90s kids weren’t the only ones blessed with a childhood of cinematically superior proportions. Children of the Millennium grew up with a front row seat to the rise of Pixar, the dawn of the superhero film, and one of the last animated films to be drawn entirely by hand.
They might not have known at the time that just about every film released during their youth was an instant classic, but kids born in 2000 and beyond certainly do now. Here are the best kids movies released at the turn of the new century.
The Harry Potter Series
Few films have cast more of a spell over audiences than the Harry Potter films. Every time Harry entered a new year at Hogwarts, kids and kids at heart lined up at midnight to see it play out on the big screen just like they did every time a new book was released. 90s kids got to grow up with the books, but 2000s kids grew up watching Harry on the big screen as he rode his first broom, slayed the basilisk, and traveled back in time to save his godfather. Each film stayed true to the book it was based on and made us care about Hermione, Ron, Hagrid, and the rest of Harry’s friends as if they were our own (because let’s be real, they were). We solemnly swear that we will never stop loving these films, which showed us what real bravery and love look like.
If we thought we knew everything there was to know about fairy tales, we were proven wrong when Shrek was released in 2001. The film gave center stage to an unlikely hero—the cranky title ogre, brought to life with a Scottish accent by Mike Myers—and made us see that we had more in common with the swamp-dwelling creature than we might have originally thought. Shrek might have been the heart of the film, but the character we really fell in love with was Eddie Murphy’s Donkey. Just like he did with Mushu in Disney’s Mulan, Murphy brought Donkey to such vibrant comedic life that it sent audiences screaming for a sequel. Combined with Cameron Diaz’s fierce and heartwarming Fiona, Shrek became a timely tale about loving people for who they are, regardless of how they look.
The only thing cooler than finding out your parents are wizards is finding out that they’re spies. That’s exactly what Carmen and Juni Cortez learn after their parents are kidnapped by an evil genius, throwing everything they thought they knew about their family into question. Cue the high-speed boat chases, kids-versus-adults fight sequences, and most spectacular gadgets this side of Goldfinger. Spy Kids was the adventure we all wished we could jump into, mainly to use those gadgets, but also because the movie was about a family coming together to overcome obstacles and take down the bad guys. Not only did it lead to multiple sequels and a Netflix series, but spy toys began appearing on Wal-Mart shelves everywhere, ensuring that our parents never had privacy again. Spy Kids was the gift that kept on giving, and we’re not mad that its legacy lives on today.
If there was one film that cemented Pixar as the single-greatest computer animation company in the world, it was Finding Nemo. Kids had been brought under the sea before, but Nemo took them even deeper, introducing them to an entire ocean of new characters as Marlin and Dory tried to find Marlin’s kidnapped son. Like many Pixar films that would follow, Nemo made us laugh while also tugging at our heartstrings, making us feel for these characters worlds beyond our own. In between cackles at Dory’s jokes, we wanted her to get her memory back just as much as we wanted Marlin learn how to let his son grow up. The story was so much more than a fish tale, and the stunning animation made us anticipate whatever Pixar would come up with next.
Any kid who ever thought that the grass was greener on the other side of the fence probably had a change of heart after seeing Freaky Friday. The hilarious remake starring Jamie Lee Curtis and Lindsay Lohan brought a fortune cookie twist to its retelling, which of course found mother Tess and daughter Anna swapping lives for one thoroughly freaky day. In the end it taught an important lesson about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes before assuming that you have them all figured out. If we’re being honest, the main reason to watch the film is to see Curtis (as Anna) play guitar offstage during Lohan’s (as Tess) Battle of the Bands concert at the House of Blues. The only thing we’re a little jaded about is that Harry and Grandpa didn’t get their own spin-off.
Who knew that just one short year after Pixar rocked our world with Finding Nemo, they’d do it with The Incredibles? The film didn’t just live up to its name—it blew our ever-loving minds, catapulting computer animation to a whole new level of awesome and making kids everywhere wish that they could run on water and stretch their bodies like Silly Putty. It taught powerful lessons, too, like the importance of family and never holding back your special gifts (except when you’re running track at school, in which case you should go for second). It’s easy to throw around words like “perfection” when talking about a film, but The Incredibles is an actual masterpiece, one of the defining films of the 2000s and proof that Pixar could literally do anything.
“Buddy the Elf, what’s your favorite color?” Is there any line in Elf that isn’t still universally quotable? Of course not, because Will Ferrell’s Buddy is an irresistible character that has been brightening every holiday season since 2003. His desire to find his dad while remaining true to his elfish upbringing makes for a giggle-inducing sleigh ride through modern-day Manhattan and the North Pole. The film doesn’t hit us over the head with clichéd lessons about believing in Santa, but rather shows us exactly how much Buddy believes in St. Nick via his every word and action. Like a cozy blanket and a cup of hot chocolate, Elf remains our winter guilty pleasure and a reminder that it’s impossible to have too much love for Christmas.
Life is a highway in this clever Pixar film about a world populated entirely by—you guessed it—cars. It’s easy to think that the story about Lightning McQueen, who only ever wanted to be the best racer of all time and win the Piston Cup, is just about winning and losing, but at the heart of Cars is a story about the meaning of community. When McQueen meets Mater, Sally, Doc, and the rest of the gang in Radiator Springs, he learns that friends are more important than any trophy could ever be and that being the best isn’t half as good as being his best. These are important lessons for any youngster, plus goofball Mater is among the more instantly lovable characters Pixar has ever created.
School of Rock
There’s only one upside to having your teacher fall and break her leg before school: having your potential substitute’s slacker roommate pose as said substitute and then recruit you to join his rock band. School of Rock’s Dewey Finn may act completely irresponsibly as a temporary teacher at Horace Prep, but in the end he changes the lives of his students forever. He even opens their parents’ eyes to what can be achieved outside the straight-laced world of academia. Nothing beats the epic performance at the Battle of the Bands when the School of Rock shows everyone what they can do—a testament to one man’s belief in the power of music and his students’ faith that they have what it takes to truly rock.
A ghost, a talentless chef, and a rat walk into a kitchen together. The rat pulls on the chef’s hair, guiding his every movement to help him become a better cook while the ghost acts as the rat’s conscience. This is more or less the story of Ratatouille, a wholly original if slightly nutty idea from Pixar that earns three Michelin stars for its inventiveness and charm. All that Remy the rat has ever wanted to do is cook—why should the fact that he’s only a few inches tall and covered in hair stand in the way of that? Ratatouille turns the unlikeliest of heroes into someone we can root for, teaching us that everyone should be given a chance no matter how different they are or how high the odds are stacked against them.
The Princess Diaries
By the time The Princess Diaries came out in 2001, kids were already familiar with the notion of the unlikely Disney princess. Still, it was a joy to watch frumpy Mia Thermopolis learn that she was not only related to Dame Julie Andrews, but also the heir to the Genovian throne. Brought to life by newcomer Anne Hathaway, Mia’s simultaneous navigation of high school life and princess training made her surprisingly relatable. It’s one thing to conform to what your predetermined destiny expects of you, but something else entirely to seize it on your terms and in your own unique way. Mia taught us that it was possible to be oneself in even the wildest of circumstances and that a sensible makeover now and then is always a good idea.
As emotionally compromising as it still is, Up is yet another universally adored film from Pixar that took us places we’d never been before. As Carl’s helium-filled balloons carry his house away to Paradise Falls, so are our hearts filled with hope that he’ll take the trip he always planned with his wife, Ellie. As much about holding on as it is letting go, Up gives us a new dynamic to enjoy in elderly Carl and his young stowaway, Russell. While it might still be Dug who steals the show⏤”Squirrel!”—it’s the relationship between the grouch and the eager Wilderness Explorer that ultimately reveal what the film is trying to say: that it’s never too late to go on the adventure of a lifetime.
After she was done terrorizing Mia Thermopolis in The Princess Diaries and breaking our hearts in A Walk to Remember, Mandy Moore lent her voice to Disney’s newest princess, Rapunzel. Tangled tells the story of what happens when Rapunzel grows tired of waiting to be rescued from her tower and takes matters into her own hands. Alongside her new friend Flynn Rider, Rapunzel allows herself see the world her “mother” always warned her about and uncovers the truth about her mysterious past. Disney didn’t just do a stellar job bringing every strand of Rapunzel’s mile-long hair to life—it reminded us to go out and live life fully instead of waiting around for it to begin.
Toy Story 3
Could it be? Another Pixar movie? If the 90s were the Disney Renaissance, then the 2000s were the same for Pixar. The third film in the Toy Story franchise stopped hearts and made audiences sob uncontrollably in the movie theater alongside family, friends, and complete strangers. Whether you grew up with Andy or were too young to understand why all the adults in the room were wiping their eyes, Andy’s gifting of Woody and Buzz to a new owner was just about the most emotional moment in contemporary animation. Part of us said goodbye to our own toys that day, and that was after we were traumatized by the sight of our favorite on-screen toys nearly burn to death in a fiery incinerator. Toy Story 3 is a sobering look at what it means to say goodbye and is just as powerful, if not more so, than its predecessors. One day we’ll recover, but we’ll never be able to forget this film’s impact.
The Princess and the Frog
One of Disney’s last hand-animated films is also one of its best. Not only does The Princess and the Frog star Tiana, Disney’s first Black princess, but it’s a masterful fusion of adventure story, fairy tale, gorgeous animation, and musical comedy. Against an idyllic New Orleans backdrop and featuring a whole album of new songs from Randy Newman, Tiana’s story is as unique as it is relatable. She’s not a princess bemoaning her fate or waiting for her life to begin—she’s actually a hardworking waitress working two jobs to save up enough money to open her own restaurant. She might have made the unfortunate decision to kiss a frog, turning herself into a mucus-spitting amphibian, but she illustrated how hard work can pay off in the long-run. Hers is a film that warmly invites its audience to enjoy all the bayou adventures, trumpet-playing alligators, and gumbo references it can handle. It’s living proof that dreams do come true not only in New Orleans, but wherever Disney decides to take us.