Many of the biggest movies of all time are (arguably) family films. From Star Wars to Pirates of the Caribbean, the Marvel Cinematic Universe to Pixar movies, if studios want to rake in hundreds of millions, aiming for as broad an audience as possible seems the way to go.
Everyone knows about the biggest movies, and that, for instance, Avatar is the highest-grossing movie of all time (though Star Wars: The Force Awakens is nipping at its heels). But what of those endless other family-oriented movies that don’t grab as much of the limelight but still help studios make billions each year?
The Hollywood landscape is littered with movies that don’t enter the zeitgeist, prompt wide critical acclaim, or garner awards recognition, and yet still millions of families turn out to see them, molding them into giant hits. These are often animated movies, family-friendly fantasies or comedies that have release dates around the holidays or school vacations, planned to grab as much attention as possible from parents who have kids with too much time on their hands.
Here, we’ve included many family movies that don’t immediately spring to mind when considering some of the biggest films the entire clan can enjoy together. In addition, there are some big hits here that aren’t typically considered family movies, but managed to grab an MPAA rating that lets movie lovers of all ages in the door.
12. The Smurfs – $564 million
In 2011, Sony Pictures Animation revived The Smurfs with a hybrid live-action/animated movie. Starring Hank Azaria, Neil Patrick Harris, Jayma Mays, Sofía Vergara, Jonathan Winters and Katy Perry, it told the story of The Smurfs attempting to return home after getting lost in New York City.
The movie earned $564 million globally, $143 million of which was at the domestic box office. However, despite its success, it failed to take first place in its opening weekend, losing out to Jon Favreau’s Cowboys & Aliens, which is generally regarded as a disappointment due to its enormous budget. The 2013 sequel, The Smurfs 2, fared far less well, though still turned a profit, garnering a worldwide gross of $348 million.
The Smurfs faced a great deal of competition among animated movies released in 2011, with Cars 2, Happy Feet 2, Kung Fu Panda 2, Puss in Boots, and Rango vying for attention, perhaps leading to The Smurfs failing to capture as much of the public consciousness as it might have otherwise.
11. Alvin and the Chipmunks – $361 million
Fox found box office gold when it brought Alvin, Simon, Theodore, and Dave back to the big screen in 2007 with Alvin and the Chipmunks. The movie took advantage of the holiday season and too many children with too little to do vaulted this movie to $217 million domestically and $361 million worldwide. Jason Lee stars as Dave, with Justin Long, Matthew Gray Gubler, and Jesse McCartney voicing Alvin, Simon, and Theodore respectively.
The sequels also performed well, with Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel taking home $443 million from the global box office, and Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked $343 million.
The latest installment, Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip, has struggled in comparison. At time of writing, it’s made $126 million. It again had a December release date, and its box office earnings were unquestionably damaged with the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens the same weekend, taking in $14.3 million on its domestic opening, versus Star Wars’ record-breaking haul of $248 million.
The franchise has found great success by way of its ties to a series that holds nostalgia for many adults, with colorful characters and modernization for youngsters. It also took great advantage of holiday release dates, at least until the most recent entry.
10. Home – $386 million
Home is an animated movie from DreamWorks that centers on an alien race called the Boov. After they invade Earth and relocate all the humans to make space for themselves, a girl named Tip manages to evade capture. She encounters Oh, a Boov on the run from his kind after he accidentally reveals the species’ location to the Boov’s mortal enemy, the Gorg. Together, they set out to find Tip’s mother, from whom she was separated during the invasion of the Boov.
Home hit theaters in March 2015, during spring break for many kids. It’s one of those movies that took advantage of school vacations to give young movie lovers something to do. It earned $177 million domestically and $386 million worldwide. Home has a cast of stars such as Rihanna, Jim Parsons, Steve Martin, and Jennifer Lopez. However, it failed to secure wide critical praise, and missed out on receiving a Best Animated Feature nomination at the Academy Awards.
9. Maleficent – $759 million
As part of Disney’s plan to delve into its past in search of live-action hits based on its animated classics, in 2014, it released Maleficent, a retelling of its 1959 animated feature Sleeping Beauty. Only this time, the storytelling perspective shifts to Maleficent, the dark fairy who sends Princess Aurora into a deep slumber in the original movie.
Maleficent has a bonafide A-lister in the title role in Angelina Jolie. Her supporting cast includes Elle Fanning, Sharlto Copley, Sam Riley, and Imelda Staunton.
While the movie has a major star headlining, it doesn’t seem like the kind of movie on the surface that would find a huge audience. As a remix of a much-loved Disney feature told from the viewpoint of the reviled antagonist, it did not appear to have enough of a hook to pull in audiences. The un-family friendly release date of late May 2014 did not appear to help.
8. Hook – $301 million
Often derided as one of Steven Spielberg’s weakest movies, alongside 1941, Hook revisits the Peter Pan mythos with Robin Williams as Peter, the grown-up version of the boy who wouldn’t grow up.
After leaving Never Never Land, he has a family and forgets his fantasy childhood. But his old arch-enemy, Captain Hook, kidnaps his two children, leading him to return to the land of his youth to fight for them. He has to shake off his corporate lawyer trappings and rediscover his spirit of fun to conquer Hook once and for all, and his old troupe, the Lost Boys, help him do just that.
A trio of stars in Williams, Dustin Hoffman, and Julia Roberts, along with the powerhouse that is Steven Spielberg and a riff on a classic tale seemed nailed-on for box office glory. It performed well, earning a little over $300 million globally. The critical panning the movie received overwhelmed the box office figures, however, leaving Hook standing more in the public consciousness as a failed movie, albeit one that was a hit.
7. The Karate Kid (2010) – $359 million
On the surface, this film seemed like a vanity project for Will Smith’s kid. A spin on a beloved kids’ martial arts movie to star Jaden Smith and one of the biggest names in Asian action movie history as his mentor.
Smith Jr. plays Dre, a boy whose mother takes him to live in Beijing. Following the path of the original movie, Dre runs afoul of the local bully. However, he finds a mentor in the shape of a maintenance man (Jackie Chan), who just so happens to be an expert in self defense and teaches Dre his secrets.
The movie didn’t play extremely well with critics, and it received mostly middling reviews. However, Smith and Chan earned praise for their performances and chemistry, and audiences seemed to enjoy it too, as it earned $359 million worldwide.
6. How the Grinch Stole Christmas – $345 million
In 2000, Ron Howard and Jim Carrey teamed up to deliver How the Grinch Stole Christmas, an adaptation of the Dr. Seuss story from 1957. While the book was previously molded into an animated TV special in the ’60s, this was the first time a studio had created a live-action feature version of one of Seuss’ books.
Carrey’s Grinch is a creature who despises Christmas after being bullied as a kid, particularly after a shaving incident around the holidays one year. His tormentors drove him to flee the town of Whoville to live on a mountain. However, a young girl empathizes with him and helps him to learn the true meaning of Christmas, a revelation that causes his heart to grow three sizes.
It’s a sweet family movie and one that’s based on a well-loved book, but not one that seemed like it would play broadly. It’s saccharine sweet and more than a touch quirky, which plays against the more straight-ahead fare of family movies out around the season, such as 102 Dalmatians, Rugrats in Paris: The Movie, and The Emperor’s New Groove. However, it generated $345 million globally, a tally that helped it become the second highest-grossing holiday movie of all time, after Home Alone 2.
5. Jaws – $471 million
Jaws changed the game for Hollywood. It ushered in the summer blockbuster model every studio is still using, 40 years later. It’s the movie that firmly entrenched Steven Spielberg on the A list for life, and kept millions away from the sea during the hotter months of the year.
For two years, Jaws held the title of the highest-grossing movie of all time. But that’s not a shock to anyone with even a passing interest in cinema history. What is surprising news for many is that the MPAA rated Jaws PG, making it easily accessible to all ages and essentially making it a family movie (Granted, the MPAA hadn’t invented the PG-13 rating yet). Because what every four-year-old needed in the summer of 1975 was to see a great white shark terrorize a seaside town and for a severed head pop up suddenly.
4. The Lorax – $349 million
The Lorax made its way into theaters on in March 2012 on what would have been the 108th birthday of the man who wrote the book on which it was based, Dr. Seuss. It tells the tale of a 12-year-old boy who is eager to win the heart of his dream girl. However, he lives in a part of the world where nature is non-existent and what she wants more than anything is a tree. His journey to find the tree takes him into some unexpected places, and he encounters some odd creatures on the way.
The Lorax is, at-best, an okay movie with a positive environmental message at its heart. Critics were by and large not big fans, giving it average reviews. However, there’s no accounting for personal tastes for many families, as The Lorax earned $349 million worldwide.
3. Cinderella (2015) – $543 million
The chances of Disney abandoning its plan to create live-action versions of many of its most adored animated features are almost as good as it deciding to halt production on all Marvel and Star Wars projects. The mammoth success of Disney’s 2015 incarnation of Cinderella, which earned $543 million worldwide ($201 million of which was at the domestic box office), prompted the studio to announce more live-action adaptations.
Rather than a straight remake of the 1950 Disney animation, the most recent version was based on the Charles Perrault folk tale and borrowed some aspects of the cartoon. While the movie found strong reviews and has a strong brand name, it didn’t seem likely to earn more than half a billion dollars, but a spring break release date helped it find an audience. It’s also director Kenneth Branagh’s highest-grossing movie to date.
2. Shark Tale – $367 million
In 2004, DreamWorks Animation poisoned the water with its animated feature, Shark Tale. The movie is an underwater mob story and features a fish (voiced by Will Smith) who says he killed the son of a boss of a shark mob (played by Robert De Niro). He did not. He made the claim to curry favor with the rivals of De Niro’s character, Don Lino, to advance his own ambitions.
It had poor reviews, but families looked to by and large disregard what the critics had to say, perhaps because they were simply in search of a 90-minute distraction for their offspring. That seemed to lift it to its somewhat surprising $367 worldwide haul. Maybe the expansive, talented cast drew in viewers – it also features Jack Black, Reneé Zellweger, Angelina Jolie, and Martin Scorsese – but, sadly, this was a bit of a stinker.
1. The Croods – $587 million
Another example of how the release weekend can prove vital to a movie’s success, The Croods hit theaters over the spring vacation in 2013 and reaped the rewards. It earned a remarkable $587 million worldwide. This was despite The Croods being a new intellectual property without an existing brand to back it up and it being set in a prehistoric time which, the Ice Age series aside, does not always spin into box office gold.
It had fairly good reviews from critics, however, and star names including Nicolas Cage, Emma Stone, and Ryan Reynolds filling out the cast. It was visually impressive too, although having Roger Deakins onboard as a visual consultant can’t have hurt. Still, there’s no denying that a solid animated movie marketed well can pull in the crowds over a school break, even in spite of a name that spills out of one’s mouth with all the elegance of a spoonful of rocks.
Can you think of any other family movies that spun box office gold? Let us know in the comments!