Ah, the road trip. The great American journey across the country, soaking in the beauty and uniqueness of our great land from the cramped quarters of a car or an RV, singing along to good tunes, pinching your brother in the backseat, and making memories with friends and family. This summer ritual is as American as apple pie. Whether you’re heading to the beach, to a theme park, or to a great State Park, we’ve compiled a list of road trip movies to watch either before you hit the road or while you’re on those long stretches of interstate, all chosen to muster up your spirit of adventure.
National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983)
The first (and best?) of the National Lampoon Vacation films, this comedy features the hapless Griswold family. Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) has grand ideas about bonding with his family on the Great American Road Trip to Walley World (the fictionalized Disneyland), but – as with any family adventure – nothing goes according to plan, resulting in hilarity (and, eventually, a number of “Vacation” sequels, proving that the journey might just be worth it, no matter what happens).
Easy Rider (1969)
Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper star in this classic film that helped define an era. As two rough bikers ride through the American South and Southwest, they uncover the gritty American landscape – physical and social – of the late 1960s. It’s a road trip for the sake of the trip and the freedom it gives to define a counterculture in a tumultuous era.
Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987)
Beloved ’80s director John Hughes brought us this comedy starring Steve Martin and John Candy, a story about Murphy’s Law on the road. Neal Page (Martin) is an uptight ad-man just trying to get to Chicago for Thanksgiving, but every obstacle imaginable – including meeting the bumbling Del Griffith (Candy) – conspires to make the quick flight a 3-day road trip full of memorable comedy and heart.
Thelma and Louise (1991)
When an honest fishing trip between two best friends goes awry, they travel from Oklahoma to Mexico to escape the law. It’s not your typical family-friendly fare, but the film does feature two saucy ladies-turned-fugitive (both Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon were nominated for an Academy Award for their roles), the first big screen appearance of Brad Pitt, an unforgettable ending, and enough memories in a 1966 Thunderbird to make you want to buy a convertible and hit the road.
For the Family
The Muppet Movie (1979)
“A frog and a bear seeing America.” What more do you need for a road trip? When everybody’s favorite little green friend decides to head for the big lights of Hollywood, he meets all manner of creature and adventure along the way. Spun off of The Muppet Show, the series that brought good humor and famous faces into our childhood living rooms, this film has everything from psychadelic cars to catchy tunes: “Movin’ right along. Footloose and fancy-free. Getting there is half the fun; come share it with me.”
The Princess Bride (1987)
Adventure, fantasy, drama, “Twoo love,” and enough quotable one-liners to last you a lifetime. Though not a typical road trip with a car and the highway, it’s a multi-layered journey. A caring grandfather (Peter Falk) leads his sick grandson (Fred Savage) through a magical book journey, the star-crossed lovers Buttercup (Robin Wright) and Wesley/The Dread Pirate Roberts (Cary Elwes) must travel through fantasy – not to mention the Cliffs of Insanity and the Fire Swamp – to find one another, and a host of unforgettable characters find the path to movie history in this beloved film. Missing out on the adventure would be “inconceivable.”
We’re treating all of the delightful Disney-Pixar feature films as a composite of greatness here because all of them are thoroughly entertaining films (for kids and adults alike), almost all are about some kind of trip, and any of them would be perfect to pass the time in between destinations.
Toy Story (1995, 1999, 2010) -The journey from childhood to adulthood, from kid’s room to neighbor’s house to daycare to landfill and back again.
Finding Nemo (2003) – A road trip Down Under – literally, under the sea and in Australia – that helps a son grow up and a father let him.
Cars (2006) – An homage to the wonder years of the road trip, to the days of Route 66 and small-town America, we couldn’t help but include this one on our list.
Up (2009) – After the most emotionally compelling opening sequence ever, this film leads viewers from heartache to Paradise Falls in Venezuela.
The New Classics
Little Miss Sunshine (2006)
This comedy-drama breathes new life into the family-bonding-through-a-road-trip experience. A highly dysfunctional family characterized by anger, depression, and disappointment realizes how much they need each other when they band together to protect and support the charmingly idealistic Olive (Abigail Breslin) in her attempt to win the Little Miss Sunshine pageant.
Away We Go (2009)
This small but touching film approaches the family road trip from a different angle – from the beginning. Burt Farlander (John Krasinski) and Verona de Tessant (Maya Rudolph) are a couple expecting their first child, and they go on the road searching for a place to settle down, a place to call home. Seeing their friends and family in different stages of life and trial – in places as diverse as Arizona, Wisconsin, Montreal, and Florida – they come to define themselves, their relationship, and their future as they travel. (Bonus: It’s a green film, whose every element of production was environmentally conscious.)
On the Road (2012)
“The road is life” (On the Road, Part 3, Chapter 5). This choice is a sneak peek, but it’s an upcoming film based on Jack Kerouac’s iconic 1951 road trip novel of the same name. In it, Sal Paradise (representing Kerouac) and the enigmatic Dean Moriarty (representing Neal Cassady) criss-cross the American landscape, helping to define the Beat Generation. Sal’s journey is literal and metaphorical as he journeys from East to West Coast, loving the free-spirited nature of the road, jazz music, and the democratic idealism embodied in American culture: “Why think about that when all the golden land’s ahead of you and all kinds of unforeseen events wait lurking to surprise you and make you glad you’re alive to see?” (On the Road, Part 2, Chapter 6).