Nostalgia for and influence by different eras comes and goes, and the time period we are focusing on for this episode has certainly been yearned for and revisited before, but for some reason (though probably the oft-observed “thirty year cycle”) the 80s are particularly big right now. In the last few years we’ve seen reboots of 1980s classics like Ghostbusters, belated sequels such as Blade Runner 2049, remakes like It, old but new films like the thoroughly entertaining postmodern ode Turbo Kid, and straight-up 1980s reference-listing rubbish like Steven Spielberg’s insipid Ready Player One, based on Ernie Cline’s appalling 1980s-fetishizing book, or the somewhat less rubbish but also 1980s-fetishizing Bandersnatch.
Arguably the most prominent of these 1980s-mythologising properties is Netflix’s popular Stranger Things, a paean to 1980s childhood and pop culture, a childhood that just so happens to be ours, albeit on the other side of the Atlantic. And so, with us being children of the 80s, and it being such a big thing right now, we thought it might be interesting to revisit some of the classic children’s movies of that era (some of which directly influenced Stranger Things in particular, even in casting).
While we often to try to mix in non-English language and non-USA titles into our themed episodes as much as possible, that wasn’t on the cards because a) at five or six I doubt we were big into reading subtitles, and because b) our childhood viewing largely came from Hollywood. C’est la vie. We will be looking at two children’s literary adaptations of books from that general era soon, one of which is animated, but for now we have selected 7 live-action films from a surprisingly narrow mid-80s window.
However, we’re not doing this for nostalgia, but rather to see if these films still make the grade as adults, and 30 years further into the future that is space year 2019 to boot. I, certainly, would contend that a good film is a good film, but would also contend that children know jack shit and have terrible taste. So which films still work? Seven films enter, one film leaves! There can be only one! Well, let’s maybe not think too much about those 1980s’ films. Especially not the one with the Scottish Spanish Egyptian and the French Scot. And anyway, there could be seven. Maybe. Who knows? Well, we knows, so I should maybe shut up now and get to the business of telling you.
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The Karate Kid
So first up we have 1984’s The Karate Kid (itself already the subject of a pretty poor remake), the tale of a kid who does karate. Where do they get these names? The titular karate kid is 15 year old Daniel LaRusso (played by then 22-year old Ralph Macchio, though he has a gangliness more appropriate to a teenager that makes this less egregious than is often the case) who has recently moved from New Jersey to California to allow his mother to begin a new career.
His first day goes well as he meets a friendly neighbour of his age, and then meets the beautiful Ali (Elisabeth Shue) at a beach party. Things start to go rapidly downhill, though, after he gets on the wrong side of Ali’s jealous ex-boyfriend, Johnny (a young Boris Johnson), and makes instant and mortal enemies of Johnny and his group of vicious karate black belts from the Cobra Kai dojo.
The Cobra Kai is run by John Kreese (Cagney & Lacey’s Martin Kove), a Vietnam vet and all-around classy guy who encourages cheating, bullying and the intimidation and assault of teenagers and pensioners, and together these people make Daniel’s life pretty much a living hell. Unsurprising, then, that Daniel is soon pleading with his mother to return to New Jersey and bemoaning his pain-filled existence.
To the rescue comes the enigmatic Mr. Miyagi (Noriyuki “Pat” Morita, best known at that point as Arnold in Happy Days but destined to be forever remembered for this film). Miyagi, a Japanese immigrant who earned the Medal of Honour in the US Army, is now the maintenance man at the LaRusso’s apartment complex, and he takes on the extra duty of maintaining Daniel’s life and functioning body. He arranges a ceasefire with Kreese in which the Cobra Kai thugs agree to leave Daniel-san in peace to allow him to train for the All-Valley Karate Championship, and then beat him up there instead.
Karate expert Miyagi then begins to train Daniel using unorthodox, almost certainly useless in the real world and amusing techniques, like the now famous “wax on, wax off”. In true underdog story style, Daniel survives to claim victory.
While much of The Karate Kid is structurally, if not clichéd, then well-worn, the fact that it is helmed by Rocky’s award-winning director John G. Avildsen gives it more polish than many similar stories, and Avildsen even manages to inject a fair bit of humour and fun into the training montages (though there’s not much that he, or Macchio, can do to stop the pivotal “crane-kick” looking awkward and silly: JCVD performing a roundhouse this is not).
Much of the film rests, naturally, on Macchio’s shoulders and fortunately he’s a pretty engaging screen presence. He has a bit of a smart guy swagger, but it’s seen early on that it’s all surface and that underneath he’s vulnerable, scared and a pretty regular, and decent, guy, and Macchio manages the transition well. Daniel’s relationship with his mum also works well, too, seen from the very beginning in a cross-country road trip montage that’s probably unnecessary but sets up the mother-son relationship as warm and healthy: no angsty teenage jackass here, and again Macchio’s performance is key to this working.
The crux of the movie though is, of course, Pat Morita, and Mr Miyagi is perhaps one of the most memorable characters from my childhood. As an adult I have my concerns about the veracity of the speech patterns and the less than perfect English, but, while Morita was an American, his parents were Japanese immigrants so until I know better I’ll accept that he was using his own experience to inform his portrayal. I still find him entertaining to watch, and the few moments where he is allowed to display some emotion actually work for me despite them having a definite possibility of being cheesy, and the small snippets of information gleaned about his past, as well as the chemistry between Macchio and Morita, quickly dispel any disquiet about why this man should want to spend so much time with a teenager.
I’m pleased to discover that I still find The Karate Kid largely enjoyable, so chalk one up for “stands up to viewing as an adult” for me at least.
The NeverEnding Story
I believe this is the shortest film we will speak about today. Minus five stars for a misleading title. The obvious next step for director Wolfgang Petersen after 1981’s tense, claustrophobic submariner classic Das Boot is, of course, this sprawling adventure in fantasy land. A change is as good as a rest, I suppose.
Barret Oliver’s Bastian Balthazar Bux has problem – his father wants him to get his head out of the clouds and knuckle down on his schoolwork, rather than sketching fantastic creatures in mathematics class. He’s being bullied by the local thugs who steal his lunch money and dump him in dumpsters. To be honest, all the sort of things you’d expect if you will insist on being called Bastian Balthazar Bux.
Fleeing bullies, he ducks into a mysterious bookshow where a grumpy bookseller tempts him into borrowstealing a “dangerous” novel, The NeverEnding Story boom title drop. Arriving late to school, he ducks a maths test to go read this book in the attic. Inside he, and we, learn of Fantasia, a land being consumed by the Nothing, it’s believed because their leader, the aptly named Childlike Empress, is ill and in some sort of fantasy coma. A hero, Noah Hathaway’ Atreyu, whose name does not reference his “being a child” status despite it being just as much of a thing as with the Empress, is tasked with finding a cure and given an entirely pointless McGuffin of a necklace that does, to my recollection, hee haw.
Off Atreyu goes, seeking out various sources of wisdom to help him in his quest, that mainly tell him to go see someone else, which were this a video game would have had me throwing a controller at the screen. Along the way we’ll meet his depressed horse, a nihilistic giant turtle with mental health concerns, a giant rock dude who eats rocks, which is surely makes him a cannibal, a narcoleptic bat and of course the terrifying furry dragon Falkor, all to the beat of a Giorgio Moroder soundtrack. It is a weird and European film.
Now, there’s certainly things to appreciate here. Barring a few super ropy composite shots at the end of the film the effects work still looks super solid, with some really impressive and detailed models / puppets / armatures / whatever. The overarching metafiction is a neat gimmick, and the performances from our kiddy leads are perfectly reasonable.
Narratively it’s not so satisfying, although that’s arguably more of a problem with repeat viewings. There’s enough gee-whizz dressing to distract from the script leaning rather more heavily on the actual literal, physical part of a hero’s journey rather than the more metaphysical one I which I think only sort of works if you don’t examine it all that closely. Although given the oddness underlying the film it may well have been a literal warning that not drawing unicorns on jotters will destroy a parallel universe.
I don’t have a lot of nostalgia for this – I could swear I’d seen this as a kid, but I may just be remembering the video for the Limahl theme. overall, I like it just fine, although, and here’s a rarity, I wish it was longer. Everything’s a bit too compressed and rushed through, and the pace of it undermines the supposed difficulty of the journey, and also leaves little time for really knowing any of the characters in it, be that Bastian, Atreyu, or that horse I’m supposed to care about despite having barely seen it.
It’s an entirely adequate film, and so I award it our prestigious “entirely adequate film award”. Which is an award for an adequate film. Although coincidentally the award itself is also adequate.
Ah, The Goonies. Perhaps the most famous of the films we’re covering today, certainly one of the most highly regarded as a great kids movie. It had influence on Stranger Things, and the casting of Sean Astin, who plays lead Goonie Mikey, in season 2 of Stranger Things was no coincidence.
In coastal Oregon a group of young friends known as The Goonies are contemplating the end of their time together as a local “Evil Rich Man” is forcing the sale or seizure of their homes in order to build a golf course (is a residential area covered in buildings and tarmacked roads really the most viable spot for golf course-conversion?), meaning their gang will be broken up.
At the last hour (almost literally) they discover a treasure map supposedly leading to the final resting place of the booty of a pirate known as One-Eyed Willy, and decide to hunt it down in order to save their parents from mortgage default. The Goonies – Mikey, Chunk (Jeff Cohen), Mouth (Corey Feldman) and Data (Ke Huy Quan) – are joined in this endeavour by Mikey’s older brother Brand (Josh Brolin) and, considerably less willingly, two girls of Brand’s age, Andy (Kerri Green) and Stef (Martha Plimpton).
As if traversing tunnels, caverns and booby traps wouldn’t be dangerous enough, getting that sweet, sweet pirate loot is complicated by the presence of a family of prison escaping, FBI agent-murdering, opera-singing criminals, the Fratellis (Robert Davi, Joe Pantoliano and Anne Ramsay), who want to silence the Goonies and then snaffle the booty.
The last time I watched The Goonies, a few years ago now, I had the distinct thought of, “boy, for a beloved classic this sure is crap”. This time around I found that I was quite enjoying it. For about 7 and a half minutes, after which time I largely alternated between bored and irritated. Some of this I put down to not a great deal happening, which might fly for a child but not for me, but mostly was due to a lazy script and unlikeable characters.
Firstly there’s Sean Astin’s Mikey, who begins as a whiney wee git too afraid to go into the attic because his mum said not to. However, on finding the map, he’s suddenly the driving force in urging his friends to risk their lives in search of unlikely treasure, though never stops being a whiny wee git. Then we have Corey Feldman’s Mouth, a smartass, bullying wee prick who I spent altogether too much time wishing would fall to his death on a particularly pointy stalagmite, and Jeff Cohen’s Chunk, the dumb, clumsy fat kid (because of course he is) whose entire character motivation is “is hungry”. Following such lazy stereotyping, naturally the Asian kid is the geeky inventor, and the girls… well, they scream, don’t they? Because that’s what girls do.
There seems a constant tension, or perhaps conflict, between director Richard Donner’s attempts to create an action adventure movie and hack screenwriter Chris Columbus’s script and his love of slapstick and cartoonish ideas. Some of that may fly in Home Alone (though the skeleton in that film definitely oversteps the mark), but here things like being saved from death by wind-up teeth is constantly at odds with the gun-toting, law enforcement-murdering Fratellis and Josh Brolin being forced to travel at 40mph on a bike then dispatched down a hillside.
The biggest problems definitely come from the script, including some really hokey dialogue, but it’s certainly not helped by the headaches induced by a good fifty percent, if not more, of the film being yelled, often by several characters at once. A bafflingly popular and well-regarded film that merits none of it.
This film has David Bowie, Muppet goblins, and a farting bog. Do you need me to say much more than that?
Jennifer Connelly’s Sarah Williams, a teenaged fantasy enthusiast, spends a bit too long rehearsing her lines in the park, arriving late home for the agreed babysitting of her baby brother. On receiving the slightest of admonishments, she throws the stroppiest of fits, the injustice of the world condensed into this mild inconvenience, and wishes that her brother be removed from her life. Perhaps by Jared, the Goblin King from that play she was just rehearsing.
Music to David Bowie’s ears, wuzzah wuzzah, as he dispatches his muppet goblin minions to whisk the kid away to his lair in the centre of a Labyrinth boom title drop. He’s not a monster, though, so the child-stealing monster allows Sarah a 13 hour window to mount a rescue before turning the kid into a goblin.
So, off she goes through the dangerous and confusing labyrinth, aided an abetted by the creatures she meets, like the worm offering her a nice cup of tea, which she refuses, earning Sarah the enmity of Englishmen everywhere. Over the course of things she’ll have mustered the help of the cowardly, conflicted turncoat Hoggle, the hulking beast Ludo, and a fox-knight Sir Didymus, whose steed appears to be the dog from Fraggle Rock. The U.K. one at least. Did you know it had a different framing location in every region? I’m getting sidetracked.
A lot like The NeverEnding Story, there’s not an awful lot of complexity to the piece -it’s basically someone running through a maze stuffed with oddities occasionally being heckled by David Bowie, who then performs a musical number, wuzzah wuzzah, and you could accuse it of being a trifle thin. And, I suppose you’d be right, but it doesn’t seem as critical a point in Labyrinth, which has little pretence at being more than an ephemeral entertainment. Typically, works considering themselves of great import do not feature a farting bog.
Connelly’s likeable enough once things kick off in earnest, and there’s some really terrific work done by Jim Henson’s workshop. The script was, I read, much more collaborative or meddled with than the sole Terry Jones screenwriting credit would have us believe, but while perhaps any deeper meaning has been stripped away in favour of more Bowie and jokes, I like Bowie and I like jokes. So that works for me.
I’m not sure this is a classic for the ages, but there’s more than enough talent involved with it that it can’t help but be enjoyable on at least a superficial level. Perhaps you’d want or expect more, given the level of that talent, but this is still good. Just not great.
By coincidence we return to Oregon (and even the same city as The Goonies, Astoria) for Short Circuit (yes, it’s starts in Washington, I know) where WALL·E is shown in his original role as a military robot, though here he’s called Number 5 for some reason.
Number 5 is a laser-toting prototype for a robot designed to carry nuclear weapons, but after being struck by lightning while recharging he develops sentience, a personality and a conscience. Also struck by wanderlust and a need for “input”, he skedaddles out of the base, turning up in Stephanie (Ally Sheedy’s) food truck where she assumes he’s an alien. She is disappointed to find out that he is not, but she forgives him for not being an alien and befriends him, and then helps him to stay out of the clutches of the military who are, understandably, keen to get their multi-million dollar property back.
There’s not much more to Short Circuit than that, and the most entertaining things by far are the moments where the robot is beginning to learn. Indeed, any time the robot is not onscreen entertainment and attention drop precipitously (though even when Johnny 5, as he becomes known, is onscreen it’s not all brilliant; for example when achingly unfunny slapstick rubbish like The Three Stooges is brought into the mix).
I mentioned WALL·E in my introduction and if you’ve seen that film then you’ve seen a great deal of what little this film has to offer: Pixar’s character (design, activities and all) is lifted pretty much wholesale from Short Circuit, though having not seen this in decades I hadn’t realised until now quite how shameless it is.
As with WALL·E, any portions with humans are the least entertaining by far, and while I wouldn’t call Short Circuit bad, exactly, it is pretty dull and forgettable. Indeed, perhaps the most significant thing about Short Circuit is something of a meta detail, to wit the casting of Fisher Stevens, white Jewish man from Chicago, as the brown-faced, heavily-accented Ben Jabituya, an Indian immigrant. Why movie? Why? For what possible reason?
I very much doubt I’m alone in having seen this as a child and not having discovered well into adulthood that Ben wasn’t, in fact, Indian or of Indian heritage. It’s an utterly baffling decision, and a problem confounded by finding myself laughing at lines like, “I’m sporting a tremendous woody right now” delivered by Stevens and feeling tremendously guilty about it (and also questioning the presence of that kind of joke in a film aimed squarely at children).
Add to this the presence of domestic violence as a joke or a setup for action or comic set pieces and Short Circuit finds itself pushed from “probably not worth bothering with” to “you really shouldn’t watch it”.
Flight of the Navigator
I spent the first ten minutes of Flight of the Navigator wondering when Joey Cramer’s 12-year old David Freeman was going to get to the arcade, before realising that my brain had cross wired this with The Last Starfighter at some point. Such is life. But rather than be whisked away by aliens to play Wing Commander, he’s just being more conventionally studied. Thankfully, no probing is shown.
Not that he knows that yet, as he’s placed back in the woods outside his home. Unfortunately, time dilation and all that means that from his family’s perspective he’s now suddenly reappeared from the dead eight years after going missing. Strange times for all, even if they are overjoyed to have him back. Medical testing seems to indicate he’s fine, apart from his one weird trick of being able to download information from his brain into computers.
Meanwhile, the ship that brought him back has its own troubles, hitting a power line and shutting down, erasing its navigational date in the process. NASA are quick to start prodding, and eventually tie this to David’s reappearance and bring him in for study. Proximity to David reactivates the vessel and its AI control system, Max, voiced by Pee-Wee Herman, of all people, and it recognises that the navigational data implanted into Davids brain is the solution to its problem. They soon make their escape from the facility, in some sort of Flight of the Navigator boom title drop.
The procedure to download the starcharts to Max also downloads some, let’s call it personality, to Max as well, who spends the rest of the film, well, doing rejected Pee-Wee Herman lines, but all David wants to do is go home, in both location and time. This was deemed too risky before, but I hear Pee-Wee Herman gets off on risk. As so this risky temporal manoeuvre is attempted, and goes horribly wrong, reducing David to a fine paste. An almost unbelievably downbeat end to a Disney film.
This film and all who sail in her are resolutely fine. Even Sarah Jessica Parker, as surprising as that sounds. It has a sequence of events that happen, and it comes to a conclusion, and it doesn’t step on anyone’s toes while doing so. It will pass ninety minutes of your time in a broadly entertaining way, but to be honest I can’t think of a great deal else of interest either in it, or to say about it. So I shan’t.
*batteries not included
batteries not included is a delightful little tale of how some cute little aliens, looking like miniaturised versions of the classic flying saucer style UFOs, come to the aid of some people in a tale reminiscent of The Elves and the Shoemaker. Well, I say delightful. I mean horrifying, at least when you add in the poverty, dementia, corporate thuggery, immoral businessmen, sports-derived brain damage, assault, stillborn babies, arson and attempted murder. Cheery cheery cheery.
In a plot point lifted from Herbie Rides Again and reused in Up (Pixar’s Brad Bird, part of the creative team on Up, was one of the writers for this film), an unscrupulous real estate magnate finds that his plans for his towering new development in New York’s East Village are endangered by the final hold-outs; the tenants of the final extant tenement building. These tenants are the pregnant soon to be single mother Marisa (Elizabeth Peña), artist Mason (Dennis Boutsikaris), simple-minded superintendent Harry (Frank McRae) and Frank and Faye Riley (Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy), the oldest residents and proprietors of the café housed on the building’s ground floor. They have been bribed and harassed but won’t leave, and now, with permit and tax deadlines looming, the developer has sent in Michael Carmine’s Carlos, a thug who aspires to upward mobility, to force them out.
After their restaurant is trashed a dejected Frank considers leaving for a retirement home, something he does not desire to do but considers may be for the best especially as Faye is suffering from advanced dementia. During the night, though, visitors arrive. From outer space! Sentient, metal-based lifeforms who are looking for power and supplies in order to start a family. These little fellas are dab hands at repair and fix up much of the damage done by Carlos and his goons, giving the tenants renewed hope and new allies.
As the cute little extra-terrestrials help out in the restaurant and around the building things take a far darker turn than you might expect, with revelations of dead children, now and in the past; fears for soon to be born children; the difficulties of watching your partner being lost to the perniciousness that is dementia; the poor, elderly and vulnerable being largely abandoned by society and, if that weren’t enough, a greedy businessman willing to have someone’s home burnt to the ground so they don’t have to pay more tax, and not caring whether or not they’re at home when the fire starts. There’s a bit more, too. In this children’s film about sweet little toy spaceships.
For the most part the effects stand up: there’s some really charming puppetry and models used for the Fix-Its, as the aliens are dubbed, and, aside from some terrible fake photographs in the opening sequence (made to look even worse when juxtaposed with genuine photographs of Cronyn and Tandy, married in real life for more than fifty years), the only real problem is with the matting, which, to be fair, still has the potential to look incredibly dodgy today.
But it’s the story that’s compelling. It would be very easy for this to be corny or cheesy, and it’s perhaps Dennis Boutsikaris’s tortured artist that comes closest to breaking the tone (not aided by the cartoonish take on his electrocution), but for the most part the cast play this earnestly, with Cronyn and Tandy adding real gravitas and even Michael Carmine allowed to imbue the broadly written Carlos with a little depth and character progression.
I’m quite pleased that we finished with *batteries not included (though I’ll admit that’s not entirely chance) as, for me, it’s the best film we’ve talked about in this episode. Like the best family films this works on a level for children and a different level for adults, with some crossover, though given its themes and topics it definitely tends much more towards the adult side of things. By which I probably mean cute little robots aside this is probably horrifying for kids (though I have no recollection of that from my childhood so maybe that other stuff just sails over your head if you’re otherwise unfamiliar).
So what am I saying? Well, for me anyway, the best kids’ film in this selection is very much the one really not for kids. What a conclusion!
Thanks to everyone who has got in touch with us on this, or said kind words about the show – it’s all very much appreciated.
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