Reduce four of this year’s buzziest movies to vague generalizations—Cowboys! Astronauts! Wolves! Robots!—and you’ve got a group of movies that could have rolled right off the Disney lot. But there’s a lot more to Dallas Buyers Club, Gravity, The Wolf of Wall Street and Her than that implies. Whether it’s the drug-fueled debauchery of Wolf or the contemplative isolation of Gravity, these four films would either horrify kids or lull them into stupefying boredom. Still, those post-millennials in your life shouldn’t be left out of the Oscar fun. So here are four alternatives to the aforementioned movies that will impart many of the same lessons in far more child-friendly ways.
The Wolf of Wall Street or… Blank Check
What parents think: Finally Leonardo Dicaprio gets a chance to be hilarious and filthy.
What kids think: Another period piece? Pass.
The alternative: Martin Scorsese’s Wolf is wildly profane, with north of 500 profanities uttered in its three hours. Blank Check on the other hand, has none. What it does share with Wolf are lessons on the perils of greed and excess. In Blank Check, a 12-year-old kid essentially steals $1 million (just like on Wall Street) and spends it on all kinds of nonsense (just like on Wall Street). His lavish life is built on a pile a money and bigger pile of lies, just like on Wall Street. And just like Wolf, Blank Check makes it look fantastic.
Lesson learned: With 100% fewer bare breasts, Disney’s blatant Home Alone rip-off ends with the same message as Wolf: Greed and material wealth may provide moments of ecstasy (whether in the form of a go-kart track or a bunch of ecstasy), but the thrills of hedonism are fleeting.
Watch the trailer for Blank Check here:
Gravity or… Finding Nemo
What parents think: Alfonso Cuaron’s sci-fi thriller is unbelievably tense, beautifully acted and visually breathtaking.
Why kids think: It’s boring and everyone’s old.
The alternative: It’s not the shards of metal hurtling through space that makes Gravity horrifying—it’s the prospect of dying alone. The isolation of space, even on screen, is almost too much to bear. Scale it back a bit for the kids with Finding Nemo, which finds a little clownfish alone in the ocean, a pretty terrifying place in its own right. Like Gravity, the Pixar classic is about perseverance in the face of seemingly certain death. Unlike Gravity, there are characters outside the leads who keep things interesting.
Lesson learned: Ultimately they end on the same cautionary tale: When pulled away from that which matters most, one must push past fear and find the will to carry on. Or as Dory in Finding Nemo sings, “Just keep swimming.”
Watch the trailer for Finding Nemo here:
Her or… Wall-E
What parents think: Such a clever study on relationships in a time of pervasive technology!
What kids think: A robot that only talks? Hard pass.
The alternative: Before Her, Wall-E was the gold standard of robot personification. But where Scarlett Johansson’s Samantha is only a voice, Wall-E is everything but. The expressive little trash compactor is painfully alone, just like Joaquin Phoenix’s character in Her. Both are eventually rescued by a more technologically advanced version of themselves, with whom they fall helplessly in love.
Lesson learned: These two movies share more than plot points, though. Both force us to think about human nature, the role of technology in our lives and love’s ability to break the curse of loneliness.
Watch the trailer for Wall-E here:
Dallas Buyers Club or… The Mighty Ducks
What parents think: Matthew McConaughey is brilliant in this heart-wrenching underdog story.
What kids think: Why’s that man so skinny? Why’s that man dressed like a lady? What’s HIV?
The alternative: Kid cinema is rife with underdog stories, but none better than The Mighty Ducks. It doesn’t carry the emotional heft of Dallas Buyers Club—rallying a rag tag group of hockey players is no match for extending the life of AIDS patients—but it does use a similar narrative structure, with an arrogant man leading a group he would have previously shunned and learning to love them, warts and all.
Lesson learned: They provide similar observations out perseverance in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.
Watch the trailer for The Mighty Ducks here: