Nine Glorious Children’s Movies for Wordnerds

by Karen Jeynes

When my older son was learning to read, he liked to watch movies with the English subtitles on. Not only is this a practical and useful approach, but it led us to one of the greatest discoveries of all time: the subtitles for Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron. Spirit is somewhat unusual by animated movie standards, in that the lead character is an animal, but that animal doesn’t talk. The horses communicate in a suitably equine fashion throughout the film. But clearly the subtitles were written by someone with a strong affinity for horse emotions and an inspired imagination, because when the horse whinnies, the subtitles say “whinnies affectionately”. Neighs might be “impatiently”, “imploringly” or “excitedly”. Truly, I had no concept of the vast emotive range of sounds horses make until I giggled my way through this, and Spirit has become a bit of a cult classic in our house.

But what about children’s films where the delightful language is not simply in the subtitling? I decided to put together a list of my favourite wordnerdy children’s films. (I left out those which are based on such excellent books that they couldn’t help but be linguistic gems – the AA Milnes, Roald Dahls, Dick King-Smiths, Kenneth Grahames and JRR Tolkiens, for example.)

9: Smurfs


(Written by J David Stern, David N Weiss, Jay Scherick, and David Ronn)

The Smurfs teach us a valuable lesson about words: that they can mean whatever you want them to mean. By substituting “smurf” for the oh-so-boring human words, we can tell from the context what is meant. “Smurf off!” they might yell at someone who is annoying them, whereas “that’s totally smurfing!” might be a sign of approval. A lot of prescriptivists I know could smurf a thing or two by adopting this attitude.

8: Lilo and Stitch

lilo and stitch

(Written by Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois)

One word is central to Lilo and Stitch, and it is “ohana”. Which, as Lilo will tell you “means family, and family means no one gets left behind”. This core concept drives a lot of the film, and it’s a good reminder that sometimes words can transcend their sterile dictionary meanings.

7. The Little Mermaid

the little mermaid

(Written by John Musker and Ron Clements, music by Alan Menken)

“The Seaweed is always greener in somebody else’s lake”. Simply put, The Little Mermaid delivers intelligent, witty lyrics and dialogue, and the songs in particular will stay with you because they are written so skilfully. And, The Little Mermaid is about something every writer needs to learn: the power of your own voice.

6. Mary Poppins

mary poppins

(Written by Bill Walsh and Don Da Gradi, based on the stories by P L Travers, songs by the Sherman Brothers)

I have one word for you: supercalifrajilisticexpialidocious.

5: The Lion King

lion king

(Written by Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts, and Linda Woolverton, songs by Elton John and Tim Rice)

What’s not to love about a film starring a sarcastic bird? I will always maintain that Zazu was one of Rowan Atkinson’s finest roles. That aside, a particular area where The Lion King succeeded was in pitching humour that their “adult” audience would get, but that won’t be offensive or inappropriate for children. Lines like “the shallow end of the gene pool” are delightful for their simplicity and casual delivery.

4: Stuart Little (and Stuart Little 2)

stuart little

(Written by M Night Shyamalan and Greg Booker, based on the book by E B White, Stuart Little 2 written by Bruce Joel Rubin)

Another example of a case where a sarcastic character makes things all the more pleasant for the adults who may end up watching the film many times. Many, many, many times. The language used is appropriate, but doesn’t pander to kids, and introduces many glorious words. In this instance it is Nathan Lane’s Snowbell who, in Stuart Little 2, delivers one of the finest lines I’ve heard delivered by a cat in a long time, “You’ve got guts, kid. And spunk. And moxie. You’ve got guts, spunk and moxie!”.

3: Gnomeo and Juliet


(Written by Rob Sprackling and John R Smith, based on the play Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare)

The wordplay starts in the title of this one – for those who don’t know it this is Shakespeare’s tragedy as told by garden gnomes – or as they put it “This is a story you’ve heard before. A lot. We’re going to tell it again. But differently.” And it doesn’t disappoint. Gnomeo and Juliet is a whirlwind of puns, malapropisms and innuendo to delight even the most cold-hearted of wordnerds. “I’m not illiterate, my parents were married!”

2: Despicable Me

despicable me

(Written by Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio)

Purely and simply, I rejoice at the fact that children as young as three have a fairly accurate idea of what a “minion” is.

1: The Princess Bride

princess bride

(Written by William Goldman)

I’m not going to beat about the fire swamp, I have a deep and abiding love for The Princess Bride. We have Fezzik’s love for rhyming – “no more rhymes now, I mean it!” “Anybody want a peanut?”. We have the repetition of “Inconceivable” leading Inigo to voice what millions of wordnerds throughout history have thought “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” There’s an exploration of the power of names, the “Dread Pirate Roberts” moniker being passed from person to person. And a neat display of subtext, with “As you wish” meaning “I love you”. And, of course, there’s “Mawwiage, that bwessed awangement, that dweam within a dweam.” Enough, you cry! But I’m not done. Inigo demonstrates the power of repetition, and we are also treated to the playing out of a story within a story, an expression of the value of books and words as things that bind people together, and Billy Crystal exploring the difference between all dead and mostly dead. And I would tell you how the wordnerdiness continues into the closing song of the film, but I really want you to watch it for yourselves, so I won’t.

In true cinematic style, I thought we’d close with a montage from the movies that didn’t quite make the cut:

“Who put the glad into gladiator” – Hercules

“Ratatouille. It’s like a stew, right? Why do they call it that? If you’re gonna name a food, you should give it a name that sounds delicious. Ratatouille doesn’t sound delicious. It sounds like “rat” and ‘patootie.’ Rat-patootie, which does not sound delicious.” – Ratatouille

“For too long have we sat under the thumb of mankind. The time has come to oppose that thumb!” – The Powerpuff Girls

“This is ‘reality’, Greg.” – E.T.

“You! Higher mammal! Can you read?” – Madagascar

“I know what I said. Listen to what I’m saying now.” – The Incredibles

“I can’t stop Andy from growing up. But I wouldn’t miss it for the world!” – Toy Story II

Karen Jeynes

About Karen Jeynes

Karen Jeynes (@karenjeynes) is a playwright, dramaturg, wordsmith, proponent of the Oxford comma, and collector of words. She has been known to rub her hands with girlish glee on discovering a new one. She experiences high levels of angst over misplaced apostrophes, sometimes having to have a bit of a lie down. She is perilously partial to puns. And also alliteration.


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