The Goonies at 35: A treasure trove of fantasy, comedy and adventure

10 mins read

We can only imagine the scene at the Warner Brothers offices back in 1983 when Steven Spielberg pitched a new film to nervous executives desperate for his magic in box office revenues. After all, this was a director who continued to push the boundaries of filmmaking. E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Jaws under his belt; his name pure gold dust for any studio. And as Hollywood battled the emerging VHS era, Spielburg was a name you didn’t dismiss. However, for many executives, the Goonies initial pitch must have seemed slightly wild and incoherent; a kid led mash-up of Indiana Jones, Stand by Me and Treasure Island in a coastal town due for demolition. And under any normal circumstances, it’s a pitch that would have been met by a decisive ‘no’.

But, this was Spielberg, and ‘no’ was not an option even if he didn’t have the time to direct the film himself. Hence, began a creative partnership that resulted in a cult slice of 80s cinema—ultimately creating a brand new film genre in a year that redefined cinema-going. Goonies would embrace pop culture, coming of age and fantasy, while equally layering its mix of genres with cross-generational comedy.

A year of creativity and risk

1985 was far more than just an impressive year for Hollywood releases. It also marked a transition in film entertainment, as studios embraced new voices overflowing with creative talent. However, the journey to the stellar line up of films released in 1985 started many years before. The roots traced back to the late 1970s explosion of fantasy and science fiction, with Superman the Movie, Star Wars and Alien changing cinema’s landscape. And at the same time, giving birth to a whole generation of writers, producers and directors. Each keen on pushing the age-old boundaries of multiple genres by mixing themes and styles.

By the early 1980s, this change had led to Raiders of the Lost Ark and An American Werewolf in London. Followed a few years later by Gremlins, Ghostbusters and Sixteen Candles, each continuing the revolution in mixed-genre filmmaking. However, it was 1985 that saw this journey reach a pinnacle of pure cinematic magic. With Back to the FutureThe Breakfast ClubFright Night, Cocoon, Brazil and The Explorers all receiving their premieres. However, it is arguably The Goonies and Back to the Future that stands tall at the centre of 1985s yellow brick road. Both movies embracing a changing youth culture that was unafraid to look to the past in defining the freedom of the present.

A collision of creativity

The Goonies may have been born in the imagination of its Executive Producer Steven Spielberg. But its journey to the screen and eventual cult status came from a collision of creative minds. A trait born out of Spielberg being unavailable to direct the picture himself. Or dedicate a considerable amount of time to the screenwriting process. This, in turn, led Spielberg to recruit the new Amblin Entertainment writer Chris Columbus. A man who had created the script for Gremlins, a picture that had gone on to prove a massive success in cinemas during 1984.

Columbus surrounded the adventure and fantasy of Spielberg’s vision with the nuanced tone of his first major screenplay, Gremlins. Embedding The Goonies in a similar world of comic book fantasy, humour and teenage escapism. Using a 1950s inspired vision of community, freedom and belonging, and translating this into a 1980s pop culture-inspired journey. However, as The Goonies neared pre-production, it was clear that the choice of director would be pivotal in ensuring Columbus and Spielberg’s vision translated to the screen. Spielberg opted to pass the film to Richard Donner, a director who had diverse experience in multi-genre filmmaking with hits such as The Omen, Lola and Superman the Movie under his belt. 

Ultimately this brought together three creative giants of the Hollywood system. Each one wrapping The Goonies in their own world. From the comic-book-inspired writing of Chris Columbus to Spielberg’s adventure and the multi-genre experience of Donner. Here, each of the creative leads placed their unique stamp on the world The Goonies inhabited, creating a film overflowing with ideas and pop culture references. From the Superman logo and theme to Donner’s love of James Bond. While Columbus ensured The Goonies sat in the same world as Gremlins while equally paying homage to the archaeological adventure of Indiana Jones. Each personal touch helped build a film that ultimately felt part of a much larger universe of work. 

A bridge between the past and present

Despite its layers of pop culture and homage to the films that came before it, The Goonies true genius lay in a script that dovetailed a 1950s ideal of childhood within a changing 80s world. The movie’s coming of age themes holding the same appeal as John Hughes The Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles. Here, The Goonies not only embraces the past but celebrates the growing confidence of 80s teenagers. Reflecting young people as the drivers and consumers of film, TV and music. The transition between child and teenager blurring at the edges as society shifted gear.

Indeed, throughout The Goonies, adults are placed at an arms-length, the villains never equalling the intelligence and ingenuity of our young adventurers. This played to changing dynamics in young people’s role and position as The Goonies challenged the ‘seen and not heard’ model of the past. While equally embracing the growing confidence, attainment and empowerment of kids. A theme Chris Columbus would return to in his directorial debut Adventures in Babysitting and Home Alone.

The continuing legacy

The Goonies success came from its ability to redefine the boundaries of genre-based cinema. While in turn embracing pop culture alongside more traditional themes of childhood freedom. However, the fact that The Goonies is still relevant and celebrated comes from the overflowing creativity of mid-1980s filmmaking. A period when directors and writers were encouraged to embrace new and innovative ideas. Over the proceeding years, many films have attempted to recreate The Goonies’ magic with limited success. Its principal role the inspiration of modern TV and film from Stranger Things to The Kid Who Would Be King. The evidence of its continued cultural and artistic impact spread across the landscape of media and storytelling.

Director: Richard Donner

Cast: Sean AstinJosh BrolinJeff Cohen, Corey Feldman, Kerri Green, Martha Plimpton, Ke Huy Quan, John Matuszak, Robert Davi, Joe Pantoliano, Anne Ramsey

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