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May 23, 2010

Old School: '80s Summer Movies for Kids

A friend writing a story about a backyard movie party asked me the other day for some good “summer movie” recommendations for kids—that is, our generation’s summer movies (i.e., from the 1980s) that are kid-friendly. The key being that they should be enjoyable for kids and parents alike, and the parents get a little bonus nostalgia in the bargain.

Having no shortage of opinions, and happy to get a chance to broaden the blog’s horizons beyond what my own kids watched or read last night, I jumped at the chance. Without further ado, my picks, divided by age suitability (one caveat there: my age ranges push the envelope a bit, under the theory that that’s what kids always want to do):

Safe choice: The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984)
The gang does the old “let’s put on a show” bit, which may sound predictable enough, but did you expect Kermit to get amnesia and think he’s an ad exec named Phil? Probably the best of the Muppets films, and a real crowd-pleaser.

Adventurous choice: The Princess Bride (1987)
Some potentially scary moments here for little ones—the Pit of Despair, the Rodents of Unusual Size—and it also works for the next age group up. (Heck, any age group—I admit it, I still stop and watch it on TBS half the time.) But my five-year-old has adored it since age three, and it’s the kind of movie that’s a particular thrill to watch kids watching.

Nonobvious choice: Wallace & Gromit in Three Amazing Adventures (2001)
I’m kind of cheating here, only justifying this choice by the fact that the first W&G short, A Grand Day Out, was made in 1989. But like all Nick Park’s work, it and the other shorts here (Oscar-winners The Wrong Trousers and A Close Shave) are endlessly entertaining adventure tales—so even if these are not strictly summer movies, they fit seamlessly in with the theme. 

Other options: Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985), Follow That Bird (1985)

Safe choice: E.T. (1982)
“Safe” is a relative term, since as we all remember, this is a serious tear-jerker. But it’s safe to say it’s a classic most kids this age will be thrilled by, especially en masse. Enjoy the blank looks when you tell them the little girl voiced the female lead in the recent Curious George movie.

Adventurous choice: The Dark Crystal (1982)
Normally the Henson movie with puppets wouldn’t be the risky call, but this is a seriously dark fantasy, about the last of the Gelflings and his quest to end the rule of the evil (and scary!) Skekses. If your audience frightens easily, this may not be the right pick—but if they’re into fantasy lit or graphic novels, it could also be a huge hit.

Nonobvious choice: Labyrinth (1986)
Henson again (live-action this time), but I couldn’t resist David Bowie in tight pants. It’s actually a twist on a really old story: the Goblin King (Bowie) kidnaps Jennifer Connelly’s little brother when she complains about having to take care of him, and she must grow up a bit and use her all her wits to get him back. Extra points for any kids who can figure out which voices are done by Elmo.

Other options: The Last Starfighter (1984), The NeverEnding Story (1984),  Short Circuit (1986), Willow (1988)

AGES 9 TO 12
Safe choice: The Goonies (1985)
I was 15 when it came out, the perfect age to resist this movie, and I did. (Happily, I caught up with it some years later.) For kids a bit younger, though, the rollicking tale of a bunch of kids on an adventure to find pirate treasure is well-nigh irresistible. And it’s packed with nostalgia-inspiring actors, from the firmly-of-the-era (Corey Feldman) to recent and current stars (Sean Astin, Josh Brolin, Joey Pants).

Adventurous Choice: Ghostbusters (1984)
I suppose you can see it every weekend nowadays if you don’t mind sitting through the ads, but it’s hard for me to think of a movie that would amuse and thrill a group of kids and parents more. I seriously doubt it’d be just PG today—there’s lots of swearing, some sexual innuendo, and a bit of scary ghoul stuff—but for kids who are up to it, that’ll just make them love it all the more. Meanwhile, you get to watch a Bill Murray/Harold Ramis movie. It’s win-win!

Nonobvious choice: The Bad News Bears (1976)
All right, it’s not from the ’80s, but it’s certainly a gen-X movie. (Let’s just agree not to discuss the recent remake.) Walter Matthau will keep everyone entertained as the former minor-leaguer forced to coach the saddest Little League team ever . You may pause to marvel at how the definition of a “kid movie” has changed—there’s even more “objectionable” language and behavior here than in any other movie I considered—but you’ll be caught up in the next laugh before you have much time to ponder it.

Other options: Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Clash of the Titans (1981), WarGames (1983), The Karate Kid (1984), Gremlins (1984), Back to the Future (1985)

In parting, let me add that when it comes to movie nostalgia from this era, I always lean heavily on Cinema du Meep, a blog well worth checking out for the obscure and the sublime in 1980s (and many other) flicks.

[Photo: Chad Davis, via Wikimedia Commons.] 


  1. Back to the Future was a big hit with our 12, 8, and 5 year olds this winter. They want to see the sequels, but I remember them as being so disappointing, I haven't rented them yet.

  2. Yeah, they fell off pretty badly, as I recall. But glad to hear that, as I've been reading so much about parents worried about showing ANY of these movies to their young, or even youngish, kids. Seemed strange to me in most cases, but I guess the key is knowing your own kids and making your own calls based on that.

  3. Thanks for the love, Myles. I know i'm late to the game, but, this is a great list. It gets a meep seal of approval.