11 Beloved Family Movies Turning 20 In 2023

Twenty years ago, tween-girl cinema thrived. Hilary Duff, Lindsay Lohan, and Amanda Bynes kicked off the junior rom-com eras — bringing their Disney and Nickelodeon fans along for the ride. Big-screen coming-of-age stories, family sagas, and whimsical made-for-television movies defined youth culture in 2003. Pop music became more accessible to children. Bright colors and Y2K fashion arrived in full force. Kids were paying attention to the media and products advertised to them.

As a person who turned nine in '03, I vividly remember this era of family films. They were hopeful, playful, and rife with young characters seeking adventures. I'll never forget when my sister and I saw our first movies on DVD instead of VHS: "The Lizzie McGuire Movie" and "What a Girl Wants." For millennial fans, Hilary Duff's Italian excursion has been on repeat as a literal soundtrack of our lives. Amanda Bynes' British battle of the debutantes sharpened our rebellious side. The Cheetah Girls encouraged our musical aspirations. Seeing kids like us running around and making us laugh was wonderful.

Where did the time go? Families large and small, fish included, are represented here. Come for nostalgia; stay for the characters who still comfort, surprise, and inspire viewers of all ages.

Freaky Friday

Lohan was no Disney newbie when she starred in Mark Waters' "Freaky Friday." Previously, she starred in Nancy Meyers' "Parent Trap" remake, hung out with a Tyra Banks Barbie in 2000's "Life-Size," and solved a mystery fashionably in 2002's "Get a Clue." Disney adapted Mary Rodgers' "Freaky Friday" novel in 1976 and remade the film in 1995.

Manohla Dargis wrote for the Los Angeles Times, "[What] makes it feel fresher than the usual retread, is the seriousness with which it takes both sides of the family divide." Mom Tess (Jamie Lee Curtis) and teen daughter Anna (Lohan) are impressively fleshed out as characters before they switch bodies. Anna crushes on biker heartthrob Jake (Chad Michael Murray), and Tess prepares to marry her docile suit-wearing fiance, Ryan (Mark Harmon). Anna and her rock band Pink Slip sing "Take Me Away" in the garage, but Tess is busy doing press for her child psychology book, "Through the Looking Glass: Senescence in Retrograde." Perhaps no mother and child could seem more different. But nothing could bring them closer than walking in each other's shoes.

This film's anniversary coincides with the "Lohanaissance." Lohan appreciated her work here, telling Vogue: "I loved dressing for 'Freaky Friday' because I was going through that phase of, I wanted to experiment, too, and wear the baggy pants and be the rocker chick." Lohan's sentiment speaks to the film's aging fans: It's never too late to be a rocker chick if you're a mom or a grown-up daughter!

The Lizzie McGuire Movie

Lizzie McGuire (Duff) and some of her classmates take the opportunity to see Rome for their eighth-grade class trip — yes, eighth-grade. Directed by Jim Fall, the feature film shows characteristically clumsy Lizzie masquerading as a confident Italian pop star, Isabella (also played by Hilary Duff). Though the suave and conniving Paolo (Yani Gellman) tempts Lizzie, she doesn't forget about good ol' Gordo (Adam Lamberg). Jerry Zielinski's cinematography and Cliff Eidelman's score are positively jubilant, inviting viewers to lose themselves in Lizzie's secret Roman romp while her brother Matt (Jake Thomas) endeavors to blackmail her.

Before you burst into a reprise of "What Dreams Are Made Of," here's some Disney Channel history: "Lizzie McGuire" premiered in January 2001. Per the Walt Disney Company 2003 Annual Report, Disney Channel was available to 83 million U.S. households that year. "'Lizzie McGuire' was the break-out kids' television property of 2003, spawning a feature film, licensed apparel, merchandise, toys, and a best-selling book series." (That's not even including Duff's platinum sophomore album "Metamorphosis," which debuted a few months after "The Lizzie McGuire Movie.") 

Truth be told, 2000s critics weren't kind to this film. Though Roger Ebert wrote, "Hilary Duff is beautiful and skilled," he also wrote that Lizzie would "be the sad and silent one in the corner at the 2023 class reunion." On the contrary — Lizzie is the one everybody wants to be in 2023. It's just a pity Duff and Disney aren't on the same page about a reboot.

The Even Stevens Movie

While "The Even Stevens Movie" didn't hit theaters in '03, it became a classic Disney Channel Original Movie that finished the series' run. As "Even Stevens" ended, reality TV was beginning, which is evident in this movie, as The New York Times jokingly called the film: "Survivor: The Disney Version."

In the movie, Miles McDermott (Tim Meadows), the producer of a hidden camera show called "Family Fakeout," dupes the Stevens family. Steve (Tom Virtue), Eileen (Donna Pescow), Donnie (Nick Spano), Ren (Christy Carlson Romano), Louis (Shia LaBeouf), and Beans (Steven Anthony Lawrence) accept Miles' offer of a paid tropical vacation. Unbeknownst to them, "Family Fakeout" flies the group around in circles until they end up not too far off the California coast. The luxurious "vacation" quickly becomes a living nightmare with no food or lodging. Family members turn against each other in a fight to survive. (You think your family's bad? Try being stuck with them on an island!)

"Even Stevens" was always about Louis (Shia LaBeouf) and Ren (Christy Carlson Romano) squabbling and having separate friend groups. This DCOM puts their brother-sister relationship to the test. The influence of this film can be seen in Disney series-to-movie projects that followed, particularly "The Proud Family Movie," "Good Luck Charlie: It's Christmas!," "The Suite Life Movie," and more. These stories take their characters away from day-to-day life at home, entertaining fans and possibly suggesting a break from the daily grind might lead to some wacky adventures.

Finding Nemo

Nemo has a magical effect on children. When babysitting an infant years ago, I saw how she cherished the clownfish (Alexander Gould). Maybe it was the soothing blue of Nemo's ocean or the playful moments his father Marlin (Albert Brooks) has with Crush (Andrew Stanton) and the other sea turtles. Whatever it was, she loved Nemo like I loved Barney the dinosaur. It's safe to say a lot of people enjoyed "Finding Nemo," which grossed over $941.6 million worldwide and won an Oscar for the best-animated picture.

We have mother-daughter and father-daughter stories on this list. "Finding Nemo" is a father-son tale — though Marlin and Nemo don't reunite until the movie's end. But that's what makes the family message here effective. Yes, he's a fish. But Marlin is a widower who's had trouble accepting that Nemo is growing up. Nemo's experience is just as frightening: being captured to live in a fish tank at an Australian dentist's office.

Families aren't always going to agree, but close ones will do anything to protect each other. When a pelican tells Nemo his father is on the way, the clownfish's eyes light up. His father is his hero, and their eventual reunion brings sweet relief. The colorful, detailed artistry is an aesthetic treat for all ages, showcasing a brilliant chapter in 3D computer animation.

What a Girl Wants

Amanda Bynes, known for her work on "All That" and "The Amanda Show," concluded her successful Nickelodeon acting career in 2002 to star in more mature projects. Transitioning into a starring role on The WB's sitcom "What I Like About You," Bynes cemented her status as a teen girl idol. Bynes and prolific director Dennie Gordon delivered a sophisticated rom-com for the whole family in "What a Girl Wants," a story inspired by William Douglas Home's play, "The Reluctant Debutante." 

"What a Girl Wants" follows one young woman's quest to know the father she's never met. Bynes plays Daphne Reynolds, the late Kelly Preston is her American musician mom Libby, and Colin Firth is her British father, Lord Henry Dashwood. Daphne and Libby live in New York City's Chinatown and waitress at weddings. Eventually, Daphne decides to find her father, going on an impromptu English expedition, featuring a montage set to "London Calling" by The Clash. (The soundtrack in this film rocks.) As Henry and Daphne grow closer, Daphne's spontaneity threatens Henry's prime minister race and future with his icy fiancee, Glynnis Payne (Anna Chancellor), and snippy stepdaughter-to-be, Clarissa Payne (Christina Cole). 

The beauty of this film is that it's delightfully intergenerational: Daphne and Henry bond over their love for James Brown. (Who could forget that chandelier-smashing dance to "Get Up Offa That Thing?") Daphne's love story with Ian the guitarist (Oliver James) is the film's central focus, as is her parents' uncertain relationship status.

Uptown Girls

In "Uptown Girls," Molly Gunn (Brittany Murphy) is a New York party girl who prefers to shop rather than pay bills. Ray (Dakota Fanning) is a straight-laced ballerina who quotes Mikhail Baryshnikov and listens to the Mozart Requiem in her bedroom. After her lavish lifestyle and a thieving accountant disrupt Molly's finances, she lands a job as Ray's nanny.

Molly's musician father and her mother died when she was only eight; Ray's successful mom (Heather Locklear) is an absentee parent, and her father is in a coma resulting from a stroke. Ray doesn't often break from her stoic persona, but sadness creeps into her eyes when no one comes to her ballet recital: You can't help but feel bad for Ray when Molly takes her to a theme park in Coney Island that happens to be closed. As the story unfolds, Ray and Molly lean on each other and grieve together.

Today, Brittany Murphy fans hold onto this movie as a way to remember the late star's carefree and whimsical nature. Murphy believed the role reflected these aspects of herself, sharing in a behind-the-scenes moment for MGM: "One of the reasons why I wanted to be a part of this was because I felt a very kindred spirit in Molly and definitely wanted to do something that's just very purely, instinctively me... It's how I am."

Daddy Daycare

Dakota Fanning's little sister Elle had only been acting for a couple of years when she joined the preschool cast of "Daddy Day Care."

Running a daycare is the furthest thing from Phil's (Jeff Garlin) and Charlie's (Eddie Murphy) minds — until they get laid off from their jobs in advertising. Charlie's wife, Kim (Regina King), has just re-entered the workforce as a lawyer, but their son Ben's private daycare is too expensive to afford on one income. A sweep of the neighborhood is all it takes for the family to realize that there aren't any reliable, reasonably-priced daycares in their area. (This is still a timely issue — trustworthy daycares can be difficult to afford.) However, the emphasis on stay-at-home dads being a unique concept feels dated — some folks needed to see this normalized on-screen in 2003.

In addition to watching Phil's son Max and Charlie's son Ben, the fathers quickly put together a daycare business in Charlie's home. They improve their services daily — partly because of pressure to meet licensing regulations when the private school headmaster (Anjelica Huston) seeks to put Daddy Daycare out of business. The children in this film are adorable, and so is Marvin (Steve Zahn), a friend of Charlie and Phil's. Marvin uses his Trekkie knowledge to communicate with a kid who only speaks in Klingon. There's an abundance of laughter and cute preschooler moments in this movie, a great reminder of Murphy's versatility.

Eloise at the Plaza

Readers may know the legacy of the "Eloise" book series, the lore of deceased author Kay Thompson and the distinct creativity of 96-year-old illustrator Hilary Knight. But when it comes to the films, fans might not realize that Thompson appeared in a 1956 adaptation of "Eloise" for CBS' "Playhouse 90." Per the Los Angeles Times, the show was panned, and Thompson never wanted Eloise to be imagined on-screen again. Following her death in 1998, the property became available through the author's estate, and voila! — two frolicking films about a little girl living in The Plaza Hotel were born. The first film, "Eloise at the Plaza," premiered in April 2003. Blonde-haired Sofia Vassilieva looked exactly like the titular character from the books. Julie Andrews, in-between "Princess Diaries" movies, portrayed her enchanting Nanny. Composer Bruce Broughton won a Primetime Emmy for his elegantly playful score.

Eloise's life looks divine. The six-year-old bounces from her turtle to her tutoring and turns the hotel upside down without missing a beat. Concierge Mr. Salamone (Jeffrey Tambor) tries to keep her in check when a young prince visits the hotel.

Vassilieva showed an appreciation for Eloise's character. When asked about book-to-movie projects, she told InStyle in 2019, "There's such an honor in playing characters that are beloved, and there is a stake in them because they're so loved. They're a little extra special and you take a little bit more care because you really want to do the character justice."

The Cheetah Girls

Shortly before "The Cheetah Girls" premiered in August 2003, the Los Angeles Times observed, "Girls are reading a lot, and they're looking beyond 'Harry Potter' and 'Holes.' Girls see a lot of movies, too, so it's no wonder that Hollywood is taking notice." The era knew it was time for more girl-powered cinema.

"The Cheetah Girls" began as a book series by Deborah Gregory, and all three films were executive produced by Debra Martin Chase (with Whitney Houston for the first two). Fans all over the world know Raven-Symoné as Galleria, Adrienne Bailon-Houghton as Chanel, Kiely Williams as Aqua, and Sabrina Bryan as Dorinda — a girl group in New York City with big dreams of making it in the music industry. Chase spoke candidly with The Hollywood Reporter about the difficulties of launching this music-driven franchise, stating, "I originally developed it as a series. They sent the script around to Disney Channel International, to get their buy-in, and they said, 'We can't sell this. Basically, no one is going to believe that these girls — these Black girls living on Park Avenue — exist.' I was furious." Former Disney Channel president Gary Marsh offered his help, turning it into a DCOM instead. 

To this day, "Cheetah Girls" fans continue singing along to the movie's double-platinum soundtrack. The film is one of the channel's most racially diverse stories, and it kicked off a musical DCOM revolution, not to mention a real-life tour for the Cheetah Girls stars.


The holiday season was never the same after Jon Favreau's "Elf" debuted. Will Ferrell portrays Buddy, a human elf who leaves Santa (the late Ed Asner) in search of his biological father, Walter (the late James Caan). Buddy soon learns that Walter has another son and a wife, Emily (Mary Steenburgen). 

The opening of the film is riveting for a Rankin/Bass fan like me. The credits, elf costumes, wintry artwork, and animated creatures pay homage to 1964's "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." (The project temporarily faced legal issues for the similarities). Writer David Berenbaum was drawn to the misfit quality of Rudolph. "I'd simply turn Rudolph into a giant elf," Berenbaum shared in Netflix's "The Movies That Made Us." He added, "My father passed away when I was younger, so the emotional drive of the film is searching for the father."

Of course, the comedy here is watching Buddy navigate New York City and his father's publishing office. The romance comes when he meets Jovie (Zooey Deschanel) at a department store — the closest place to the North Pole he can be at Christmastime. The unconventional family story at the center of the film still draws crowds for annual screenings. Warner Bros. president of domestic distribution Jeff Goldstein referred to "Elf" as "one of the evergreen properties that keep doing really strong business" (via Deadline). 

Cheaper by the Dozen

Released on Christmas, Shawn Levy's "Cheaper by the Dozen" was an easy sell for families. Parents laughed at Steve Martin and Bonnie Hunt, young adults appreciated Tom Welling and Piper Perabo, and tweens wouldn't miss a chance to see Hilary Duff and Alyson Stoner on-screen. There were tons of even younger cast members (we're talking about a family of 12 here), so there was a character to match every age group. The movie was a remake of 1950's "Cheaper by the Dozen" film, which was based on the eponymous semi-autobiographical novel written by siblings Frank Bunker Gilbreth Jr. and Elizabeth Gilbreth Carey.

In the '03 movie, Tom (Martin) is a high school football coach and Kate (Hunt) is an author writing about her family. Early in the film, Tom gets the opportunity to move on to a college coaching job, but their children don't want to leave their home. When Kate's publisher sends her on a book tour, Tom struggles with solo parenting. (You know it's bad when "I'm Just a Kid" by Simple Plan starts playing.) To its credit, this family film is not about syrupy sentiments or easy resolutions. But the laughs balance out the pain. With Martin one-liners like, "You soaked his underwear in meat," it's clear that chasing after a dozen kids is anything but conventional. I'm already celebrating this piece of my childhood, and its 2005 sequel.