Inspired by the new Netflix original series Stranger Things, I’ve decided to put together a top 5 list of my favorite Kid-led movies from the 80s. What does kid-led mean? It means that a group of two or more kids are the main characters of the movie, not that it’s necessarily a kid’s movie. Not like they make kid’s movies now, anyway.
In the 80s, movies targeted at kids aged 10-14ish weren’t all loud, obnoxious, soulless corporate drivel (not that there wasn’t a lot of that at the time.) A surprising number of movies from that era actually spoke to us with respect, knowing that being a kid didn’t mean we were dumb, it meant that we were learning and that each summer when school got out, we grew and changed in huge ways and made friendships that were sometimes strong enough to last entire lifetimes. Days felt like weeks and months felt like years. The only way to deal with the intensity of life as a kid was to gang up with a group of your most trusted allies and do it together.
These five movies are my favorite 80s kid flicks:
5. The Explorers (1985)
The Explorers, starring a young chubby River Phoenix and a debuting Ethan Hawke, directed by prolific 80s cult movie director Joe Dante (Gremlins, The Burbs) starts off as your standard young kid 80s flick, but quickly becomes something much more.
The boys discover a weird technology that creates an air-tight bubble and promptly use it to build their very own space ship. The third act takes an insane turn with the boys finding an actual alien space ship with real live aliens on board, who happen to be more like them than they initially realize.
This flick has everything a great kid oriented 80s movie needs. Boring school scenes, bullies, bike rides, awkward scenes with girls and the theme than runs throughout these types of films: The seemingly unbreakable bond of childhood friendship. This theme will pop up over and over again and is one of the threads that holds Stranger Things together, giving us all that awesome 80s kids movie nostalgia feeling.
4. Stand By Me (1986)
What can I say about Stand By Me that hasn’t already been said? This is THE quintessential coming of age childhood movie for us 80s kids. Based on the Stephen King short story The Body and directed by Rob Reiner.
This flick, like The Explorers, also features River Phoenix, strangely enough. Also starring (and launching the careers of) Jerry O’connell, Wil Wheaton and Corey Feldman, Stand By Me is the story of a group of friends who find a dead body and all the weirdness that ensues, including a rival gang of miscreants (lead by a young Kiefer Sutherland) laying their own claim on the body.
Expertly written, acted and directed, Stand By Me would probably claim most people’s number 1 spot on a list like this. But I’m not most people, and my top spots are dedicated to weirdos and monsters. While I love this flick, there’s just not enough craziness for it to make the very top of my list.
3. Solarbabies (1986)
Post-apocalyptic movies–if you’ve read my books, this will come as no surprise–are some of my all time favorite flicks. So it would be remiss if I didn’t include an apocalyptic coming of age movie in my top 80s kids movies list.
Solarbabies is not a good film by any stretch of the imagination. But this is a top 5 list, not a best of list, and while this flick might not be good, exactly, it’s still a major staple of my childhood. My household had a lot of bootlegged VHS movies in a time long before the advent of the internet. So watching movies on the weekends, holidays and long summer days is what most of us weirdo kids who didn’t have any friends did with the time we didn’t spend reading comic books or playing Nintendo. (Actually, sometimes I read comic books and watched movies at the same time.)
One of the movies I came back to time and time again (this included the original Star Wars trilogy, Legend, and Ernest Goes to Camp) was Solarbabies. I’m not sure exactly what was so appealing about this movie other than its bizarre setting, but I probably watched it every other week for years.
The plot is more or less the same as the glut of post-Road Warrior apocalyptic movies. Yada, Yada, Yada, all the water on Earth is gone and what little there is left is controlled by really bad guys while our really cool protagonists wish really badly that they had some of that sweet, sweet H2O.
The big gimmick in this movie is that most of it takes place on roller skates which puts it more in line with The Mighty Ducks as sort of a teenage sports drama than any kind of futuristic cannibal tale. Anyway, the flick is a mess, but I loved it as a kid for some reason.
2. The Goonies (1985)
Another absolute 80s classic that my dumb ass isn’t going to be able to articulate nearly as well as any number of skilled film historians and super movie geeks, but I’ll give it a go, anyway.
As I’ve mentioned, I didn’t have a lot of friends growing up, but the couple that I did have loved all of these crazy ass 80s flicks as much as I did. And we’d often run around quoting scenes from Robocop or Predator. But the movie we’d end up quoting more than any other (except for my number 1 spot below) is, of course, The Goonies.
If it wasn’t for the fact that there aren’t actually any real monsters or ghosts in The Goonies, it would for sure be my number 1 pick for best 80s kids movie. But since it ends up being a straight up mystery/thriller/adventure story for kids, it’s going to have to settle for number 2 on this one.
Written by future Harry Potter visionary Chris Columbus from a story by Steven Spielberg and directed by another 80s movie stalwart, Richard Donner (Superman, Scrooged, Lethal Weapon) The Goonies is the story of a gang of oddball friends who find themselves mixed up in an insane treasure hunt for “One Eyed Willy’s” pirate treasure. Hot on their heels is an equally bizarre family of criminal miscreants called the Fratellis who will stop at nothing to get that gold for themselves.
Full of madcap action and quotable one liners, The Goonies really is the perfect 80s kids movie and sort of personifies everything great about that era. Looking back on it today, The Goonies is what movie geek nostalgia is made of.
1. The Monster Squad (1987)
One of my all time favorite films in general, outside of this list, The Monster Squad was written by Predator scribe Shane Black and directed by Fred Dekker who also directed one of my other favorite films of all time, Night of the Creeps.
The Monster Squad is the 80s kids movie take on the Universal Monsters, all done up by FX wizard Stan Winston who makes these baddies look legitimately scary and mean while existing inside a really quirky, innocent movie about a group of kids who love to hunt monsters, that is until they actually find some!
The plot centers around some kind of amulet, some kind of incantation and the sort of once every hundred years gobbletygook that makes up the story of these kinds of schlocky flicks. But the real stars of the show here are the monsters. Featuring an indestructible (unless you have sliver, of course!) wolfman with very sensitive balls and the best goddamn creature from the black lagoon we’re ever likely to see in a live-action film, the monster squad was absolute eye candy for a young Kevin Strange.
My friends and I would quote this movie more than The Goonies, more than Robocop, even more than Total Recall when we ran around acting like monsters and shooting fake guns at each other.
The Monster Squad and all the rest of the flicks on this list instantly transport me back to the days of my youth, and the creators of Stranger Things managed to do exactly the same thing with their carefully crafted homage to all things 80s kids movies. Bless them for taking all of us big kids, now pushing 40, back to the days when our bikes were our weapons, our wits kept us alive, and the world was ours for the taking, right up until the street lights came on and mom yelled out the front door that it was time for supper.
Stranger Things season 1 is streaming now on Netflix.