Most summer holidays are inevitably spent outdoors but family-friendly home entertainment does take on a greater significance throughout the season. Lounges become stuffed with large tribes of cousins to occupy, and wide-appeal viewing material becomes a priority, especially if the weather plays up.
Allow me to guide you through some of the more notable new home entertainment offerings for these summer hols, plus a selection of five family favourites that have stood the test of time.
New to the small screen
Guardians of the Galaxy
The most commercially successful film of the year and a critical smash to boot, this instant classic arrived on DVD and Bluray just in time for Christmas. It's the kind of movie that stands up to multiple viewings, and it no doubt stuffed many a stocking this year. Harking back to the jollier space adventures of the 80s, it tells the story of a ragtag group of aliens who come together under the leadership of a scrappy "Terran" (i.e. Earthling) named Starlord, played with star-making panache by newly minted leading man Chris Pratt.
Earth to Echo
Also released just before Christmas was another family-friendly film that went out of its way to evoke the 80s. Earth To Echo is a "found footage" science-fiction adventure about a bunch of kids who discover a friendly alien robot and attempt to help him return to his home planet while evading government officials. It may sound familiar, but more of today's films could stand to borrow from E.T., and this one also evokes the Steven Spielberg-produced *batteries not included (1987).
This long-gestating adaptation of a Young Adult (YA) book from 1993 failed to light up the box office, but it may find a more natural home on the small screen, where its lack of Hunger Games-style bombast is less jarring. Hewing closer to traditional science fiction than its YA peers, The Giver is set in a pristine future society where, shocker, all is not as it seems. Former Home & Away actor Brenton Thwaites, who plays the lead in about a dozen movies this year, is a decent protagonist and Jeff Bridges (who produced the film) lends credibility. Releases January 14.
One of the most purely charming films aimed at kids to be released this year, this is the latest delight from Laika, the stop-motion animation company behind the similarly awesome Coraline and ParaNorman. Although Laika is an American company, there's something wonderfully British about The Boxtrolls, which tells the tale of a society of subterranean creatures and the little boy who thinks he's one of them. There's a focus on cheese which can't help but evoke the similarly styled Wallace & Gromit efforts, but The Boxtrolls bears the comparison. Releases January 21.
The Maze Runner
Like The Giver, this is another YA adaptation that benefits from the traditional sci-fi leanings of its source material. Unlike The Giver, this was a huge hit, and the sequels are already underway. It's Lord of the Flies meets M.C. Escher, as a bunch of young boys are trapped inside a giant maze filled with a variety of threats. Refreshingly free of the leaden political undercurrents that often weigh down these sorts of films, The Maze Runner is more of a fun, wild ride. Releases January 21.
• Also released in January of note to a family audience: A Dolphin Tale 2, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Step Up All In, Pudsey The Dog: The Movie and teen weepie If I Stay.
Home entertainment classics
Jason and the Argonauts
Although it came out in 1963, this adaptation of the story from Greek Mythology is more entertaining than most contemporary blockbusters and features special effects that are somehow still impressive. Featuring arguably the finest work of stop motion monster master Ray Harryhausen (
Clash of the Titans
films), Jason and the
inspired George Lucas, Peter Jackson and Sam Raimi. Force it on some under-10s and watch their eyes light up.
The Dark Crystal
There's more imagination in five minutes of the late Jim Henson's The Dark Crystal (1982) than in most major studios' yearly output. It's also the rare youth-targeted film that is willing to get a little freaky, so younger viewers may require a hand to hold. They've been threatening to make a sequel, but it won't hold a candle to this insane feat of puppetry.
Young Sherlock Holmes
This Spielberg-produced fantasy adventure from 1985 remains an underappreciated classic. Set in a boarding school, it often plays like a slightly grittier take on the Harry Potter dynamic, where Holmes is Harry and Watson is Ron. Which isn't all surprising when you consider that Chris Columbus, who directed the first two Potter films, wrote the screenplay. This also contains more than a hint of Indiana Jones and features cinema's first CGI character.
Another Spielberg-produced number, this 1985 film was directed by Joe Dante, the man behind Gremlins and Innerspace. Dante's knowledge of and affection for B-movie tropes heavily informs the film, which stars a young Ethan Hawke and River Phoenix as teenage pals who build a spacecraft in a scrapyard and use it to go into Outer Space. Few films have so effectively nailed the wish-fulfilment aspect of such a notion.
Return To Oz
Like The Dark Crystal, this 1985 sequel to The Wizard of Oz has a few scenes that may to a bit too tense for viewers under 8 but it's such an imaginative film they should watch it anyway. Picking up where the 1939 film left off, this begins with Dorothy (Fairuza Balk) institutionalised due to her wild tales of a place called Oz. It only gets weirder from there.
Jim Henson's 1986 was not a hit at the box office, but it's gone on to become a bona fide classic and a staple at children's birthdays. Jennifer Connelly plays a resentful older sister who must travel to a magical land to retrieve her baby brother. More fun than a barrel of Boggles.