I’ll let you read this, but first you have to do the truffle shuffle. As part of a series on Film Sentinel, each week we are taking a look back at a film in the career of Steven Spielberg. Just like last week with Gremlins, this week concerns a film that Steven didn’t direct, but is notable for the filmmaker working in a producer capacity: The Goonies. The movie bears a great deal of the Spielberg imprint, but it was actually directed by Richard Donner. As a rousing family adventure film, The Goonies is a cult classic for a reason, but the youthful unruliness may tend to wear on your nerves.
(For more information on Series Spielberg, a full schedule of reviews, as well as some deeper background on Spielberg’s early life, you can visit the introduction page here).
Though not directed by Steven, The Goonies is one of those rare films that brandishes a Spielberg writing credit. Spielberg wrote the story, while Chris Columbus wrote the script. Columbus would flourish into prominence later for directing popular films such as Home Alone, Mrs. Doubtfire and Harry Potter, but The Goonies was only the third film that he worked on. It was also his second collaboration with Spielberg following the producer’s satisfaction with his Gremlins script, which would explain Steven’s willingness for Columbus to flesh out his idea for this film.
He’s not quite Steven Spielberg, but Richard Donner has made quite an impression on cinema in his own right. He’s been successful in a wide variety of genres, and is responsible for some classics that are still quite popular today. His mainstream breakthrough was the horror film The Omen in 1976, and he directed the original 1978 Superman, as well as parts of its sequel. Likely due to his success with Superman, Spielberg hired Donner to direct The Goonies in 1985, and he would go on to direct Lethal Weapon in 1987, as well as its three sequels, which would last into the 90s.
The Goonies isn’t a Steven Spielberg film, but it demonstrates so many of the hallmarks of standard Spielberg fare that it is commonly mistaken for one. This is understandable, because as with Tobe Hooper in Poltergeist, there have been enough reports of Steven working so closely with Donner on The Goonies that there have been questions as to whether he should be considered co-director. In his 2004 memoir There and Back Again, childhood star Sean Astin has made this case, recounting his memories of working with both directors throughout the film’s shooting.
The film takes place in the “Goon Docks” area of Astoria, Oregon, and focuses on a group of children who call themselves the “Goonies.” Mikey (Sean Astin) and his older brother Brandon (Josh Brolin) are worried about their parents losing their home due to foreclosure. Mikey and his friends discover a map in his attic leading to the hidden treasure of the pirate “One-Eyed-Willy”, and they strike out on finding it to save the family home. In the tunnels under Astoria, the “Goonies” eventually find it, while also stumbling across the hideout of a local crime family.
Starring a well-selected cast of amusing and lovable child actors, The Goonies features a charming and relatable adventure story that any ragtag band of kids could imagine getting involved with in their hometown, though this one is relegated specifically to the coast. The Astoria legend of One-Eyed Willy envisioned here is unlikely, though its aspects are not so fanciful as to prevent any childhood viewer from being unable to picture themselves in their own local community. It’s a largely-grounded fantasy that should be accessible to most children, and it has proven to be.
It’s also one of the most recognizable examples of the 1980s childhood adventure aesthetic that has proven to be enormously influential, and has seen a spike in popularity in recent years. It’s largely thanks to Steven Spielberg with films like E.T. and this one, as well as to novelist Stephen King for inspiring works like Christine and Stand by Me, as these films would pave the way for J.J. Abrams’ 2011 tribute to the category Super 8, as well as the enormously successful Netflix series Stranger Things. The Goonies stands today as one of the best representations of this sub-genre.
The Goonies is also notable for its usage of irreverant humor and colorful language, which isn’t very common for a film targeting its age demographic. Following the startling use for its time of the term “penis breath” in E.T., Spielberg continues his lowbrow depiction of young boys, which proves to be quite realistic. Parents can decide whether the content is appropriate, but there’s nothing worse here than what most kids already say, whether in the 1980s or now. The banter should prove amusing for adults, who will likely remember being similarly rude at that age.
The film’s livley roster of youthful adventurers includes cast members who would have been well-known at the time, as well as some who are more famous now. Sean Astin, who would go on to star in Lord of the Rings, stars as the group’s sort-of leader Mikey. He functions as the film’s emotional core, as he expresses a palpable concern for his family’s financial situation, providing motivation for the group’s adventure. Josh Brolin, before he would go on to snap his fingers as Thanos in Avengers, works well as the tough, but compassionate older brother here as Brandon.
Another memorable cast member is Jeff Cohen as the rowdy and overweight member of the party, “Chunk.” Clumsy, and always hungry, Chunk is quite funny, though his impassioned shouting can be a bit much at times. Re-teaming with Spielberg after The Temple of Doom is Short Round’s delightful Ke Huy Quan as “Data,” though his homemade inventions here are not quite as inspired as Short Round’s antics. Rounding out the cast are Corey Feldman as the wise-guy “Mouth,” and Kerri Green and Martha Plimpton as Brandon’s teenage friends Andy and Stef.
In addition to the younger cast members, The Goonies also stars a handful of adults as the villainous Fratelli family. Anne Ramsey is menacing as the tattooed matriarch “Mama,” while Robert Davi offers charisma as her notorious son Jake Fratelli, whose prison escape opens the film. Joe Pantoliano osffets them well as the smarter brother Franchis, but Sloth is the Fratelli son most viewers will remember. Former NFL defensive end John Matuszak plays the looming deformed and oppressed brother who forms an adorable friendship with the young Chunk.
In addition to the adventurous spirit, the most memorable quality to The Goonies is easily the nonstop youthful revelry of the boys, as it very much becomes wearisome as the film progresses. As the character Stef puts it in the film, “it’s like babysitting, only I’m not getting paid.” Many of the adult viewers will understand how she feels. It’s clear that Richard Donner felt the strain, as he has described The Goonies as one of his most difficult projects, mainly due to the task of wrangling the large adolescent cast. This will likely be your largest hurdle in enjoying the film.
But if the obnoxious mayhem doesn’t spoil your fun, you’re in for a rather rewarding adventure. The underground journey through the tunnels of Astoria leading to the large grotto housing One-Eyed-Willy’s lost pirate ship offers a lot of scares and surprises, and the final set of the ship truly is quite impressive. The writing tends to feel a bit aimless during some parts of the section in the tunnels, but you’re likely to feel the destination justifies the journey. Things also wrap up a little too-nicely chasing some of that Spielberg sentiment, but who doesn’t love a happy ending?
Next week, we’ll be returning to actual Spielberg-directed content with his first undertaking of serious subject matter, 1985’s The Color Purple. It’s available on DVD and Blu-Ray, for streaming on Hulu, as well as for rental from digital retailers. Give it a watch, and I’ll see you next week.