The 80s were a great time to be a kid. High-concept comedies and sci-fi movies, loud, parent-maddening music, classic video games and cable TV. Compared to other decades, kids’ entertainment was unabashedly childish, insane, colorful, loud and ridiculous. Now that plopping your kids in front of the TV for hours on end while you do something else is sort of frowned upon, children’s entertainment has been forced to appeal, with widely varying success, to parents as well as kids, spawning a tiny amount of the best entertainment in the industry (Pixar, I’m looking at you) and a truckload of the very worst (insert your favorite squeakuel here). Gone are the days when an episode of He-Man had the exact plot a 6-year-old would have written if given the chance (and one anyone over 12 would never in a million years understand). Gone are the days when a show called Ghostbusters and a totally different, unrelated show called The Real Ghostbusters could both exist simultaneously and none of the viewership have a problem with it. Kid’s entertainment now is too researched, too deliberate. Too controlled by adult sensibilities.
Thank goodness, then, that The Goonies was released in 1985, smack in the middle of the best decade so far for batshit insane children’s entertainment. In the wrong decade’s hands, this movie might have been robbed of everything that still makes it awesome. Could you get away with Sloth in 2011? Data? Chunk, even? Could you get away with seven kids swearing and screaming over each other for 114 minutes? Could you get away with locking a fat kid in a freezer with a corpse?
Fortunately, we’ll never have to wonder. The Goonies was a movie made at just the right time. And I finally watched it.
Everything about this movie makes me wish I were 11 years old again, both to see the movie at that age, and just because it’s a great age to be, as The Goonies reminded me. Richard Donner captures, in a truly impressive way, the energy that a bunch of kids have when they’re having a hell of a time. The shrieky, overlapping dialogue feels like rather than writing a script, Donner just wired seven kids for sound and gave them a cool map. It’s pandemonium. To an adult, all that pre-pubescent shouting can get confusing — caustic, even — but the excitement, terror and joy in these kids is so true and visceral and infectious, it’s hard to think of a better way to do it.
Front to back the script is obligated only to its target audience, which is really refreshing. There are no big morals imposed, no jokes for parents, no studio cynicism showing through. It reminds me of movies like Sandlot, The Iron Giant or Labryinth — movies that succeed on their insistence to tell a story about kids for kids. It comes at a modest price, though, here — a few scenes are strange bordering on pointless, such as the fake-Italian-restaurant scene, and there are certainly movies that have created more interesting and funny villains. But those are adult gripes, and this is a movie so unconcerned with what any adult will think that it’s hard to take them too seriously.
The cast is great, for the most part. I don’t imagine getting solid performances out of that many children is easy, but somehow Donner pulls it off. Sean Astin is adorable and Josh Brolin plays a great older brother. Nobody stands out more than Jeff Cohen as Chunk, though. He’s brilliant. I could watch an entire movie of his confession to the Fratellis. His character is a thin veneer on top of an actor who is genuinely funny and knows it, and his sheer, obvious joy in delivering every line and hitting every joke is so satisfying on a number of levels. He has most of the good jokes in The Goonies, most of the best deliveries, and he also gets to speak perhaps the best line in the movie — “You’re gonna live with me now. I’m gonna take care of you. Because I love you.” — which is as unbelievably insane as it is heartbreakingly sweet.
And that’s sort of the movie in a nutshell, honestly — it’s a dirty, jumbled pile of funny, scary, touching, loud and crazy, one that perfectly matches, the adults in the audience are reminded, the capacity of kids to deeply understand and appreciate each of those things. And, let’s be honest, embody them.
The Goonies doesn’t just hold up today because it’s still weird, funny, and creepy — it holds up because it still makes you feel like you’re in the fifth grade. Like maybe if you spend months carrying a quart of motor oil in your shoes and an elaborate boxing glove apparatus in your coat, eventually it will pay off. No eleven-year-old boy daydreams about the Smurfs in Times Square or garden-gnome Shakespeare adaptations. They daydream about booby traps, treasure hunts, and adventures with their big brother and their best friends. And unless DreamWorks knows something I don’t, that’s probably always going to be true. I’m all for making kids movies that appeal to adults, but sometimes telling a story that is great for kids ends up being great for everyone else, too.