90s Kid’s Classics – a collection of fabulous live-action kid’s movies from the 1990s. Features: The Adventures of Huck Finn, Mrs Doubtfire, Muppet Treasure Island, Jumanji, My Girl, Free Willy, Richie Rich, Now and Then and The Rocketeer.
THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN (1993)
Mark Twain’s 1884 novel has been adapted for the screen many times since the first 1918 silent screen adventure Huck and Tom. Set along the banks of the Mississippi River, Twain’s book has become engrained in the history of literature, with literary giants like Ernest Hemmingway stating that American literature started and stopped with Huck Finn. Twain’s language, violence, cutting satire and breadth are unique in children’s literature, as he dovetails adventure with humour and social discussions ranging from domestic violence and slavery to war and religion. However, the breadth and depth of Twain’s work have led to challenges for filmmakers, especially in translating the text for young audiences. As a result, many adaptations have watered down the novel’s social themes and violence in favour of a kid-friendly spit-and-sawdust adventure.
When Disney announced a live-action adaptation of Huckleberry Finn, many anticipated yet another watered-down adaptation of Twain’s novel. After all, the Disney machine was, and largely still is, fearful of anything that challenges its family-friendly image. But, first-time director Stephen Sommers achieved something rather unique with his 1993 adaptation. Sommers brought Twain’s work to a young audience while maintaining elements of darkness. The result was a rip-roaring adventure that didn’t shy away from a deeper exploration of Twain’s work. Despite the film’s opening narration from a young Elijah Wood stating, “Get ready for a spit-lickin‘ good time!” The Adventures of Huck Finn never falls into the Disney trap of becoming coy or cute. Sommers always maintains Huck’s core journey of enlightenment through the denial of Jim’s civil rights while attempting to incorporate the language of Twain’s world. The Adventures of Huck Finn is full of charm, beauty and respect for Mark Twain’s novel and deserves more critical praise.
90s Kids Classics
MRS DOUBTFIRE (1993)
Love knows no bounds, and Mrs Doubtfire proved it! Released in 1993, Chris Columbus’ divine comedy drama starring the late great Robin Williams captivated audiences through its heartwarming story of fatherhood, family separation, love, and acceptance. Robin Williams’ masterful performance sees Daniel Hillard, a devoted but irresponsible father going through a divorce, create an eccentric British nanny named Mrs Doubtfire to spend much-needed time with his kids. Here Daniel’s new persona becomes a source of comfort and stability for his kids during some of the most challenging times while helping him to build bridges with his estranged wife (Sally Field).
This finely tuned comedy plays to Williams’ freewheeling comedic strengths throughout, but under the laughter lies a highly thoughtful and tender exploration of divorce and its impact on children, highlighting the importance of communication and understanding when family life suddenly crumbles. This emotional depth perfectly balances with humour, ensuring Mrs Doubtfire speaks to all ages. That could be why Mrs Doubtfire continues to talk to us all today, as it allows the sun to shine through the complex family separation process through laughter and a celebration of parental love.
MUPPET TREASURE ISLAND (1996)
Following the model established in The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), Brian Henson’s second feature would move from Dickens to Robert Louis Stevenson for inspiration. However, unlike The Christmas Carol, Treasure Island would steer in a more comedic direction. The result was a wild Muppet adventure, where Tim Curry stole the show as Long John Silver alongside a young Kevin Bishop as Jim Hawkins. However, the fact that Muppet Treasure Island is remembered more for Curry than Kermit would lead to unfair criticism of the final film. Muppet Treasure Island is a beautifully made picture that continues to build on the emerging confidence of Brian Henson’s pre-Disney studio while returning to a Muppet Show-inspired style of comedy. So lay anchor and grab the popcorn because you won’t find a better anarchic musical adventure.
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, many kids of today may have never watched the 1995 classic. The 1990s heralded a gigantic leap forward in digital effects on screen, with Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) and Jurassic Park (1993) pushing the boundaries of digital on-screen effects. Meanwhile, theatrical sound also stepped out of the shadows of Dolby Stereo (SR), with DTS Digital and Dolby Digital wrapping the audience in spacial audio like never before. However, while these technological advances were groundbreaking, many movies still relied on practical effects, stop motion and model work to sweep a viewer away to new worlds. Jumanji, like Jurassic Park, is a fascinating example of a movie with one foot in the new digital world and one in old-school physical effects.
Jumanji is as frantic as the wild creatures at its heart, taking us from 1869 to 1969 before ending in 1995. Here director Joe Johnson plays with themes of time, love, belonging and isolation while paying homage to the fantasy and adventure films of Steven Spielberg, Richard Donner and Joe Dante. Robin Williams is off the leash yet vulnerable, while the two kids at the heart of the action, Judy (Kirsten Dunst) and Peter (Bradley Pierce), create a joyous sense of fun and adventure. Twenty-five years after it hit our screens in 1995, Jumanji’s effects work is a tale of two halves, with only some of the groundbreaking digital work remaining impressive. However, as with many early digital movies, it is rescued by its physical effects work.
90s Kids Classics
MY GIRL (1991)
Now largely forgotten in the celluloid mists of time, Howard Zieff’s poignant coming-of-age drama My Girl remains one of the best explorations of the pain of loss during childhood I have seen. Films exploring bereavement in childhood or early adolescence remain rare, and while many include death as a narrative hook, few place loss at the heart of the core narrative. My Girl, like A Monster Calls and Kindling, has the confidence to place death front and centre while exploring friendship and a series of coming-of-age themes as we join Vada Sultenfuss (Anna Chlumsky), her dad Harry (Dan Aykroyd) and her new friend Thomas (Macaulay Culkin) during a 70s summer of change and transformation.
My Girl perfectly captures the complexities of coming-of-age through Vada’s exploration of her identity and the loss of a friend who, like her, sat on the fringes of school life. Here the film’s exploration of self-discovery, first love, and loss tugs at the heartstrings without manipulating its audience. Despite having drifted into the mists of time, My Girl remains one of the best kid’s movies of the early 1990s and a testament to cinema’s power in helping kids explore life, death, change and eternal love.
FREE WILLY (1993)
By the mid-1970s, the international ‘Save The Whale’ campaign had begun to make its voice heard in abolishing 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 films, 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, discussions on the cruelty inflicted on performing whales, dolphins and sea lions remained silent. Here the business model of Sea World and others thrived on a circus model that was beginning to feel uncomfortable. However, by the 1990s, the tide was slowly turning in the use of whales and dolphins as entertainment, and one film was about to turn that wave into a tsunami.
Offering us the story of a lonely, damaged and angry foster child and an equally lonely performing whale, Free Willy was more E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial than Flipper as a boy and a whale united in seeking escape, freedom and love. Bathed in the beautiful cinematography of Robbie Greenberg and brought to life by the outstanding score of Basil Poledouris, Free Willy would combine stunning animatronic work with a real Killer Whale held in captivity called Keiko. It would challenge the commercial footprint of organisations such as Sea World and light a fire in the call for these animals to be set free. Keiko the Whale, just like Willy, found his freedom in 2002, sadly dying not long after, but his role in redefining our views on captivity for entertainment will live on forever.
RICHIE RICH (1994)
By 1994, Macaulay Culkin had cemented his position as the modern era’s most successful child star. His journey from 1990s Home Alone included eight motion pictures in just four years, a tiring, all-consuming feat for even the most well-established adult stars. But, for a 13-year-old boy whose life was directed by an overbearing father, this persistent on-screen presence was taking its toll. Richie has everything a boy could ever desire but lacks the most important thing money can’t buy, friends. In reality, Culkin’s life was in a similar position; his Hollywood dream warped into a nightmare of social isolation and pressure. Here Culkin’s longing for escape is visible in every scene as he attempts to turn on the charm. Richie Rich is an unplanned portrait of a child star trying to keep up a pretence of enjoyment. The resulting picture is a strange mix of fantasy and reality, with both Richie and Culkin searching for meaning in an ocean of loneliness and uncertainty.
NOW AND THEN (1995)
On the release of Now and Then in 1995, comparisons were bound to be drawn between Stand By Me and Lesli Linka Glatter’s coming-of-age tale starring Demi Moore, Melanie Griffith, Rosie O’Donnell, Rita Wilson, Devon Sawa, Christina Ricci, Thora Birch, Gaby Hoffmann and Ashleigh Aston Moore. These comparisons would see many critics of the day compare, contrast and ultimately criticise Glatter’s film. Yet, despite a lacklustre box office haul, Now and Then would find success on VHS, DVD and TV as a must-see sleep-over movie for a whole generation. From a critical standpoint, it is true that Now and Then is a mixed bag and never quite finds its voice, especially in dovetailing the now with the then. But it’s also true that it suffered a lot of unfair criticism in 1995. You may therefore find yourself asking why Now and Then has all but vanished in the United Kingdom and is near impossible to find despite its stellar cast and a screenwriter who would go on to create Pretty Little Liars. The answer remains clouded in mystery, but what’s clear is that Now and Then is well worth a reappraisal and a long-overdue digital release.
90s Kids Classics
THE ROCKETEER (1991)
Created by comic book writer and artist Dave Stevens, The Rocketeer flew onto comic store shelves in 1982, providing a mix of serial adventure and Indiana Jones-inspired action. However, despite its comic success, few people saw The Rocketeer at the cinema; I remember an empty auditorium except for my gran and me at my local theatre. As a result, The Rocketeer would flop when it should have hit big.
Jo Johnson’s movie would inhabit a similar world to Raiders of the Lost Ark as the audience was bathed in 1930s action and adventure reminiscent of the old Saturday afternoon serials that pulled young crowds into the Picture Palaces of old. Like those old Picture Palaces, it’s a film that shines with art deco beauty, offering an action spectacular similar to modern Marvel hits like Captain America: The First Avenger. This swashbuckling 30s adventure pays homage to a Hollywood long-vanished and a sense of cinematic wonder that was beginning to wain as the 90s took hold. The action sequences are full of suspense and wit, and the performances are sublime, from Timothy Dalton’s dastardly Neville Sinclair to Billy Campbell’s all-action matinee hero Cliff and Terry O’Quinn’s slick Howard Hughes. Thankfully, in the years since its release, The Rocketeer has found a dedicated fan base; it’s just a pity that so many never got to experience it on the big screen.