1990s Children’s Movies – Huck Finn, Jumanji and Free Willy

Join us as we take you back to the 1990s with a selection of classic children’s movies. Featuring; The Adventures of Huck Finn (PG), Jumanji (PG) and Free Willy (U).

The Adventures of Huck Finn (1993)

THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN, Elijah Wood, 1993, ©Buena Vista Pictures

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. Twain’s language, violence, cutting satire and breadth are unique in children’s literature. His story dovetailing, 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. Here Twain’s work is accessible to a young audience while also maintaining elements of its darkness. The resulting picture is a rip-roaring adventure dovetailing action with a deeper exploration of Twain’s work, ensuring young viewers ask questions about the social injustice of Huck Finn’s journey.


Despite the film’s opening narration from Wood stating, “Get ready for a spit-lickingood time!”. The Adventures of Huck Finn never falls into the Disney trap of becoming coy and cute. Here Sommers maintains Huck’s journey of enlightenment through the denial of Jim’s civil rights. While at the same time attempting to incorporate the language of Twain’s world. The result is a nuanced and engaging adaptation that tries hard to retain the book’s soul. But, make no mistake Huck Finn’s real energetic charm lies within the performances of a young Elijah Wood, Courtney B. Vance and a plethora of guest appearances. Sommers picture is a homage to Twain’s enduring legacy and a stand out 1990s children’s adventure movie that deserves far more praise.

Director: Stephen Sommers

Cast: Elijah WoodCourtney B. VanceRobbie Coltrane, Jason Robards, Ron Perlman, Frances Conroy

Jumanji (1995)

Mention the film Jumanji to any kid today and they will no doubt talk about Dwayne ‘the rock’ Johnson. The recent relaunch of Jumanji has captured the imaginations of a whole new generation accustomed to computer games while at the same time paying homage to the original. However, as with all remakes, it’s more than possible that many of those kids watching the new films will have never watched the 1995 classic.

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. Jumanji is a prime example of this 1990s tech transition with one foot in a brave new digital world while the other remained firmly planted in 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, belonging and isolation. The result is a rollercoaster of fantasy and adventure that pays homage to the 80s work of Steven Spielberg, Richard Donner and Joe Dante. Here Robin Williams is allowed to play off the leash that often constrained him while embodying his dramatic and comedic flair in equal measure. 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 throughout while creating 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, with the resulting movie a joyous, fun, exhausting and exhilarating 90s adventure.

Director:  Joe Johnston

Cast: Robin WilliamsKirsten DunstBonnie Hunt, Bradley Pierce, Adam Hann-Byrd, David Alan Grier

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 the commercial practice. 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 campaign marked a considerable step forward in protection, voices largely remained silent on performing whales, dolphins and sea lions in captivity. Here the business model of Sea World and smaller aquariums continued to thrive based on a circus-style show. However, by the 1990s the tide was also beginning to slowly turn in the use of whales and dolphins as entertainment.

However, it would be a small Warner Brothers family film that would ignite the public interest in challenging the practice of whales as entertainment. That film was Free Willy, the story of a lonely, damaged and angry foster child and a performing whale. Its story, weaving together a boys need for stability and love with the pain and loneliness of a captive Killer Whale. Here, the classic boy and his dog movie template were mixed with elements of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial and Flipper. And while on paper, this sounded like a rather odd mash-up of themes, in practice it worked and became the surprise hit of the summer of 1993.


But why did Free Willy achieve such a runaway success? This is a film that subverts the usual template of the child in a family movie during the 90s. Here the character of Jesse (Jason James Richter) is full of anger, hurt and emotional disconnect from his new foster parents. His feelings of isolation from the world around him, matched only by the whale he befriends. This ensures the boy and the whale become one and the same on their journey. Here both seek escape, freedom and love in differing ways. And this brings me to Willy the Whale who 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.

In addition to this strong and creative narrative arc, Free Willy sings with the beautiful cinematography of Robbie Greenberg and the outstanding score of Basil Poledouris. Its exceptional animatronic work neatly, stitching together each scene between Keiko the Whale and Richter. As a result, Free Willy carries a rare depth in the landscape of 1990s children’s movies. But, it’s what happened after its release that remains so emotional and devastatingly sad. Keiko the Whale just like Willy found his freedom in 2002 but sadly died not long after. However, his role in this small but perfectly formed film helped to redefine our views of captivity and entertainment.

Director: Simon Wincer

Cast: Jason James RichterLori PettyMichael Madsen, August Schellenberg, Jayne Atkinson, Michael Ironside