The essential kids and family movies of 2021: ‘Encanto’ on Disney+, ‘Vivo’ and more

Left: Emily Blunt and Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson in 'Jungle Cruise;' 'Vivo.' Right: 'Muppets Haunted Mansion,' 'Emma Stone in 'Cruella.' Center: LeBron James in 'Space Jam: a New Legacy.'

As just about any parent will tell you, family entertainment was a sanity-saver in 2021. So it’s a good thing there was so much of it! 

The Mouse House was a major contender this year, as Disney released features ranging from animated hits like "Encanto" and "Raya and the Last Dragon" to live-action adventures like "Jungle Cruise" and "Cruella" to no shortage of superhero spectacle

But other players entered the family movie game too, whether literally playing ball in "Space Jam: A New Legacy" or just attending one like Camila Cabello in "Cinderella." More gems ranged from quirky stories like "The Mitchells vs. the Machines" and "Nightbooks" to family-friendly musicals like "In The Heights" and "Vivo." 

In no particular order, here are the kids and family movies that defined 2021. 

Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson and Emily Blunt in ‘Jungle Cruise’ (Disney+)


Emily Blunt, Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson and Jack Whitehall in 'Jungle Cruise'

As with the "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise, this movie manages about what’s expected of a film version of a goofy amusement park boat ride: It’s a pleasant distraction, and is just as likely to float in through one ear and then sail right on out through the other. Adults may find themselves gleefully groaning at the puns or recoiling from the many, many snakes. Kids will have even more fun — this is a movie that sneaks in a fart joke before the six-minute mark, though some unsettling visual effects, mild violence and light innuendo make this a PG-13 film with PG energy. Great cinema it ain’t, but if The Rock fist-fighting a jungle cat, Emily Blunt swinging on a vine and Jesse Plemons dementedly eating three peas appeals, head straight for the X on the map. Rated PG-13. 127 minutes. Dir: Jaume Collet-Serra. Featuring: Dwayne Johnson, Emily Blunt, Édgar Ramírez, Jack Whitehall, Jesse Plemons, Paul Giamatti.

Read Allison Shoemaker’s full review of "Jungle Cruise."

WHERE TO WATCH: Streaming on Disney+ and VOD.

LeBron James in ‘Space Jam: A New Legacy’ (HBO Max)


LeBron James and Bugs Bunny in 'Space Jam: a New Legacy'

It’s a pitch so obvious, it’s kind of remarkable it hasn’t been done until now: Take the most popular basketball player of the day and cast them in a legacy sequel to the ’90s classic, "Space Jam." LeBron James steps into Michael Jordan’s shoes in a hybrid animated/live-action film that features not only the Looney Tunes, but just about every character in the expansive Warner Bros. catalogue. Rated PG. 115 minutes. Dir: Malcolm D. Lee. Also featuring: Don Cheadle, Zendaya, Khris Davis, Sonequa Martin-Green, Cedric Joe, Jeff Bergman, Eric Bauza

WHERE TO WATCH: Streaming on HBO Max and VOD.

Olivia Colman schemes in ‘The Mitchells vs. The Machines’ (Netflix)


THE MITCHELLS VS. THE MACHINES - (L-R) Mike Rianda as "Aaron Mitchell", Danny McBride as "Rick Mitchell", Abbi Jacobson as "Katie Mitchell" and Maya Rudolph as "Linda Mitchell". Cr: ©2021 SPAI. All Rights Reserved.

Oh, the Mitchells. Producers Phil Miller and Christopher Lord ("Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse") dropped a lovable yet seriously dysfunctional family right into a robot apocalypse, and in "The Mitchells vs. the Machines," Katie Mitchell (Abbi Jacobson) and company more than rose to the occasion. Co-writers Mike Rianda and Jeff Rowe blend pathos and humor as nimbly as the film's several animation styles, creating a treat for the eyes, ears (courtesy of Mark Mothersbaugh's excellent score) and heart. Oh, and it just might make you think twice about welcoming Siri and Alexa into your home, courtesy of a deliciously deranged vocal performance from Oscar winner Olivia Colman. Rated PG. Runtime 110. Dir: Mike Rianda. Also featuring the voices of: Danny McBride, Maya Rudolph, Eric André, Fred Armisen,Beck Bennett.

WHERE TO WATCH: Streaming on Netflix and VOD. 

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s tunes elevate ‘Encanto’ (Disney+)


Mirabel Madrigal struggles to fit in a family where everyone has been blessed with magical powers - everyone but her. Determined to prove she belongs within this extraordinary family, she strives to contribute in meaningful ways—denying to everyone,

While most 2021 family films understandably made their debuts on streaming platforms, "Encanto" aimed to welcome families back to the megaplex with a theatrical-only release. Set in a magical village in Colombia, this lushly animated flick follows the one non-magical member of a family blessed with superhuman abilities. Featuring toe-tapping songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda and a story that evokes the South American tradition of magical realism, "Encanto" expands the grand Disney tradition to include a whole new kind of family. Rated PG. 109 minutes. Dir: Jared Bush, Byron Howard. Featuring the voices of: Stephanie Beatriz, María Cecilia Botero, John Leguizamo, Mauro Castillo, Wilmer Valderrama,Alan Tudyk.

WHERE TO WATCH: In theaters now. On Disney+ Dec. 24.

Tom Holland, Zendaya and Benedict Cumberbatch in ‘Spider-Man: No Way Home’ (in theaters)


Tom Holland stars as Peter Parker/Spider-Man and Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Doctor Strange in Columbia Pictures' SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME.

What works best about "No Way Home" is its sense of surprise – not just in the cameos, Easter Eggs and returning characters it offers, but also in its bold tonal shifts. It’s a movie that can be subversively playful one minute and deeply somber the next. (It helps that star Tom Holland is just as good at conjuring up empathetic tears as cracking wise.) In fact, far from feeling like a trilogy capper, "No Way Home" seems more like the start of a new era for Peter Parker. One of the movie’s main themes is second chances — something it offers to performers who never quite got their due in past Spider-Man franchises. But that also extends to a fresh start for the MCU’s take on Peter as well. "No Way Home" puts the teenage superhero through the wringer in order to bring him closer to his comic book roots. Rated PG-13. 148 minutes. Dir: Jon Watts. Also featuring: Zendaya, Jacob Batalon, Benedict Cumberbatch, Marisa Tomei, Jon Favreau, Benedict Wong, J. K. Simmons, Alfred Molina, Willem Dafoe, Jamie Foxx.

Read Caroline Siede’s full review of "Spider-Man: No Way Home." 

WHERE TO WATCH: In theaters now.

It’s Emma Stone vs. Emma Thompson in ‘Cruella’ (Disney+)


Emma Stone in 'Cruella'

Forget the 101 Dalmations, this movie is a story of two Emmas. That’s Emma Stone and Emma Thompson, who turn in fabulous performances as, respectively, aspiring fashion designer Estella (a.k.a. our future Cruella) and her icy boss The Baroness. With a soundtrack of 1960s and ‘70s hits, and some truly stunning costume design that ranges from punk to glam, this live-action prequel/reimagining of a Disney classic makes for a perfect transitional film for kids and pre-teens looking to expand their tastes with something just a little edgier. Rated PG-13. 134 minutes. Dir: Craig Gillespie. Also featuring: Joel Fry, Paul Walter Hauser, Emily Beecham, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Mark Strong, John McCrea.

WHERE TO WATCH: Streaming on Disney+ and VOD.

Explore the shore with Pixar’s ‘Luca’ (Disney+)


"Luca." Photo: Disney+.

Perhaps the sweetest, gentlest film Pixar has ever made, "Luca" is a nostalgic story of friendship set in the lush Italian Riviera. Desperate for adventure, young sea monsters Luca (Jacob Tremblay) and Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer) disguise themselves as humans and form a makeshift family with spunky Giulia (Emma Berman) and her gruff dad Massimo (Marco Barricelli). This story of outsiders trying to fit in can be read in any number of ways. And "Luca" serves as a welcome reminder about the courage it takes to face your fears and tell them, "Silenzio Bruno!" Rated PG. 95 minutes. Dir: Enrico Casarosa. Also featuring the voices of: Maya Rudolph, Jim Gaffigan, Peter Sohn, Sacha Baron Cohen.

WHERE TO WATCH: Streaming on Disney+ and VOD.

Camilla Cabello in ‘Cinderella’ (Prime Video)


Camila Cabello and Billy Porter star in CINDERELLA Courtesy of Amazon Studios © 2021 Amazon Content Services LLC

True, this jukebox musical adaptation of "Cinderella" isn’t for everyone (including our reviewer), but its colorful, music-filled, cheekily self-aware vibe makes it perfect for pre-teens. In her first major acting role, Camila Cabello has both charisma and comedy chops as the titular fairy tale heroine — who in this version would rather open a small clothing design business than get bogged down by a guy. As with similar projects like "Glee," "The Greatest Showman" and director Kay Cannon’s "Pitch Perfect" series, however, the musical numbers are the real draw here. And from a fun mash-up of Salt-N-Pepa’s "Whatta Man" and The White Stripes’ "Seven Nation Army" to Cabello’s catchy original ballad "Million to One" to Idina Menzel’s truly fantastic take on Madonna’s "Material Girl," "Cinderella" will leave your glass toes tapping. Rated PG. 113 minutes. Dir: Kay Cannon. Also featuring: Billy Porter, Nicholas Galitzine, Pierce Brosnan, Minnie Driver, Maddie Baillo, Charlotte Spencer, James Corden.

Read Roxana Hadadi’s full review of "Cinderella."

WHERE TO WATCH: Streaming on Amazon Prime.

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s ‘In The Heights’ (HBO Max)


Anthony Ramos and Melissa Barrera in "In the Heights."

Before Lin-Manuel Miranda became a household name with "Hamilton," he burst onto Broadway with this vibrant ode to the Latinx community in Washington Heights. "In The Heights" blends a contemporary setting with an old-fashioned musical sensibility to carve out its own unique place in the musical theater canon. And the long-anticipated movie adaptation from director Jon M. Chu ("Crazy Rich Asians") is just as vibrant and twice as big. Filled with innovatively staged numbers and a charismatic cast of up-and-comers, it’s a musical treat as satisfying as an ice-cold piragua on a hot summer day. Rated PG-13. 143 minutes. Dir: Jon M. Chu. Featuring: Anthony Ramos, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera, Olga Merediz, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Gregory Diaz IV, Jimmy Smits.

WHERE TO WATCH: Steaming on HBO Max and VOD.

Yet more Lin-Manuel Miranda in ‘Vivo’ (Netflix)


VIVO - (R-L) GABI (voiced by Ynairaly Simo) and VIVO (voiced by Lin-Manuel Miranda). ©2021 SPAI. All Rights Reserved.

In case Lin-Manuel Miranda didn’t have enough on his plate in 2021 — the year he produced "In The Heights," directed "Tick, Tick... Boom!" and wrote the songs for Disney’s "Encanto" — he also played a major role in this charming Sony Pictures animated flick too. Miranda voices Vivo, a music-loving monkey from Cuba who somewhat reluctantly finds himself on a wacky adventure with a free-spirited young girl named Gabi (Ynairaly Simo). With both goofy humor and heartfelt storytelling, "Vivo" is a bit of an underrated gem when it comes to 2021 family films. Oh, and did we mention that Miranda wrote the movie’s catchy songs too? Rated PG. 95 minutes. Dir: Kirk DeMicco. Also featuring the voices of:Zoe Saldana, Brian Tyree Henry, Gloria Estefan, Michael Rooker, Nicole Byer.

WHERE TO WATCH: Streaming on Netflix.

Jeff Kinney’s books come to life in ‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid’ (Disney+)


'Diary of a Wimpy Kid'

Perfect for the anxious elementary schooler in your life, this sweet, breezy animated feature is the latest take on Jeff Kinney’s beloved book series about "wimpy kid" Greg Heffley (Brady Noon) and his nerve-wracking first year of middle school. Unlike the four previous live-action adaptations (three of which are also streaming on Disney+), this one deploys a simple CG style that calls to mind Kinney’s signature illustrations. Kinney is onboard as a screenwriter too, adapting the first of his 16 books. And while "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" isn’t particularly game-changing in its story or animation style, it has some well-observed, kid-friendly comedy about the absurdities of middle school. (Think "Pepper Ann" more than "PEN15.") At just about an hour long, "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" really feels more like an extended episode of TV than a proper movie. But it’ll make for an enjoyable (if brief) evening of family viewing. Rated PG. 58 minutes. Dir: Swinton Scott. Also featuring the voices of: Ethan William Childress, Chris Diamantopoulos, Hunter Dillon, Christian Convery,Erica Cerra.

WHERE TO WATCH: Streaming on Disney+.

Kelly Marie Tran and Awkwafina in ‘Raya and the Last Dragon’ (March 2021)


"Raya and the Last Dragon." Image: Disney+.

A different kind of Disney princess flick, "Raya and the Last Dragon" pulls from the action-adventure genre, rather than the classic musical template. The story of a young warrior princess named Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) trying to revive a broken world feels especially poignantly in 2021. With fantasy worldbuilding drawn from traditional Southeast Asian cultures and a great voice performance from Awkwafina as an insecure dragon, "Raya" brings viewers to a whole new world — even if they’re watching from the comfort of their own homes. Rated PG. 107 minutes. Dir: Don Hall, Carlos López Estrada. Also featuring the voices of: Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim, Benedict Wong, Sandra Oh, Lucille Soong,Alan Tudyk.

WHERE TO WATCH: Streaming on Disney+ and VOD.

Celebrate individuality with ‘Everybody's Talking About Jamie' (Prime Video)


Max Harwood and Lauren Patel star in EVERYBODY’S TALKING ABOUT JAMIE Photo: John Rogers © Amazon Content Services LLC

An underrated gem in the slate of 2021 musicals, "Everybody's Talking About Jamie" is inspired by the true-life story of a 16-year-old British schoolboy who decides he'd like to become a drag queen. With catchy songs pulled from the hit West End stage show and a cast of tremendously likable British actors, it's a funny, sweet, feel-good anthem to being yourself. Newcomer Max Harwood shines, Richard E. Grant turns in another stellar performance and the heels are toweringly high. Rated PG-13. 115 minutes. Dir: Jonathan Butterell. Also featuring: Sarah Lancashire, Lauren Patel, Shobna Gulati, Sharon Horgan.

WHERE TO WATCH: Streaming on Amazon Prime.

Krysten Ritter spooks in ‘Nightbooks’ (Netflix)


Krysten Ritter in "Nightbooks" (Netflix)

For kids who prefer something spooky, "Nightbooks" is a family-friendly horror watch from producer Sam Raimi. Based on the 2018 children's book of the same name by J.A. White, the film follows a creative young boy named Alex (Winslow Fegley) who has a passion for penning scary stories. When he's deemed odd for his taste, however, Alex swears off writing forever. At least until an evil witch (Krysten Ritter) captures him in her magical New York City apartment and demands he tell her a new tale every night if he wants to stay alive. As Ritter explained of the film's message in an interview with FOX, "Being different, being a little weird, the thing that gets you picked on at school, is actually what makes you great and awesome and special." Rated TV-PG. 103 minutes. Dir: David Yarovesky. Also featuring: Lidya Jewett.

Watch Stephanie Weaver’s interview with the stars of the film.

WHERE TO WATCH: Streaming on Netflix. 

Gonzo gets ghosted in ‘Muppets Haunted Mansion’ (Disney+)


'Muppets Haunted Mansion'

Not all theme park rides work when adapted for the screen — but perhaps that’s not the case when The Muppets are involved. This spooky, short and sweet adventure for Gonzo and notable crustacean Pepe the King Prawn is a far more faithful adaptation of its source material (or source experience?) than most of its brethren, including "Jungle Cruise;" if you’ve been on the Haunted Mansion ride at any of the Disney parks, you’re going to recognize a lot of what you see. But it’s all filtered through that joyful, goofy Hensonian lens and elevated by a delightfully deranged performance from Will Arnett, a modern master of the delightful derangement. 

Rated TV-PG. 52 minutes. Dir: Kirk Thatcher. Featuring: The Muppets alongside Will Arnett, Yvette Nicole Brown, Darren Criss, Taraji P. Henson and John Stamos.

WHERE TO WATCH: Streaming on Disney+.

And more!


Left: Jennifer Garner in 'Yes Day;' 'PAW Patrol: The Movie.' Right: 'The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run;' Emma Stone in 'Cruella.' Center: 'Sing 2.'

Jennifer Garner kicked off the spring with a "Yes Day" for Netflix, while Disney+ ended the year with "Home Sweet Home Alone." As "Ghostbusters: Afterlife" reimagined a classic film for a whole new generation, other long-beloved characters got new stories in movies like "The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run" and "Clifford the Big Red Dog." 

Newer fan favorites got another day in the sun too, in sequels like "Sing 2" and "Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway," as well as the much-anticipated "PAW Patrol: The Movie." Plus there was "Ron’s Gone Wrong" and "Puff: Wonders of the Reef," as well as the holiday fun of "A Boy Called Christmas" and "8-Bit Christmas."

Our critics pick the best of the year


'Encanto' and 'The Mitchells vs. the Machines.'

Allison Shoemaker’s pick: It was a great year for sweet stories in which the heroes don’t feel that they belong — that’s a thread that connects "Luca," "Raya and the Last Dragon," "In the Heights," "Vivo," "Cinderella," "Cruella," "Spider-Man: No Way Home," "The Mitchells vs. the Machines: and others. But the two oddballs who won my heart sit at the center of a pair of musicals, the exuberant "Everybody’s Talking About Jamie" and Disney’s gripping "Encanto." The latter’s breathtaking animation and epic scale meant that I especially cherished my time with the magical Madrigal family, a group of outrageously talented individuals whose gifts pale in comparison to the powers of empathy, community and compassion. (And "Welcome to the Family Madrigal" is a bop.)

Caroline Siede’s pick: "The Mitchells vs. the Machines." Pretty much everything about "The Mitchells vs. the Machines" works, from its gonzo sci-fi comedy tone to its wonderfully original animation style. (I haven’t stopped thinking about that Furby sequence all year.) But what really makes this movie sing is its thoughtful look at the kind of everyday father/daughter conflict you rarely see explored onscreen. It’s an emotional core that both grounds and elevates this delightfully over-the-top planet-saving adventure.

More family entertainment — streaming for free on Tubi

Scooby-Doo Where Are You? (1969): If the kid in your life doesn’t already know this show’s iconic theme song by heart, now is the perfect time to teach them. Rated TV-G. Dir: Joe Ruby, Ken Spears, Joseph Barbera and William Hanna. Featuring: Casey Kasem, Don Messick, Nicole Jaffe.

The Flintstones (1960): For another Hanna-Barbera treat, this Stone Age comedy is just as charming today as it was when it debuted during the tail end of the Eisenhower administration. Rated TV-G. Dir: Joseph Barbera and William Hanna. Featuring: Alan Reed, Mel Blanc, Jean Vander Pyl

About Tubi: Tubi has more than 35,000 movies and television series from over 250 content partners, including every major studio, in addition to the largest offering of free live local and national news channels in streaming. The platform gives fans of entertainment, news and sports an easy way to discover new content that is available completely free.

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About the writer: Caroline Siede is a film and TV critic in Chicago, where the cold never bothers her anyway. A member of the Chicago Film Critics Association, she lovingly dissects the romantic comedy genre one film at a time in her ongoing column When Romance Met Comedy at The A.V. Club. She also co-hosts the movie podcast, Role Calling, and shares her pop culture opinions on Twitter (@carolinesiede).

About the writer: Allison Shoemaker is a Chicago-based pop-culture critic and journalist. She is the author of "How TV Can Make You Smarter," and a member of the Television Critics Association and the Chicago Film Critics Association. She is also a producer and co-host for the Podlander Presents network of podcasts. Find her on Twitter and Instagram at @allisonshoe. Allison is a Tomatometer-approved Top Critic on Rotten Tomatoes.