There are countless movies based on books that are released year in and year out and many of them are based on some pretty lengthy works. But not every book that inspires a film is 500 pages long. Heck some aren’t even 100 pages long. For example, Dr. Seuss’ classic “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” is only 69 pages and yet this weekend we get our second theatrical film adaptation of the legendary picture book with “The Grinch”. You’d be surprised how many of these short picture books have indeed been the subject of theatrical films and since “The Grinch” does grace the big screen this weekend I decided to take a closer look at these products and pick out the best movies that have captured, or at least tried to capture, the magic of our favorite childhood stories. These are my picks for the Top 10 Movies Based on Children’s Picture Books.
For this list I looked at any movie based on a children’s picture book. I excluded any film based on a novel made for children so the likes of “Charlotte’s Web”, “Coraline” and “Mary Poppins” were not included on this countdown. Only movies based on picture books were considered. When looking at these movies I based my rankings on their iconic status and charm as well as how effectively they built on the legacies and even the stories of their source material. I’m not necessarily grading whether these films were masterpieces, but they did have to have some endearing quality to them to make this list.
So, what is your favorite film based on a children’s picture book? Let me know in comments below and look for my review of “The Grinch” coming soon.
10. “Curious George”
Based on the series of picture books by H.A. Rey and Margret Rey, “Curious George” is the 2006 cinematic interpretation of the adventures of a mischievous monkey named George. Acting as a origin story concerning George’s relationship with his human counterpart, The Man in the Yellow Hat who is given a name in the movie for the first time as Ted Shackleford, the movie was originally proposed as a live action adaptation. This animated take on the classic series actually works much better to capture the charm and aesthetic of the source material and as a result earned decent critical ratings as both fans and reviewers found it to be a worthy and faithful adaptation of the books. While not as popular as those movies still to come this adaptation of the books has become to go-to take on the material for parents looking for a quick way to introduce kids to the famous monkey and spawned a spin-off TV series as a result.
Released back in 1998, “Madeline” is based on the heavily illustrated “Madeline” book series by Ludwig Bemelmans and follows the titular orphan girl at a Catholic boarding school and her misadventures through Paris. Encapsulating four of the books in one project, “Madeline” somehow manages to successfully embrace the personality and charm of each of the stories in one amusing experience which led to some critical acclaim including from the great Roger Ebert. Among the many praises for the movie is its ability to bring the source material to live action without compromising the tone and its dependence on more focused storytelling rather than the all-to-often insertion of forced humor to liven up the party. All-in-all it’s a pretty respected project and a nice way to spend and hour and a half even though the film built a much bigger legacy on home video than it did after it’s initial release in theaters.
8. “Horton Hears a Who!”
There are many who consider 2008’s CGI animated version of “Horton Hears a Who!” to be among the best Dr. Seuss theatrical adaptations ever made and that’s not saying much. Still that doesn’t make this a bad movie. In fact it’s a very good one even if some of the filler is pretty dated. “Horton Hears a Who!” was actually a big step in the right direction for Seuss’ works on the big screen as it was the first film since the live action “The Cat in the Hat” which led Suess’ widow to ban any further live-action movies based on the celebrated author’s works. It’s also the only theatrical Dr. Seuss movie not released by Universal Studios (it was released by 20th Century Fox) so read into that what you will. Anyways this theatrical take on the relationship between an elephant and the mayor of a small town on a dust spec who Horton seeks to protect does a fine job building on the premise established in the short book that Suess published way back in 1954. It might not be the most popular Suess adaptation, but, hey, it’s better than “The Lorax”.
7. “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs”
This is an odd movie adaptation to say the least, but it’s one with a surprisingly resilient legacy. Released by Sony Pictures Animation in 2009, “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” is based on the 1978 children’s illustrated book by Judi and Ron Barrett and departs from the simple narrative of its source material to create its own story based on the general concept. Whereas the book that inspired it was a simple bedtime story from a grandfather to kids about a land where it rains food this film adaptation focuses on an inventor that actually makes the food rain down and includes a “solve world hunger” plotline to expand on the material a bit more. It’s a nice, fun and beautifully animated adventure that made a killing at the box office and earned critical acclaim before expanding into a franchise with a television series. The movie also earned an even more successful sequel in 2013 although the first film follows the original book much more closely and is the more beloved of the two.
The oldest film on this list, “Jumanji” is a quintessential 90s nostalgic classic starring Robin Williams. The story focuses on him, his love interest and a pair of children who must play a board game where each roll brings jungle-themed challenges and elements to literal life. Many forget though that the film is not an original work. It’s based on a popular 1981 picture book of the same name by Chris Van Allsburg which also focused on a game with similar consequences. Surprisingly the movie and book are very similar with the film taking some necessary creative liberties to make the story into a fully theatrical project. The movie also takes the adventure beyond the confines of the house but does include many of the same obstacles as the book including a lion and monsoon. The film was so popular that is spawned a massively successful sequel last year, “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle”. It’s also not the only work by Van Allsburg that received cinematic treatment. “Jumanji’s” sequel book from 2002, “Zathura”, received a standalone live action adaptation in 2005. Oh and he had another book that became a classic movie too but let’s get to that later.
5. “Where the Wild Things Are”
An ambitious live action retelling of Maurice Sendak’s 1963 perennial classic “Where the Wild Things Are”, this 2009 fantasy film received mixed responses and yet it remains so fascinating to view. Critics loved it, some even adding it to their best of the year lists in 2009, while fans didn’t seem to embrace it quite a much. Focused on a lonely boy who finds his way into a world that may or may not be in his imagination and is inhabited by strange creatures, this unique take on the popular story doesn’t shy away from tackling adult-oriented themes just like it’s source material which makes it a heavy and brilliant film adaptation for both kids and adults alike to experience. While it was a commercial flop, barely making back is production budget, “Where the Wild Things Are” has become somewhat of a cult classic since its release with more and more people giving it a chance thanks to the critical praise and the nostalgia of the classic book on which it was based.
4. “Night at the Museum”
The first film in Ben Stiller-led trilogy of hit movies, 2006’s “Night at the Museum” was actually based on a children’s book of the same name released in 1993 and authored by Milan Trenc. The movie adaptation became an instant hit upon release and served as a career resurgence of sorts for Stiller as well as Robin Williams who stole many scenes as Theodore Roosevelt at a time when his relevance as a family friendly and bankable star was fading. The book and the film follow similar premises with a night security guard discovering that the exhibits in the museum come to life after closing time. The movie version ended up spawning two sequels with all the films becoming theatrical hits and the trilogy as a whole becoming a modern classic of the 2000s and 2010s. The franchise earned over $1.35 billion worldwide collectively and their popularity has surpassed that of the source material by a wide margin.
3. “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”
Love it or hate it, this film is a holiday must-view for pretty much anyone who doesn’t outright despise it. Based on Dr. Seuss’ 1957 story of the same name which was also previously adapted into an animated TV special, itself a Christmas season must see, the 2000 release of the live action “Grinch” movie starring Jim Carrey sparked a new holiday tradition for kids growing up in the new millennium. Every year this version of the story hits the small screen, making it a beloved holiday classic despite the mixed critical response and the fact that many feel it does an injustice to the original story. All things considered though, “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” is not a horrible film. It expands on the Grinch’s backstory and, let’s face it, Jim Carrey is just awesome as the titular grump even if he can’t compare to Boris Karloff’s take on the TV special. No matter your thoughts on this divisive film there’s no getting around it’s legacy and lasting appeal which are both something even the new animated version will have a hard time contending with in the years to come.
2. “The Polar Express”
Speaking of Christmas classics, let’s go back to Chris Van Allsburg for a minute and look at the second film adaptation of his work on this list. Released in 2004 at the dawn of motion capture animation “The Polar Express” is adapted from the 1985 book by Van Allsburg that earned him his second Caldecott Medal for illustration. The book itself was already a holiday classic for families around the world, but when the movie came out it took the world by storm in a whole new way. “The Polar Express” showcased the extent to which motion capture animation could go at the time and spawned many imitators due to its impressively realistic presentation that, honestly, holds up pretty well today. Like “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”, “The Polar Express” has become a must-view film for the Christmas holiday but unlike the Dr. Seuss adaptation you’d have a much harder time finding anyone who truly despises “The Polar Express”. It’s garnered a devoted and committed fan base of defenders despite critics still being mixed on the true merit of the film to this day.
Honestly, how many of you truly knew without looking it up that “Shrek” was based on a children’s picture book? DreamWorks’ massive animated success story “Shrek”, which won the first ever Oscar for Best Animated Feature, was actually very loosely based on the 1990 picture book “Shrek!” by William Steig taking many liberties to give the cinematic version of the ogre a more expanded story. The theatrical film keeps the “ogre saves the princess” element but adds in a whole slew of new themes and new characters that helped it become not only a cinematic classic, but a franchise starter that led to three sequels, countless forms of merchandise, a holiday special, a spinoff movie about Puss in Boots and a Broadway musical. Until “Despicable Me” it was the highest grossing animated film franchise ever and few people remember it all started with a simple picture book. “Shrek” takes the top spot on this list simply because is more than overshadowed it’s origins while also taking on an entire life of it’s own.