“I love this town.”
Those are the last words before the final credits in Ghostbusters, shouted by a marshmallow-covered Winston Zeddemore, the only non “doctor” among the ghost-fighters. (Think of it as a bowdlerized spin of the famous line J.J. Hunsecker spouts in The Sweet Smell of Success: “I love this dirty town.”) And think of this as a selective look at some family-friendly movies set in New York City—and a companion of sorts to our previous look at kid lit.
Many films have indelible moments that become inexorably associated with a place: say, the piano-playing scene at FAO Schwarz in Big or, a few decades earlier, Kris Kringle at Macy's and the workers sorting Santa's mail at the General Post Office in Miracle on 34th Street. The locations and films we touch on here might offer some help in creating an itinerary for you and your young ones to explore. Or you can just picture the moments in your mind and turn your imagination loose—that's what movies are for anyway. Read our slideshow for details.
Has it been a few decades since you've seen Ghostbusters? Maybe the recent passing of Harold Ramis has brought it back into your consciousness. But this comedy gem never should have left it in the first place. The opening scenes strike an unmistakably New York City tone: a ghost pushes books from shelves and gobbles up papers in the stacks below the New York Public Library; and then, future ghostbuster Dr. Peter Venkman (Bill Murray) surveys some students at Columbia University (in the fictional Weaver Hall Psychology Department; interestingly, there is a Weaver Hall at NYU that holds mathematical and computer sciences—nothing paranormal there). The most famous location in the flick is no doubt the firehouse the ghostbusters commandeer as their office, aka Hook and Ladder #8, down in Tribeca. Spotting the sidewalk mural out front (with a rather liberal version of the familiar Ghostbusters logo) will help you know you've reached it. Another crucial scene takes place in front of the fountain at Lincoln Center. The water pyrotechnics are a bit different these days, thanks to a renovation a few years back, but the plaza remains a great place for a meeting or picnic—or to woo a cellist from the Philharmonic. Consider other pit stops: Tavern on the Green, the Manhattan Bridge, Umberto's Clam House, Prometheus at Rockefeller Center and, of course, City Hall, where the mayor exonerates the team and signs on to have them eradicate Gozer the Gozerian once and for all.
Fun fact: Sigourney Weaver's apartment building in the movie (apparently, they paid cellists well!) is the same as that of the family in Elf—55 Central Park West.
Sample scene: Ghost reading
Mr. Popper's Penguins (2011)
While a decent portion of the movie takes place in Mr. Popper’s penthouse apartment turned arctic wonderland, this flick largely serves as a love letter to Tavern on the Green. Only recently reopened, Tavern, per the movie, is the kind of place a boy makes lasting memories with his dad, and that should only be in the hands of owners who fully respect it, like said boy once he’s grown up. A near-climactic scene is meant to take place on the other side of the park, at the Central Park Zoo (the actual shooting was over at the Staten Island Zoo, called instead the “New York Zoo”); the nearby Wollman Rink also figures prominently. Other attractions making cameos: the High Line, the Met and Jean Georges (well, Popper makes a reservation there that he doesn't actually keep); the Meatpacking District (made to look like the old Fulton Fish Market that used to be down by the South Street Seaport and is now up in the Bronx); the Flatiron (supposed location of Popper’s office); and the Empire State Building, of which Popper’s office has a view. One key scene takes place in the Guggenheim, allowing the penguins to belly-flop and fly their way into the atrium. (Don't try that particular trick, though it would be quite the original way to do a quick view of the art.) How'd they get all the shots? Conveniently, Mr. Popper’s Penguins was mostly filmed at the Brooklyn Navy Yard's Steiner Studios.
Fun fact: The grade of the ramp slope in the Guggenheim is 3 degrees. The average gentoo penguin weighs 12 pounds. The penguins spend approximately 5 seconds surfing a spilled ice-bucket before going airborne. Um, perhaps the math and physics experts out there can calculate how fast the birds would be moving as they takeoff?
Sample scene: See them slide
Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (1992)
You might feel lost in New York yourself if you try finding, say, Duncan's Toy Chest, the shop that serves as one of the focal points of Home Alone 2. Not only does the store not exist, the scenes for it were reportedly shot in Chicago. Nevertheless, this sequel to the megahit Home Alone features plenty of NYC settings as it follows almost exactly the blueprint of the original. Our young hero, Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin) enters the City in one of the best possible manners—rumbling across the Queensboro Bridge—before setting off on a peripatetic ramble past Radio City Music Hall and the Empire Diner on down to Chinatown, where he picks up some fireworks at now-defunct Quong Yuen Shing & Co. (later known as 32 Mott Street General Store and now Good Fortune Gifts). Much of the movie centers around the Plaza Hotel, one the City's more hallowed accommodations. It's where our young hero is able to snag a large suite. (At Christmastime? Guess there were more rooms for the public available 20 years ago.) There he flummoxes the staff, who are all out to get him. Feel free to enter the hotel’s luxe lobby, which is featured in the film's antics, and the hotel's Palm Court and Rose Club are also worth exploration—especially for taking high tea and seeing live jazz, respectively. Central Park, where he meets and befriends the Bird Lady, also gets a lot of play, with shots of Bow Bridge and Wollman Rink. Kevin takes in some music at Carnegie Hall, or at least it's the exterior of Carnegie Hall; only by movie magic is he able to watch for free through a roof window. And if it’s holiday time, you'll want to wind up in a similarly teary moment at the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, just like Kevin and his mom do.
Fun fact: Quong Yen Shing & Co., which closed shop in 2003, was originally established back in 1891.
Sample scene: A trickster in the Plaza Hotel
Where to begin with this modern Christmas classic? Let's put aside for now how easy it seems to find people in Central Park and Midtown (and how quickly you can move around the City by foot) and instead celebrate the NYC landmarks shown. How does Buddy the Elf enter the City? “And then, I walked through the Lincoln Tunnel” (which, in the real world, is not allowed). How does he try to leave at one point later on? Walking across the Queensboro Bridge (much better, and actually permitted!). His dad's office, Greenway Press, is in the Empire State Building; there have been some children’s publishers there over the years, though most would probably find the rents a bit much these days. Buddy gets kicked out and finds work in Santa Land at Gimbels—no longer extant, but that doesn't mean you can’t go department-store hunting or, when the time's right, view similar holiday windows and displays. Buddy and Jovie's date hits a high note in front the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center, which they admire right before skating around the ice rink below. And Buddy saves Christmas right near the Bethesda Fountain, in Central Park. No mention of the movie can omit the wonder Buddy feels when first walking around NYC. If you're a newcomer to the City, you might find the same delight waving to folks in front of the Met Life Building or getting your shoes shined at Grand Central Terminal. And we won't blame you for trying to seek out the “world's best cup of coffee”; in those neighboring Midtown blocks, some options might include the old-school Andrews Coffee Shop or newer entrants like Culture Espresso and Lucid Café. Just don't expect to find the java joint with the claim-making sign.
Fun fact: The Gimbels flagship, which closed in 1986, was located in the current Manhattan Mall building. The company also operated buildings nearby and built sky bridges (still visible) across both 32nd and 33rd Streets, connecting the properties it controlled.
Sample scene: Buddy's intro to New York City
Musical Quests: The Wiz (1978) and The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984)
The City is famous as a spot for actors, musicians and dancers to try to make it, so it should be no surprise that similar quests take place in film—though it might be noted that musicals take more liberties with NYC (its look and geography) than perhaps any genre this side of superhero films. The Wiz, a movie adaptation of the Broadway musical that modernized and funk-ified the 1939 classic that was based on the L. Frank Baum book (you're keeping up, right?), starts off in Harlem, with Aunt Em castigating Dorothy (Diana Ross) for never having been south of 125th Street. An accident in a snowstorm sets her on that path; highlights along the way include an encounter with the Lion at—where else—the elegant lion statues of the New York Public Library; and a crossing of the Brooklyn Bridge into the Land of Oz. In real life you will find some magic whichever direction you traverse the bridge: the skyline of lower Manhattan on one side or the dignified grandeur of Brooklyn Heights on on the other.
The Muppets Take Manhattan sees Jim Henson's creatures desperately trying to get their show, Manhattan Melodies, made for Broadway. We'd suggest slightly more comfortable digs than the lockers at the Port Authority—and the exterior of the fictional Pete's Luncheonette, where Kermit and friends get waiting jobs (a familiar routine for aspiring Broadway stars), is now the site of a McDonald's. (This author used to eat regularly at the old diner, located at 208 Varick St., back in the early 1990s). Consider instead taking lunch, as Kermit does, at Theatre District institution Sardi's. Check out the caricatures on the wall, dine on a chicken club and think how awkward you might feel if you spotted frog’s legs on the menu.
Fun fact: The caricature of Kermit the Frog made for The Muppets Take Manhattan remains on display in Sardi's, near the restrooms.
Sample scene: Customer service?
Night at the Museum (2006)
If Mr. Popper’s Penguins is a love letter to Tavern on the Green, Night at the Museum is a full-on magnum opus devoted to the American Museum of Natural History, doing for that museum what From the Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (1973) did for the Met. All other places shown—notably parts of Central Park, like Wollman Rink—seem beside the point. But like Larry the Night Watchman, you can see the museum come to life, if not in an actual animated sense. Start by making friends with Teddy Roosevelt, or “TR,” the night watchman's helpful aide in the movie. There's one sculpture of the former president outside and one seated figure in the atrium's Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Hall. Next, take care around the Akeley Hall of African Mammals. (You know, because if you don't lock up the lions, they will eat you.) And keep your hands on your keys in the event any monkeys might be lurking. Make sure to visit the two dinosaur halls—though the crowds, and general propriety, will surely impede you from playing fetch with the specimens. Tiptoe past the giant Easter Island moai in the Pacific Peoples exhibition. Keep in mind that Lewis and Clark only exist as statues on the outside of the buildings, and that Sacagawea is nowhere to be found. Consider your shift a successful one if the kids are worn out, they've learned at least one thing and everything is in the same place as it was when you entered.
Fun fact: In addition to Night at the Museum tours of the museum, there are Night at the Museum sleepovers for kids…and even adults!
Sample scene: The tiny soldiers capture the giant
Mentor Movies: Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993), Finding Forrester (2000) and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990 and 2014)
What's more of a New York story than an underdog fighting, and overcoming, the odds? OK, maybe it's an American story. And in most such stories, there’s a mentor figure somewhere, offering plenty of life lessons. Searching for Bobby Fischer has a surfeit of father figures, all teaching young Josh about the mystical art of chess. One, Laurence Fishburne's character, holds court down in Washington Square Park, a traditional site for intense chess matches. Try the southwest corner if you're interested, or head up to Union Square, also a center for chess playing. Finding Forrester skews a bit older and has its share of salty language, along with street basketball and a lot of real-life locations. The grizzled, reclusive writer of the title (played by Sean Connery) takes his young disciple on pilgrimages to Madison Square Garden and Yankee Stadium, and a few scenes were shot in the auditorium of the pastoral General Theological Seminary. In the Ninja Turtles movies, Splinter is the name of the swami who plays Mr. Miyagi to the half-shell heroes. Both versions of the flick are set in a subterranean, postapocalyptic New York but find some light of day in places like Times Square. But what they really celebrate is underground NYC. And pizza.
Fun fact: Max Pomeranc, the boy who plays Josh in Searching for Bobby Fischer, was a highly rated chess player at the time of filming.
Sample scene: Chess games at Washington Square Park
Superheroes: Superman, Spider-Man and Batman
You could easily do a full slideshow just on superhero movies, which frequently call on the City’s tall buildings and forgotten alleys for atmosphere. But we’ll just pull out a few favorite locales from some of the more beloved flicks. The first, Christopher Reeve’s Superman, uses Midtown East's Daily News Building as the office for the Daily Planet. You can still admire the art deco styling on and above the awning and enter the lobby to check out the giant globe. Spider-Man 2, the best of the Tobey Maguire trilogy, finds Peter Parker delivering pies from Joe's Pizza, a West Village institution. The location shown in the film, on the corner of Bleecker and Carmine, has moved a few doors down, on Carmine closer to Sixth Avenue. In his Spider-Man guise, he sits atop the Chrysler Building in a moment of nighttime reflection. Mary Jane runs away from her impending nuptials at Riverside Church, which sports the world’s largest carillon bell ever cast. And Peter Parker hails from Forest Hills, Queens. In The Dark Knight Rises, definitely a darker vision for older kids, Wayne Enterprises is headquartered at Trump Tower; while there's little of note about the building’s architecture, the interior atrium, with its waterfall and opulent marble and brass, is a sight to behold. An armed heist takes place at the New York Stock Exchange as well as a chase scene on Wall Street and the neighboring canyons of Lower Manhattan.
Fun fact: These days, Clark Kent would have a tough time finding a place to change in our fair city. According to sources, only a handful of outdoor phone booths remain in Manhattan (and a few indoor ones).
Sample scene: Church on time