Cinema has given audiences all kinds of interesting father-son relationships. Some touching, some funny, some poignant. But one quality that they share is that they’re usually quite compelling and entertaining.
A well-constructed and well-written father-son relationship in a film can be more than just entertaining, though. It can also shed a light on the value of fatherhood and study intriguing themes of love and masculinity, like how the relationship between Guido and Giosué from Life is Beautiful explores the protection of childhood innocence, or the one between David and Nic in Beautiful Boy examines the limits of a father’s love.
“Remember Who You Are” — Mufasa and Simba from The Lion King (1994)
Loosely inspired by William Shakespeare‘s Hamlet, Disney’s 1994 musical The Lion King sees Simba (voiced by Matthew Broderick), the young heir to the throne, deceived by the uncle who thirsts to become king himself.
For a large portion of the film, we see the sweet relationship Simba has with his father Mufasa (voiced by James Earl Jones). Protective but tender, Mufasa deeply cares for his son and tries to teach him how to be as strong a king as him. His death by a stampede, which jumpstarts the movie’s main plot, is often regarded as one of the saddest moments in all of animation.
Protected By Imagination — Guido and Giosué from Life is Beautiful (1997)
Life is Beautiful is a devastating film cloaked under the guise of innocence and high-spiritedness. During the Holocaust, Jewish father Guido (Roberto Benigni) is sent to a concentration camp with his son Giosué (Giorgio Cantarini), and has to use humor and imagination to protect his child, making him think that it’s all an elaborate game.
The large majority of the movie revolves around Guido’s relationship with his son. It’s incredibly bittersweet to see him make Giosué laugh and smile while the horrors of a concentration camp occur off-screen, and though Guido’s eventual demise feels inevitable, that doesn’t make it any less of a tearjerker.
When Love Just Isn’t Enough — David and Nic from Beautiful Boy (2018)
This heartbreaking biopic tells the story of David Sheff (played by Steve Carell in what may just be his best dramatic performance), whose teenage son Nic (Timothée Chalamet) begins a journey of meth addiction despite his best efforts to help him.
Throughout the movie, we get flashes of Nic’s loving upbringing, which makes his state in the present even more painful and confusing. Raw and realistic, the film pulls no punches in showing how the family deals with Nic’s horrifying addiction.
Estranged Adventurers Together Again — Henry and Indiana Jones from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
At the heart of the threequel to Raiders of the Lost Ark lies the relationship between Indy (Harrison Ford) and his father Henry (Sean Connery). They argue and reminisce about the past, and they slowly rekindle their bond across their globetrotting adventure to retrieve the Holy Grail.
This father-son relationship is so fun that it’s one of the main reasons some consider Last Crusade the best film in the franchise. It provides Indy with some fascinating backstory and complexity, and Henry becomes an equally delightful character to watch through Connery’s magnetic performance and the sharply written screenplay.
“Make Me Look Good, Honey Boy” — James and Otis from Honey Boy (2019)
Shia LaBeouf wrote the screenplay for this semi-autobiographical drama as part of a rehabilitation program. It’s the story of Otis (played by Noah Jupe as a child and Lucas Hedges as a young man), who represents LaBeouf, and his experiences with his abusive and manipulative father, played beautifully by LaBeouf himself.
The codependent relationship between James and Otis is rough and painful to watch, but what makes it even more fascinating is that LaBeouf is the one playing his own father with such empathy that it’s as if he’s telling him “I forgive you”.
Somewhere Beyond the Sea — Marlin and Nemo from Finding Nemo (2003)
After losing his wife and hundreds of his unborn children to a barracuda attack, clown fish Marlin (Albert Brooks) raises his son Nemo (Alexander Gould) full of fear of the outside world. When Nemo is kidnapped by a diver, Marlin must race across the ocean with a forgetful fish named Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) to save his only son.
Few films display the love of a father quite like Finding Nemo, where Marlin faces threats of all kinds and sizes to get to his son. On his way there, both he and Nemo grow and learn; so, when they are finally reunited, their relationship is all the better.
In the Face of Ruin — Antonio and Bruno from Bicycle Thieves (1948)
This Italian neorealist masterpiece directed by the legendary Vittorio De Sica follows the unemployed Antonio (Lamberto Maggiorani), who in the miserable economy of post-WWII Italy finds a job for which he requires a bicycle. But when that bicycle is stolen, he must walk the streets of Rome with his son Bruno (Enzo Staiola) in search of it.
The bond between Antonio and Bruno is sweet and fully believable, but this is not a sweet film. It’s a raw and bleak depiction of the conditions of Italy at the time, and the ending (as well as what it means for this father-son relationship) is utterly tragic.
The Crimes of the Father — Vito and Michael from The Godfather (1972)
The Godfather requires no introduction. What’s considered by some to be the single greatest film ever made follows the Corleone crime family and what happens to it after Vito (Marlon Brando), the patriarch, barely survives an attempt on his life, and his youngest son Michael (Al Pacino) has to step in to take care of the would-be killers.
Though The Godfather is the quintessential crime film, what’s at its core is the family drama of the Corleones; most particularly, of Michael’s refusal to turn into his father, and his tragic transformation into precisely the man he wished not to be.
Father By Accident — The Tramp and the Child from The Kid (1921)
It’s but a testament to the power of Charles Chaplin‘s storytelling that one of the most tender and moving father-son relationships in cinema comes from a silent film that’s over a hundred years old, where a tramp raises a baby after he’s abandoned by his mother.
The story of The Kid is one full of emotion fueled by the beautiful relationship between the Tramp (Chaplin) and his surrogate son (Jackie Coogan). No words are required to make this bond sweet, funny, and absolutely delightful.
Love and Redemption — Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker from the Star Wars franchise
The prequel trilogy of Star Wars follows the rise in power of Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd and Hayden Christensen) and his eventual fall to the Dark Side, becoming Darth Vader. In the original trilogy, his son Luke (Mark Hamill) is the one that has to face him and the evil Emperor (Ian McDiarmid) to bring the tyrannical Empire to an end.
This is perhaps the most iconic father-son relationship in all of cinema, one enriched by every film in the prequels and the original trilogy. It’s tragic, it’s compelling, and it’s eventually incredibly moving and emotional when Luke manages to bring his father back into the Light Side. When it comes to father-son relationships in movies, it’s hard to find one more entertaining than this.
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