Are you a martial movie fan AND a parent? There’s nothing better than sitting down and watching a film the whole family can enjoy, right? Finding cool martial arts movies suitable for pre-teenage kids to watch can be trickier than you might think though!
I am old enough that my first exposure to the films of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan was through VHS rentals when the ratings system was still voluntary for video releases. The era of “video nasties” changed all that, and martial arts films were more often than not rated “18” or “R” due to their adult themes and violence. Growing up, most of the “adult” stuff in many of these films went over my head and the violence could often be as comical as a Tom and Jerry cartoon. However, I often hear parents say “I got in trouble with my spouse the other day after I let our kids watch “Kickboxer”! I was 12 years old when I first saw “Enter the Dragon”, but as a parent myself now, I won’t allow my own children to see it until they are older.
The big problem is that in most people’s lists of their Top 10 Martial Arts Films, there are usually movies with very violent scenes and adult language and behaviour that are unsuitable for youngsters. There is also the paradox of an actor like Jackie Chan, whose Buster Keaton-esque comical antics, that are hugely popular with children, often feature in films that include quite violent or salacious scenes. Films such as the classic “Wheels on Meals” portray actress Lola Forner being ogled in a see-through top and hiding out as a prostitute. “Rumble in the Bronx” has a quite gruesome scene where a gang member is fed into a wood chipper. Even Drunken Master has scenes that use language and violence that youngsters should probably not be watching.
But fear not, parents! There ARE some martial arts films out there that are appropriate and can be enjoyed by the kids, and sometimes even entertain mum and dad too! So without further ado here’s our Top 10 Martial Arts Movies for Kids! …in descending order…
- “Sidekicks” (1992)
- “3 Ninjas” (1992)
- “The Spy Next Door” (2010)
- “Captain America: Civil War” (2016)
- “Shaolin Soccer” (2001)
- “First Strike” (1996)
- “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” (1990)
- “The Karate Kid” (1984)
- “The Forbidden Kingdom” (2008)
It may look a little dated and corny now, but this Chuck Norris oddity is an out-and-out family movie that delivers a heartfelt, positive message about the meaning of martial arts. Our asthmatic hero, played by Jonathan Brandis, lives with his widowed father, and has vivid daydreams in which his hero, Chuck Norris, helps him defeat his bullies! Although it is played for laughs, there is a moral here for younger viewers that anyone can overcome their weaknesses and limitations through the discipline and determination of martial arts training. Chuck Norris is also hilarious as a caricature of himself!
3 Ninjas: Kick Back (1994)
3 Ninjas: Knuckle Up (1995)
3 Ninjas: High Noon at Mega Mountain (1998)
The original “3 Ninjas” movie was a Disney release telling the tale of three suburban Californian brothers whose grandfather teaches to become ninjas! As with “Sidekicks”, this is a light-hearted family film aimed squarely at a pre-teen audience. Its success led to three follow-ups of continually diminishing quality released by Tri Star Pictures. Not even wrestling superstar Hulk Hogan could save it by the fourth instalment! There is some fun to be had in the young kids getting one over on their various grown-up antagonists though. Taken on their merits as movies for a specifically young audience, the first couple of entries in the series will entertain the children on a rainy afternoon!
Bear with me here! Many Jackie Chan fans have been disappointed by the films he has released since the late 1990’s, especially Western productions such as “The Medallion” and “The Tuxedo”. Whilst I can understand their misgivings, “The Spy Next Door” is actually a great Jackie Chan film – if you’re under 10 years old. Jackie plays a mild-mannered, suburban neighbour who is really a retired secret agent. When he is left to look after his neighbour’s children, Jackie uses his usual ingenuity and some of his “spy” skills and gadgets to try to keep things under control. Throw in Magnús Scheving, whom younger kids will know as Sportacus from the popular Lazytown television show, as a crazy Russian terrorist, and hilarity ensues. This movie wasn’t made for Jackie Chan fans, it was aimed very directly at kids. There are still some classic Jackie Chan moments such as a fight involving a ladder, and some very funny comic moments, but all at a level that children under 10 will laugh at. I’ve yet to meet a young kid who hasn’t enjoyed this film, even if the grown ups didn’t!
A Marvel movie in a martial arts Top 10? Take a close look at the action! From the opening sequence with Captain America, Scarlet Witch, Falcon and Black Widow taking on Crossbones and his team of henchman, through to the epic Airport Battle featuring Iron Man, Spider-man, Ant Man, Black Panther, Hawkeye, Vision, War Machine and The Winter Soldier, each action scene in the film boasts meticulously choreographed martial arts fights. John Wick: Chapter 2’s Heidi Moneymaker doubles for actress Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow, making her MMA-style takedowns flashy yet effective. The introduction of Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther brings tricks and high kicks that make him one of the most enjoyable new characters to watch in the fight scenes. It all adds up to a Hollywood blockbuster that over 10’s can enjoy, with the addition of seeing some of the skills that they practice in their kung fu, karate or taekwondo classes, performed by some of their favourite comic book heroes!
Featuring kung fu, football, slapstick comedy and cartoon-like special effects all wrapped up in an underdog story, “Shaolin Soccer” has universal appeal! Starring, written and directed by Stephen Chow, this was a smash-hit with audiences around the world and one of the highest-grossing Hong Kong films of all time. Whilst the kids laugh at the comic antics of the hapless heroes, the grown ups can also enjoy all the subtle references to many kung fu movie tropes and the Bruce Lee-alike goalkeeper!
Jackie Chan’s “First Strike” was actually the fourth entry in his Police Story series of movies. Whilst the other entries are filled with much harder-hitting cops and gangsters violence, this one is actually a fun spy-movie spoof. With its international locations and mostly English-language dialogue, it’s also one of Jackie Chan’s most accessible Hong Kong movies for a Western audience. It features numerous ingenious action sequences including an exciting James Bond-like snow scene, an hilarious chase around a hotel room, an innovative fight involving scaffolding and a step ladder, stunts on stilts and an inventive underwater fight. It all rips along at a terrific pace and is peppered with visual comedy from the cheeky and charming superstar that is Jackie Chan! Definitely one for the whole family to enjoy!
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Secret of the Ooze (1991)
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III: Turtles in Time (1993)
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows (2016)
Based on the comic book characters of the same name created by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were already a worldwide hit as a cartoon series and set of best-selling toys. In 1989, the legendary Hong Kong studio Golden Harvest, famous for its many kung fu films including those of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, co-produced the first live-action feature of the popular cartoon characters.
The turtles Donatello, Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael were played by martial artists in specially made suits and voiced by regular actors. Muppets creator Jim Henson helped design and build the animatronic heads that brought the four turtles and their Master, a rat called ‘Splinter’, to life. Golden Harvest martial arts co-ordinators helped design the fight sequences, which were astonishingly good at the time for a film of this nature, especially given the restrictions of the costumes.
The film was a huge box office smash and at the time, the highest-grossing independent movie of all time. It spawned two fun sequels that did less well, but not enough to kill the franchise. The children’s television channel Nickelodeon kept the story of the turtles alive with updated animated serials, and a fully CGI-animated feature-length film called TMNT. It featured the vocal talents of stars such as Nolan North, Chris Evans, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Mako, Laurence Fishburne Kevin Smith, Patrick Stewart and Zhang Ziyi.
The animators took their inspiration from Hong Kong movies for many of the fight scenes. In 2014, Michael Bay, producer of the blockbuster Transformers movies, put a new turtles movie into production. Using a mix of motion-capture suits worn by martial arts experts from 87Eleven Action Design, and photo-realistic CGI, the rebooted film was a huge success at the box office and with modern, young audiences. A sequel was released in 2016, although it was less successful at the box office. Each of the feature length Turtles films are great fun, with plenty of action and humour for everyone to enjoy. Younger kids will probably enjoy the original movies, with slightly older children most likely preferring the Transformers style special effects and large-scale action of the most recent two films.
The Karate Kid II (1986)
The Karate Kid III (1989)
The Next Karate Kid (1994)
The Karate Kid (2010)
The original “The Karate Kid” is possibly the ultimate movie tale of a kid facing and overcoming his bullies. (Check out this article on building strong foundations.) It became a classic eighties film with many memorable and quotable sequences. Stand in a Crane Stance or say to someone of a certain generation “Wax on, wax off”! and they will instantly know what you are referring to. As with many film series’, its success led to a couple of inferior but still mildly entertaining sequels. In 1994 an attempt was made to re-launch the franchise with a female lead played by a young Hilary Swank, who trained with martial arts legend Pat E. Johnson for the film. In 2010, Jackie Chan took on the role of the martial arts master who helps to train the victim of bullying, played by Jaden Smith, the son of Hollywood superstar Will Smith. The updated version should really have been called “The Kung Fu Kid” with its Beijing setting and Chinese martial arts featuring throughout. Jaden Smith proved to be adept at learning all the physical skills required and is very impressive when performing the fight sequences, which are superior to all the previous entries in the franchise.
Something many martial arts fans had been hoping would happen for a very long time arrived bizarrely in this Chinese/American co-production – Jackie Chan fighting Jet Li! “The Forbidden Kingdom” tells the tale of an American teenager who is obsessed with martial arts movies. He ends up being magically whisked back to ancient China, where he encounters a Drunken Beggar, played by Jackie Chan, and a mysterious monk, played by Jet Li. They end up on a quest to prevent the evil Jade Warlord, played by Collin Chou, from getting his hands on a magical golden staff.
Even though this film probably came along ten years too late in their careers, there is a lot of fun to be had in seeing two of the world’s greatest martial arts movie stars playing alongside each other. Action choreographer Yuen Woo-ping had worked extensively with both actors over the years and plays to each of their strengths. This is a fantasy film and as such features lots of wire work, but even so, it is a joy to see Jackie Chan’s Drunken Fist played out against Jet Li’s Warrior Monk. This film is a fun way to introduce the kids to a style of action that grown-up martial arts movie fans will already be very familiar with!
…and in at #1 is…
The key to a good family film is that it has to hold the attention of the younger viewers without boring the parents to tears. In that sense, the Kung Fu Panda films are absolute masterpieces! The jokes range from the very juvenile to the subtle ones that will go way over the kid’s heads, but bring a chuckle from the adults. The stories are entertaining and the animated world is vividly brought to life, often referencing real Chinese architecture and landscapes. The impressive voice cast includes stars such as Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, Lucy Liu, Jackie Chan, Seth Rogen, David Cross, and James Hong as our heroes. The three instalments also possess equally impressive guest stars in Ian McShane, Gary Oldman, Michelle Yeoh, Jean-Claude Van Damme, JK Simmons and Bryan Cranston!
Although it is a fully animated movie, martial arts fans will recognise many authentic kung fu techniques, especially in the animal styles and weapons fighting. There is also lots of fun to be had for fans of seventies kung fu movies, spotting nods to films such as “Shaolin Wooden Men” and “The 36th Chamber of Shaolin”. The animation is beautiful to look at, the score is appropriately epic, and the stories have plenty of heart, humour and action! It’s rare to find a trilogy of films that are all equally entertaining, but the Kung Fu Panda films pull it off, even giving you ‘paws for thought’!
We hope our list helps you find something that you and the children can enjoy! There are of course other films such as the slapstick action comedies “Project A” and “Chinese Zodiac” starring Jackie Chan, or Sammo Hung’s tale of friendship through martial arts, “Wushu”. Jet Li’s “Shaolin Temple 2: Kids from Shaolin” focuses much of the action on the talents of its young wushu stars.
There are also plenty of animated films in the Avatar: The Last Airbender series, and if your kids don’t mind subtitled movies, Donnie Yen’s “The Monkey King” was a Chinese box office smash. Let us know which films your kung fu kids enjoy in the comments below, join in the conversation on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. (Feel free to check out our other Top 10’s!)