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.
Box office: $153.7 million ($267 million today)
Note: 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.
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.
Box office: $110 million ($166.5 million today)
Bottom Line: Freaky Friday
There are plenty of diehard "Freaky Friday" fans, but there's no way this Lindsay Lohan and Jamie Lee Curtis feature would be produced today. Not with the inclusion of "oriental mysticism," that is.
In the movie, a mother accidentally switches places with her teenage daughter thanks to some magical fortune cookies they open at Pei-Pei's Chinese restaurant. The movie is supposed to be about understanding and respect, but the stereotyping of Asian culture didn't exactly align with that.
The good news? Disney Channel remade "Freaky Friday" in 2018, minus the fortune cookie detail.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
Box office: $185 million ($3.6 billion today)
Bottom Line: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
"Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" is incredible in terms of animation. For a movie made in the 1930s, it's a work of pure genius and one that launched Walt Disney to stardom. The storyline and execution, however, are questionable.
Fairytales aren't exactly known for being politically correct, which is why film adaptations usually take liberties with the plot. Snow White, however, stayed true to the original story. To start, Snow White is a bit of a clueless nincompoop hiding behind a veil of "innocence." Who takes an apple from some creepy stranger in the woods? Especially when you know an evil queen is out to get you?
To make matters worse, after Snow White is poisoned, a prince she's never met kisses her while she's unconscious. What came off as romantic in the 1930s just seems creepy today.
Back to the Future
Box office: $211 million ($332 million today)
Bottom Line: Back to the Future
"Back to the Future" was a weird flick, if you think about it. Marty McFly needs to set his parents up with each other in the past to ensure his own existence. Already a little weird, but OK, we can deal with that.
But in the past, Marty's mom seems to find him attractive and hits on him through half the movie. Eww! George also spies on Lorraine while she's getting dressed. As if that's not bad enough, the movie also implies that Marty wrote "Johnny B. Goode," a song by the Black rock 'n' roll pioneer Chuck Berry.
Oh, and there's a sexual assault scene that's pretty much glossed over.
Box office: $112.7 ($177 million today)
Bottom Line: Spy Kids
There's a lot to love about "Spy Kids." There's plenty of Latinx representation, and the entire movie feels like something straight out of a child's overactive imagination. It does, however, have some creepy notes.
Fegan Floop, the host of a children's show, traps kids and turns them into weirdly shaped evil minions. He also sings the following lyrics to the kids watching his show: "Some mean, nasty people want to have you for their supper — but if you follow me, you can all be free."
Sounds more like the start of a cult or a kidnapping than a children's movie.
Ace Ventura: Pet Detective
Box office: $72.2 million ($135.4 million today)
Bottom Line: Ace Ventura: Pet Detective
Whether you love or hate Jim Carrey's overacting, there's a good chance you forgot how misguided and tasteless one of his Ace Ventura movies was. As a kid, the finer points probably went over your head. As an adult, we hope you can see what's wrong with a plot that depicts a transgender woman as the villain.
The big reveal, in which Lois Einhorn reveals that she was actually former football player Ray Finkle, was supposed to be the "funniest" scene. There's nothing funny about demonizing a transgender person, however, especially when so many of them are still the targets of hate crimes and physical violence.
Box office: $30.6 million ($57.4 million today)
Bottom Line: Blank Check
"Home Alone's" storyline revolves around an 8-year-old being left alone on Christmas Eve, but we can get past the absurdity of that one. The creepiness of "Blank Check" is an entirely different matter.
It aired on Disney and was marketed as a family movie — even though it included a scene in which an adult woman practically made out with an 11-year-old boy. It was made in the 1990s, and the double standards are disturbing. If the roles had been reversed, with an adult man passionately kissing an 11-year-old girl, Disney would have been canceled.
But back in 1994, it was somehow fine when the scene involved an underage boy instead. Yikes!
A Christmas Story
Box office: $20.6 million ($57.6 million today)
Bottom Line: A Christmas Story
It's completely possible to appreciate an old movie while still recognizing the elements in it that aren't the best. "A Christmas Story" is, mostly, a wholesome tale about a little boy named Ralphie who goes on an adventure to acquire a Red Ryder BB Gun for Christmas.
Unfortunately, the movie also included racial humor throughout. At the end, there's even a scene with Asian immigrants at a Chinese restaurant singing "Deck the Halls," with a chorus of “fa-ra-ra-ra.” The movie was set in the 1940s, but it came out in the 1980s. For the time, we feel like they should have known better.
Box office: $57 million ($164.4 million today)
Bottom Line: Annie
The original "Annie" film is a classic, and it's better than any of the remakes. For the most part, it's a great story — a rags-to-riches tale of a determined, fiery little orphan who inspires a billionaire to adopt every kid in the orphanage. The songs and dance numbers are upbeat and entertaining, and the movie is still worth watching today.
The bad part? Daddy Warbucks, the wealthy aristocrat, has a manservant named Punjab, who's portrayed as having mythical powers. It perpetuates the "magical minority" stereotype, and to make matters worse, Punjab is played by African American actor Geoffrey Holder instead of an Indian man.
The Bad News Bears
Box office: $32.2 million ($157.4 million today)
Bottom Line: The Bad News Bears
Well-loved for its humorous and heartwarming underdog storyline, "The Bad News Bears" became a template for all future kids' sports movies. You know how it goes; a rough-around-the-edges, middle-aged coach takes on a group of misfits and leads them to greatness. Cool.
Except, in "The Bad News Bears," there's a ton of sexism, plus a light sprinkling of underage drinking. Oh, and rampant, casual racism. The worst moment was when Tanner Boyle spews a long list of racial slurs in response to an African American boy joining the team, followed by, “and now a girl?”
Swiss Family Robinson
Box office: $40.4 million ($378.9 million today)
Bottom Line: Swiss Family Robinson
The Swiss Family Robinson came out in 1960, so it's unsurprising that some elements would no longer fly today. The Disney live-action story follows a family trapped on an island, and for the most part, it's a light, comedic family adventure.
We wish Disney hadn't included the large group of "exotic" pirates, however. The pirates immediately attack the family of white people for no reason, perpetuating the stereotype of ethnic evil. The Asian pirates are later killed by the children, which is even more disturbing.