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|Written by Kevin Johns|
|Monday, 13 April 2009 19:00|
A perceptive music critic once described the 1980s as the decade in which Bob Dylan "made bad music and wore even worse clothes," but poor Bob wasn't alone; the ‘80s produced a sizeable body of truly embarrassing cultural artefacts. Yet as goofy as the ‘80s were, the decade also produced an incredible batch of adventure films that can be enjoyed by people of all ages.
While practically everything else from the 1980s seems markedly dated, the family films of that period still feel timeless and as fresh as the day they were released. Free of the awkward transition into computer generated graphics and the intense focus on political correctness that marred much of ‘90s cinema, ‘80s films could entertain without the crippling effects of new technology and political censure. And boy, did they entertain!
I hereby present the top 15 family adventure films of the 1980s:
15. Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989) - There is a Lord of the Flies element to many of the films on this list, Honey included. Ostensibly about a group of teens accidentally shrunk by their scientist father (Rick Moranis) and forced to survive a long journey across their own backyard, this film is really about how it feels to be a teenager functioning without the support of adults. How do kids behave when there isn't a parent telling them what is right and wrong, who they are, and how they should behave? The fantasy appeal of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids isn't just the high-concept sci-fi technology but the very idea of life without adults.
14. Time Bandits (1982) - The first film in what some refer to as Terry Gilliam's ‘trilogy of imagination' establishes the director's obsession with creativity's battle against bureaucratic oppression (the other two films being Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen). Politics wrapped in surrealism is what Gilliam does best and with Bandits he's in top form.
13. Explorers (1985) - Directed by Joe Dante (the year after he directed Gremlins) and staring River Phoenix and Ethan Hawke in their first feature film roles, Explorers is the type of sci-fi adventure every kid dreams about happening to them (it's no coincidence that dreams play an important part in this film!). Who didn't love having a fort to hang out in with their friends as a child, and who didn't dream of the fort becoming an intergalactic spaceship? I know I did!
12. Gremlins (1984) - You wanna know how wacky the ‘80s were? They actually made horror movies for kids! This Spielberg-produced, Chris Columbus-written gem features fantastic puppetry, great performances, a truly bizarre bar scene, and (perhaps surprisingly) a few genuine scares! People die, monsters are blown up in microwaves, heads are chopped off, and havoc ensues throughout. The family horror film just might be a genre totally unique to the 1980s. (Don't forget to watch for Gremlins' most hilarious line of dialogue: "...and that's how I found out there is no Santa Claus." Kills me every time.)
11. The Dark Crystal (1982) - Before Computer Generated Images, there was The Jim Henson Company. It's been ten years since George Lucas created the first fully CGI character, Jar Jar Binks, and filmmakers are still unable to make a computer generated character with half the charm and appeal of Henson's puppets. Springing from their success on The Muppet Show, Henson and co-director Frank Oz created a film set in "another world, another time, in an age of wonder" staring an all puppet cast. Sometimes creepy, sometimes cute, the film is mesmerizing throughout.
10. The NeverEnding Story (1984) - People react to films in different ways, certain aspects appeal to certain people, and yet ‘80s family movies have a way of telling stories that produces universal responses. Take The NeverEnding Story: everyone is terrified by the idea of the Nothing, everyone cries when Atreyu's horse dies, and everyone loves the theme song (another ‘80s specialty!). In adapting Michael Ende's novel, Wolfgang Peterson created one of the most accessible films in his oeuvre.
9. Adventures in Babysitting (1987) - Only in the 1980s could an issue of Playboy function as a key plot point in a family film! Adventures made Elizabeth Shue a sex symbol long before she poured booze all over her breasts for a drunken and suicidal Nick Cage in Leaving Las Vegas. Directed by Christopher Columbus, the film plays brilliantly upon fears (the inner city, ethnic people, criminals, gangs) and desires (sexy babysitters, hot college guys, pornography, superheroes come to life) of white middle-class suburban teens. Anthony Rapp went on to star in the original Broadway cast of Rent, and Keith Coogen appeared in another film that would have made this list had it only been released two years earlier, 1991's Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead.
8. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) - The third of the Indy films was also the most family friendly (at least of the original three). The centrepiece of the film is the delightful chemistry between Harrison Ford and Sean Connery, brilliantly cast as Indy's father, Professor Henry Jones. The duo produce several comic moments that rival the best of Indy's action sequences. Throw in a sexy double-crossing Nazi, a great opening sequence with River Phoenix playing the young Indy, tank/motorcycle/boat chases, rats/snakes/lions/rhinoceros, and you've got a film nearly as wonderful as the original Raiders of the Lost Arc.
7. Labyrinth (1986) - Produced by George Lucas, Labyrinth is the last film directed by Jim Henson before his tragic death in 1990 at the age of 53. Unlike some of the films on this list, which were instant hits upon release, Labyrinth was considered a commercial failure, pulling in less than half its budget in ticket sales. Yet today, it's practically everyone's girlfriend/wife/sister's favourite movie. Drawing on everything from Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz, to ancient and (not so ancient) mythology, to M.C. Escher paintings and David Bowie's childhood nightmares, Labyrinth is a film so full of magic and danger that has become a mythology onto itself. Jennifer Connelly made a career out of playing strong women with a dark edge, and her breakthrough role opposite Bowie in this film is no different.
6. Ghostbusters (1984) - Again with the horror movies for kids! The children who were brave enough to stick around beyond the terrifying librarian ghost in the opening sequence of this ‘80s classic were treated to everything one could want from a family adventure film. Scares, laughs, special-effects, broad comedy, and sexy drama all in the same movie; it's like cats and dogs living together!
5. The Princess Bride (1987) - Despite an emphasis on rejecting sexism and embracing inclusion, ‘90s films seem to pale in comparison to movies from the ‘80s ability to cross gender boundaries. The Princess Bride is so jam-packed with romance, action, comedy, and adventure that anyone can enjoy it regardless of whether you are a girl, guy, adult or child. Directed by Rob Reiner with a script that William Goldman adapted from his own novel, the film contains memorable scene after memorable scene. Is it fantasy? Comedy? Adventure? Romance? It's doesn't matter. It is entertaining through and through.
4. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) - This is Spielberg at his best, telling visually stunning, emotionally engaging, fairytale narratives that feel like something we made up ourselves when we were kids but forgot about as we got older, only to rediscover all over again on the big screen. The kids in the film feel like genuine kids (not an adult's idea of how kids should be), and E.T. is one of the greatest animatronic characters of all time. As the most critically acclaimed film on this list, E.T. transcends the family adventure genre and proves itself as, quite simply, superb cinema. When the film was released as a special edition in 2002, Spielberg digitally erased the guns from the hands of the federal agents chasing Elliot and E.T., proving not only that sensibilities have changed significantly in the last twenty-five years but also why today's family films pale in comparison to their ‘80s counterparts.
3. Goonies (1985) - There is an earthy realism to ‘80s family adventure films that is perhaps best exemplified in Goonies, which was written by Chris Columbus (yup, him again) from a story by executive producer (surprise, surprise) Steven Spielberg, and directed by Richard Donner. In the film, guys try to look down girls' shirts, villains shove kids' hands into running blenders, and the adventure pauses, at one point, for a bathroom break. While the Harry Potter films (thankfully) contain many dark elements, you don't exactly see Harry, Ron and Hermione stopping to go pee. No matter how ridiculous the adventure gets, there is a realism to Goonies that allows you to identify with the characters, and gives you the impression that a similar adventure could be out there waiting for you, so long as you were willing to look for it. Years before he became the emotionally vulnerable and stout of heart Samwise Gamgee, a young Sean Astin led this ensemble cast with his emotionally engaging performance.
2. Back to the Future (1985) - Director Robert Zemeckis probably has star Michael J. Fox to thank for the film's success nearly as much as writer Bob Gale. Surrounded be a great supporting cast (Christopher Lloyd, Crispin Glover, and Lea Thompson) Fox created a character in Marty McFly that walked the line so deftly between cool and goofy that by the time he throws down his skateboard, grabs hold of a car, and Huey Lewis and the News kicks in, you can't help but cheer him on. Backed by a kick ass soundtrack, the movie was an instant smash hit upon release and was immediately absorbed into the cultural lexicon, proving you don't need to child protagonists to make a successful family adventure film. (Oh, and you'll never guess who produced this one . . . yup, Spielberg again.)
1. Return of the Jedi (1983) - Jabba's palace, the gold bikini, Luke's battle with the Rancor, Yoda's death, the lightsaber duel, walking the plank over the pit of Sarlacc, the space battle . . . Oh, the space battle! I spent much of my childhood playing Star Wars, and when I say ‘Star Wars' I mean Return of the Jedi. Long before the prequel trilogy split audiences, Jedi served as the final chapter in a trilogy that was almost universally loved. I had a copy of the film taped from television (long before the VHS tapes were available for purchase), and I actually looked forward to sick days as a youth because it meant that instead of going to school I got to lay on the couch and watch Jedi all day long. Today many criticize the film's awkward juxtaposition of bleak violence with cuddly cuteness, but this admittedly bizarre combination of thematic elements is just the sort of thing that made ‘80s family adventure cinema so great. The films on this list had moments of darkness, moments of light, true scares, hilarious comedy, and characters that boys, girls, adults, teens, and children could identify with. It was a unique period in the history of cinema, and certainly one worth feeling nostalgic about.
While they are both classic 80's films,
I feel like the use of early CGI in both Starfighter and Tron dates them significantly. As such, neither has that "timeless" feel that most of the other films on this list have. If this had been the top 20, instead of top 15, both probably would have made it onto the list.