Finding age-appropriate, high-quality movies from other countries, especially to watch with younger children, can be a big challenge. Action and story lines may differ drastically, and dubbing or subtitles offer a distinct viewing experience. Content is generally edgier than American audiences are used to and certainly that U.S. schools would be comfortable screening. An award-winning animated film from France or Japan may be considered PG-13 material, though many of the films don’t receive the MPAA rating, making it even harder to choose a quality foreign film appropriate for all ages. With that in mind, here are over 35 of our favorite foreign films for kids. Many of these best movies for kids are included in our book The Global Education Toolkit for Elementary Learners (2014), along with a fantastic discussion guide to use with kids.
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The Breadwinner: taking place in Afghanistan, an 11-year-old, courageous girl has to cut her hair and disguise herself as a boy in order to support her family. Parvana discovers more freedom, but also more danger as she uses fantastic stories to pull her through the rough times and reunite her family (lesson plans here). This is one of the best movies for kids about a misunderstood and very underrepresented country! PREVIEW the first 20 minutes, which might be more suitable for older kids.
Ernest and Celestine (official web site for books and movies) is an award-winning tale of a tiny mouse who wants to see the world and her grumpy bear friend who accompanies her on adventures(reviewed here).
Please Vote for Me tells the story of a class holding its very first open elections for class monitor, with 2 boy candidates and one girl. It is a documentary that shows the evolution of the class struggling to understand what a democracy is, to a class who grows to be very astute in the election process!
Big Fish and Begonia is about to be released in the US and UK. It is inspired by Chinese classic stories such as Zhuang Zi, Mountains and Seas, and In Search of the Supernatural. A mysterious girl who turns into a dolphin and discovered the world along the way. This animated film reveals the power of love and faith.
Little Door Gods is a comedy animation available on netflix that shows what happens when the gods are seen as irrelevant by the humans, who once traded worship for their protective presence at each set of double entrance doors.
Viva Cuba features the friendship between two Cuban schoolchildren on an adventure across the island to find the girl’s father and ask him not to allow her mother to take her out of the country. It’s a Romeo and Juliet story with the kids being from different social classes- but no politics, only fun (one scene you might want to skip). (Lesson plans here.)
The Red Balloon: In this short, 1956 fantasy film, the red balloon seems to have a mind of its own as it follows around a young Parisian boy, getting Pascal into trouble at school, waiting outside his home when his mother won’t let it in, and trying to avoid a group of bullies with the boy (lesson ideas here). This is one of the best movies for kids who are very young (it is almost wordless!).
Recommended by a Kid World Citizen follower, Jim Button and Luke the Engine Driver is about an orphan boy in search of his origin. On an epic quest, Jim and his friend Luke discover mysterious lands and a young princess held prisoner in deadly Dragon City. As with all movies here, preview it first if you are an adoptive family, to make sure your child is ok with how Jim is presented- every child processes this information differently.
Wicky the Viking, based on a children’s book by a Swedish author, which was then made into an anime film in Japan. This version is not animated, but still great! Wickie is a clever and resourceful child of a successful and strong Viking. Although he isn’t typically muscular, he uses his brains and imagination to triumph and prove he is a “real” Viking. This was submitted by a twitter follower- thank you!
Like Stars on Earth (Taare Zameen Par in Hindi): This heartwarming, Bollywood style film from India tells the story of 8-year-old Ishaan Awasthi’s struggles in school due to dyslexia, his parents’ frustration and attempts to discipline him, his journey to boarding school, and finally his fortunate encounter with incredible art teacher Ram Shankar Nikumbh. Lots of singing and dancing in this wonderful film! (lessons here).
Chak De! India is a sports film about the Indian women’s national field-hockey team, and their coach. It is inspirational, speaks against sexism and racism, and holds the viewers interest the entire movie.
Children of Heaven: Funny adventures await when brother Ali loses his sister Zahra’s school shoes. The siblings dream up a plan to stay out of trouble as they share his shoes and keep it a secret from their parents. Very sweet look at Iranian culture (fantastic lesson plans here).
Offside! Although women are not allowed in the soccer stadium, a group of ambitious girls manage to sneak in- until they are caught held in punishment, guarded by male soldiers their own age. This lively film was partially filmed during the actual match between Iran and Bahrain (in 2005) that qualified Iran to go to the World Cup.
The Secret of Kells brings Celtic mythology alive in a magical story about the master illuminator visiting the monastery of Kells at at the time of Viking invasions (8th C). Brendan befriends mythical creatures and decides he will become an illuminator as well (lesson plans here).
Into the West is a beautiful adventure fairy tale of 2 boys- Ossie and Tito- and their magical white horse called Tír na nÓg (meaning “Land of Eternal Youth” in Irish). Their mother died in childbirth, and so the boys live with their father Papa Riley in the gritty projects of Dublin. One day, a mysterious white stallion follows their grandfather back to Dublin and bonds with the boys, who then bring it back into their apartment.
After a greedy policeman responds to a call complaining about the horse, he ends up selling the horse to a wealthy businessman. The farfetched, but exciting adventure has them stealing back the horse, and escaping the authorities from Dublin as they rescue their beloved horse and live their childhood dream of being cowboys.
My Neighbor Totoro is a stunning animated film that takes us to the green countryside of 1950’s Japan. Two playful sisters Mei and Satsuki move with their professor father to an old house to be closer to the hospital where their mother is being treated. They meet a magical forest spirit named Totoro, who looks like a cross of an oversized rabbit mixed with a cat. Later, when Mei is worried about her mother and attempts to visit the hospital by herself, Totoro and a 12-legged “catbus” help to find her (cultural references and notes here).
The Way Home is a touching movie about the love between grandparents and their grandchildren. When a child is sent from the capital (Seoul) to live in rural Korea with his deaf-mute grandma, he is demanding, spoiled, and too obsessed with videogames. I love how the story turns around and finally shows their unconditional love (lesson plans here).
Which Way Home is a documentary that follows several courageous children trying to get from Central America and Mexico to the United States (4 children from Honduras, 1 from Guatemala, and 1 from Mexico). Their harrowing journey to reach family members is heart-breaking and raw, and more suitable for older children (lesson plans here).
Coco: a young boy named Miguel has an adventure in the magical land of his loved ones that have passed away. With Day of the Dead (Día de Muertos) being the backdrop for this rich story, Miguel discovers the reasons behind the traditions of the holiday, plus uncovers a family mystery (lessons plans here).
Book of Life is another movie about Day of the Dead in Mexico. This time, the main character is trying to win the love of his life in a colorful, fantasy adventure story. Monolo must decide if he will continue the family tradition of bullfighting, or follow his heart and become a musician (lesson plans here).
Canela focus on food, family, and traditions in Mexico City. After the death of her mom, Maria is trying to get her grandma to keep cooking at the family restaurant together. Lots of delicious customs surrounding food in this family-friendly film (lesson plans here).
Atlético San Pancho is a wholesome soccer movie about an underdog soccer team put together by a janitor, who faces an elite team. It’s funny, rated G, and loved by all ages (for TONS of global soccer movies that kids love, check out this list).
The Story of the Weeping Camel tells of a mom camel, who rejects her adorable baby camel after a particularly hard birth, and the nomadic Mongolian family who try everything they can to help their animals bond and survive in the Gobi desert. Their final efforts include sending the 2 young boys, via camel, to the nearest village to search for a special musician, who tries to use his music to facilitate the bonding (lesson plans here).
The Cave of the Yellow Dog is another movie that takes place in rural Mongolia, and opens our eyes to life in a harsh terrain and climate. A little girl’s father won’t allow her to keep a stray dog she has found, and she has to decide what to do. I love the glimpse into the family, housing, clothing, and customs of a culture that we might not know much about (lesson plans here).
The Eagle Huntress: “The Eagle Huntress is a 2016 Kazakh-language British-Mongolian-American documentary film. It follows the story of Aisholpan, a 13-year-old Kazakh girl from Mongolia, as she attempts to become the first female eagle hunter to compete in the eagle festival at Ulgii, Mongolia, established in 1999.” (wikipedia). (INCREDIBLE lesson plans on teaching gender equality and self-esteem here).
Whale Rider: this New Zealand film tells the story of 12-year old Pai, a Maori girl whose ancestor Paikea was the whale rider. While Pai lives in present day Whangara, New Zealand with her grandparents, Maori tradition maintains that the leadership should only be inherited by males. Koro, her grandfather, is the current chief and is adamant that she cannot lead her people because she is female. While he searches for a new leader, attempting fruitlessly to train young boys in the village, determined Pai cries out to the whale to come to her assistance. A pod of majestic whales become beached as they seem to answer her plea and their impending death symbolize the plight of the Maori people, as their traditions are lost. The entire community unites to help save these sacred creatures and finally Pai fulfills her destiny in a courageous display of wisdom and leadership that forever changes the lives of the whales and her people (lesson plans here).
He Named Me Malala, by National Geographic: this inspiring documentary tells the story Malala Yousafzai, with interviews, live footage, interspersed with an animated story of the Afghani folk hero that is her namesake. It discusses the Taliban, and shows how they moved into the Swat Valley. Finally, the film shows the evolution of her, emerging as a global voice for the education rights of children. I try to always recommend movies that are age-appropriate, and I realize that this is PG-13. Parents and educators should preview the movie, as it obviously does mention violence, and there is a photo of the bus after she was shot that shows blood. My 10 year old looked away at that scene, but loved the rest of the movie! (lesson plans here).
Landfill Harmonic tells the story of a group of children and their music teacher transform garbage into musical instruments, to form the Recycled Orchestra of Cateura. It is a new look on the massive waste we are producing, and how poverty affects many (lesson plans here).
Casi Casi: when Emilio discovers that the girls he has a crush on is running against him for class president, he devises a plan. Kids love the suspense and comedy, and follow the story easy. Beautiful scenery and setting!
Rwanda through South Africa
Africa United: This story follows three Rwandan children on their epic journey through seven countries to achieve their ultimate dream: to take part in the opening ceremony of the 2010 Football World Cup in Johannesburg. This is one of those feel good soccer movies for kids that you won’t forget! Tons of culture and landscapes to enjoy (lesson plans here).
Kirikou and the Sorceress: drawing on West African folktales, this charming story shows how the brave and clever Kirikou begins to understand that some people who are mean have actually been hurt in the past (lesson plans here).
Binta and the Great Idea is a short film made with UNICEF about a a little girl and her father. Throughout the short film, village school children attempt to convince another girl’s father that his daughter should be able to attend school. The great idea of Binta’s father, however, is to teach Western (presumably US/European) children values such as sharing, solidarity, and sustainable use of resources.
Carlitos y el Campo de los Sueños: Carlitos, a young boy living in an orphanage, might break some rules as he fights for his right to play the one thing he loves: soccer. This is a super cute movie about soccer for kids.
Zarafa: Maki has escaped from being a slave in Sudan, and befriends a baby giraffe named Zarafa. They decide to take a perilous hot air balloon adventure from Africa to Europe, crossing a desert, getting help from a Bedouin warrior, and meeting a Greek pirate. It is beautiful storytelling, showing Maki determined to find a way to return Zarafa to her rightful home (giraffe lesson plans here).
The Cup: Two young football-crazed Tibetan refugees (who are also new monks in a remote Himalayan monastery in India) will try anything to bring in a television for the monastery to watch the 1998 World Cup final. The monastery’s leader has to decide how to deal with the introduction of modern Western influences into their traditional lifestyle (lesson plans here).
United States (Immigrant Stories)
Smuggled: “Each year, approximately 350,000 people attempt to be smuggled through the U.S.-Mexican border…this is one boy’s journey.” SMUGGLED is a film that tells the story of a 9 year old boy and his mother, as they are smuggled into the US in an attempt to immigrate to a better life. Though it is based on real stories, it is actually a fictional/narrative film (lesson plans here).
The Harvest/ La Cosecha: hundreds of thousands of children in the United States work as migrant farm workers, harvesting the fruit and vegetables that we all enjoy. This documentary follows 3 kids who do back-breaking work on farms in Texas, Michigan, and Florida. Many teachers use this movie in conjunction with the book “The Circuit” by Francisco Jiménez.
MacFarland is one of my favorite movies (I was a cross-country runner!), and really one of the best movies for kids. If you love underdog sports movies, you will cheer for this team of Latino runners as the learn how to overcome tremendous difficulties and become a team (lesson plans here).
Which of the best movies for kids am I missing? Leave me a comment and let me know your favorite foreign films for kids!
More Best Movies for Kids, with Special Thanks to:
Mommy Maestra, who recommended several Spanish language movies for this list.
Spanish Mama, who has all of the best Latin American films for kids here.
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