A good starting point for conversations about prejudice and how to overcome it. Streaming service: Netflix. Age rating: PG.
This 1971 animated film about a round-headed boy living in a world full of points is poignant and fun. The music and psychedelic animation are decidedly stuck in its era, but the message of tolerance and acceptance is very 2017. Streaming service: Amazon. Age rating: PG.