Seven Great Thanksgiving Movies (That Aren’t Specifically About Thanksgiving)

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Many of us this Thanksgiving will be spending time with family and friends, and with that often comes a time where you need to pop in a movie. So, I’ve curated a list of Thanksgiving movies that could do the trick!

But there’s a catch: none of these movies are about Thanksgiving, take place at Thanksgiving, or are in any way related to the holiday. Instead, I think they embody the themes of Thanksgiving, including thankfulness, family, rest in the midst of busyness, cross-cultural communication and restoration. These seven films are listed in no particular order. 

(P.S: as always, before gathering the family around any of these movies, be sure to check the rating and content of these films to determine if they are appropriate for your audience) 

1. Horton Hears a Who! (2008)

This animated adaptation of Dr. Seuss’s beloved work is driven by the combined super-sonic energy of Jim Carey as the voice of Horton and Steve Carell as the mayor of Who-ville, along with clever visual gags and storytelling. The film is all about Horton caring and advocating for the dignity and protection of the Whos, and a sweet subplot about the Mayor coming to understand his son for who he is- and not who he wants him to be- makes the film a lesson in parental love, community, and tolerance, with the ever-important message that a person’s a person, no matter how small. 

2. The Space Between Us (2017)

This earnest teen romance is about Gardner (Asa Butterfield), the son of an astronaut, who is born on Mars and comes down to earth to meet his long-time penpal Tulsa (Britt Robertson). Tulsa and Gardner go on the run from NASA, pursued by Dr. Shepherd (a delightfully hammy Gary Oldman). Along the way, Gardner experiences life on Earth and shows a jaded Tulsa the beauty around her. 

On Earth, Gardner asks everyone he meets, “What is your favorite thing about Earth?” He helps people be grateful and realize how being alive is a gift unto itself. It’s an expression and exercise in thankfulness. Another driving storyline is Gardner trying to find his father, with the help of Tulsa, who is in the foster system herself and has never had a real family of her own. The revelation of Gardner’s father’s identity is, well, predictable, but like all of this movie, it’s so charming and sincere that it might make you hug your family members a little tighter this Thanksgiving.

3. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (2009)

Another animated film based on a beloved children’s book, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatball tells the story of Flint Lockwood (Bill Hader) an oddball inventor/scientist who builds the machine that turns water into food, making food rain over the town. 

Most obviously, the food on display here is as scrumptious as your Thanksgiving spread, (although the film does take a dark turn into a warning against overconsumption), but there are other connections to Thanksgiving beyond the turkey. This film also focuses on the relationship between a father and son, and the importance of looking beyond each other’s eccentricities. It also shows the importance of taking responsibility for your actions and getting help from others, and that everyone has something to offer. 

4. Christopher Robin (2018)

Ewan McGregor stars as a grown-up Christopher Robin, now a jaded, workaholic father who finds himself playing again with his childhood friends like Winnie the Pooh, Tigger, and Piglet. The “dad you work too hard” narrative isn’t a new one by any means, but Christopher Robin is one of the best of the genre. Bringing Winnie the Pooh and company to life could easily veer into uncanny-valley territory, but Christopher Robin doesn’t, through marvelous special effects and some very game actors. Here are lessons about the importance of resting, not putting your identity in your work, and the value of childlike wonder. 

5. Little Miss Sunshine* (2006)

No movie quite puts the fun in dysfunction like Little Miss Sunshine! The family dramedy is a classic road trip film that pulls great performances out of its ensemble cast, including Steve Carrell, Abigail Breslin, and Paul Dano. Whether you identify with the Hoover clan or not, you can probably relate to the ups and downs of being with family, and the ultimate joy of strong family bonds. 

6. Coco** (2017)

Pixar’s film about a young boy traveling through the Land of the Dead during Dia de los Muertos is a gorgeous animated treat. While Dia de los Muertos isn’t the Mexican version of Halloween or Thanksgiving, it does touch on some of the same ideas as these holidays do. 

I said in my review of Coco that the film “acknowledges death, believes that there is an afterlife, teaches children that death isn’t something to be afraid of, and celebrates family.” Thanksgiving is a time often spent with family, and as such, it will be, for many of us, the first time without a certain family member, those who have passed away. Or maybe we are spending it alone, or are spending it with unsafe/toxic family members. Coco explores all of these dynamics and can be a comfort as you navigate this holiday and the rest of the holiday season. 

7. The Unknown Girl (2017)

This is one of my all-time favorite movies so I kinda just wanted to put it on the list so that more people will be aware of it, but it really does have Thanksgiving themes! After she refuses to open the door to a woman one night, Dr. Jenny Davins (a mesmerizing Adèle Haenel) learns the woman was murdered soon after. Dr. Davins, feeling guilty over not helping the woman, goes on a quest to learn the woman’s name and what happened to her, becoming unrelenting in the face of those who want to keep her silent. 

The movie is all about the question of our responsibility to strangers. How much of the suffering of others do we really need to care about? When tragedy hits a community, what should be the community’s response? How much should we put ourselves on the line to cross cultural boundaries and thresholds? What does it mean, practically, to believe in the sanctity of life and give someone dignity posthumously? I believe Thanksgiving is a time to survey our communities and their culture, and ask these kinds of questions. 

*Thanks to Scott Morris for the suggestion!
**Thanks to Kaitlin Glasgow for the suggestion!

One Day I Hope To Pay For This Movie With a $20 Bill With Her Face On It: Harriet

Harriet is the first film about the famous underground railroad conductor, Harriet Tubman. Directed by Kasi Lemmons, Harriet will finally break ground on an overdue story. While this would usually give the film an edge, it has been plagued with various criticisms since its announcement, which has hampered public excitement. I think several of the critiques are understandable and worth considering, and I would recommend reading responses by black critics for more insight. However, for this review, there wasn’t any criticism that I agreed with that pertains to the film directly. 

Harriet is, in many ways, a by-the-numbers biopic. Sometimes Oscar-bait speeches and historical reverence threaten to bring it down. However, those moments never bring down the film too much. There are a couple of reasons why I think Harriet is able to rise above being a subpar biopic into a great film.

  1. There simply aren’t a lot of biopics of black women.
  2. There is a strong emphasis on family, and it’s genuinely touching to see Harriet’s family play such a key role here. It helps humanize her and balance out the more superhero-esque feel the movie tries to go for. 
  3. Harriet’s Christian faith is leaned into. There are moments of this film that remind me of Luc Besson’s The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc. Harriet is not nearly as stylized or flat-out weird as that film (although explicit connects between Harriet and Joan of Arc are made) but it does take Harriet’s religion seriously. One of the reasons I love The Messenger is because when I saw it, I realized it was the first time I had seen a movie focus on, and take seriously, a woman’s religious faith. 
  4. There are several stylistic choices (including the depictions of her visions) that elevate the film and make it feel worthy of the big screen. 
  5. The whole cast is wonderful. Lesley Odom Jr. and Janelle Monae are excellent and charismatic, and director Kasi Lemmon’s son Henry Hunter Hall, in particular, is a surprise. He has a cool “look” and is a scene-stealer. Joe Alwyn is fine as the (mostly fictitious) son of Harriet’s owner. In all honesty, though, I spent most of his screen time thinking about how strange it is that he’s dating Taylor Swift, and that his southern accent is pretty good for a Brit
  6. And speaking of Brits, Cynthia Erivo is our titular hero, and she’s incredible. There are two aspects to her performance that stuck out in particular. First is Erivo’s acting in the scenes where Harriet arrives in Philadelphia and has to learn how to be free. I had never considered this- acting free after a lifetime of enslavement- as a difficulty freed African Americans had to face, but Erivo is able to wordlessly communicate Harriet navigating through this new world through observation and imitation of those around her. And second, Erivo conveys a deep inner life of Harriet that we aren’t privy to. I always felt like Harriet, no matter how quiet she was being, had an incredibly complex mind and a thousand thoughts going at any given moment. 

Harriet is American History, biopic, slavery, and feminist storytelling 101. It’s a primer that will hopefully be an access point for many people. I don’t mean this to be derogatory in the least; this means I want another movie about Harriet Tubman, and other movies about all sorts of black women and other heroes (or villains) of history. 

After all, Harriet Tubman’s last words were, “I go to prepare a place for you.” It seems in that spirit that Harriet will hopefully help prepare a place for even more stories like it, stories that can go even further, higher, and deeper.