Written by Shawn Bourdo
Has the day of the irresistible child actor in films passed us by? It’s certainly not the same as it was in the 1970s and early 1980s. It’s not that the cute child has left acting and pop culture. They have just changed mediums. The advent of Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel took a wholesale amount of kids out of films and gave them TV-show careers that last through until the end of their teens. They are populating network TV still on shows like Modern Family and Two and a Half Men. Then there is a whole herd of youngsters running through “reality” shows like Toddlers and Tiaras and Dance Moms. In the past, would Honey Boo Boo be starring in her own series of films? Probably not, but it just illustrates that the current roles for live-action films for cute kids is limited.
I only included kids from films that I encountered in theaters (yes, not the first time, but I’ve seen #1 in theaters a number of times). I didn’t include some of the cutest kids of all-time – Our Gang and The Little Rascals – because I didn’t see them in theaters but on TV. I don’t include The Partridge Family, Opie from Andy Griffith, The Brady Bunch, or the cuties from Family Affair.
This list breaks down the Top Ten (Eleven) Cutest Kids in the Movies. The higher you get on the list, the better the combination of cute kids and great movie.
11. WILLY WONKA & THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (1971) – Peter Ostrum is Charlie Bucket. The boy loves his grandparents and that’s all I ever needed to know to love him. The other kids are cute, if a little annoying – Veruca Salt (Julie Dawn Cole) and Violet Beauregarde (Denise Nickerson). I am more enamored with the film over time because Peter didn’t go on to do other films. He’s still lonely Charlie to me.
10. THE NEVERENDING STORY (1984) – Barret Oliver as the bullied Bastian is the perfect put-upon kid who becomes a hero. He loves to read so much that it takes him into a magical world. The stuff of my dreams at that age. He’d later go on to be D.A.R.Y.L. but this kid makes me happy here more than in any other role.
9. KRAMER VS. KRAMER (1979) – Justin Henry is the little kid that the Kramers are fighting over. He’s so cute here – you know he’d be worth the fight. Was he good? “Best Supporting Actor nomination” good. He’d later play Molly Ringwald’s younger brother in Sixteen Candles but not nearly as cute there as he is as Billy Kramer.
8. LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE (2006) – Abigail Breslin is such a charmer. Good movie made great by Breslin. That’s what it takes to make this list. Her role as Olive is pretty unique for child actors these days. She’s precocious but not in an annoying way. She’s got a curiosity that’s healthy and seems natural. Too many kid actors aren’t cute because they’re acting like smallish adults (I’m looking at you, Dakota Fanning). Throw in a great soundtrack. And her dance. Her dance!!!
7. SUPER 8 (2011) – Elle Fanning outdoes Dakota for cuteness. Great movie – one where I could pick a number of kids but she’s the one I remember most. They captured that character at the perfect age of 12-13 between being a kid and becoming a teenager. I don’t have a cut-off for ages on the list, but she’s right on that cusp.
6. THE CHAMP (1979) – The 1931 film with Jackie Cooper is as cute as kids in the movies pre-1939 ever get. But the remake in 1979 is much more accessible to modern audiences. Ricky Schroder will bring a tear to your eye – guaranteed. Excellent film that is overlooked by many these days. Ricky took the reverse road of many young stars; he would later go on to star in the TV show Silver Spoons. The character in the TV show tried hard to be cute – this is a performance that doesn’t feel like acting, it’s just raw emotions.
5. STAND BY ME (1986) – Rob Reiner did an awesome job casting this film. Wil Wheaton as a young Gordie is the best. Corey Feldman and Jerry O’Connell are good, but Will is the kind of boy that I can see myself in. “a time after which we are never the same again.” He would also go on to make a name for himself in television. His role of Wesley Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation is probably more famous than this character. That TV role is again, very different, much more adult, than Gordie’s innocent view of life as they travel to see the dead body.
4. HOME ALONE (1990) – Macaulay Culkin pushed the cute limits here. I can see where he would get on some people’s nerves. But for me, he’s perfect in the role – just the right amount of Dennis The Menace. He’s definitely the child actor for a whole generation. I thought of picking his smaller role in Uncle Buck because it’s so clever and cynical. You can’t help but be impressed here with the way one eight-year-old commands a whole film. After watching My Girl and Pagemaster, I can safely say that it could never be duplicated.
3. E.T. (1982) – Henry Thomas loved that little alien. It’s doubly cute because Drew Barrymore is adorable. Henry as Elliott is the soul of the film. He is our conscious and does what we all hope we would do in that situation. Spielberg knows how to play the heartstrings – make us love the character and then make him sick. Henry continues to work in film and on television but he’ll always be little Elliott to me.
2. THE BAD NEWS BEARS (1976) – This film is filled with a carload of cute kid actors. But Tatum O’Neal as Amanda Whurlizer outshines Jackie Earle Haley as Kelly Leak. She was my Little League hero as a nine-year-old and maybe just a bit of a crush on the 12-year-old. Now she’s just an adorable, foul-mouthed, strong young lady. You might challenge me here by saying that Tatum won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role in Paper Moon. It’s a fine film and she does a good job. It was this film that let her be a cute kid that other kids could relate to. She would later star in Little Darlings with my big childhood crush, Kristy McNichol. But that film portrayed the kids as teenagers, not as cute kids.
1. THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939) Judy Garland is the end all, be all of cute kid actors. And with a tremendous voice to boot. Maybe my first real crush; she was sixteen at the time, playing a younger character. That’s probably the edge of what I want to include as child actors. But she was by far the youngest amongst a cast of older actors. She played the role of innocent Dorothy perfectly. Garland would go on to some great adult roles but she was always chasing the perfection of this character. I think that speaks to the power of the film. I can still watch this today and appreciate how kids playing kids can be very powerful.
There are some kids at the other end of the spectrum. I like the movie, but that little red-haired girl from Annie is the most annoying part of the film. I’m not going to put the “on the surface” cute kid Danny from Kubrick’s The Shining – I can’t forget the whole Redrum thing or the riding of the Big Wheel in the hotel corridors. Too creepy for their own good is that girl from The Grudge, the kids from the original Village Of The Damned and the king of all kid creeps is Banjo Boy from Deliverance.
I think there will still be a resurgence in movies starring cute kids. They don’t all have to act like little versions of adults in sitcoms or reality shows. There are still plenty of roles to tell coming of age stories and as part of family comedies and dramas. Until those days swing back our way again, I’ll sit back with my memories of the days before everything was never the same again.