When people think of “wholesome” movies, they often think of media that’s made for kids or anything that’s rated for General Audiences. That’s not wrong, but wholesome movies don’t have to be insipid or overly blunt. They can tackle mature themes as well as be fun for the whole family, and that doesn’t mean they have to be animated movies either.
Certain production companies made their brand on “the wholesome movie with a profound message” template, but every so often another movie appears with a similar story and theme. Just because the kids get to pick the movie tonight doesn’t mean it has to be something silly or stupid that puts everyone else to sleep.
6 Toy Story (1995)
The movies in the Toy Story franchise are all good at this, and the second movie is also a contender, but this is the one that got the ball rolling on several fronts and not only with weirdly wholesome movies with mature themes. A new era began, not only for 3D animation but also the genre of cartoons for all ages.
Spoiler alert, but the climax of this movie consists of the toys hatching a plan to not only rescue Buzz and Woody from Sid but to teach the neighbor-kid a harsh and permanent lesson. They aren’t messing around and are totally unapologetic about fixing Sid for life. In the background, the family dynamic isn’t the typical wholesome movie family, either. It’s a running question throughout the franchise as to what happened to Dad and the mystery is never really solved.
5 Darby O’Gill And The Little People (1963)
Disney’s classic offerings have a lot going for them when it comes to kid’s movies with some deep thoughts hiding behind them. For those that are interested in some early and impressive attempts at early fantasy and even horror in live-action films, there’s Darby O’Gill And The Little People.
Walt Disney starts the film with a whimsical inscription thanking King Bryan, the ruler of the Little People, for his kind indulgence in the making of this film. It’s one of the main themes of the story. Everyone is as polite as even the most stereotypical Irish peasant and lives by their wits as opposed to using force despite a culture that glorifies fist-fights. That’s not the only lesson either; the main plot revolves around an older gentleman who’s about to face forced retirement, not an easy thing at the turn of the 20th century.
4 Babe (1995)
It could be one of the wholesomest movies ever made. Babe is filled with talking animals, stars an adorable baby pig, and Disney had nothing to do with it. What makes it even wackier is that the driving force behind Babe is George Miller, the Mad Max guy. It doesn’t get much more “mature-themed” than that.
This movie takes on some heart-rending topics, starting with some harsh truths about how humans treat their fellow earthlings. Family rifts, deception, abandonment, bigotry, and violence are just a few of the issues the adorable but resilient pig called Babe has to deal with on the way to the sheepdog trials.
3 Little Miss Sunshine (2006)
Little Miss Sunshine doesn’t exactly sneak up on the viewer with its deep ideas. The foreshadowing is laid on pretty thick here, especially during the first act when we get to know the main characters, but it retains the weird wholesomeness throughout, and that’s one of its best messages.
Despite the portrayal of the family as a motley group of outcasts, there’s still a lot of compassion to be found there, and the same can’t be said for the other groups they come across in their travels. Unlike other movies, Little Miss Sunshine doesn’t quibble about who the bad guys are in this story. The main message, that you can’t always judge a book by its cover, is obvious.
2 The Princess Bride (1984)
The movie that popularized the concept of a fantasy-comedy, The Princess Bride is about greed, lies, and the often deceptive nature of human relationships. Things aren’t always as they seem, especially when it comes to engagements, ex-boyfriends, and rock climbing.
It’s funny to say that it teaches the viewer not to be prejudiced against masked people, and to make a realistic plan after a successful shot at revenge, but that’s good advice. Note it doesn’t actually judge Inigo for seeking revenge, and things turn out okay for him, which makes it better than the usual black-and-whole moral lessons that frame high-fantasy stories.
1 The Love Bug (1968)
One of the most successful Disney films of the ’60s enchanted critics and audiences alike with its wholesome storyline along with its mature themes. The whole story starts on a sour note for protagonist Jim Douglas, whose career seems to be at a dead end after a series of losses and accidents, and even after his luck turns around he doesn’t seem to learn anything.
“I’ll tell you the secret of the little car,” says the mechanic Tennessee, “it’s heart!” The spiritual voice of this film, Tennessee is played by comedy legend Buddy Hackett and has some lessons to teach about self-discovery, humility, and speaking real Chinese dialogue instead of that fake stuff that was such a blight on movies of this era. There’s even a cannabis joke in here, wedged in a dialogue between two cops after one mentions something odd about that little white VW; “You’ve been up on that Haight-Ashbury beat for too long.”