This could be a tough month for movie fans who don’t buy into the frenzy over the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It might be even worse if you and your kids do love Star Wars but you forgot to pre-order tickets and you’re stuck waiting for a show that’s not sold out. Whatever the reason, you’re yearning for a galaxy far, far away that isn’t a Lucasfilm product. Disney’s answer to Star Wars, The Black Hole is an obvious place to start. But there are far more interesting options. We’ve got you covered with a list of the best family-friendly space-adventure movies that you can rent right now.
1. A Trip to the Moon
Why not start at the beginning with one of the first movies ever made, Le Voyage dans la Lune? If you’re not sure whether your child will go for a silent, black-and-white film, never fear — this trip to the moon is only 13 minutes long. Several versions of this film are available, but for my money the one to watch is the trippy, hand-tinted color reconstruction with a musical score by French electronica duo Air.
Age recommendation: There is no review of this unrated movie on Common Sense Media, but it’s safe for all ages.
2. Wallace and Gromit: A Grand Day Out
This short (23 minutes) animated film is not just appropriate for all ages, it’s delightful for all ages. Everyone will have a blast joining the eccentric inventor and his clever dog on their trip to the moon in search of cheese. Wensleydale, anyone?
Age recommendation: See above
3. Treasure Planet
This Disney-animated interpretation of Treasure Island follows the 1960s live action Disney movie almost exactly, except that it’s set in outer space and most of the characters are aliens. Restless teen Jim Hawkins, voiced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, is launched on his treasure hunting adventures when Billy Bones (literally) crashes on the doorstep of the Benbow Inn. Half the fun is the space-age adaptations to the story, but the moral ambiguities of the original are not lost and the cyborg pirate-cook John Silver still makes for a lovable villain. Emma Thompson’s starchy feline ship’s captain almost upstages him, though.
Age recommendation: Common Sense Media rates this movie for ages 9 and up, but my 6-year-old loved it.
Almost from the beginning of commercial film, “space movies” and “kids’ movies” have given studios an excuse to cynically churn out garbage and rake in money. Leave it to Pixar, then, to elevate a kids’ space movie to arthouse cinema with the lushly animated, poignant, dialogue-free opening to Wall-E. Although the youngest viewers might find the beginning slow, they’ll be caught up in animated action soon enough. By the end, Wall-E has accomplished what many thought was impossible. It tells a pointed story with powerful messages while engaging audiences of all ages with humor and action. Wall-E is not just Pixar at its best, Wall-E is filmmaking at its best.
Age recommendation: Common Sense Media rates it for ages 5 and up because of the slow beginning and because so much will go over little kids’ heads, but there is nothing too scary or inappropriate for even the youngest viewers.
5. Titan A.E.
So you’re a Firefly fan, but your kids aren’t old enough yet? Joss Whedon tested a few now-familiar ideas in the screenplay for Titan A.E., the last full-length animated feature directed by Don Bluth. With its dark premise of humanity struggling to avoid extinction after Earth’s destruction by aliens, Titan A.E. is a departure from Bluth’s earlier work. Whedon’s genius for using sharp dialogue to tweak expectations elevates the protagonist’s predictable development from angry youth to hero.
Age recommendation: Scary aliens and a lot of violence merit Common Sense Media’s tween rating (it was right on the edge of what my 6-year-old could handle). The ambitious animation of this 15-year-old movie holds up better than the radio rock soundtrack, and the strong Asian female lead is still a rarity in film. Sci-fi nerds will love references to the classics.
6. Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey
They say truth is stranger than fiction. With this documentary series, the world’s hippest scientist, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, proves that it can be more interesting, too. Tyson, who was mentored by Carl Sagan as a youth, has updated the classic series Cosmos with the new scientific discoveries and the latest in television production and media savvy.
Age recommendation: Common Sense Media rates it for ages 10 and up because some of the science presented is pretty advanced, but my then-5-year-old was captivated by the program’s slick special effects and historical animations when the show debuted last year. The series ranges from micro to macro with a strong emphasis on historical discoveries and the scientific method as a way to understand the world. Whether you’re a kindergartener asking “Why?” or a grownup in a lab coat, there is something for everyone in Cosmos.
Three middle-school misfits build a space ship and take off for an alien playdate in this 1985 PG love note to sci-fi movie classics. Perfectly calibrated to its target middle-grade audience, you can easily imagine the screenwriter sitting down with his 10-year-old son and asking, “What should happen next?” Parents will get a kick out of watching Ethan Hawke and River Phoenix play pre-adolescent science nerds.
Age recommendation: Common Sense Media rates this movie for ages 7 and up, noting some mild language and a stolen bottle of beer (to christen the space ship). Explorers may cause your kids to ask a lot of questions like “What is a Walkman?” You will often find yourself explaining, “That’s a line from an old TV show that was on reruns when I was a kid.” Then you can explain what a rerun is. It turns out a galaxy far, far away might just be your own childhood in the ‘80s.
8. The Last Starfighter
In 1984’s The Last Starfighter, Alex Rogan is a good kid with not much going for him. His one claim to fame is holding the high score on the arcade-style video game in his trailer park. When he beats the game, Alex discovers that it is actually a recruiting mechanism for intergalactic fighter pilots. A sneak attack has wiped out all of the other starfighters, and Alex is all that’s left between Earth and an alien invasion.
Age recommendation: Despite its militaristic themes, The Last Starfighter is cute and, with a Common Sense Media rating of 9 and older, harmless. Your kid will go to bed with dreams of interstellar heroics dancing in his head. (Alas, this movie and Explorers do seem to speak more to boys. My daughters enjoyed both movies, but did not identify with the almost entirely male casts.)
9. Guardians of the Galaxy
Yes, this is just trading one overblown action movie franchise for another (Lucasfilm for Marvel), but this space-superhero movie is a genuine delight. Intense scenes (including the heartbreaking opening, when the hero’s mother dies), scary aliens, violence and mild swearing earn it a tween rating on Common Sense Media.
Age recommendation: Based on Common Sense Media's tween rating, we showed it to our kids, then 10 and 5, with some trepidation. My youngest spent the next two weeks drawing pictures of Rocket, the antisocial mutant raccoon warrior that she wants for Christmas. No matter how great the threat to the galaxy, there is something inherently family-friendly about a team of heroes that includes a raccoon and a sentient tree. Add a female lead who is smarter and stronger than anyone else in the movie — a truly rare element in space movies — and a male lead played by Chris Pratt with the same goofy charm as his Parks and Recreation character, and you’ve got a formula for an action movie that can’t fail to please.
10. Galaxy Quest
Spaceballs is the mid-80’s spoof of Star Wars, but it’s just not as funny as Galaxy Quest, 1999’s affectionate spoof of Star Trek. The ridiculous premise of Galaxy Quest, a crew of washed-out TV actors being called on to perform their screen heroics in real life, is held together by fast-paced, witty writing. Kids won’t get all of the jokes skewering the sci-fi tropes Star Trek invented, but there’s plenty of kid-friendly goofiness to keep the uninitiated engaged.
Age recommendation: There is some gross-out humor and mild swearing, but Common Sense Media still approves Galaxy Quest for ages eight and up. My 6-year-old had no issues with the movie, while my 11-year-old appreciated the way Galaxy Quest made fun of the sci-fi tendency to place women in subservient roles. She also learned this important life lesson — “Never trust that the bad guy is dead and never bring him back to your home planet!”
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