In the 90s, film genres seemed to begin fragmenting into niche areas. Independent filmmaking came into commercial prominence with directors like Quentin Tarantino and the Coen brothers turning pulp stories into pop-art. In the blockbuster world, dramas became more challenging, comedies became sillier and the gap between adult’s and kid’s cinema seemed to expand radically. In fact, the gap between genres and audience demographics has now widened so much that today a “family film” pretty much means a kids’ film. Adults are just lucky that Pixar and, on occasion, Dreamworks, are capable of generating good kids’ films that accommodate adults almost as much as children. But back in the 80s things were far more complicated, and a family film could be almost any genre as long as it met an age appropriate ratings classification. Back then, families enjoyed films like Back to the Future, E.T, The Princess Bride, and hell, even Gremlins! These are arguably some of the greatest films of all time and they managed to get by on an irony-free sense of fun, without being dumbed down or softened for younger audiences. Somehow they were equally appealing to all ages.
There have been some attempts to re-engage the family audience more universally over the last few years. Martin Scorsese’s Hugo was simultaneously a magical kids’ story and a great exploration of the history of cinema – but in reality it was received fare more appreciatively by adults than children. Neil Gaiman’s Stardust was turned into a film in 2007, and was a refreshing return to the kind of fantasy films that came out of the 80s, but it wasn’t in the same league as classic’s like The Princess Bride. There was also J.J. Abram’s Super 8, a beautiful homage to Spielberg’s E.T.
It seems that a lot of the more unique cinematic efforts over the last ten years or so have been hiding behind a veil of nostalgic tongue-in-cheek irony and retrospective homage. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but in this age of remakes, sequels, and the post-modern, self-reflexive meta-ness it seems that we’re too shy or embarrassed to tell fun original stories.
There are countless family greats to come out of the 80’s, but here are my top five.
1. The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Believe it or not this dark masterpiece was actually made for the whole family. Compare this to what kids are watching today.
2. E.T. (1982)
Only Spielberg could make such a high-concept family drama so moving.
3. Big (1988)
A magical coming of age story that you can never be too “big” to enjoy.
4. The Princess Bride (1987)
A swashbuckling fantasy comedy that wasn’t too complicated for the children of the 80’s to follow.
5. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Why aren’t blockbuster adventures made this artfully today?