Decade Definers

Decade Definers: 1980s – Goonies, Gremlins and Ghostbusters: The Golden Age of the Family-Friendly Film

Written by Fiona Underhill

Full disclosure: I was born in 1980 and therefore obviously the 1980s WAS my childhood. So, I am biased when I say that the 1980s was a golden age for the family-friendly live-action film. However, I stand by it (and I’m about to show you the receipts). The 1980s were NOT a golden age for animation (which was reignited by Disney with ‘The Little Mermaid’ in 1989), but sci-fi and fantasy live-action films aimed at and featuring children, which the whole family could enjoy, were numerous and of a great quality. From epic fairytale fantasies, to aliens, robots and spaceships, to creatures on earth, to the dawn of the fear of computers and technology – there was something to bring everyone to their local smoke-filled flea pit. We didn’t get a VHS player until around 1992, so the only options were to watch a film if it happened to come up on one of the 4 TV channels (and walk to the TV to switch between those channels), or to go to our town’s one single-screen cinema. It is so bizarre now to think back on the cinema having smoking ‘sections’ (as if the smoke wouldn’t permeate the whole room) and that was how we watched films then – through a haze. The amount of choice on offer nowadays is preferable of course, but has it really improved the quality of what is on offer to children? I would argue that family films have never bettered their 1980s hey day. So, strap yourselves in for a journey back to the golden age…

Decade Defining Directors: Dante, Henson/Oz, Howard, Gilliam, Reiner & Reitman

Decade Defining Actors: Tom Hanks, Rick Moranis, Martin Short

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Master of Puppets: Fairytale-style Fantasies

Flash Gordon (Hodges, 1980)
Time Bandits (Gilliam, 1981)
The Dark Crystal (Henson & Oz, 1982)
The NeverEnding Story (Peterson, 1984)
Return to Oz (Murch, 1985)
Labyrinth (Henson, 1986)
The Princess Bride (Reiner, 1987)
Willow (Howard, 1988)
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (Gilliam, 1988)

This sub-genre was dominated by one man: Jim Henson. The man behind ‘The Muppets’ and ‘Sesame Street’ not only directed some stand-out films of the 80s, but had his hand (literally) in many more. The Jim Henson Company’s puppets and creatures were a defining feature of the decade and something that I have the hugest feelings of nostalgia and affection for. From NeverEnding Story’s Falkor the Luckdragon to Labyrinth’s Ludo and Hoggle; these characters were infused with such tender emotion by Henson and given fully realised character arcs and relationships with humans. It is extremely hard for me to choose, but if I had to pick just one ‘desert-island’ film of the 1980s, it would be ‘Labyrinth’. A tense and scary story, amazing creature design and David Bowie – what more could you ask for? But this sub-genre is ripe with absolute classics – ‘The Princess Bride’ is a hilarious twist on the classic fairytale with unforgettable characters such as Inigo Montoya, the giant Fezzik and Prince Humperdinck. ‘The NeverEnding Story’ shows a real-world boy, Bastian following the fantastical adventures of Atreyu and his trusty horse Artax as they battle to save the childlike Empress. ‘Return to Oz’ still haunts my nightmares with its ‘Hall of Heads’ and the terrifying wheelers. However, it has some delightfully affectionate creatures such as Tik-Tok, Billina, Jack Pumpkinhead and Gump. ‘Flash Gordon’ came from the same love of 1940s comics and serials that inspired both ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Indiana Jones’. It is an epic that traverses space, involves good vs evil and Brian Blessed. I do not know what else to tell you.

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A Tribe Called Quest: Adventures Run Amok

Romancing the Stone (Zemeckis, 1984)
The Jewel of the Nile (Teague, 1985)
The Goonies (Donner, 1985)
Three Amigos! (Landis, 1986)
Twins (Reitman, 1988)

The quest, the journey, the mystery, the adventure – these are tropes as old as time and ones fully exploited during the 1980s. ‘The Goonies’ is a beloved classic and involves a gang of kids finding a pirate treasure map and going on an exciting quest. ‘Three Amigos’ features SNL alum Chevy Chase, Steve Martin and Martin Short as three actors who become embroiled in a real-life battle of life and death in Mexico. ‘Romancing’ and ‘Jewel’ aren’t really aimed at children, but are PG-rated and make good companion pieces to ‘Indiana Jones’. They have a similar storyline to ‘Three Amigos’, where those writing adventure stories become involved in an adventure of their own. ‘Twins’ is the story of Arnold Schwarzenegger discovering he has a twin brother; obviously played by Danny DeVito and their quest to discover more about their parents.

1

Creature Features: Aliens, Robots, Monsters and Magic

ET: the Extra-Terrestrial (Spielberg, 1982)
Gremlins (Dante, 1984)
Gremlins 2 (Dante, 1990)
Starman (Carpenter, 1984)
The Karate Kid Trilogy (Avildson, 1984-1989)
Ghostbusters (Reitman, 1984)
Ghostbusters 2 (Reitman, 1989)
Teen Wolf (Daniel, 1985)
Teen Wolf Too (Leitch, 1987)
Little Shop of Horrors (Oz, 1986)
The Worst Witch (Young, 1986)
Short Circuit (Badham, 1986)
Short Circuit 2 (Johnson, 1988)
Batteries Not Included (Robbins, 1987)
Harry & The Hendersons (Dear, 1987)
Mannequin (Gottlieb, 1987)
Vice Versa (Gilbert, 1988)
Tremors (Underwood, 1990)

A rich history of aliens and robots visiting earth was mined with aplomb during the 80s; from the love-story (featuring a young and hot Jeff Bridges) ‘Starman’, to alien-robots in ‘Batteries Not Included’, to the classic ‘ET’ – this sub-genre offered plenty. The key was that the human story that surrounded these creatures was taken seriously and delivered with emotion, from the older people battling large corporations and dealing with Alzheimer’s in ‘Batteries’ to the single mother struggling with three kids in ‘ET’ (a story I could strongly identify with, as the Gertie of my single-parent family). Pretty much every creature you can think of got its own feature in the 80s; the mermaid in ‘Splash’ (which I’ll talk about later), werewolves in ‘Teen Wolf’ and ‘American Werewolf’, Big Foot in ‘Harry & the Hendersons’, ghosts in ‘Ghostbusters’ and ‘Beetlejuice’ and vampires in the not-quite family-friendly ‘Lost Boys’. More unusual creatures came in the form of giant underground worms in ‘Tremors’, the mysterious mogwai from the Far East in ‘Gremlins’ and the man-eating plant in 1950s-set musical ‘Little Shop of Horrors’. A home-grown robot came in the form of ‘Short Circuit’s’ Jonny 5 who befriended the beautiful Stephanie and if I were pushed, this is perhaps my favourite from this section. ‘Magic’ was introduced in a rare British entry to the 80s family film; ‘The Worst Witch’, via an ancient Egyptian inhabiting a department store mannequin and a mysterious Tibetan skull causing a father and son to swap bodies in ‘Vice Versa’. Whilst not featuring any magic, ‘The Karate Kid’ trilogy continued the fascination with cultures considered ‘exotic’ at the time and along with the cartoon ‘Hong Kong Phooey’, certainly increased interest and participation in the martial arts. It should be noted how many sequels feature in this sub-genre (perhaps demonstrating they are not a new phenomenon destroying film, as some would have you believe) and I’m going to do a shout-out here for unfairly maligned ‘Ghostbusters 2’.

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Fear of the Computer Age: Spaceships and Tech Going Awry 

War Games (Badham, 1983)
Explorers (Dante, 1985)
Flight of the Navigator (Kleiser, 1986)
Space Camp (Winer, 1986)
Innerspace (Dante, 1987)
Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (Herek, 1989)
Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (Johnston, 1989)

Considering the 1980s signalled the dawn of affordable personal computers and games consoles (I can remember our Amstrad and Atari with fondness), cinema actually started addressing the perceived dangers of computer technology very early on. ‘War Games’ is an unbelievably prescient and ahead-of-its-time film about a teenage Matthew Broderick thinking he is playing a computer game but actually accidentally hacking into a super-computer which controls the US military arsenal and almost starting WWIII. ‘War Games’ also managed to utilise fear of the Cold War, which very much dominated the decade, with the Russians as the perpetual villains. Of course, these films reflected a real fear and caution about what was such a new technology at the time. ‘Explorers’, ‘Flight of the Navigator’ and ‘Space Camp’ all feature children accidentally setting off in alien spaceships or earth-made rockets and their ensuing adventures. All three feature young actors who went on to adult success; including Ethan Hawke (Explorers), Sarah Jessica Parker (FOTN) and Joaquin Phoenix (who went by the name Leaf in ‘Space Camp’). ‘Innerspace’ has (a very young and hot) Dennis Quaid as a pilot, who is taking part in miniaturization experiment, being accidentally injected into the body of Martin Short. Miniaturization is also the theme of ‘Honey, I Shrunk the Kids’, which features that other most 80s of actors Rick Moranis. ‘Bill & Ted’s’ problem is less a spaceship and more time machine – which takes two very dumb surfer dude teens through history and ends up helping them ace the subject at school. In my humble opinion, 1991’s ‘Bogus Journey’ is even better.

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King of the 80s: Tom Hanks

Splash (Howard, 1984)
The Money Pit (Benjamin, 1986)
Dragnet (Mankiewicz, 1987)
Big (Marshall, 1988)
Turner & Hooch (Spottiswoode, 1989)
The Burbs (Dante, 1989)
Joe Versus the Volcano (Shanley, 1990)

Many of you will associate Hanks with his oscar-winning roles and Spielberg collaborations. I, however, will always think of the young, curly-haired actor who benevolently guided me through my childhood by starring in one stone-cold classic after another. Hanks began the 80s with the R-rated comedy Bachelor Party, but after that, he starred in the greatest run of family-friendly fare of any actor. Not to get too serious or maudlin on you, but my father died in a car accident in 1983 and I genuinely feel like Tom Hanks played a part in raising me. Starting with ‘Splash’, in which he falls in love with a mermaid and moving onto ‘Big’, in which the mysterious animatronic fortune-teller Zoltar causes Josh Baskin to become ‘big’ overnight – Hanks’ endearing everyman persona sold the emotion in these films. Hanks is also great at playing frustrated and thwarted by circumstance, in ‘Money Pit’, where a dilapidated house drives him crazy, in ‘Turner & Hooch’, where he plays an uptight cop teamed with a very messy and stinky mutt and in ‘The Burbs’, where he becomes obsessed with his neighbours who he believes are part of a satanic cult. Satanic cults were obviously dime-a-dozen during the 80s, because they also crop up in ‘Dragnet’, where he again plays a cop, this time partnered with Dan Akroyd instead of a large mastiff. Ritual sacrifices are ALSO a feature of ‘Joe Versus the Volcano’ (yes, I’m cheating by taking us to 1990, but there’s no way I was leaving this out). This is by far the best Hanks team-up with Meg Ryan and is, well, there is no other way of putting it, bat-shit crazy.

 

So; there you have it. Chances are, if you’re reading this, you grew up the 1980s as I did and are familiar with most of these films. You will have your personal favourites (please comment on social media with yours!) and will view the decade with similarly rose-tinted glasses to me. However, if you’re a ‘yoof’, I encourage you to dive into this decade and discover these gems for yourself. From epic fantasy fairytales, to science-fiction, creature features, adventurous quests and the ouevre of Tom Hanks – there really is something to appeal to everyone. That was the key to the 80s; films that were suitable for children, that could be enjoyed by the whole family.

My personal Top 12 (couldn’t squeeze it into 10) of 1980s family films:

12) Space Camp
11) Three Amigos!
10) The Princess Bride
9) The Worst Witch
8) batteries not included
7) The Goonies
6) Joe Versus the Volcano
5) Innerspace
4) NeverEnding Story
3) Short Circuit
2) Return to Oz
1) Labyrinth

We have more articles to share for our 80s Decade Definers, including why ‘Back to the Future’ was a game changer and a look at teenage-orientated films, so why not catch up on our previous posts before we share them with you:

The Indiana Jones Trilogy

The Birth of the Action Hero

 

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