Principal Cast : Sean Astin, Josh Brolin, jeff Cohen, Corey Feldman, Kerri Green, Martha Plimpton, Jonathan Ke Huy Quan, John Matuszak, Robert Davi, Joe Pantoliano, Anne Ramsey, Mary Ellen Trainor, Keith Walker, Steve Antin, Lipe Ontiveros, Michael Paul Chan.
Synopsis: A group of young misfits who call themselves The Goonies discover an ancient map and set out on a quest to find a legendary pirate’s long-lost treasure.
I’ll admit to a fair amount of positive bias with this review. As a child of the 1980’s, I sit dead center within the nostalgia and veneration of The Goonies as one of the seminal kids films of that decade and it’s hard – nay, impossible – for me to critique the film with any kind of equilibrium. It’s one of those films that almost defies critical assessment, such is the love for the story and characters, and although time hasn’t been as kind to The Goonies‘ technical perspectives it’s still a strong, clever, enthralling adventure film that will resoundingly capture attention spans of all ages.
In the beachside suburb of Astoria, Oregon, a group of young kids who call themselves The Goonies – Mikey Walsh (Sean Astin), the inventive Data (Jonathan Ke Huy Quan – aka Short Round from Indiana Jones & The Temple Of Doom), the chubby Chunk (Jeff Cohen) and the sarcastic Mouth (Corey Feldman) – face eviction from their homes with a local country club expanding and requiring demolition of their establishments. Mikey’s brother Brandon (Josh Brolin – Avengers: Infinity War) accompanies the group, along with love interest Andy (Kerri Green) and her best friend Stef (Martha Plimpton) on a quest to locate the lost treasure of pirate One-Eyed Willie, thought located somewhere along the coastline. Their plans are nearly thwarted, however, by the antics of a trio of escaped criminals, the Fratellis, led by matriarchal Mama (Anne Ramsey), brothers Jake (Robert Davi) and Francis (Joe Pantoliano), and the disfigured monstrosity known as Sloth (NFL footballer, the late John Matuszak); together, the Goonies have to overcome obstacles and puzzles that would make Indiana Jones sweat, to find the treasure, save their homes, and harden their bonds of friendship in the face of imminent danger.
From its bullets-and-car-chase opening, to its euphoric pirate ship climax, The Goonies taps deftly into that feeling of being a kid against the world in the heady days of the mid-1980’s. A pitch-perfect ensemble of young actors, all delivering succinct and complex characterisations within limited onscreen time, together with Richard Donner’s hugely enthusiastic direction of Chris Columbus’ screenplay (from a story by Steven Spielberg), and Michael Kahn’s loving cinematography, turn this treasure hunt quest film into an all-time family favourite that still stands the test of time. The story’s inherent melancholy, with a group of friends about to be separated from each other thanks to forces beyond their control, speaks directly into the emotional core of similarly aged children, either as a brutal truth or a terrifying possibility depending on your social circumstances, and the larger-than-life addition of the fantastical Buried Treasure Hunt as they save the day merely compounds the innate charm The Goonies oozes in spades.
It was somewhat surprising to realise when trolling my DVD collection that I hadn’t watched The Goonies in well over a decade, if not far longer, and it struck me that my own children would be of a similar age to I when I first saw it. Which made it perfect for a weekend movie night. As I relished diving back into the world of Mouth, Chunk and the Truffle Shuffle, as well as Data and Mikey, I came to realise that the film isn’t quite as complicated or epic as I seem to remember from my youth. In fact, the adventure the kids embark on is, when you consider it in the cold, hard light of day, actually fairly simplistic – almost overly so – with a lot of the film’s charm resting solely on the winning performances of the actors, and the film’s exceptional production design. The Goonies comes from an age where the demands of the audience weren’t that big for a film of this demographic, but even I found myself thinking just how singularly wanting some of the character development really was.
Sean Astin’s Mikey, a character I associated most closely to as a kid, lacks a significant amount of complexity outside of his mandate to save his neighbourhood, while characters such as Data and Mouth, who I thought were cooler than cool, represent some serious deficiencies in modern storytelling style. Of course the depiction of Chunk, played by the portly Jeff Cohen (who never managed to step outside the shadow of his famous role, retiring from acting early and eventually becoming an attorney), seems decidedly un-PC by today’s standards, with his on-screen treatment really rather cruel at times (the Truffle Shuffle, the character’s famous jiggly dance, will induce a cringe in parents of kids today) but if you can take it as a product of a simpler time, you’ll still enjoy the film. Less cringe-worthy is the inclusion of the hideously malformed Sloth, played by the late John Matuszak, buried beneath layers of latex prosthetics, who turns a ghastly wretch into one of the film’s true crowning achievements. Sloth, who is badly treated by his family and almost enslaved in the basement of a rundown restaurant early in the movie, befriends the equally wretched Chunk and the pair form a paternal bond through adversity; the subtext is that ugly loves ugly I guess, or that appearances shouldn’t form the basis of an opinion on somebody, and in hindsight this story point doesn’t quite work the way the filmmakers obviously intended – seriously, Chunk and Sloth know each other for a grand total of about ten minutes and suddenly they’re attached at the hip? C’mon… – but Matuszak’s performance is one of subtle grace and sorrow, and as an audience we’re instantly drawn to his plight.
The older kids, such as Josh Brolin’s teen-jock Brandon, Kerri Green’s cheerleader Andy and Martha Plimpton’s nerdy Stef all add ballast to the ensemble’s youthful flavouring, adding pre-teen angst and burgeoning romance to flavour the subtext and interactions as the quest to locate One-Eyed Willie’s treasure takes the kids into the bowels of Oregon’s seablasted coastline, but it’s the addition of a terrifying Anne Ramsey, a delightful Robert Davi, and a Cheshire Cat-esque Joe Pantoliano who really amp up the film’s villainy and bring about the convoluted pursuit angle. Ramsey is a highlight as the dastardly Mama Fratelli, bullying her sons into doing her bidding despite their respective iniquity, and she’s as frightening a screen presence as any child would want to see.
It’s the film’s solid production design where things really spice up. The quest to locate One-Eyed Willie’s treasure takes the kids into an underground labyrinth of puzzles, death-traps and close shaves, all on the way to the climactic showdown aboard an ancient pirate galleon complete with an homage to walking the plank. The design and scope of this part of the film’s story is as dusty and perfect as any Indiana Jones flick, from the tumbling boulders, magnificent waterfalls, crumbling organ-inspired floor above a chasm of spikes, and the inevitable flooded cavern, making The Goonies as high-octane an adventure film as the 80’s could deliver. Nitpicking: some of the archaic rotoscoping and visual effects look a touch antiquated today, sharply exacerbated by modern HD technology, but these moments are few and far enough between to make them less problematic and more nostalgically magical.
Together with Michael Kahn’s warm cinematography and the excellent Dave Grusin score (which, let’s face it, is basically him riffing on John Williams) and a memorable title track by Cyndi Lauper, the film’s engaging storyline and deep dive into preteen anxiety make for one heck of a charming outing. The film may lose a bit on the smaller screen, and if you get the chance to see it in repertory screenings I strongly urge you to do so, but the love and adoration I have for the film itself is well founded; The Goonies is still a great little film with a lot to offer willing modern audiences.
© 2019, Rodney Twelftree. All rights reserved.