Director, visionary, and all-around genius Steven Spielberg has made a career out of creating and combining polar opposite forces. On the one hand, he’s made some of the most evocative adult-minded films of all time — Schindler’s List, Munich, and Saving Private Ryan to name a few — but he’s also staked his cinematic claim with movies of a more adolescent variety. His kid-focused films capture the wonderfully intimidating challenges of growing up, so much so that “Spielbergian” has become a term meant to refer to the kinds of movies that make you stop and wonder what it was like being that young.
There’s a fine line between these different kinds of Spielberg movies. Some, like his breakout film Jaws, aren’t kids movie per se — but are usually introduced to kids at a young age. This despite harsher ratings and warnings like the one on the original Jaws poster that reads “May Be Too Intense For Younger Children.” Some of them belong in a grey area in between, like Jurassic Park. It’s awesome that there are dinosaurs running around, which is every kid’s dream, but does seemingly complex pseudo-science babble about DNA and a T-Rex devouring multiple people really constitute a kids movie? Not in our book.
To clarify which movies of Spielberg’s actually are kids movies, especially since his newest, The BFG, hits theaters this week, here they are ranked from worst to best.
8. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
The runt of the Indiana Jones litter, Crystal Skull catches a lot of flack for being too little too late. Harrison Ford is still one charming dude but a geriatric Indy movie with a boatload of easy callbacks, silly set pieces, and a forgettable and regrettable turn by Shia LeBoeuf make this the most cartoonish Indiana Jones movie so far. Maybe kids love watching grandpa survive nuclear blasts: Who knows? While Kingdom of the Crystal Skull isn’t the crime against humanity a lot of people make it out to be — some parts, like the opening Area 51 chase, are genuinely thrilling — it remains at the bottom of the barrel.
7. Temple of Doom
Borderline racism, child slaves, and a guy getting his heart brutally ripped out while remaining alive before he’s lowered into a searing pit of churning lava? This is quite the kids movie, mostly because it isn’t really a kids movie. Spielberg and executive producer George Lucas have gone on record saying they might have crossed the line into way more darker territory with their Indiana Jones follow up, which precipitated the PG-13 rating, so it makes sense that Spielberg’s patented wonder and awe would give way to kids getting the shit scared out of them from Temple of Doom. Fortune and glory? More like terror and dread.
Spielberg’s infamous retooling of the Peter Pan mythos is perhaps his most divisive. Kids old enough to remember watching it around the time of its 1991 release seem to fondly remember its tale of “Bangarang”-yelling Lost Boys led by the tri-mohawk-wearing Rufio who deal with a grown up Peter (Robin Williams) returning to Neverland to rescue his kids from Captain Hook (in a perfectly sniveling performance by Dustin Hoffman). Others revisiting it find that it’s an unnecessarily bloated take on a perfect children’s story, which goes off the rails with its absurd set design and lackluster ending. But, hey, nostalgia is a powerful thing.
5. The Adventures of Tintin
This 2011 animated film is a bit of a diamond in the rough that was unfairly overlooked by American audiences, because they didn’t have any real idea who Tintin was. But kids whose Transatlantic parents introduced them to Belgian cartoonist Hergé’s wildly popular source material found a lot to love in this adventurous take from a murderer’s row of creative geniuses.
Spielberg was at the helm, Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson acted as producer, and the script was co-written by Attack the Block director Joe Cornish, geek god auteur Edgar Wright, and recent Doctor Who mastermind Steven Moffat. Like a softer version of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Spielbergs Tintin is what happens when an unfettered auteur gives it everything he’s got and delivers a great piece of pure entertainment.
4. The Last Crusade
Setting aside the body horror of Temple of Doom for a moment, if Crystal Skull was cartoonish as a bad thing, Spielberg managed to pull off being cartoonish as a good thing with Last Crusade. It was probably on purpose given the second installments dark side, and adding a little levity with the previously serious Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliott) and the ever-popular Sallah (John Rhys-Davies) was a much needed reprieve.
The third Indiana Jones movie did get by on rehashing a lot of what happened in Raiders of the Lost Ark — religious MacGuffin, Nazi villains, a desert chase — but the movie is played with a charming spin, as well as the bonus of Sean Connery as Senior. It’s enough to make it a welcome entry as a throwback movie kids could enjoy.
3. The BFG
The directors latest is also one of his most kid-focused. It’s Spielberg taking on particularly beloved source material once again, but he still errs on the side of deferring to Roald Dahl’s wondrously scatterbrained book in telling the story of an orphan named Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) who is whisked away to a faraway land and befriends a big, friendly giant (Mark Rylance) who collects and concocts peoples’ dreams. Its cutting edge performance capture technology paints a gorgeous picture that will hopefully become another Spielberg kids classic.
2. Raiders of the Lost Ark
It’s an arguable move to call Raiders of the Lost Ark and the rest of the Indiana Jones saga a bunch of kids movies, but you can’t deny their childlike appeal. They’re exaggerated adventures meant for the intrepid types just on the cusp of adulthood to enjoy, and so they can’t help but fall into that category. What kid hasn’t thrown on their dad’s leather jacket and tried to play Indiana Jones at least once in their life? As far as the movie goes, it kind of speaks for itself. It’s one of those magical pieces of cinema that makes you excited for what life represented by such fantastic movie-making could be.
1.E.T. The Extra Terrestrial
There couldn’t be any other Spielberg movie in the top spot. The BFG resembles E.T. in a lot of ways — most notably they both feature scripts by the late Melissa Mathison and are about wayward kids who find life-changing friends in unexpected places — but The BFG doesn’t have the heart of Spielberg’s 1982 classic. What other movie does? The film resonates because it’s probably the most unique take on the mysteries of growing up and finding your adolescent identity ever put to film. It can’t be beat.