Moving beyond white supremacy and/or North America in family movies: 16 recommendations

By Kimine Mayuzumi and Riyad A. Shahjahan


What do you like to do for your family time or personal time? We love watching movies with our kids. Since it is the holiday season right now, watching movies is a great way for us to be lazy and slow down as a family!

Given that we’re in North America, we tend to be bombarded by movies that depict Western contexts and White male perspectives, while at the same time stereotyping the “Other.” Furthermore, mainstream movies (including animations) tend to normalize ideas of Whiteness, femininity, masculinity, ability, and so on. Representation, who or what is represented in what way, is so important for kids – as it’s a hidden curriculum that informs their perceptions of things, people, and the world in general (see Mickey Mouse Monopoly).

So, how do we select a movie to watch as a family? We try our best to select movies that go beyond North American contexts and strive to humanize children, families, and relationships from around the world. We also purposefully expose our kids to movies that go beyond English. Although our 4-year-old daughter has difficulty in understanding what is going on sometimes, the images are often powerful enough to engage her attention. Our 9-year-old son doesn’t mind subtitles for non-Japanese or English-language based movies.

Here we will share some of the movies that we liked as a family – 16 of them. We are not suggesting that all these movies are authentic depictions of cultures, people, relationships etc., but do indeed provide representations, coming from different standpoints, that help subvert the dominant normative images and stories surrounding our kids. We listed the movies in order of rating (G, , unrated, PG, and PG-13) based on IMDb. (Please note, we have more Japanese movies than any other regions because of our close ties to Japan….)

Here they are!

Rated G

My Neighbor Totoro (Japan, 1988)

Totoro cover

When two girls move to the country to be near their ailing mother, they have adventures with the wonderous forest spirits who live nearby. (

We have yet to come across someone who disliked this movie. Everyone loves Totoro. It cultivates kids’ imaginations through two sisters’ adventures and love for each other.  We also enjoyed seeing the countryside depictions of Japan that are often missing in Japanese animations. >trailer


Trail of the Panda (China, 2009)

trail of the panda

A mute orphan boy rescues a lost panda cub from two men who are trying to catch and sell it.

The panda in the film was very cute to watch. The boy’s agency to rescue/protect the panda was remarkable. It was also thrilling and amusing to see how the boy takes care of the panda. >trailer




A Letter to Momo (Japan, 2011)

A letter to momo

A 12-year-old girl, Momo, was left with a mysterious letter from her dad, who recently passed away. While trying to figure out what he wanted to tell her in the letter, Momo moves to a remote area in Japan with her mom and comes across three goblin looking creatures, who scared her first but became good friends later.

Both of our kids (8 years old then and 4 years old) loved this movie. Our son (now 9 years old) ranks it number one among all other Japanese animations that he has watched so far. It is both touching and funny. We also enjoyed viewing the graphic details of Japanese life style that we could relate to. >trailer


Zarafa (France, 2012)


A grandfather narrates to his grandkids the story of Maki, a young Sudanese boy who escapes from Muslim slave traders, befriends a giraffe (the title character), crosses the desert, meets a pirate, and a few other things on a trip that takes him from his home to Paris. (

It was refreshing to see a Sudanese protagonist (non-Japanese or non-Western) in an animation movie. It’s a beautiful story that ties together questions of slavery, colonialism, and empire. >trailer


Kirikou and the Sorceress (France and Belgium, 1998)

Kirikou and the sorceress A baby boy named Kirikou, who could speak and walk from the beginning, tries to save his village that was being destroyed by an evil sorceress.

Both our kids loved this as well. Kirikou was cute, especially the way he runs and outsmarts others. The story was very interesting. >trailer



The Tibetan Dog (China and Japan, 2011)

The Tibetan Dog

In this film, a young boy named Tenzing leaves for Tibet after his mother passes away to live with his father in the prairies and encounters a true friend in form of a golden Tibetan Mastiff. (

It is a touching story about trust, faith and connection between a boy and a dog. >trailer


Rated PG

Children of Heaven (Iran, 1997)

Children of heavenAfter a boy loses his sister’s pair of shoes, he goes on a series of adventures to find a new pair for her. When he can’t, he tries a new way to “win” a new pair. (

This movie has been ranked number one kids’ movie by Kimine for a long time. It highlights the love between a brother and a sister as they struggle to earn a pair of shoes for the sister which they cannot afford. It demonstrates the resiliency among working class kids. >trailer


Together (China, 2002)

Together DVD cover

A thirteen year old “violin prodigy and his father travel to Beijing, where the father seeks the means to his son’s success while the son struggles to accept the path laid before him”. (

This movie explores the love between a working class father and his talented son, while they navigate the tensions and aspirations towards upward class mobility. >trailer


Wolf Children (Japan, 2012)

Wolf Children

College student Hana falls in love with another student who turns out to be a werewolf, who dies in an accident after their second child. Hana moves to the rural countryside where her husband grew up to raise her two werewolf children. (

This is a great movie that has implications for mixed-race children and single-parent families as it illuminates the complexity of navigating various cultural identities. >trailer


The Way Home (South Korea, 2002)

The way homeA 7-year-old boy, Sang-woo, is left with his grandmother in a remote village while his mother looks for work. Born and raised in the city, Sang-woo has a hard time adjusting to the country lifestyle with his old-fashioned grandma. He gradually changes and becomes a different boy – more respectful, empathic, and humble.

It was also interesting to see how a city boy reacts to a rural way of living, and the interactions among different generations. >trailer


Rabbit-Proof Fence (Australia, 2002)

Rabbit Proof FenceIn 1931, three aboriginal girls escape after being plucked from their homes to be trained as domestic staff and set off on a trek across the Outback.(

This is a great educational piece. It highlights the impact of White settler colonization of indigenous land and peoples. It illuminates the resiliency of the Aboriginal kids and their resistance towards Whiteness. We highly recommend this movie to anyone. >trailer


Grave of the Fireflies (Japan, 1988)

Grave of the FirefliesA tragic film covering a young boy and his little sister’s struggle to survive in Japan during World War II. (

Our son watched it once and does not want to watch it again because it is depressing. But it is a good way to learn what nuclear war can do to families, and more importantly to kids. It is an important piece anybody must see once in life. >trailer


Like Stars on Earth (India, 2007)

Taare Zameen Par

The film explores the life and imagination of Ishaan, an eight-year-old dyslexic child. Although he excels in art, his poor academic performance leads his parents to send him to a boarding school. Ishaan’s new art teacher suspects that he is dyslexic and helps him to overcome his disability. (

Our son loved this movie. He was even inspired by the movie to paint. It explores the theme of ableism (discrimination and stigma against people with disabilities) towards a child, but also explores the child’s resiliency. >trailer


Rated PG-13

Tokyo Godfathers (Japan, 2003)

Tokyo GodfatherOn Christmas Eve, three homeless people living on the streets of Tokyo find a newborn baby among the trash and set out to find its parents. (

This is the only movie that does not feature kid characters though it has a baby in it. Our kids loved it. This is a good movie that humanizes the homeless coming from various backgrounds, by highlighting life in the big city and their complex lives that involve gender, class, youth, and serendipity. >trailer


Kikujiro (Japan, 1999)

KikujiroA young, naive boy sets out alone on the road to find his wayward mother. Soon he finds an unlikely protector in a crotchety man and the two have a series of unexpected adventures along the way. (

This has been our favorite for a long time. We love the music by Joe Hisaishi, a famous musician who made soundtrack for many movies including My Neighbor Totoro. We appreciated the relationship building between a crotchety man and a boy through adventures. It is also funny to watch acting of Takeshi Kitano, the director of the movie and a comedian. There is a scene where the boy was abducted by another man who tried to get the boy to take off his underwear. We suspect that that is why the movie is rated PG-13. >trailer


Whale Rider (New Zealand, 2002)

Whale riderA contemporary story of love, rejection and triumph as a young Maori girl fights to fulfill a destiny her grandfather refuses to recognize. (

A good movie to introduce kids with the Maori culture. Our 8-year-old son enjoyed it. It reminds grownups about the complexities and dilemmas between indigenous traditions and modernity, gender issues, and individualism vs collectivism. >trailer


Are there any above that spark your interest? If you have watched some, which one did you like? Do you have any other suggestions that we could add to this list?


Foot image by Celestine Chua

About Riyad A. Shahjahan

Dr. Riyad A. Shahjahan is the co-founder of Being Lazy and Slowing Down, an Associate Professor at Michigan State University (MSU) and formerly a certified coach for National Center for Faculty and Diversity Development (NCFDD).