Must-See ’80s Movies for Kids

I didn’t watch much television as a kid. I watched trees blow in the wind. I hunted for forest treasures. I built sand-box fortresses only to smash them down. I waged masterful Barbie versus GI Joe wars in the sunshine. However, every now and then every kid watches cartoons. There’s something very traditionally American about watching cartoons on Saturday morning. While I certainly ensure my kids play outside, I also have no desire to deprive them the joy of cartoons. Even being only 29-years-old, I was shocked to find how cartoons today had changed. Gone were the strong-hero characters, the princesses, the fairy tales and simple story lines. Replacing them were unidentifiable gendered stand-ins, tiptoeing concepts fearful of lacking the political correctness of today’s television, and plot-less nonsense. Luckily, while children’s entertainment has taken a nose dive into worthless, the internet has bloomed, allowing the easy acquisition of classic cartoons for kids. Being an 80’s kid, my favorite easily obtainable shows, were from the 80’s. Here are 20 I couldn’t let my kids miss.

1. The Last Unicorn (1982)

My favorite children’s cartoon of all time, The Last Unicorn follows the epic journey of the world’s last free unicorn to find the others of her kind. Along the way she becomes the first immortal being to know love, friendship, and regret. Couple that with an awesome soundtrack performed by America, and there’s not much to dislike.


2. Flight of Dragons (1982)

The Flight Of The Dragons takes place in a magical realm threatened by modern technology– and an evil wizard. In a last ditch effort to save the world of magic, a green wizard transports a modern-day warrior to save the day. He, however, is accidentally merged with a dragon and must complete his quest as such.

3. Legend (1985)

Featuring Tom Cruise in his younger years, and an impressively-dark performance by Tim Curry, Legend follows the voyage of “Jack” a forest boy who seeks to stop the evil lord Darkness from marrying his one true love and sending the world into eternal darkness by killing the world’s last unicorns.

4. Willow (1988)

After a human baby finds its way into the hands of a dwarven village, Willow is charged with returning her home safely. Unfortunately, she turns out to be a Snowwhite-like princess in the sense the evil queen wants her dead. Willow, with help found along the way, embarks on an grand quest to save her and the land from evil. Willow teaches us even small people can do great things.

5. The Goonies (1985)

The Goonies tells the story of a group of neighborhood friends who set out to find a pirate’s treasure after the bank starts the foreclosure process on their homes. On the way, they have a run-in with some bank robbers who chase them through One-eyed Willy’s booby trapped trail to treasure. Only when they work together do they succeed, save their homes, and find real friendship conquers all.

6. The Dark Crystal (1982)

A Jim Henson– the guy who brought us the muppets– film, The Dark Crystal tells the tale of two young gelflings, the last of their kind, who set out to save their world from the evil Skeski’s and restore balance to the planet. The Dark Crystal focuses on the point that all things in nature
have two sides. Only if they are in balance can we prosper.

7. The Never Ending Story (1984)

When a young boy is tormented by bullies, he finds solace in the pages of a
magic book which then transports him to a magical land threatened by “the nothing.” To save the people of Fantasia, and their princess, he must learn courage and true strength, which then helps him defeat his real life bad guys.

8. Labyrinth (1986)

Whether you’re a David Bowie fan or not, Labyrinth is a must see. It’s the story of a young girl who while babysitting her baby brother, becomes frustrated and wishes him away. To her surprise the goblin king (David Bowie) comes and actually takes him. She then must travel through the labyrinth to rescue him.

9. Castle in the Sky (1986)

Castle in the Sky is one of many great cartoons by Hayao Miyazaki. It tells the story of a young boy who saves a girl from pirates and government agents. They set out to find a mystical floating island, and succeed, but then must protect it from the same men who sought to harm the girl to find it. If you like the story, I’d also highly recommend Nausica¤ of the Valley of the Wind (1984),Spirited Away (2001), Howl’s Moving Castle(2004) and Ponyo(2008). All of which are excellent. Castle in the Sky, however, is one of my favorites–topped only by Howl’s Moving Castle, but that’s not from the 80’s.

The Secret of Nimh (1982)

When a young field mouse falls ill, his mother seeks out a cure from an owl, and a bunch of rats. During her struggle she also discovers the secret of N.I.M.H. and saves the rats from the traitor in their mist. The Secret of NIMH is arguably the best cartoon Disney ever put out, though few people have ever even heard of it.

11. The Princess Bride (1987)

The Princess Bride is another one of my all-time favorites. It tells a love story in a way even little boys will enjoy following the tale of a farm boy and a noble girl who fall in love. The boy goes out to seek means to start a family and is detained by pirates. Hearing him dead, the girl loses all faith and gets engaged to an evil prince who has her kidnapped and plots to kill her. When her love returns he must face giants, swordsmen, tests of wit and even death to win back his love.

12. Time Bandits (1981)

A little boy joins a band of treasure stealing dwarves in a quest through time to get rich. Unfortunately they are using a map stolen from the Supreme Being, and run into some trouble from the Evil Genius who seeks to use the map to gain control.

13. Short Circuit (1986)

A super-high tech experimental war robot gets electrocuted thanks to some convenient lightening and becomes alive. He then escapes his lab and meets a quirky woman and learns about life. They work together to dodge lab security and bring the robots creator together with is true love.

14. E.T.,The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

An awkward boy finds a stranded alien-and a true friend. He must then make the ultimate sacrifice and help his friend return home all while dodging the authorities and trying to keep the extra-terrestrial a secret from the media.

15. Return of the King (1980)

This is the third cartoon in an animated version of J.R.R Tolkien’s book series, “The Lord of the Rings.” All three cartoons are amazing and include The Hobbit (1977), Lord of the Rings (1978) and then finally The Return of the King in (1980) which sneaks this series into this article. You likely know the story from the more recent live action films produced in 2000. You may also notice the animation style, as the same people did The Last Unicorn.

16. Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland (1989)

A young boy enters his dream world and becomes a prince and playmate to a beautiful princess, but when he breaks his promise to the king and opens a forbidden door he threatens the very existence of
his dream world. He must then face his fears, tell the truth and defeat King Nightmare to save the day.

17. An American Tail (1986)

A little mouse from Russia gets separated from his family in the New World. He then must find his family and find a way to defeat the cats that threaten their existence. A sequel was produced in 1991 entitled An American Tail – Fievel Goes West, which is also pretty entertaining.

18. The Land Before Time (1988)

The original dinosaur flick that spurred about thirteen movies with the same characters, The Land Before Time follows the journey of several species of young dinosaur that are
separated from their families while traveling to a new safe home in the valley after planetary changes force them to move.

19. *Batteries Not Included (1987)

A group of tenants in a rundown apartment complex are hassled by a big corporation trying to build a new fancy complex where their building stands. They are almost booted out until a few aliens show up, change the tide of things and save the day.

20. The Black Cauldron (1985)

A young boy teams up with some unusual comrades to find the black cauldron, a magic item which is soon to fall into evil hands. Disney put out
several rather great cartoons in the ’80s including The Little Mermaid(1989), Oliver & Company(1988), Honey, I Shrunk The Kids(1989), and The Fox And The Hound(1981).

A few more honorable mentions some may not consider “kid”–well, at least young kid– movies include Back to the Future, Ghostbusters, and Gremlins (1984).

There are of course many more great ’80s cartoons and films for kids, what’s your favorite?

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