6 Adorable Orphan Movies

They scrub! They sing! They steal your heart!

Did you grow up in a loving, stable home, full of care and laughter? And yet did you enjoy playing a game in which your fictional parents had died in a tragic accident, leaving you to subsist in a broom closet (or in my case, the closet where my grandmother squirreled away her gift boxes for future use) where you’d cook and dust and raise various younger siblings and/or stuffed animals? I know I did! According to my former therapist, whom I bumped into while writing this post, I’m not the only one. “I blame Disney,” she said, after admitting that her children, too, have been known to play orphan. I, however, blame The Little Princess, starring Shirley Temple, among other ragamuffin cinema. What’s in all this for you living, loving parents? After watching these movies, your own ankle biters may very well thrill at the chance to sweep the floor! 

Annie (1982; Amazon Prime Video): This classic looms large in our house—and not only because our kid was cast as trash-talking orphan Pepper (a principal role, ahem) in a local youth theater production of Annie Jr., or because as a college-age tourist I bumped into Geoffrey Holder, the actor who played Punjab in the movie, while at a Soho restaurant with my mother. I’ve only more recently learned that this movie has a reputation as a cheese-fest, to the point that it’s hard to convince some people to give it a shot. If you or your partner have fallen into this unfortunate category, I implore you to take Annie for a spin with your kids. Yes, like most early ’80s musical adaptations it has aspects du formaggio. And yes, poor bewigged Aileen Quinn’s leading performance may on some level have deserved the Razzie she was awarded. But if you are not entertained by Carol Burnett’s performance as infinitely quotable, bathtub-ginned up orphanage warden Miss Hannigan, the movie is not the problem. (One day I will slur-sing her “Little Girls” number in my own bid for community-theater glory.) Tim Curry and Bernadette Peters also slay as Hannigan’s sinister brother and his girlfriend. Plus Annie is a marvelous venue for enjoying the great Ann Reinking1, who passed away last December, in all her long-limbed splendor as Grace Farrell. As for the orphans: The kid members of this cast2 really can clean and sing and cartwheel with the best of them. If your family, like ours, ends your watch or rewatch as bona fide Annie stans, I would recommend that you eventually track down the PBS documentary Annie: It’s the Hard-Knock Life, which chronicles the production of the 2012 Broadway revival, from casting to curtain call. For some reason, PBS is burying this gem, but the trailer is on YouTube; if you’re wanting to go method and really feel the struggle, there’s this shaky version of the full doc. 

The Little Princess (1939; Stream in full on YouTube3): I recently rewatched this movie for the first time in 30-plus years and, y’all, it blew my hair back. For starters, The Little Princess—about the vivacious Sara Crewe, who goes from boarding-school VIP to shoe-polishing servant when her father dies at war—is at times pitch-black dark. Shirley Temple, in her last commercially successful role, really sells her distress (I cried when she cried when her daddy soldiered off to Africa!). And I know I’m not breaking news here, but gosh, she really is that cute. There are some lighter moments to be sure, including a wild dream sequence that involves lot of ballet, Sara ensconced on a throne, and the menacing headmistress dressed in witch garb; the wildest aspect of the scene is how much the music and some of the visuals mirror The Wizard of Oz, which was also an early Technicolor film released in 1939 and for which the role of Dorothy was first offered to Temple. I guess witches were in vogue that year. While The Little Princess does have a happy ending, this is one to turn on if your little ones appreciate a dash of doom, gloom, and melodrama, which, in my experience, most kids do. 

Oliver! (1968; rent for $2.99 or buy it for $12.99 on Amazon Prime Video): I had never seen the classic movie-musical based on Charles Dickens’s favorite orphan—I know, how dare me!—until I committed to write this roundup. What struck me from the get-go was the sheer number of boy orphans (borphans?) marching and, in angelic song, begging for food4 in their prison of a mess hall. This was an orphan epic, and I was here for it. Like with Shirley Temple in The Little Princess, I kept finding myself saying things such as, “Man, this kid’s got talent!” in reference to lead Mark Lester, who Google tells me was the godfather to Michael Jackson’s children and the self-proclaimed biological father of Paris Jackson. Anyhoo, this film is darling and fun and vintage but long (two and a half hours long!), even for me. If this was streaming without extra fees on a mainstream platform, I’d say to break Oliver! into a brisk miniseries made up of five, 30-minute chunks and you’d be golden as the highlights in our caroling urchin’s hair. But seeing as a digital rental only lasts a couple of days, for now your option is to saddle up for a full screening, or wait till it comes to another platform for free. 

The Bear (1988; HBO Max): Warning! This live-action movie, starring actual bears, begins with a tragedy: An adoring mama bear is killed in a rockslide, leaving her precious cub all alone! It’s truly almost too much. The last time I saw this movie I was a child; upon my rewatch as the mother of my own cub and the parent of two more, I bawled my eyes out. Then I began jotting down a list of other children’s movies in which the mother savagely dies or is otherwise separated from her young: BambiDumboFinding Nemo, The Land Before Time. I know I’m not the first to ask: What is wrong with Hollywood?!?! For this reason, I cannot unreservedly recommend this movie—which, I should point out, is not one of those nature-is-cruel documentaries like the reverse-heartbreaking The Last Lions, in which the cub gets stampeded while her lioness mother watches. However, I did stick with The Bear—I think because on some level I felt like I owed it to the cub not to abandon her. If you’ve read this far, I feel a responsibility to mercifully spoil what happens soon thereafter: Our baby is adopted by a male grizzly! From there on out, the bears’ plight is no walk in the park, but the ending is warm and fuzzy. Either gird yourselves for those first 15 minutes or fast-forward right through them.  

The New Adventures of Pippi Longstocking (1988; rent on Vudu or Amazon Prime Video for $2.99): This one resonated with fourth-grade L.B. Like, really resonated: We acquired Pippi books; we spent afternoons drawing Pippi in her signature striped leggings; we belted, “Pippi Longstocking is coming into your wooorrrrrrrllllllllld!” It didn’t hurt that L.B. too has red hair (though hers is natural) and is quite strong for her size, but for elementary-school kids the Pippi appeal is pretty universal, especially when it involves shenanigans like our heroine cleaning up a huge mess with sudsy magic. I’ll confess here that Pippi does not technically qualify for this list; her mother is dead (as established, Hollywood loathes mothers) but her father, “the king of the cannibals," is merely lost at sea and eventually washes back up. Still, this is very much an orphan movie in spirit. 

1

Have y’all watched Fosse/Verdon, the six-episode 2019 series that zooms in on the relationship between legendary choreographer Bob Fosse (Sam Rockwell) and actress/dancer Gwen Verdon (Michelle Williams, who won the Emmy and the Golden Globe for the role)? See it! The performances are breathtaking, and it’s rare for television to highlight a marriage/creative partnership so unsparingly. What does this have to do with orphans? Reinking—muse and romantic partner to Fosse—is a central character in the limited series, played beautifully by Margaret Qualley, who was nominated for an Emmy for her performance.

2

Upon publication of this newsletter, my friend and former Elle colleague Rachael Combe alerted me to a major oversight: Combe costarred in the actual Annie movie as one of the orphans! Which is among the most amazing facts about her and also, by extension, me.

3

The Little Princess entered the public domain in 1968, which is one reason second-rate streamers Tubi and Vudu both have this movie available for free streaming.

4

Okay, not to fixate on Annie, but one of Carol Burnett’s most iconic moments in that gorphan film (is this borphan/gorphan thing happening, or not so much?) is about orphan gruel—cold mush in particular. Carol deserved an Oscar for this performance!