Are you into car culture? Ambivalent? Uninterested? These auto-related picks are worth gassing up for regardless.
The Gnome-Mobile (1967; rent from $3.99): TBP spends much of our life focus-grouping friends and strangers about what movies their families have seen and/or enjoyed. There’s one TBP-favored title that almost none of our targets have ever even heard of. That movie is The Gnome-Mobile. For years, TGM wasn’t available for streaming at all; our family just rented it early and often from NetflixDVD. (We’re realistic enough not to have suggested you also do this.) But now you can rent it from Apple, YouTube, et al., and your clan is in for a treat. Weird, sweet, funny, and rivaling only The Ugly Dachshund in its midcentury-California stylishness, the movie stars little Karen Dotrice and Matthew Garber, a duo you’ll recognize from Mary Poppins and The Three Lives of Thomasina (meow), plus three-time Oscar winner Walter Brennan as their shouty businessman Grandfather. The mobile in question is a 1930 Rolls-Royce Phantom II, into which Grandfather and the kids pile for a road trip to Seattle, where he plans to sell 50,000 acres of timberland he owns. But all is not what it seems! Without spoiling it, I’ll assure you that it doesn’t have “gnome” in the title for nothing.
The Love Bug (1968; Disney+): Our kids hated the sound of this one—an old movie about loving a sentient car? But once parked in front of it, they lapped it up. If your little people are like ours, they’ll want to proceed to the multiple sequels, all of which are now conveniently streaming over at Disney+.
Viva Las Vegas (1964; rent from $3.99): Elvis’s second-best family movie (to Blue Hawaii) and Ann-Margret’s second-best family movie (to TBP obsession Bye Bye Birdie) showcases topnotch song-and-dance numbers, serious chemistry between its leads, and vintage wheels. Something for everyone! The plot centers on Vegas’s first-annual Grand Prix Race, but Lucky (Elvis) must raise money to replace his race car’s engine in order to compete. The flame-haired Rusty (Ann-Margret) plays a hot swimming instructor. There’s a scene on the track in which a closeup of Rusty’s hotpants fills almost the entire screen, during which upon his first viewing our then eight-year-old H.B. exclaimed, “Whoa! Look at that–” We parents quickly shot each other looks of fear and devastation; was he really already ogling women’s bottoms? “–car!!” he finished. There was some kind of race car in the background, and it was very flashy indeed.
Grease (1978; rent from $2.99): This classic loomed large in my childhood. The hand jive! The skintight pants! The gymnastically inclined hot dog! The pregnancy scare! This is what high school would be like!? Upon a recent rewatch I was surprised how small—even quaint—the whole thing felt. I was also surprised that “Greased Lightning,” set at the body shop, is the best musical number of the lot. The drag race toward the end is still my least favorite part, but you won’t be shocked to hear that it was a highlight for our male child.
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968; Pluto, Tubi): The Kenneth Branagh-directed Oscar contender Belfast (recommend!) prominently features this vintage Dick Van Dyke-led flying car movie, which inspired us to watch it again ourselves. It’s darling but also long—two and a half hours—and not worth making tweens and teens sit through if they are prone to getting antsy. Screen Chitty for the little ones; whether or not you actually join them for a magical afternoon is up to you.
Ford v Ferrari (2019; rent from $3.99): This movie was pushed during its Oscar season as a car movie that even people who don’t like car movies would enjoy. I just…disagree? I mean, it’s always fun to see Christian Bale and Matt Damon (highly recommend the underrated The Last Duel starring Damon in a mullet and Ben Affleck in a frosted goatee for the adults!), but for the engine-agnostic among us it, well, drags. Our then-13-year-old H.B. loved it as did his father, while nine-year-old L.B. spent the second half coloring while kinda watching. Point being: If you like race cars, go for it!
American Graffiti (1973; rent from $3.99): There’s a period in the lives of some children where they will take in movies that even adults might pin as kind of boring. Lucky for us, our L.B. enjoyed a particularly lengthy phase like this, where she would sit rapt even in front of thinly plotted black-and-white films. American Graffiti, which is a car movie inasmuch as it’s about teens killing time in vintage rides and also involves an enigmatic babe in a Thunderbird, wasn’t built as kiddie fare—it’s a high-school hang-out movie more along the lines of Dazed and Confused but without all the drugs and stuff. But it’s very fun to watch as adults—George Lucas had a delightful cast to work with in his directorial debut—and if your kids are in that spongy sweet spot like L.B. was from seven until nine, it can count as family time, too.
Ask TBP: Can I show my kids Baby Driver?
TBP contributor James Burnett and I went to see this Ansel Elgort action-heist flick in the theater, and the whole time we kept thinking and/or saying (quietly) that we wished we could show it to H.B., then 11. The music was great, the assembly of the gang was a blast, and Baby himself was a charisma machine. But alas, this one is way too violent for sanctioned viewing, even now that he’s 15. If you’ve got a kid who craves action, the Ocean movies hit most of the same notes without the appetite for destruction.
Can confirm: Gnome-Mobile is a feast for the eyes. Worth the rental!