Join us as we take you back to the 1990s with a selection of classic children’s movies. featuring; A Muppet Christmas Carol (U), The Adventures of Huck Finn (PG), Jumanji (PG) and Free Willy (U).
The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
After the death of Jim Henson in 1990 many wondered whether The Muppets would ever find their voice again. And with Henson’s early discussions of a possible merger with Disney, never amounting to a deal before his death. The Henson company’s future sat in the hands of his son Brian. But, a question remained about the future of The Muppets on-screen. After all, in the years leading up to his death, Jim Henson had focussed on new projects. With Labyrinth, The Witches, The Dark Crystal all having widened the scope of the Henson Company.
Therefore, when Brian found himself approached by ABC television not long after his father’s death; their idea a Muppet led adaptation of Charles Dickens Christmas Carol, Brian was filled with both excitement and doubt. But, embracing the excitement, he jumped at the opportunity to bring The Muppets back to TV. However, it wasn’t long before the TV script had found the interest of Disney Studio executives. And after tweaks to the project, The Muppet Christmas Carol transferred to Walt Disney Pictures for a potential cinematic release.
Just as Walt Disney battled sizable change in its size and structure, The Muppets provided a safe option for investment. However, despite high hopes, The Muppet Christmas Carol was left in the shadow of Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, and Disney’s Aladdin on release.
But, despite this, The Muppet Christmas Carol went on to find global success many years later via home video. With the movie now inhabiting the position of one of the most loved Christmas movies of the past 28 years. And it’s easy to see why, as it treats Dickens source material with the utmost love and respect. While at the same time, layering his story with the wonder, imagination and joy of Jim Henson’s Muppet world. The result of which is a film that not only manages to create a unique and joyous adaptation of Dickens work but in turn provides us with a love letter to Jim Henson’s creations. In a movie that is easily one of the most sincere, loving and beautiful Muppet movies of the past 41 years, and one of the greatest 1990’s children’s movies.
Director: Brian Henson
The Adventures of Huck Finn (1993)
Mark Twain’s 1884 novel has been adapted for the screen many times since the 1918 silent adventure Huck and Tom. Set along the banks of the Mississippi River, Twain’s book has become engrained in the history of literature. With giants like Ernest Hemmingway famously stating that American literature starts and ends with Huck Finn. Its language, violence, cutting satire and breadth unique in children’s literature. With a story that couples adventure and humour with themes ranging from domestic violence, slavery and war to justice and religion. However, this very breadth and depth in Twain’s work have led to several challenges for filmmakers. Especially in translating the text for young audiences. With many adaptations watering down the novels social themes and violence in favour of spit and sawdust adventure.
Therefore, when Disney announced a live-action adaptation of Huckleberry Finn, many anticipated a watering down of Twain’s novel. After all, the Disney machine was, and still is fearful of anything that challenges its family-friendly image. But, first time director Stephen Sommers achieves something rather unique with his 1993 adaptation. In not only making Twain’s work accessible to a young audience but also maintaining elements of its darkness. The rip-roaring adventure starring a young Elijah Wood both entertaining and light in construct. While at the same time, never forgoing the deeper themes of Twain’s work. The essence of which thread through the film, ensuring young viewers ask questions about the social injustice of Huck Finn’s world.
In fact, despite the film’s opening narration from Wood stating “Get ready for a spit-lickin‘ good time!”. The Adventures of Huck Finn never falls into the Disney trap of becoming coy and cute. With Sommers maintaining Huck’s journey of enlightenment to the civil rights of Jim. While at the same time, attempting to incorporate the language of Twain with a modern twist. The result of which is a nuanced and engaging adaptation that tries hard to retain the soul of the book. And when that is coupled with the outstanding performance of a young Elijah Wood, Courtney B. Vance and a plethora of guest talent. The Adventures of Huck Finn stands out as a 1990s children’s adventure movie that never forgets its literary roots.
Director: Stephen Sommers
Mention the title Jumanji to any kid today and they will no doubt talk about Dwayne ‘the rock’ Johnson. The recent reimagining of Jumanji having captured the imaginations of a whole new generation accustomed to computer games. In fact, it’s more than possible that many of those kids have never watched the 1995 classic. But, while the new films offer a fresh take on Chris Van Allsburg’s book, it is Joe Johnson’s 1995 movie that captures the magic.
The 1990s heralded a gigantic leap forward in digital effects on screen, with both Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) and Jurassic Park (1993) pushing the boundaries of digital effects. Meanwhile, cinema sound also began to step out of the shadows of Dolby Stereo (SR), with DTS Digital and Dolby Digital. And while all movies were still projected via celluloid film, the race had begun for full digital presentation in cinemas. However, many movies were still reliant on practical effects to sweep viewers away to new worlds. With Jumanji, a prime example of a 1990s children’s movie with one foot in a brave new digital world while the other remained in timeless physical effects.
Jumanji is a movie just as frantic as the wild creatures at its heart, taking us from 1869 to 1969 before ending up in 1995. While at the same time playing with themes of time travel, family love and childhood isolation. The result of which is a rollercoaster of fantasy and adventure that pays homage to the 80s work of Steven Spielberg, Richard Donner and Joe Dante. While allowing Robin Williams to embody a manchild who does not rely on laughs for audience satisfaction. His character a scared, lonely and uncertain man who doesn’t yet realise he is no longer the boy who vanished in 1969. Meanwhile, the two kids at the heart of the action Judy (Kirsten Dunst) and Peter (Bradley Pierce) shine with sincerity while permeating a sense of fun, joy and adventure.
Twenty-five years after it hit our screens in December 1995, Jumanji’s effects work is a tale of two halves: with only some of the groundbreaking digital work remaining impressive. However, this is rescued by its physical effects, which continue to glow with the imagination of those involved in the film’s creation. While at the same time, the films pace, score and performances ensure the magic only grows from one scene to the next—the result a joyous, fun, exhausting and enthralling 1990s adventure.
Director: Joe Johnston
Free Willy (1993)
By the mid-1970s, the ‘save the whale’ campaign had begun to make its voice heard in the abolishment of the whaling industry. And by the early 1980s, the International Whaling Commission had brought forward a moratorium on commercial whaling. This transition in public thinking was also reflected in film, from A Whale for the Killing (1981) to Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986). However, while this campaigning marked a considerable step forward in environmental protection. Voices largely remained silent on performing whales, dolphins and sea lions in captivity. The business model of Sea World and smaller aquariums continuing to thrive on a range of circus-style shows. However, by the 1990s the tide was also beginning to slowly turn in the use of whales and dolphins as entertainment.
But, it was a small Warner Brothers family film that sparked public interest more than any campaign in 1993. The story of a lonely, damaged and angry foster child and a whale named Willy. In a movie that dovetailed a need for childhood stability and love with the pain of captivity for a Killer Whale who longs to be free. The classic one boy and his dog template, mixed with E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial and Flipper. Of course, on paper, this sounds like a rather odd mash-up of themes; however, even more, unexpected was just how well it worked in practice. As a result, Free Willy not only took critics by surprise but also became a knockout hit in the summer of 1993.
So why I hear you ask is Free Willy an undeniably brilliant 1990s children’s movie? Well, let me explain. Firstly this is a film that subverts the usual template of kids in family movies during the 90s. The character of Jesse (Jason James Richter) full of anger, hurt and emotional disconnect from his new foster parents. His isolation from the world around him matching that of the whale he befriends. And this brings us to the second reason for its success, as it ensures Willy the Whale never becomes a mere toy or emotional tool. Here Willy is defined as a lead character in his own right, which is rare in a family movie centring on a boy and animal; the animal often nothing more than a mere implement in the human journey the film aims to explore.
However, last but by no means least Free Willy sings with the beautiful cinematography of Robbie Greenberg and the outstanding score of Basil Poledouris. And, when combined with exceptional animatronic work that neatly stitches together scenes with the films real star Keiko the Whale, Free Willy emotes a rare depth and meaning in the field of 1990s children’s movies. Of course, Keiko the Whale did find his freedom in 2002 but sadly died not long after. However, his role in a film that redefined our views of captivity can, and will, never be forgotten.
Director: Simon Wincer