Family Movies That Haven't Aged Well
It’s movie night, and the kids have bestowed upon you the onerous task of picking something out. You wonder if you can stomach “Toy Story 3” for the 13th time before you have what, at first, seems like a moment of clarity as you suggest watching one of your favorite films from childhood.
But before you know it, you’re cursing yourself as you watch the horror unfold before the very eyes of your suddenly curious children. They start asking questions, sparking the very conversations that make you feel awkward and unfit to raise a child. All of this because you thought a movie starring John Travolta was hilarious when you were 8-years-old. A word to the wise: Next time this scenario has any chance of becoming reality, remember these family movies and avoid them like the plague.
In compiling this list, we used Box Office Mojo, unless otherwise noted, for the gross domestic and international box office totals. And where applicable, we adjusted this figure for inflation to show its value today.
Box office: $153.7 million ($267 million today)
Bottom Line: Free Willy
Anyone who’s seen the documentary “Blackfish” knows where we’re going with “Free Willy.” For those who haven’t, “Blackfish” makes a rather convincing case that orcas should never under any circumstances be held in captivity.
At its core, “Free Willy” has good intentions. A boy who vandalized an amusement park is made to work there to repay his debts, and he forms a strong attachment to one of its residents: Willy, the orca. Their bond is so strong in fact that the boy decides what’s best for the whale is to be freed from captivity to rejoin its family.
First off, Willy ends up freeing himself in stunning yet unrealistic fashion by leaping over a barrier at the amusement park. This is simply infeasible, wildly dangerous for both child and animal, and thus the entirely wrong message to send to children, who are the only audience for this movie. Second, it’s just not that easy — the orca can’t simply return to the wild, and everything will be hunky dory. That became abundantly clear when the real Willy was actually set free and died a horrible death as a result.
It’s best if this movie — and the two that followed it — find the bottom of history’s dustbin and stay there.
Polly Tix in Washington
Box office: N/A (shorts such as this played before main attractions)
Bottom Line: Polly Tix in Washington
We’re going to kick things off with an uncomfortable story about America’s first true sweetheart: Shirley Temple. With films like “Bright Eyes,” “Curly Top” and “Heidi,” she was already an international sensation by the ripe old age of five.
But before those children’s classics, she took part in a series of one-reel shorts as a 3-year-old called “Baby Burlesks” that at the time were intended to be satirical but are just plain creepy. And in some cases, as Time magazine points out, they were even more offensive than “Toddlers in Tiaras.”
Take “Polly Tix in Washington.” Temple appears at about 2 minutes and 50 seconds as a woman paid to seduce a lawmaker — at 3 years old. We’re not sure how that’s supposed to be funny in 1932, 2002, 2082 or 2502. Slate wrote that the films used sexuality to drive the jokes and were blatantly racist. Yes, yes they were.
Look Who’s Talking
Box office: $297 million ($601.4 million today)
Bottom Line: Look Who’s Talking
This movie somehow achieved a PG-13 rating, even though it stars John Travolta and a baby who hallucinates off Demerol. It also made oodles of money and spawned a three-part franchise.
The plot alone is a case study for the #MeToo movement: older, wealthy married man gets his CPA pregnant, claims he’ll leave his wife for her but obviously doesn’t follow through. Then, mom meets a cabbie while in labor. They become friends. He wants more, but she wants a successful man because that really worked out the first time. Eventually, they fall in love so Hollywood can tie a really pretty bow around this rather terrible movie.
One of the overriding themes of the movie is that women can’t possibly raise a child without John Travolta around, which meant this was destined to age poorly. Another theme is that you can have an extramarital affair that leads to a baby, and you will be responsible for absolutely nothing. And let’s not forget a vulgar Bruce Willis voicing baby Mikey and a horribly racist scene involving an Indian baby.
Song of the South
Box office: $63.7 million (IMBD) ($820.2 million today)
Bottom Line: Song of the South
Unpacking this abomination could fill a master’s thesis, so we’ll just focus on the song for now. You know it well. “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah, zip-a-dee-ay / My, oh, my, what a wonderful day / Plenty of sunshine headin' my way / Zip-a-dee-doo-dah, zip-a-dee-ay!”
But you might not know that it was from “Song of the South.” And that’s because Disney wants you to forget about this racist, trope-filled disaster released in 1946 and somehow re-released in the ’80s due to a major glitch in the matrix. Worse, however, is that Disney still capitalizes on parts of it.
Slate points out that the song is synonymous with Disney itself, and the characters still exist on Splash Mountain rides at its theme parks. And in his book “Disney’s Most Notorious Film,” author Jason Sperb writes that the film is “one of Hollywood’s most resiliently offensive racist texts.”
What is perhaps most astonishing about “Song of the South” is that, according to the Slate article, Disney took pains to try to make the movie less racist, even inviting NAACP President Walter White to California to oversee script revisions (though that meeting never occurred and probably should have).
Box office: $341.6 million ($578.8 million today)
Bottom Line: The Flintstones
We can’t imagine what “The Simpsons” would be like with a live-action Bart and Lisa, and that’s because we’ve spent our entire lives praying to any god who would listen for that nightmare not to come true. Sadly, Hanna-Barbera did not feel the same way about its signature animated family.
The human movie version of “The Flintstones” packed an all-star cast, and people gobbled it up to the tune of hundreds of millions in worldwide box office earnings. The problem is, the movie was just really bad.
Roger Ebert summed it up well in his 1994 review: “[T]he story is confusing, not very funny and kind of odd, given the target audience of younger children and their families. Do kids really care much about office politics, embezzlement, marital problems, difficulties with adoption, aptitude exams and mothers-in-law?”
Box office: $87.4 million ($822 million today)
Bottom Line: Peter Pan
This movie is flat-out embarrassing with all-caps and hyphens between the letters. We’ll focus on the Native American stereotypes. Smithsonian magazine writes that there’s “no real reason for a tribe of Native Americans … to live on Neverland, where they are impossible to excise from the story. But it's almost as impossible to depict them in a way that's not offensive.”
The magazine also points out that many other children’s stories were altered after publication when offensive parts faced backlash, but J.M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan” never faced that kind of scrutiny or revision. In addition to the sentence structure that makes these characters’ dialogue offensive, there is the wildly inappropriate song “What Makes the Red Man Red?”
“What made the red man red? / Let's go back a million years / To the very first Injun prince / He kissed a maid and start to blush / And we've all been blushin' since”
Despite Smithsonian magazine’s assertion, later versions of the story, like the 1991 Robert Zemeckis movie “Hook,” did away with the Native American elements entirely. But the original Disney movie is a reminder of the painful power of racial stereotypes.
Ernest Goes to Africa
Box office: N/A (straight to video)
Bottom Line: Ernest Goes to Africa
One could easily make a case for any of the movies in the Ernest franchise being included among this list, but “Goes to Africa” wins out because of its unbridled racism. Take it from Uproxx, which wrote, “The relatively gentle racism of ‘Goes to Camp’ and ‘Slam Dunk’ was just a warm-up for this deeply embarrassing meltdown.”
(And the author of that article actually likes Ernest movies.)
Let’s recap some of the choice moments: Ernest goes to an Indian palace, in Africa, and calls people “sahib.” A white actor darkens his face to play an Indian character. An African tribe is depicted as cannibals. African dialects are presented as mere gibberish. Japanese ninja weapons are somehow commonplace in Africa. Need we go on?
Box office: $230.4 million ($368.7 million today)
Bottom Line: Space Jam
Many people think this is a good movie. And that’s why it reappears in theaters sometimes, ala “The Big Lewbowski.” But where that Coen brothers classic succeeds in its quirkiness and memorable lines, “Space Jam” is merely a vehicle for financial gain that exploits a legendary basketball player named Michael Jordan, a bunch of famous actors and one of the most beloved children’s empires in history: the Looney Tunes. And now it’s getting a reboot starring LeBron James and helmed by Ryan Coogler.
Here’s what The A.V. Club has to say: “When it launched in 1996, anyone over the age of 12 could see ‘Space Jam’ for the capitalist perversion of the Looney Tunes franchise it was, the filmic equivalent of tees depicting “hip-hop” Bugs in backwards jeans. Still, the movie seared itself into unblemished brains with a Taz-shaped brand, resulting in a rippling wave of modern-day nostalgia that’s birthed a Lebron James–starring sequel, live readings and encore runs in theaters across the country.”
There’s also the female cartoon bunny character, Lola, who looks like she stepped out of an adult cosplay convention. And the movie’s quintessential song is “I Believe I Can Fly” by none other than the wholesome family man, R. Kelly.
The Cat in the Hat
Box office: $134 million ($182.8 million today)
Bottom Line: The Cat in the Hat
This movie was wildly popular the year it was released, although we’ll bet most of those who paid to see it felt bilked. However, it’s easy to see how anyone could’ve been fooled. The filmmakers were working with phenomenal source material from the Dr. Seuss classic, and Mike Myers is usually affable and easy to digest. But this movie was bad when it debuted, and somehow it’s worse today.
We love what The Guardian did here by compiling memorable bits of reviews of the movie:
“An abomination, impure and simple.” — Joe Morgenstern, The Wall Street Journal
“Like being run over by a garbage truck that backs up and dumps its load on top of you.” — David Edelstein, Slate
“They might as well have skipped the hassle of securing licensing rights and simply called this mess, 'Mike Myers: Asshole in Fur.'” — Gregory Weinkauf, Dallas Observer
“Take someone you hate ... Perhaps the worst holiday movie ever made.” — John Anderson, Newsday
Box office: $1.6 million (IMDB) ($27.3 million today)
Bottom Line: Dumbo
On the surface, “Dumbo” is a warm-hearted story about perseverance in the face of incessant bullying and the special bond between mother and child. But dig deeper, even just a few inches, and this Disney “classic” is full of cringe-inducing racism that by any generation’s standards should’ve been more heavily scrutinized.
Let’s start with the crows. As Complex notes, “Jive-talking black crows, smoking while singing, ‘I’d be done see’n about everything, when I see an elephant fly’ is already super offensive. Except it gets worse. The main crow’s name is Jim Crow, hilariously named after the racial segregation laws. Additionally, the [voice] actors are all white men putting on their best black man voice.”
Then there’s the “Song of the Roustabouts,” which Decider highlights as the most racist thing about the original “Dumbo.” Just have a look at these lyrics. There’s also the scene where Dumbo gets so wasted that he trips out in nightmarish fashion, and throughout the film, the circus animals are treated like garbage purely for the sake of human entertainment. “Dumbo” underwent a live-action reboot that debuted in March 2019, and thanks to the storytelling of Tim Burton, handles the balance of good and evil much better.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Box office: N/A (made for TV and rerun every year)
Bottom Line: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
It’s the most beloved Christmas movie out there, but it’s also an example of how easy it is to dismiss someone simply because they are different. “Rudolph” is as much a movie about bullying as it is about redemption. And this bullying was vaulted into the spotlight just this past holiday season thanks to The Huffington Post. Yet, surprisingly, in the face of ample evidence, many folks simply did not understand how HuffPo could draw such a conclusion. While this story has plenty of similarities with another moment of reckoning for a beloved holiday classic, albeit a song, the “Rudolph” criticism seems more clear-cut.
It’s simply not a good lesson in acceptance when Donner, Rudolph’s father, tries to cover up his son’s red nose because Donner’s embarrassed by this unique trait. When the coach tells the other reindeer to not let Rudolph play in any games, that’s exactly the opposite of what an authority figure should do. And when Hermey, the elf, expresses a desire to follow his dreams of becoming a dentist instead of being forced to make toys his entire life, he is not celebrated and encouraged but rather mocked and ridiculed.
Of course, the movie has a happy ending with Rudolph saving Christmas, but the journey to get there is fraught with moral peril.
Box office: $72.2 million ($138.7 million today)
Bottom Line: Problem Child
And that brings us to “Problem Child,” which at its best is simply offensive to the art of filmmaking. It was also so rife with issues, according to Mental Floss, that it’s a wonder it ever made it to theaters. For one thing, it was supposed to be a dark comedy for adults but tested so poorly that it was revamped into a family movie. Then, it became so popular that the producers made TWO more “Problem Child” movies.
To understand the depth of horrible that is “Problem Child,” consider that John Ritter couldn’t even save this disaster, and he’s the guy who successfully played the randiest heterosexual gay man in television history for eight seasons of “Three’s Company.” But that’s what happens when you try to find humor in the story of a child who is considered so “awful” that his biological parents abandon him, he gets passed between unwitting adoptive family after unwitting adoptive family, before ending up in an “orphanage” — in 1990 no less — and then landing in this movie. Along the way he destroys everything, and not a single moment of it is funny.
For good measure, there’s also offensive and racist language, bottom-feeding bathroom humor and such ludicrous scenarios that it’s hard to even imagine this movie as a cartoon.