Keeping Cool: Kids’ summer holiday movie guide 2021

From new films Lassie Come Home, Croods 2 and Soul, to classics like My Neighbour Totoro, the Artistic Director of the Children's International Film Festival, Thomas Caldwell, gives us his recommendations.

With school holidays right around the corner, many parents will be going through a range of emotions. It’s such a relief to have survived 2020 with all that it’s thrown at us, and this is a wonderful time to celebrate the resilience and bravery of all the Australian kids who’ve reached the end of such a turbulent school year. On the other hand, it means that yet again, the kids are going to be at home and looking for things to do, and for many of us, we’ve already spent a lot of time this year at home with kids, trying to find things for them to do!

So on a hot summer day, there’s nothing better than heading off to the cool cinema or kicking back under the fan with something to watch at home. When it comes to selecting a film, adults are well catered for, with highly anticipated releases like Nomadland and The Dry; while after a year of most blockbusters being put on hold, teenagers are no doubt excited about finally seeing Wonder Woman 1984. But what about younger and more sensitive viewers who by now have probably exhausted rewatching old episodes of Bluey and The Octonauts?

This guide will help you wade your way through some of the films aimed at children over the next month, including some titles that might not be on your radar, and a couple of classics that are worth revisiting.

LASSIE COME HOME 

In cinemas now 

The beloved Long-Haired Collie made her cinema debut in 1943 and she’s been such an icon of film and television ever since that it’s hard to believe that many younger kids today have never heard of her. This new adaptation of the original 80-year-old story, is a terrific introduction to the courageous and loyal dog who after being separated from the 12-year-old boy who looks after and adores her, embarks on an arduous journey to be reunited.

Intriguingly, this is a German production, but the Australian release features English-language dubbing that ensures the film remains accessible for younger viewers (and is overall impressively done). Lassie Comes Home is a timeless story of the bond between a boy and his dog, and this new film does the story justice. Bring tissues though, as you know you’re probably going to shed a few tears at the finale.

Age recommendation: 7+

WOLFWALKERS 

Available now on Apple TV+ 

This is not just one of the best films for kids from this year, but one of the year’s best films full stop. This striking animated film set in Ireland in 1650 during the English occupation is about a young girl who discovers that the wolves living in the forest are not the threat to the townspeople that everybody thinks they are. It’s an impressive film that weaves a supernatural tale of humans who take the form of wolves when they sleep, with accessible and age-appropriate commentary on environmental destruction and authoritarianism.

Wolfwalkers is the new film from Ireland’s Cartoon Saloon studio, which has previously punched above its weight with other gorgeous animated features such as The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, both of which are highly recommended and available online via various video-on-demand services.

Age recommendation: 8+

COMBAT WOMBAT 

Available now on DVD and digitally 

Released in Australian cinemas in October, this Australian feature animation is now available on home entertainment, and it’s great. Deborah Mailman voices Maggie Diggins, a grumpy wombat who is struggling to move on after losing the love of her life. When she accidentally saves an overenthusiastic sugar-glider named Sweetie (voiced by Ed Oxenbould) from drop bears on the rampage, Maggie finds herself thrust into the limelight as Sanctuary City’s new resident superhero.

Read: Film review: Combat Wombat is fresh, funny and inspiring

Combat Wombat is the second film set in Sanctuary City by the creative team from the Australia-based production company Like a Photon. The previous film, The Wishmas Tree, is available for streaming on Prime Video and Foxtel, and also various digital services. The latest Tales from Sanctuary City film Daisy Quokka: World’s Scariest Animal will be available sometime in early 2021, and it’s also loads of fun, so keep an eye out for that one too.

Age recommendation: 6+

SOUL 

Available for streaming on Disney+ on 25 December 

The latest film from Pixar Animation Studios (Toy Story, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles etc) has been one of the most anticipated films of the year, and one that has been most affected by the global pandemic, forgoing a cinema release to be made available to Disney+ subscribers on Christmas Day.

Aspiring musician Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx) finally gets the break he’s been waiting for, but has his life cut short by a freak accident. In the afterlife his soul becomes a mentor for new souls to help them discover their passion before they are assigned to bodies. It sounds heavy-going, but Pixar has an excellent track record for presenting difficult and complex ideas in a way that is entertaining and appropriate to children. The early positive reviews from international critics and the fact that it’s directed by Pete Docter (Monsters Inc, Up, Inside Out ­– some of the best Pixar films) suggests the anticipation is justified.

Age recommendation: 7+

THE CROODS: A NEW AGE 

Released in cinemas on 26 December 

The original 2013 Croods film (available digitally) was a surprise hit for DreamWorks Animation, who are also behind popular animated franchises such as the Shrek, Kung Fu Panda, Madagascar, How to Train Your Dragon and Trolls films. Following the misadventures of a family of cave people trying to outrun the continental drift, the film distinguished itself from thematically similar properties such as The Flintstones and the Ice Age films with its specific type of humour, high levels of slapstick and highly imaginative ensemble of weird and wonderful made-up animals.

The sequel sees the Croods encountering a new family of more modern and evolved humans, delivering lots of opportunities for prehistoric-style gags about gentrification and hipsterdom. Regular voice cast members Nicolas Cage, Emma Stone, Ryan Reynolds and Catherine Keener are joined by Peter Dinklage and Leslie Mann, giving the film some impressive star power. Both films are a lot of fun and very funny.

Age recommendation: 7+

DRAGON RIDER

Released in cinemas on 1 January 

Dragon Rider is an adaptation of Cornelia Funke’s best-selling children’s book about a dragon, a forest brownie and a human boy who join forces to search for the ‘Rim of Heaven’, a fabled safe place in the Himalayas mountain range that offers sanctuary to dragons. This animated fantasy film is a German production with an English language voice cast that includes some impressive names such as Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Felicity Jones, Freddie Highmore and Patrick Stewart.

If Dragon Rider gets you in the mood for adventure films about humans and dragons, then you may also want to track down DreamWorks’s excellent How to Train Your Dragon films, all of which are available digitally and on a variety of streaming platforms. If you’ve never seen them before, then you’re in for a treat.

Age recommendation: 8+

MAYA THE BEE: THE GOLDEN ORB 

Released in cinemas on 7 January

The original Maya the Bee stories are more than 100 years old, and have inspired various television series over the decades, but in more recent times the curious and headstrong little bee has been giving the big screen treatment in a series of German/Australian co-production feature films. With a voice cast that includes Richard Roxburgh and Justine Clarke, this new film – the third in the series – sees the flighty little bee and her friends once more leaving the hive to go on an adventure.

Very much pitched at pre-school and kinder-aged children the Maya the Bee films offer a charming and good-natured message about the value of friendship. In this new film, Maya also learns about responsibility and caring for others as she is entrusted to care for a royal egg that sees her caught up in a feud between bugs. (You may also want to watch the second film, Maya the Bee: The Honey Games, which is available on Netflix and various digital services).

Age recommendation: 4+

DREAMBUILDERS 

Released in cinemas on 7 January

This English-language film from Denmark is an extremely inventive animated feature that presents the idea of a dream reality in a way that’s fun and accessible to kids, and has justifiably been compared to films such as Inside Out, Coraline and Spirited Away.  It’s about a girl who discovers the behind-the-scenes world of dreams where creatures known as dreambuilders construct the dreams we experience every night. She then uses this knowledge to manipulate the dreams of her new step-sister, hoping to – Inception-style – plant various ideas in her head that will make her more bearable to live with.

As well as being so visually exciting, the real charm of this film is how well it explores the challenges of adjusting to a new family dynamic. There are so many great animated features that come out of Europe and often go unnoticed due to the dominance of films from the US studios, and this is one of the better ones. You may also want to consider checking out The Elfkins: Baking a Difference, about the mythical gnomes-like creatures who live under the German city of Cologne (released in cinemas on 14 Jan).

Age recommendation: 6+

BEDKNOBS AND BROOMSTICKS

Available now for streaming on Disney+ and digitally

In terms of older films, everybody remembers Mary Poppins, but not so much Bedknobs and Broomsticks, which was also by director Robert Stevenson and released seven years later in 1971. It is scrappier and darker than Mary Poppins, but that is part of its charm and it is just as rewatchable and entertaining (and also in the process of being adapted into a stage musical so look out for that!).

Set during the Blitz in World War II England, three children are evacuated to the country where they are billeted with a white witch in training, played to perfection by Angela Lansbury. The adventures that follow include people being turned into animals, a flying bed and an extended sequence on a remote island ruled by animals in a glorious blend of live action and animation. But it is the film’s finale that is why it is loved by those in the know, where an invading platoon of Nazis are defeated by a magic spell that brings to life old suits of armour, in a spectacle of old-fashioned practical efforts that even by today’s standards, still looks marvellous.

Age recommendation: 6+

MY NEIGHBOUR TOTORO 

Available now for streaming on Netflix and digitally 

Saving the best until last, this beautiful animated feature film from Japan’s legendary Studio Ghibli never fails to delight anybody discovering it for the first time, and it is one that can be watched again and again and again. Written and directed by Studio Ghibli co-founder Hayao Miyazaki, it is quite simply one of the greatest children’s films of all-time.

My Neighbour Totoro is about two sisters who after moving to the countryside discover various benevolent spirits, which include a large cat-like creature known as Totoro. One of the striking things about this film is the absence of antagonists or even conventional conflict; even the subplot about the hospitalised mother is secondary to the themes of play, imagination and the wonders of the natural world.

It was such a gift when the Studio Ghibli back catalogue was made available on Netflix earlier this year, especially for those of us in lockdown. Other Ghibli films suitable and recommended for young children are Kiki’s Delivery Service, The Cat Returns, Ponyo and Arrietty.

Age recommendation: 5+

Thomas Caldwell
About the Author
Thomas Caldwell is a writer, broadcaster, film critic, public speaker and film programmer. He is the Artistic Director of the Children’s International Film Festival and can be heard reviewing films on Afternoons with Jacinta Parsons once a fortnight on ABC Radio Melbourne. Thomas’s writing appears on Cinema Autopsy and you can follow him on Twitter at @cinemaautopsy.