Everyone needs role models to help raise them. The Goonies shows there will always come a time, though, when the kids must take matters into their own hands.
Steven Spielberg was unstoppable by the time The Goonies went on an adventure in the summer of 1985. Not only was he behind some of the greatest hits of the previous ten years, but they were hits that appealed to a wide range of audiences. From E.T. (1982) to Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) to Jaws (1975), Spielberg was primed to draw children, teens, and adults to theaters that summer and provide them each something satisfying. And, with Drew Struzan drawn posters in the lobby of movie theaters nation-wide screaming action, adventure, and danger, tickets were sure to sell fast.
The Goonies is simultaneously a product of its time and timeless classic. It reflects perfectly the American experience in 1985 while remaining universal in its appeal. This was accomplished by clearly grounding its characters to the day and age with their pop culture references while subverting the typical character tropes of the time. Steven Spielberg only wrote and produced The Goonies, it was directed by Richard Donner; yet, it is still one of Spielberg’s most treasured films with the most mass appeal.
Nothing Exciting Ever Happens Here
Films about hunting for lost pirate treasure in booby-trapped caves while running from bandits with guns do not typically spend their first 25 minutes inside a suburban home. Assuredly though, the perhaps slower build-up to the height of adventure is fully conceived. The whole extended scene scratches at the sentiments of the adult audience. Spending valuable exposition time in the home of Mikey (Sean Astin) and Brand (Josh Brolin) Walsh is a good way to help viewers feel as though the family is no different than their own. At the time The Goonies was being produced and shown in theaters, the average American family was enjoying the fruits of the end of the recession that beleaguered the early part of the decade. The general population was feeling pretty good again, but audiences were not too far removed yet from the economic troubles of the families in Astoria, Oregon.
All the while, The Goonies could have taken place in any decade. The tricks and gadgets Data (Jonathan Ke Quan) employed may look different, but the plot of defending a home from corporate takeover would never be out of place no matter the time period. The shell of The Goonies is simple, but its contents are unique. There were many movies throughout the 80s that sported casts of heartthrob teens or plucky kids. The Goonies featured both. In this movie, the two groups were never in conflict with each other either. There was witty banter, but never true rivalry. The older kids and the younger kids were equal partners in the quest for One-Eyed Willy’s lost treasure.
The Goonies was new and different, but also certainly modern. It firmly grounded itself in the 80s with Janet Jackson, Purple Rain, Gremlins, and Martin Sheen references. When it hit the theaters, it was very clearly set in the same time as its viewers. It was jam-packed with the coolest contemporary references. At the same time, The Goonies also elicits a yearning for a “more simple time.” The quiet setting of Arcadia, the freewheeling gang family, and even Mouth’s (Corey Feldman) greaser style draw upon an idealized 1950s America. This mix of cultural reference and cultural call-back is all meant to lull the viewer into falling completely in love with the Goonies, only to subtly, non-aggressively undermine the sense of normalcy the movie works so hard to set up.
Is Your Mommy Here?
After building up audiences to feel safe and cozy in what they imagine Arcadia to be like, it is time for adventure. The spectacular adventure the Goonies go on through the caves beneath Astoria is what adolescent dreams are made of. There is danger, puzzle-solving, awesome contraptions, and even a small bit of sexual tension between Brand and Andy (Kerri Green) and Mouth and Stef (Martha Plimpton). The scale The Goonies is able to portray is impressive considering the small-town feel it begins with and revolves around. The bottomless pits, the huge, twisting waterslide, the enormous pirate ship, and even the beach-side shot of the heroes emerging from underground make the world beneath Astoria seem vast compared to the compact life lived on the surface. Creating this dichotomy between the adjacent worlds does more than just enhance the sense of wonder and adventure. It helps the Goonies to be seen as more than just kids.
While the Goonies are fending off the Fratellis in juvenile fashion in the foreground, in the background, they are taking on some seriously adult themes.The true villains of The Goonies, the wealthy land developers, come to the Walsh house and condescend the kids, asking in a mocking tone “is your mommy here?” The impetus for the Goonies’ grand adventure is the desire to do what their parents could not: protect their neighborhood from demolition. There is no effort made to cast shame on the parents, as the kids all know they did all they could. That still does not stop them from doing all they can to fight for what they believe in.
The Goonies‘ audiences’ paradise was built on a faulty foundation, one that is reminiscent of a supposed time when families had a rigid structure and never was there trouble the sheriff would not settle. The foundation starts to crumble as the Goonies get closer and closer to finding the treasure and saving their homes. The adults from the parents to the Fratellis to Astoria’s sheriff all fail to fit the picturesque mold. The kids are the ones with the power, the ability to act, and they exercise it so naturally and with the same humble energy established from the onset. The treasure hunt may be extravagant, but the way the kids act is very real. This allows the unrealistic notions of the traditional American family to be subtly replaced by something both valuable and more realistic.
The perfect visual representation of this message is the classic scene at the bottom of the wishing well where Mikey gives a moving speech about how their parents did their best up above but now, down there, it is their time to play their part. While Troy (Steve Antin) the bully and the adults look down on the kids, while their own parents try to overprotect them by making them stay inside when it is cold, the Goonies are working hard and unnoticed to do what their parents never could. The grand sense of wonder and the feeling of familiarity and comfort collide in this scene to make the Goonies, and subsequently, the kids, teens, and adults watching feel as though their age is inconsequential to the impact they can have.
Hey You Guys
The Goonies remains as strong a film today is it was in 1985 because it did virtually none of what most other films do. The siblings were partners, not adversaries. The main romantic couple were not in pursuit of one another, they are already in a healthy relationship. When Chunk (Jeff Cohen) meets Sloth (John Matuszak), he never once judges him for his appearance or demeanor. The kids are all just as pure as the idyllic age The Goonies works to evoke. This instant lovability and universal relatability make it easy to suspend any disbelief that a team of kids could save their neighborhood.
It also is a reminder that when kids are looked down upon, they will often rise above the expectations set upon them. The idyllic world invoked at the onset of The Goonies never really existed. The Fratellis are the embodiment of that myth. These 1940’s-50’s-esque gangsters are spearheaded by a mother (Anne Ramsey) who only pretends to care about her family and two siblings, Francis (Joe Pantoliano) and Jake (Robert Davi) who are constantly at each other’s throats. In this, they become a caricature of the typical family structure portrayed in popular culture.
The Goonies uses nostalgia to teach a lesson for the ages. By setting up a yearning for the past only to knock it down, the focus is subtly shifted back to the present and into the future as it calls attention to the absurdity of wanting anything less than what the Goonies represent. Nostalgia and pop culture references may have made The Goonies stand out in its time as a fun, family flick. It is a classic for what its characters represent. They are hardworking, determined kids who show that they are in control of their own destinies, not the adults around them nor the usual tropes their characters may have fallen into in any other film. And, because they do so with respect and cute faces, The Goonies ends leaving everyone, child and parent alike, believing they too can make a difference wherever they set their determination to it.
The Goonies’ Legacy
The Goonies is a prime example of how to stoke nostalgia in a film while also remaining true to the time it is created in. Spielberg attempted to generate the same feelings in his recent rendition of Ready Player One. The film made pop culture waves in its tie, spawning two video game spin-offs The Goonies and The Goonies II in 1986 and 1987 and yielded a wildly popular single track and music video from Cyndi Lauper, The Goonies ‘R’ Good Enough. This movie also marked the beginnings of long, successful careers for most of its cast as well as director Richard Donner and screenwriter Chris Colombus.
The legacy clearly continues on for The Goonies. This perfect rainy day summer camp flick recently received a Lego rendition in the Lego Dimensions toys-to-life line and served as a major influence on Stranger Things after proving that kids and teens can work together as a dynamic and broad-audience-engaging team. There are few other properties akin to The Goonies, but, its lasting influence is undeniable. The desire to craft the perfect balance between modern cultural references and ones that are reminders of another time is strong in current media. Fortunately, creators need to look no further than this 1985 classic for an excellent example of how to do both, artfully, and with great fun for everybody.
Jason is a graduate student at Binghamton University studying public administration. His mission is to find the universal values in the fictional worlds we love so we can make our real world better and more full. When not writing, Jason works on food justice and sharing music with communities throughout the region. Or he’s unlocking Xbox achievements.