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How ‘The Goonies’ Helped Create a Modern Franchise Template

The wacky 1985 classic from Amblin Entertainment, Steven Spielberg’s production company, was an early example of the type of kid-centric movie for adults that has become a blockbuster staple in recent years

Warner/Ringer illustration

2020’s summer blockbuster season has been put on hold because of the pandemic, but that doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate the movies from the past that we flocked out of the sun and into air conditioning for. Welcome to The Ringer’s Return to Summer Blockbuster Season, where we’ll feature different summer classics each week.

There’s a very good chance that I have watched The Goonies more times than any other movie in my life. Growing up, my sister and I had a tacit agreement that when we couldn’t settle on something to watch, we would put on The Goonies or, for some reason, Rugrats in Paris. To this day, we have no idea why the movie about talking babies hitting up the Eiffel Tower was so enticing, but the enduring appeal of The Goonies is much easier to relate to. Goonies screenwriter Chris Columbus said the original pitch for the film—the story was originally conceived by Steven Spielberg—boiled down to a basic idea: What would a bunch of bored kids get up to on a rainy day? Well, in this case, they settled on an adventure to find hidden pirate treasure whilst evading a bickering family of Italian mobsters. Perhaps my own obsession with watching The Goonies was caused by a subconscious desire to be able to do the same. (The finding secret treasure part more than dealing with a family threatening to stick your hand in a blender.)

While not everything about The Goonies holds up well on a more recent rewatch—namely, the frequent fat-shaming of [deep sigh] Chunk and pretty much everything related to Sloth—it’s an impressive sugar rush of ideas that feel like they were plucked from a kid’s frenetic imagination. How else would a film combine Indiana Jones–esque booby traps, secret pirate treasure maps, an over-the-top crime family, a black sheep of said family with facial deformities and the strength of an NFL defensive end, and the economic anxiety of a real estate deal destroying lower-middle-class homes to expand the town’s country club? (OK, the last part definitely came from an adult mind.)

Other elements of The Goonies remain endearing—especially the lovable young cast and the movie’s commitment to building practical set pieces, which included the construction of a full-size replica of a fucking pirate ship. (The ship was hidden from the kids until the cameras were rolling so their genuine reactions could be captured on-screen.) It’s by no means a perfect film, but make no mistake, The Goonies still rips.

And even after 35 years, Goonies fandom has shown no signs of slowing down. Calls for a sequel pop up intermittently. In February, Fox ordered a pilot from The Bold Type creator Sarah Watson for a show about a substitute teacher helping three students make a shot-for-shot remake of The Goonies. And the film’s cast and crew—including Spielberg, Columbus, and director Richard Donner—came together in April for the first episode of Josh Gad’s Reunited Apart, a YouTube series that raises funds for various organizations in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Goonies is a touchstone in and of itself, but the film is also representative of the cultural impact of what I’ll call Peak Amblin Entertainment.

Amblin, the production company founded by Spielberg in 1970 and named after the director’s first released short film, is synonymous with a lot of ’80s classics: Beyond The Goonies, Amblin was responsible for Gremlins, E.T., Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and the Back to the Future franchise. Amblin is not strictly dedicated to kids movies—Spielberg’s The Color Purple came out the same year that The Goonies was released—but they embrace that association enough that an image from E.T. is part of their logo. The general vibe behind Amblin’s kid-oriented films—less infantilizing than Disney, but not crossing the line to wildly inappropriate—was perfectly expressed by Roger Ebert in his review of The Goonies: “There used to be children’s movies and adult movies. Now Spielberg has found an in-between niche, for young teenagers who have fairly sophisticated tastes in horror.” (Personally, the horror in question with The Goonies was Sloth, who scared the living shit out of 8-year-old me.)

“They don’t make ’em like they used to” is a prevailing sentiment in and around Hollywood, particularly when every major studio seems to spend most of its energy chasing the fumes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But that critique doesn’t quite apply to Amblin Entertainment. The company is still making movies, and big ones at that—recently, Ready Player One, Men in Black: International, Cats (!!!!), and the Jurassic World franchise. Most glaringly, there has been an influx of films and shows that aspire to the “fun, kids-driven adventure romp” feel of the Amblin brand.

That spirit of ’80s Amblin nostalgia courses through the likes of Netflix’s Stranger Things, the big-screen adaptation of Stephen King’s It, J.J. Abrams’s Super 8 (itself an Amblin-produced film), The Kid Who Would Be King, Shazam!, and even the Transformers spinoff Bumblebee. “Growing up in the ’80s, the most powerful stories were the Amblin stories,” Bumblebee director Travis Knight told Empire in 2018. “They had a thinking brain; a strong, beating heart; and a poetic soul. They evoked wonder and laughter and tears every single time. So knitting those two things together, my love of Transformers and my love of Spielberg and Amblin, was something I really wanted to evoke in this film.”

Knight does an excellent job distilling what makes these Amblin classics so great, and to his credit, Bumblebee is a surprisingly good—er, the only good?—Transformers movie. (It’s no coincidence the film really clicks when it becomes less about alien robots punching each other and more about a bond between a girl and her “car.”) But the problem with leaning too far into evoking this kind of ’80s nostalgia is that it creates a feedback loop antithetical to the Classic Amblin ethos: Instead of creating something original in spirit, by and large these projects are too deferential to the works that inspired them. As much as The Goonies tackles a mishmash of genre tropes by throwing in pirates, mobsters, secret treasure, and booby traps, the film is still (quite chaotically) determined to do its own thing.

The same holds true for other Amblin throwbacks; unfortunately, contemporary films and shows that strive so hard to imitate their success have yielded fun, if somewhat diminishing, returns. Stranger Things remains a highly bingeable series with its own endearing roster of young actors, but the longer the show stretches on, the more its initial premise and overabundance of ’80s nostalgia wears thin. Super 8—another fun, homage-driven Spielbergian adventure—is the sort of movie that works better when you don’t realize it’s a lesser version of something that charmed audiences decades ago. (You could say that for a lot of J.J. Abrams’s filmography, unfortunately.) It Chapter Two—which should’ve focused on the adult timeline of King’s text—was so hung up on how much audiences loved the kids version of the Losers Club in the first film that it kept needlessly returning to the ’80s timeline, bloating the sequel’s run time to nearly three hours.

Imitation is its own form of flattery, and it’s hard to knock artists like Knight, It director Andy Muschietti, Abrams, or Stranger Things creators Matt and Ross Duffer too much for being inspired by some of their favorite films growing up. (It’s particularly surreal when Spielberg himself is playing into his own nostalgic sandbox with Ready Player One and creating a largely empty spectacle.) But rather than chase the familiar highs of E.T., Back to the Future, or Gremlins, living up to the legacy of Classic Amblin in 2020 should fall more in line with what Spielberg and Columbus had in mind when they originally came up with The Goonies: Think about what a kid might want to do on a rainy day, and just let the imagination flow.