This is one of those lists where no one will be satisfied with the choices, so I decided to leave objectivity at the door and throw caution to the winds. The real problem in assembling this list is there are so many great kids to choose from, but is their greatness a result of their character, the actor playing their role, or the movie as a whole? These are all personal choices, but as it turns out, the final list ended up with some of each of those as reasons for being included on the list.
1. Wednesday Addams
Wednesday Addams played by Christina Ricci is definitely a one-of-a kind when it comes to young girls with devious minds. In Addams Family Values is where she really shines, demonstrating that Thanksgiving is not all it’s cracked up to be – and neither is summer camp. She is a combination of a counterculture kid but amazingly bright and foresighted, and there is at least one scene in the movie when she actually smiles. She also has a strong maternal instinct, as she is the defender of the weak and unpopular and will do what it takes to keep the family together. What more could you want from a sister or potential girlfriend?
Believe it or not, The Professional was Natalie Portman’s breakout movie, playing the soon-to-be orphaned teenage girl who uses a professional hitman (Jean Reno as Leon) to protect her from her family’s murderers while teaching her how to be a professional hitwoman. It was her idea to learn the trade as she was seeking revenge on the men who murdered her little brother. (She didn’t have much interest in her other family members, which is a quirk in her personality and the movie.) Though hell bent on revenge, she has not lost her sense of innocence or just being a girl growing up. Mathilda is a very complex character but her motivations are simple and clear. Give credit to Natalie Portman for giving depth to the character, a feat not easily done when you watch the movie.
3. Marty McFly
Michael J. Fox famously portrays the Marty McFly character in the Back to the Future series. McFly is definitely going to be a quirky character as you can tell from the opening scene in the first installment of the franchise. Fox was the right actor to be chosen for the role as he has this boyish innocence but at the same time he always manages to push the edge of the envelope and end up in precarious spots. If this sounds like a typical teenager of the 80’s then you completely understand why Marty McFly will always be one of the iconic movie characters of the decade.
4. John Connor
There are several “versions” of John Connor, but the one in Terminator 2: Judgment Day is perhaps the one that best explains his link in the essential triad between his mother, the Terminator, and the future of the planet. He exhibits some very grew-up-too-fast personality traits as he realizes his place in history fairly quickly yet also knows how important his mother is to the equation – and his responsibility to her. His coming of age in the T2 installment worked well when transitioning into the T3 final movie. He learned to be tough, strong, resourceful, and protective. Yet in a creepy moment in T2 Sara Connor says that the Terminator, a machine, is the only father he has ever known. Makes you wonder what really is going on inside John Connor’s head sometimes.
5. Short Round
This Asian character that finds his debut in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is what every kid dreams of. He is at the center of the action (and attention) does typical kid stuff (like not listening to what Dr. Jones tells him), and recklessly drives a car without any (immediate) repercussions. Through all his misadventures he ends up being the hero on two fronts – saving Dr. Jones and a group of his own. His tendency to get in the way of the romantic pursuits of Indiana Jones is also typical kid stuff, and he only gets away with it because he is so doggone cute. It really is hard to get mad at him, let alone stay mad at him.
6. Dorothy Gale
This is a name that might escape many people because we only know her as Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. That’s right, her last name just happened to be Gale (as in a gale force wind) which is actually quite fitting when you consider that she is blown all over the Land of Oz. But she is really a rube from the country who ends up making friends and trusting people who are complete strangers – except for that wicked ol’ witch. She ends up discovering she has been in a fantasy land but it is the kind of fantasy land that has become one of the most iconic in movie history. In many ways Dorothy is really seeing life through a child’s eyes. There are so many things she doesn’t understand, yet she is not afraid to go on an adventure even though she realizes there are dangers to face before she can go home and return to safety. She knows there is always someone watching out for her (the good fairy) and in the ends finds there is no place like home.
7. Regan MacNeil
If you read the actual story behind Linda Blair who played Regan MacNeil in The Exorcist you will find that she recalls being a naïve child who really didn’t understand everything the movie was about. That makes her character all the more interesting because there are so many sides to her. She is this innocent child who doesn’t know what is happening to her, the demon possessed side which is passive, and the other side which is extremely aggressive and vulgar. When the end comes, she doesn’t remember a thing about what happened to her, yet has an unexplained affection for men of the cloth. Regan is really not a complex character. She is someone who has clearly separate identities with only one belonging to her.
8. Carrie White
Carrie White is the girl everyone wants to make fun of, but ending up the one everyone should have been afraid of from the beginning. Carrie is hardly a typical teenager from a typical home, and she goes through an exploratory stage in dealing with someone of her supernatural abilities. These character traits has interested fans of the original movie enough to produce two reboots, both which have done fairly well. It seems everybody wants to control her in one form or another, from dear old mom to the guy she does to the prom with. By the end of the movie her ability to trust anyone has gone straight to hell, a destination that she apparently wants her detractors see before they are ready. The ending of the original movie gives plenty of room to expand her character for sequels.
9. Kevin McCallister
Kevin McCallister is the kind of character you can think is just a little too cute, and as the Home Alone franchise winds up, an adult’s patience with the character winds down. Maybe it is because actor Macaulay Culkin had difficulty adjusting to his new found fame. It’s like eating sweet and sour pork. But all that said, when you first see him in the first Home Alone movie he is every parent’s nightmare and every kid’s dream. Being left alone at Christmas completely alone? It helps to have Joe Pesci as a bad guy and a creative kid who doesn’t worry about the creative mess he leaves for his parents when they finally catch up with him. But the heartwarming ending is really for the old folks who are happy to see the kid really was missed – and safe. OK, the fact Kevin gets into zero trouble for all his antics has to be a great feeling for the kids watching.
10. Danny Torrance
Would The Shining be anywhere near as good without the presence of Danny Torrance repeating REDRUM, REDRUM, over and over? He actually holds the key to the storyline, which is quite a load for a kid to carry as an actor. His role in the movie is largely in the background, with everyone protecting him apparently unaware he is the missing link in the chain of events. He is a character who lives this contradictory life, as on the one hand he is generally passive while on the other hand he is the vocal warning siren for the danger that lurks in the next room.
11. Shirley Blake
This is one of the most famous kid characters for Baby Boomers – more commonly known as Shirley Temple, the child actor who played the role. In a time when kids with curly hair and a significant amount of talent were just too cute not to watch, she became a movie icon of her time. She danced, sang, and was every parent’s dream child who basically could do no wrong. But there was no doubt this kid was very talented not just when performing on her own, but when doing dance numbers with men who were much taller than her. Some people object to what is perceived as a racist portrayal of blacks in the films, but can we keep that out of this discussion? Turn it around and recognize that this child star had no idea of racism. Like every kid, she was just having a lot of fun.
12. Katniss Everdeen
For kids who happened to be born after 2000, Katniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games trilogy is the female hero that every teen wants to be in one way or another. She is courageous, adventurous, self-sacrificing, a survivor, clever, creative, skilled, and talented. Did I leave anything out? Jennifer Lawrence skyrocketed to fame by playing the character, and has moved on to more adult characters, an inevitability with every child star. There is some debate whether all her heroic action was for the good of others or whether they were self-serving, but that only makes Katniss only more compelling of a character.
The character of Juno has been described as eclectic, which is generally thought to mean strange. But it is defined as someone who has a wide variety of interests or assembles their belief system from a number of different sources. This describes Juno, played by Ellen Page, a free styling girl who ends up pregnant – sort of by accident – and now has to deal with all of the ramifications and consequences. Her taste in music gives her something in common with many people, and her personality is always in conflict with deciding what is the best thing to do. Beyond being eccentric, she is sassy, funny, and still a confused teenager who is pregnant. Her final decision doesn’t really make anyone 100 percent happy, but that is the kind of ending we would expect from someone like Juno.
14. Gogo Yubari
For those who don’t follow Gogo from Kill Bill Vol. 1, this extremely talented and psychotic character was actually being thought of as being cast in her own movie separate from the series. She has the essential qualities of a warrior – confident, highly skilled, loyal, and experienced. That experience is not completely raw, but as it ends up in the movie it becomes her downfall. She toys too much with Black Mamba, and is her undoing. One of her biggest advantages is her youth and childlike appearance, so much so that it can cause an opponent to let their guard down just enough for her to emerge victorious. In Volume 1 she is one of the most interesting characters in the movie despite her relatively short time on screen.
15. Cole Sear
Not the most familiar name on the list, this kid character is someone that actually sneaks up on you in the movie, The Sixth Sense. Bruce Willis is the star who constantly shifts the focus to Cole for much of the movie, but the ending was a shocker for many viewers, all because of Cole. Cole has what amounts to a supernatural curse, not a gift, and he manages to be the focus of virtually the entire movie. He always remains a kid despite this obvious conflict, and never lets on that most of what we see is not real. It is his world, and since no one can see what he sees, he is both safe and in danger at the same time.
16. Billy Kramer
In the movie Kramer vs. Kramer, actor Justin Henry was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. He was just under 9 years old when nominated, making him the youngest person to be nominated in Oscar history. That was 38 years ago in 1980, but his performance still stands as one of the best. Back in 1980 there weren’t a significant number of single parent families, and divorce was still a very sensitive legal matter, especially when considering the issue of child custody. Henry played the role of the kid caught in the middle, Billy Kramer, so well it was hard to tell if was acting or not. The many dimensions of a child caught in the middle of two combative adults, both who say they are acting in his best interests, was acted brilliantly by Henry. The simple obvious truth is, if there is no Billy Kramer, there is no Kramer vs. Kramer.
17. Luke Skywalker
One of the biggest problems in being a regular fan of the Star Wars franchise is that we usually look at Luke Skywalker as an experienced Jedi who someone how was never a child who needed to learn and grow in his own way. The franchise does circle back and fill in some of the blanks, but most people would not consider his early years growing up worthy of consideration for being on this list. Maybe it is because once Princess Leah was discovered to be his sister, a lot of that interest faded away. In any event, Luke goes from a kid who has no idea what happened to his mother and father in the original movie, to agree being taken under the wing of Obe Wan Kanobe, and befriending a stranger who will later turn out to be his most loyal ally. That’s a lot for any kid to deal with and adapt to at an early age. He really doesn’t understand what is going on around him or why (that becomes clearer in the future movies) but he is willing to fight for what he sees as a noble cause.
18. Darth Vader
What is good for The Force is also good for The Dark Side. Fortunately, the writers of future Star Wars movies did not forget that Darth Vader is a people too, and created a story of his early life. The decision he had to make between the Force and the Dark Side was not an easy one for a teenager, as he was willing to die for the love of his life but didn’t understand the cost that decision would bring with it. Like more than a few teenagers, he knew right from wrong but decided to choose wrong not based on logic, but on feelings. In fact, it is amazing how his character grows if you start during his early years because once Darth Vader emerges as a force to be reckoned with, his thinking is very dark and very logical. He can be seen as someone who learns the long term consequences of short term decisions.
19. Daniel LaRusso
Unlike Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, there can be a Daniel LaRusso and no Johnny Lawrence as a foe. Played by Ralph Macchio, LaRusso was another kid on this list who ended up being raised in a single parent family, but he was an only child. The real story of Daniel LaRusso came as the result of his meeting Mr. Myogi, the handyman who would be his karate instructor. But Daniel would have to learn about life the hard way, through doing things without an explanation and being ready to quit at different points along the way. He would be rewarded, but only after completing tasks that defied common sense. It is exciting to see his character grow as he learns the importance of responsibility and discipline, two traits that would serve him well during the competition.
20. Kahu Paikea Apirana
This is not a character that many Americans may be familiar with even though she is definitely feminist in the basic sense of the word and is waging her own personal battle against tradition. In the movie Whale Rider she is the daughter of an ancestral line that does not allow a woman to be the leader of the tribe – to carry the mantle as it were. In order to claim that right she must prove herself to the boys of the tribe and find a way to convince her grandfather that woman can ascend to the top spot just as any man can. To accomplish her goal, she must perform the same ancient tribal rituals as the boys, while finding a way to take it to the next level. In addition, she also must be able to clearly state her case to everyone. She does it by performing a one-of-a-kind act that cements her position as the leader.
The biggest problem with kid characters, especially in the movies versus television, is they grow up. Shirley Blake actually gets a pass because if she were cast today it likely would be on a Nickelodeon cable channel instead of the silver screen. Katniss grew up too fast for us, and yet it seems the boyish looks of Michael J. Fox keep his Marty McFly character going for decades. The “best” kids characters will never arrive at an “all time” list because it is an impossible feat.