My folks took my sisters and I to the movies frequently when I was a kid, and I was lucky enough to see some great films in the theaters as a result, including Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Batman, and Back to the Future, Part II. Besides this, since my dad was such a film fan we rented videos about 2 to 3 times a week so there was always something to watch in the house (gee, I wonder how I ended up writing hundreds of articles about movies in my adulthood?).
Watching kids’ TV shows now, I’m surprised at how sophisticated they are: they lean heavily on the fourth wall, are jammed with pop culture references, and require a certain amount of savvy about media, culture, and postmodernism that was way outside my ken as a child.
Then again, there was no internet back then so any understanding I had of the world came from VHS tapes, library books, and television. And as an adult now, I look back on the 80’s with a lot of envy, particularly since the world was still being censored for the sake of children.
Or was it?
Kids movies back in the 1980s may not have been as sophisticated as they are today but they certainly were much darker and adult than the fare for children today. Curse words, sexual situations, and a whole lotta racist content slipped into the elastic “PG” rating, which stood for “Parental Guidance,” not “Practically G” back in the 1980’s.
As a result, what was classified as a “kid’s movie” had wide berth: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, for example, was considered a fine film for kids to watch, as was Back to the Future despite some questionable content, and so was Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom despite the child slavery and horrifying human sacrifice. So maybe it wasn’t so much censoring as it was a more relaxed standard of what was considered “appropriate” content for kids.
With this in mind, let’s take a look back at some kids films that we watched on clunky VHS or caught on Saturday afternoon matinees on TV or even saw in the theaters.
The Princess Bride
One of the smarter children’s films ever made, The Princess Bride was the closest a kid’s film in the 80s came to being outright postmodern. In fact, as an adult I read William Goldman’s original novel and found it wildly postmodern: he often breaks in on the narration, attributes the tale to a fictional author from centuries ago, and laments at how the sequel to the book is being written by Stephen King. It’s kind of nuts.
This movie has so many great characters and moments in this movie, and of course it’s endlessly quotable: “Anybody want a peanut?” “Inconceivable!” “My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” It’s a kid’s movie that not only holds up but is just as enjoyable to watch as an adult as it was when you were a child.
Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure
How weird was Pee-Wee Herman? How did this guy ever have a massive children’s show on TV? I was too young when “the troubles” happened to understand it, but suddenly Pee-Wee’s Playhouse disappeared from TV one day. Only when I got a little older did I understand exactly why he lost his career. But I was a big fan of his show on TV and a similarly big fan of his Big Adventure, which was a rental mainstay in my house.
In fact, my dad probably ran us off a bootleg copy, which accounts for how I watched it so much as a kid. A lot of the movies on this list, by the way, came from having a tech-savvy father who owned two VCRs and loved the idea that he could run off copies of movies. Hey, I wasn’t complaining.
Watching this movie now, it’s a very strange film: directed by Tim Burton, there’s a lot of eerie scenes and darkness in a supposed kid’s movie. Large Marge was freaky; his strange clown nightmare was scary; and he was often in danger of being murdered in about half the movie. Also, Pee-Wee was ostensibly an adult but acted like a 10-year-old boy. But he had a cool house and of course a sweet bike. This one is a good example of how movies made for children back then could really push the line of what was considered appropriate for kids.
Number Five is alive! Or something. This was one of those movies that always seemed to be either on TV or, for some reason, a lot of people owned copies of this movie and would pop it in whenever kids were around.
About a silly robot who gains sentience due to a lightning strike, Johnny Five was made for kids and actually spat out a lot of pop culture gibberish that I wouldn’t recognize until years later. Also, in a bit of values dissonance, the “Indian” character of Ben was played by a white guy doing a stereotypical accent. Ahh, the non-PC 1980’s.
Having watched this movie a few times since becoming an adult, I kind of can’t see the appeal anymore. But then again, it’s a film firmly stuck in its time and place, having been released in 1986, perhaps the most 80s of years in America. When I was 5 I liked Johnny Five, and maybe that’s as far as the appeal for it should go.
Back to the Future
How many times did I watch this movie as a kid? A hundred? Two hundred? It was seemingly playing on a non-stop loop in my house, mostly because I would put it on whenever I had the TV to myself (bootleg dub from dad strikes again).
I thought Marty was the coolest, I thought the DeLorean was the most awesome car ever made, and I wish I had a mad scientist pal that had a time machine. To my small child brain, nothing was neater than the idea that a slick car could shoot through time. Did I understand a lot of the more adult stuff in the movie? Of course not. I even tuned out a lot of the time when either Doc or the car weren’t on-screen. But I still put this movie on to have in the background, waiting for those awesome moments to show up.
When I was 7 my folks brought me to see Back to the Future Part II in the movie theaters and for the first half-hour I was in heaven: the Delorean flew now! And they went into the future! The crazy distant year of 2015! Hoverboards! So awesome!
Then the rest of the movie happened and it got dark and weird and I kind of tuned out again. But to a 7-year-old boy, the first part of that movie was just the best damn thing ever.
I even watched that dorky cartoon show they made in the early 90’s but tuned out when I realized it was going to mostly focus on Doc’s kids we saw for 30 seconds at the end of the third film.
So I didn’t really absorb the first movie as a kid but I really liked the style of it and the more iconic parts about it. But isn’t that what the 80’s was all about – all style and surface?
Here’s an oddity: pretty much a feature-length advertisement for Nintendo, The Wizard wasn’t something I think anyone saw in theaters but then ended up watching a bunch of times when it came out on VHS–mostly because it was about Nintendo and because it had the kid fantasy of children running away and making their way across the country on their own. It’s that kind of “kid power!” crap that marketers figured would be a good way to “empower” children to spend their parents’ money on the garbage they were selling.
And it worked great! But mostly I liked this movie as a kid because my parents refused to buy us a Nintendo until they felt were all old enough for it not to turn our brains into tapioca. But my dad still brought home stacks of Nintendo Power from the flea market for us, so I don’t know what that was all about. Maybe the magazines were like a placebo for an actual game system? Who knows. Anyway, this movie’s dorky as hell but thanks to it imprinting on me as a kid, there’s a certain nostalgic charm to it, even if it’s just a long commercial for Nintendo.
Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure
On the flip side, here’s an actual cool movie from the 1980s. Some smart person realized that time travel + weird vehicle + teenagers = money in the bank and cranked out Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.
Featuring two bonehead rockers from California (Alex Winters and Keanu Reeves) who receive a telephone booth time machine that was sent back from the future to guarantee they pass their final project for history class so they can go on to start a band that will ultimately bring about world peace. Strange things are afoot at the Circle K.
You know, just writing that sounds completely nuts, but the movie gets even crazier: they eventually gather up Socrates, Napoleon, Lincoln, and Freud so they can use them as part of their final project. The movie’s one of those ridiculous high concept movies that were popular in the 1980s (like body switcheroo movies that spawned 18 Again!, Vice Versa, Like Father, Like Son, etc., or ski comedies, or mistaken identity movies) that actually works.
It’s a sincerely funny and original comedy. And while there’s some material that doesn’t translate well to the modern age (our heroes call each other “fags” more than a few times in the movie), it’s a rollicking 80’s comedy that kids were allowed to watch because our parents weren’t too concerned with little slips of curses or some inappropriate material every now and then.
Troop Beverly Hills
Yes, I know: it’s a girl movie. But I was raised with two sisters. Hence my love for Troop Beverly Hills. But that’s not even true: I genuinely like this movie. Hell, I even own the DVD now. But why?
For one, it’s actually pretty funny. For another, it’s very 80s: since anything that involves the rich and Los Angeles in the 1980s meant it had to take place in Beverly Hills, so this film did.
This time, it’s about a wealthy wife who’s going through a divorce and takes an interest in her daughter’s Wilderness Girls troop. Unfortunately, the troop is looked down upon because they’re rich kids and besides that aren’t very apt to the whole “wilderness” part of being a Wilderness Girl.
But with pluck, moxie, and other spirited terms, the Troop Beverly Hills succeeds. Yes, it’s a little weird that the film focuses on the “poor little rich girls” angle, and sure, Shelley Long curses a few times in the movie and smokes throughout, but the film’s an undeniably nostalgic piece of the 1980’s both visually and content-wise.
Come to think of it, this is the second movie on this list (along with The Wizard) that stars Jenny Lewis, who ended up starting the indie band Rilo Kiley. Does this mean anything? Probably not. Anyway, I watched this film a lot as a kid and even now watch it about once a year when my brain needs a good flossing.
Two teenage nerds create what they consider the perfect woman one dark and stormy night, using the kind of computer magic that only the profound misunderstanding of computers that people had in the 80s, and poof! Kelly LeBrock circa 1985 appears, both as an object of extreme desire and as a magical genie for the boys. Talk about a relatively inappropriate film for kids!
Few movies get as 1980s as Weird Science does: the stereotypical nerds, bullying jocks, materialistic desires, outre sartorial and fashion choices, and the general un-PC notion of teenage boys creating a beautiful woman to satisfy their desires makes this a movie that would not get made today without a serious rewrite and not being able to gear it towards kids.
But to be fair, Lisa (LeBrock) ends up being a more positive character than the initial assumption that she’s just there for sexy times, bringing Wyatt and Gary out of their shells and instilling confidence in them. Either way, it’s a fun, funny flick that’s super-80s in the best way possible.
Oh, The Goonies. Up there with playing Oregon Trail in the computer lab, this movie is one of the most fondly remembered pieces of shared culture for people of my generation.
This group of wacky kids–including Data, the gadget-inventing one, and Chunk, the..uh, chunky one–there are few films that pegged the 80s penchant for broad stereotyping. The Bad Guys are true villains from the first scene, disfigured Sloth ends up being a loveable hero, and this group of misfits try to find One-Eyed Willy’s lost treasure so they can save their town from going under and being sold.
Truth be told, I was never the biggest fan of the movie. I thought it was an Indiana Jones movie with too many characters and was a little too goofy for my refined tastes, what with my hifalutin Troop Beverly Hills and all. Did I watch it? Of course I watched it: I watched everything, even if I didn’t particularly enjoy it.
It’s still a beloved movie from the 1980s and one of my generation’s overall favorite movies, mixing adventure with comedy and having kids front-and-center as the protagonists, The Goonies is pure, uncut 80s nostalgia.
Mac and Me
Now a notoriously bad movie, I actually saw Mac & Me in theaters during its original run. I have no idea why; maybe there was simply nothing else playing that weekend that was kid-friendly. In fact, let me get into my internet time machine see what else opened that weekend. (Hops into Internet Time Machine™, returns instantly with the answer.)
OK: so my guess was correct: the weekend it opened, on August 12, 1988, the movies Clean & Sober, The Last Temptation of Christ, Tucker: The Man and His Dream, and Young Guns opened. Slim pickings for the 12-and-under crowd. Well what the hell, I was 6 and enjoyed it enough at the time.
Of course, now it’s known for being one of the worst films ever made–and it is. This lame E.T. knock-off was co-sponsored by McDonald’s and featured some of the ugliest aliens ever created for the screen. Now it holds a bizarre place in nostalgic film history as being one of the crummiest movies ever made for kids, it’s truly worth a watch just to wrap your head around how abysmal this film really is.
Magical sci-fi was a sort of linchpin in 80’s kids films, and maybe no other movie captures this idea better than Explorers, the story of three friends who surprisingly make a revolutionary source of power that enables them to fly into space where they encounter an alien species that spouts out bits of TV it’s absorbed as dialogue.
It’s very 80s in this way, where kids do something incredible on their own but then encounter a being whose references would only make sense to a Baby Boomer. Did I mention the 80s was when Baby Boomers took over pop culture?
It’s still a wonderful film directed by Joe Dante, who had made some excellent films in the 1980s and 90s, including Gremlins and one of my favorites, The ‘Burbs.
Released in 1985 and starring Ethan Hawke and River Phoenix, Explorers was a great sci-fi fantasy film aimed towards kids, starring kids, and actually hitting the sweet spot between aspirational fiction and making a film that’s appropriate for children, Explorers is a somewhat forgotten film now.
But man, did I like this film as a kid, even fantasizing often about building my own little spaceship that could launch me into space. And that’s maybe the best hallmark of a film: one that inspires kids’ imaginations without ever talking down to them. Maybe we’re all too old to actually watch it ourselves, but if you have a kid it’s a great flick to show them so they too can share in the fun 80s greatness people of a certain age these days remember.
Return to Oz
This movie scared the hell out of my generation and for good reason: it was consistently dark and demented. But when I was a kid I loved this movie, way more than the original Wizard of Oz, which I found kind of cheesy even as tyke.
Instead, Return to Oz was an incredibly disturbed take on the Oz mythos, eschewing closer to the original source material and making it far more impactful than the hokey original. Future cult figure Fairuza Balk stars as the young Dorothy, who has been sent to a mental hospital and is about to get a lobotomy when she escapes during a storm.
She returns to Oz, only finding the place a desolate wasteland and her former allies turned to stone. Instead, she has to fight the insane Wheelers, befriends the adorable/nightmarish Tik-Tok and Jack Pumpkinhead, and uses a live moose head sewn to a couch to fly over the Deadly Desert to the Nome King’s mountain. This movie is completely nuts but I loved it endlessly as a kid.
Return to Oz still holds up even as an adult. If you remember it (for good or ill) or have never seen it before, check it out. It’s another one of those films where the adults of the 1980s saw potentially disturbing content and thought to themselves, “Meh. We watched the Vietnam War unfold in front of our eyes every night on the news when we were young–I’m sure our kids can deal with this.”
These were also the same people that came up with that Punky Brewster episode that scarred an entire generation, but hey, at least we all ended up great successes. I mean we didn’t, but sill. Return to Oz is a solid flick anyway.
If you haven’t picked up on a theme here, it’s that the 1980s wasn’t great at judging what was appropriate for children’s entertainment. Sex jokes, crude stereotypes, and inappropriate situations were part and parcel for kids’ films back then.
Little Monsters was a good example of this: Featuring an obnoxious performance by Howie Mandel as Maurice, a monster that that enter children’s houses from under their bed at night to cause mischief and Fred Savage as Brian, a sixth-grader that captures and then befriends Maurice. Brian is invited into the subterranean world that Maurice calls home and accompanies him on his nightly rounds of ruining children’s lives for no reason. Brian stays up all night in the underworld, and his life begins to take a downturn. Meanwhile, his parents are discussing divorce and other cliche kid’s movies tropes are evoked.
I actually really liked this movie as a kid: I thought it was clever and weird and even owned and read the novelization of the film. Sure, it may be a kind of shitty movie as an adult but it works well as a kid’s movie. Honestly, that’s the worst I have to say about this movie. I know it’s kind of hated, but it struck the right balance between what a young boy would want to have–mainly, a crazy underworld he could escape into–while also tracking an original idea.
Besides that, the song that plays over the credits is Talking Heads’ “Road to Nowhere,” which as the first song of theirs I can remember hearing. Maybe that’s why I have such fondness for it. Maybe not: I may just be saving face as a hip adult. In all honestly, I just like this movie. How stupid is that?
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
Oh, Ferris. You’re a real jerk but damn if you aren’t a cool guy. Everybody loves you: the sportos, the motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, wastoids, dweebies, dickheads – they all adore him. They think he’s a righteous dude.
And who couldn’t like this irrepressible teenager? Ferris has the world on a string and lives in the kind of 80s paradise we all wished we did: a wealthy family, the coolest room in the world as his own, and able to pull one or five over on every adult he comes across, Ferris Bueller was the kind of teenager every kid wished they could grow up to be.
Also, this film is so wonderfully 80s in ways both obvious and not that it works as a time capsule: Ferris lives a life of middle-class comfort, if not upper-class, and so does his friend Cameron; the idea of snubbing authority figures underscores what an Alpha type Ferris is, which is reflective of 1980s values of the best type of guy: a smooth-talking, super-smart young man who seemingly rules the world through will alone. Make him a stockbroker and you have the perfect 80s yuppie.
I was but a tyke when I first watched the movie I couldn’t help but love Ferris. After all, he was a cool dude with a rude ‘tude who outsmarts everybody–his parents, the principal, and even his own friends–along the way. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off embodies the best of 80’s attitudes, where a young, smart, middle-class American male is almost guaranteed a successful existence. Just like it would be for the rest of history! Right? RIGHT? (sobs quietly)
The Neverending Story
Next to The Princess Bride and The Goonies, The Neverending Story may be the most ubiquitous children’s movie from the 1980’s. While the wraparound story of that nerd Bastian wasn’t much, it’s the core story that makes The Neverending Story a somewhat imperishable fantasy.
The world of Fantasia is inhabited by incredible fantasy creatures and follows the adventure of Atreyu, a young man who has to find a cure for the Childlike Empress’s illness to restore her to health and stop the Nothing from destroying their world. And of course, there’s a flying dog in the story, as well.
Nothing short of excellent fantasy, The Neverending Story is one of those children’s movies that smartly set most of the plot in a timeless realm, much like The Princess Bride. As a result, it still holds up well even nearly 40 years after its release in 1984.
The list could just keep going from here: Labyrinth, A Christmas Story (which was a treat back then before it started airing in a 24-hour loop every Christmas), Honey, I Shrunk The Kids, Flight of the Navigator, The Secret of NIMH, An American Tale, Adventures in Babysitting…I could just sit here writing about great kid’s movies from the 1980s all day.
But it has to end somewhere, just like childhood did. Culturally, the 1980s ended in September 1991 when Nirvana’s Nevermind was released and American culture shifted away from the glossy pop sensibilities of the 1980s into the flannel and grunge styles where things would become totally radical instead of totally awesome. But detailing the difference between 90s radical and 80s awesome is a task for another day.
It’s fun and nostalgic to look back now 30 years later back to the 1980s, even if it’s a long-lost time that continues to draw further away into the hazy past and only existing in the increasingly ageing generations that lived through it. It still blows my mind sometimes when I realize someone born in 1996 is in their late 20s and their childhood took place by the time I was going to college.
But maybe that’s why we have nostalgia: to make us feel a little safer about how time only moves in one direction, that hundreds of millions of people are born after our own moment of youth, and our specific cultural memories become ancient history to them–that time in the world before they were here. Age shouldn’t make our memories irrelevant to culture, but it does. At least we can always look back. Goodbye, childhood; hello history.