Most movies put grandparents on the sidelines, when they put them anywhere at all. Here are some great ones that give them their due.
The Princess Diaries
Mia (Anne Hathaway), a gawky high school student in San Francisco, is shocked to discover that her long-lost grandmother, Clarisse (Julie Andrews), is the queen of a small European kingdom and wants to groom her to take over the throne.
At first, Mia recoils at the “princess lessons” to which Clarisse subjects her, and since she’s terrified of public speaking, she has no appetite for ruling a nation. But slowly, she comes to admire her grandma’s grace and intelligence and to wonder whether she, too, could take on the world.
Mostly, this movie is just silly fun, but it tenderly conveys both the pain of adolescence and a grandparent’s power to ease it. Meanwhile, it reminds us that grandparents don’t just exist to be grandparents; they’re full of needs, wants, and dreams of their own.
Directed by Garry Marshall • Good for tweens and up • 2001 • 115 minutes
On Golden pond
Norman Thayer (Henry Fonda), a retired scholar who’s about to turn 80, and his wife, Ethel (Katharine Hepburn), are supposed to be having an idyllic summer at their lake house.
But while Ethel listens to the loons and picks strawberries, Norman sulks and talks about death.
He’s not even cheered when their grown daughter, Chelsea (Jane Fonda), arrives for a visit along with her boyfriend, Bill (Dabney Coleman), and his teenaged son, Billy Ray (Doug McKeon). And he bristles when Chelsea asks him and Ethel to watch Billy Ray for a few weeks so she and Bill can go alone to Europe.
At Ethel’s insistence, they take the boy in, and Norman sets out to teach him to fish.
As it happens, Billy Ray is hurting as much as Norman is, and at first, all they do on the lake is argue. Then, together, they begin to heal.
Both Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn won Oscars for their performances in this drama, which was adapted from a play by Ernest Thompson.
Directed by Mark Rydell • Good for teens and up • 1981 • 105 minutes
Long ago, Frank Buckman (Jason Robards) was a terrible father. Now, his children are struggling to do right by their own kids, but they’re finding they’re up against a lot.
Gil (Steve Martin) is clashing with his boss, a tyrant who punishes him for spending time at home. Helen (Dianne Wiest) has lost control of her son, who’s angry that his dad is gone, and her daughter, who ends up pregnant. Susan (Harley Jane Kozak) is married to a maniac. And Larry (Tom Hulce) is a gambler who never grew up, even after he became a single dad.
Amid all the discord, Frank evolves into a wonderful grandpa, and his 90-something mother (Helen Shaw) shows the clan that she’s much more with it than they thought.
A blend of comedy and drama, this smart, edgy classic is a toast to family life in all its imperfection.
Directed by Ron Howard • Good for tweens and up • 1989 • 125 minutes
Little Miss Sunshine
This dark comedy about an epically dysfunctional family in New Mexico centers around seven-year-old Olive (Abigail Breslin), who’s sweet and plump and hellbent on winning a beauty pageant.
Her father (Greg Kinnear), a motivational speaker, is self-absorbed; her mother (Toni Collette) is perennially stressed; her brother (Paul Dano) hasn’t spoken in months; and her uncle (Steve Carell) is suicidal.
But her grandfather (Alan Arkin, who won an Oscar for this performance) gives her the attention and encouragement she needs, even though he’s a cantankerous drug addict. Together, they’ve crafted a dance routine that Olive hopes will help her snag a crown.
When a space opens up in a pageant in southern California, the family sets out on a road trip that, in the end, transforms all of them.
Few movies are truly hilarious; few movies are truly heartbreaking. This one, magically, is both.
Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris • Good for teens and up • 2006 • 101 minutes
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
Long before there was Survivor, there was Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
Little Charlie Bucket (Peter Ostrum) lives in poverty with his mother, an exhausted laundress, and his four grandparents, who are perennially bedridden. Of those five adults, he’s closest to Grandpa Joe (Jack Albertson), to whom he whispers his hopes and dreams.
More than anything, Charlie wants to find one of the “golden tickets” that the greatest candy maker in the world, Willy Wonka (Gene Wilder), has hidden in five of his chocolate bars. The ticket would entitle him to a lifetime supply of Wonka candy and, even better, a tour of the factory with Willy himself.
When, miraculously, Charlie ends up with one of the tickets, Grandpa Joe is so elated that he arises from bed for the first time in decades to chaperone him on the tour.
Willy turns out to be a twisted magician and his factory a supernatural land. The four other ticket-holders are disrespectful and greedy, and one by one, he makes them disappear.
Will Charlie come out alive?
This enchanting and bizarre musical (the opening song is “The Candy Man,” which was later made famous by Sammy Davis Jr.) is based on the novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl.
Directed by Mel Stuart • Good for kindergarteners and up • 1971 • 98 minutes
Having lost their parents, Paul and Maureen Beebe (David Ladd and Pam Smith) move in with their kind but no-nonsense grandparents (Arthur O’Connell and Anne Seymour), who own a small pony farm on the island of Chincoteague.
Paul and Maureen help out on the farm, but whenever they can, they sneak off to a wilder and windier island, Assateague, to see its mysterious band of feral ponies. Most of all, the kids are captivated by Phantom, a mare their father had loved.
When they grow obsessed with capturing and breaking Phantom, their grandparents both support and school them: If they want to tame a wild creature, they’re told, they’ve first got a lot to learn.
The movie, which is based on a novel by Marguerite Henry, is a subtle, bittersweet exploration of both loss and our capacity to adapt to it.
It was filmed on location on the untrammeled beaches of both islands, which are off the coast of Virginia.
Directed by James B. Clark • Good for kindergarteners and up • 1961 • 91 minutes
Heidi (Noley Thornton) is an orphan who’s sent to live in the mountains with her misanthropic grandfather (Jason Robards), who thinks he doesn’t want her.
Her ebullience wins him over, though, and she also bonds with an elderly neighbor she calls Grandmother (Patricia Neal). Finally, Heidi has the love and constancy she’s always craved.
But then a mean older cousin forces her to take a job in a faraway city, and Heidi fears she’s lost everything anew.
Based on the famous Swiss novel, this movie portrays the young and the old as natural allies against the middle-aged, whose heads are too often in the sand.
The film originally aired as a mini-series on the Disney Channel and was beautifully shot in the Alps.
Directed by Jean-Francois Richet • Good for kindergarteners and up • 1993 • 191 minutes (two parts)
(With thanks to Nell Minow, also known as The Movie Mom, for her advice on this piece. Thanks also to my daughter, Madeline, for vetting some of these movies with me.)