The 1990s was a banner decade for kids' movies in the United States. A number of “brands” got their starts in the final years of the millennium, and the idea of cross-platform spin-offs and merchandising cross-promotion gained traction. Technical developments in filmmaking – especially in computer animation – also contributed to the boom in kids' films around this time. A handful of them are among the most successful and well-loved feature films of that time.
Chris Columbus directed this classic film about a kid who gets left behind for the holidays. It made a star out of 8-year-old Macaulay Culkin, who resourcefully gets into and out of all kinds of trouble when his family leaves for Paris for Christmas without him. Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern play the hapless burglars who fall into the boy's imaginative booby traps. “Home Alone” was the highest grossing film of 1990 and was nominated for two Academy Awards.
In 1995, Walt Disney Pictures and Pixar Animation Studios joined forces to make “Toy Story,” which many critics consider to be one of the best and most innovative animated films ever released. A box-office smash, the film introduced millions of kids to endearing characters such as toy astronaut Buzz Lightyear and Woody, the cowboy doll voiced by Tom Hanks, and spawned the catchphrase “To infinity and beyond.”
"Beauty and the Beast"
The first animated feature film to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture was Walt Disney Pictures' “Beauty and the Beast,” released in 1991. Based on a classic French fairy tale, the film featured lavish musical numbers with dancing candlesticks and household items framing the love story between Belle and the Beast. The film followed the “Little Mermaid” (1989) and preceded “Aladdin” (1992) and “The Lion King” (1994) in a string of hugely successful Disney musical animated features in the '90s.
An epic departure from Hollywood’s domination of the kids' feature film market in the 1990s was the fantasy action animation "Princess Mononoke," written and directed by Japanese master Hayao Miyazaki. Released in Japan in 1997, the film tells the story of a young boy and his involvement in a battle between the forest gods and a society of destructive humans. The U.S. did not acquire distribution rights to “Princess Mononoke” until 1999 and even then, the movie did not receive real success in the states until it was released on DVD in 2001. It paved the way for more Japanese anime in the West however, appealing greatly to parents who wanted to offer their children a more sophisticated screen experience than American-style cartoons.
One of the best kids' films of the '90s tells the story of a delinquent boy who befriends a captive orca. “Free Willy,” starring Keiko the killer whale, was a box-office success when released in 1993, but was less well received critically. Still, it had a huge impact on the American popular-culture landscape and may have helped paved the way for later successful live-action kid/animal films such as “Air Bud” (1997) and “Andre” (1994).
Margot Callahan has Bachelor of Arts degrees in philosophy and film studies. She has written for newspapers and magazines such as the "Toronto Star" and "Toronto Life Fashion" since 1991, in addition to producing and directing documentary films.