Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Director Report Card: Richard Donner (1985) Part 2

10. The Goonies

In these Director Report Cards, you look over a filmmaker’s entire career. Sometimes, patterns begin to emerge. It seems that “The Goonies” would start an interesting pattern for Richard Donner. For the next decade or so, he’d alternate action-packed crowd-pleaser with smaller, usually comedic films. “The Goonies” is a hallmark of Generation X nostalgia, widely beloved by many people. The cult following stands in contrast to the movie’s actual critical recognition, which is generally negative. The general consensus seems to be if you saw “The Goonies” as a kid, you love it. If you saw it as an adult, you don’t get it. I first saw “The Goonies” as an adult and this statement holds true for me.

The Goon Docks area of Astoria, Oregon are in peril. A big country club deal will buy up the entire town, rendering many people homeless. Mikey and his best friends Mouth, Data, and Chunk are just kids, knowing there’s little they can do to stop the buy-out. Until they stumble upon a treasure map in Mikey’s attic. The map purports to show the location of One-Eyed Willie’s resting place, a local legend about a pirate and his lost treasure. Mikey’s older brother Brandon, his would-be girlfriend Andrea, and her friend Stef get dragged along on the adventure. The Goonies don’t know that a trio of escaped criminals have already determined the gold’s location and are also after it.

I should love “The Goonies.” The film is a prototypical example of a “kids on an adventure flick,” a genre I’m fond of. It has many of the hallmarks and troupes you associate with these stories. You’ve got a tight-knit group of kids, with specific interest and eccentricities. While exploring a typically childish flight of fancy, they accidentally stumble into a real adventure. The Goonies ride all over their town on their bicycles. Through their journeys, the kids overcome their own weaknesses, turning into better people and growing up a little bit. The film has a keen understanding of location, with the town of Astoria playing a pivotal part in the story.“The Goonies” even has Mary Ellen Trainor playing the lead character’s mom, as in future “kids on an adventure” classic “The Monster Squad.”

So why don’t I love “The Goonies?” There’s a number of reasons for this but the primary one is the film’s shrill sense of humor. There’s a lot of screaming in “The Goonies.” The good guys shriek in terror or excitement. The bad guys yell at each other. Opinions, thoughts, and threats are often screamed by most of the characters. This obnoxious streak is best illustrated in the character of Chunk. The token fat kid, Chunk is often gobbling food in large amounts. He’s often made fun of and humiliated by his friends. His first scene has him performing the Truffle Shuffle, a dance designed to emphasize his chubbiness. Later, he screams some more. Though it’s far from the black hole of comedy that “The Toy” was, “The Goonies” comes off as incredibly obnoxious when it goes for laughs.

Being directed by a proven hit-maker like Donner and produced by Steven Spielberg probably made it easy to attract serious talent to “The Goonies.” The cast features some of the biggest young actors of the time. Sean Astin, in his first theatrically-released role, plays Mikey. Mikey is the most sensitive of the Goonies, longing for a sense of adventure but well aware of his real life disadvantages. Thus, Astin is mostly stuck playing an undefined hero role, which seems to limit his talent. Corey Feldman, who already had “Gremlins” and “Friday the 13th Part IV” to his name, plays Mouth. So named for his multilingual tongue, Mouth plays into Feldman’s more irritating attributes as a performer. Mouth is the smart-ass, cocky one, often teasing and mocking the people around him. Though Feldman gets some amusing moments, such as when he misleads a newly hired Mexican maid, he’s usually more annoying then endearing.

Though Astin would go on to have a swell career, Josh Brolin was undeniably the “Goonies” graduate with the best future. The film was his debut, where he plays Mikey’s fitness obsessed older brother Brand. Brolin does fine in the part, even while riding a girl’s bike alongside a speeding car. However, Brand’s character emphasizes a big problem with “The Goonies.” Brand and Mikey’s parents seem to be partially separated. Combined with the threat of loosing their childhood home, an air of meloncholey hangs at the story’s margin. Despite a few lines from Brand chastising his little brother for his childish adventures, “The Goonies” underutilized the story’s potential for a realistic sense of childhood loss.

TV Troupes readers are familiar with the Five Man Band troupe, which evenly separates teams into recognizable character types. In “The Goonies,” Data is undeniably the Smart Guy. Data cooks up ridiculous inventions, fancying himself as a future James Bond. (Though Q would be a better comparison...) The inventions, which range from chattering teeth grappling hooks to home-made zip lines, are utterly implausible. But, okay, this is a kid’s movie. “Realism” isn’t much of a concern. Data’s other sole, defining characteristic is his Asian background. Data is played by Ke Huy Quan, the Vietnamese actor who previously essayed the role of Short Round in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.” Like that character, Data speaks with an embarrassing Asian accent, often mispronouncing words. While it never reaches the unsettling racist subtext of “The Toy,” Data is another unfortunate racial stereotype in a Richard Donner movie.

As previously mentioned, Chunk is the fat kid of the group. As the fat kid, he’s constantly stuffing his mouth with food. The constant jokes made at his appetite’s expense quickly take on a mean-spirited quality. Because making him a fatty with an eating disorder wasn’t bad enough, Chunk is both a klutz, often accidentally breaking shit, and slightly effeminate. That femininity is emphasized once he meets up with Sloth. A deformed man-child and third son of the central villain, Sloth spends most of the movie tied to a chair. After Chunk shares a candy bar with the giant, the two form a friendship. The duo arrives just in time in the third act to save the day, a sloppy writing decision if I’ve ever seen one. Seemingly confirming Chunk’s status as a budding homosexual, Chunk and Sloth declare their love for each other at the story’s end. Despite obviously meant to be sweet, the friendship/love affair(?) between the two mostly comes off as an awkward writing contrivances.

An obnoxious gang of heroes isn’t enough for “The Goonies.” The film also feels the need to throw in an obnoxious trio of villain. The Fratellis are a family of criminals, seeking One-Eyed Willie’s hidden treasure. They also have a dead body hanging in their freezer, confirming their villainy. Like the kids, each of the Fratellis get a defining gimmick. Robert Davi’s Jake is a would-be opera singer, a possible reference to Davi’s real life musical aspirations. Joe Pantoliano’s Francis wears a cheap toupee, being very insecure about his baldness. Anne Ramsey’s career trend of playing evil old bitches, which extended through “Deadly Friend” and “Throw Mama from a Train,” began with “The Goonies.” As Mama Fratelli, Ramsey is a scheming, scratchy voiced wretch that has no qualms about pointing a gun at a child. With the script being so broad, none of these talented performers have a chance to truly act. Instead, they mug furiously, yelling to the rafters without saying a thing.

Rounding out the ensemble cast of “The Goonies” are a pair of female performers. Kerri Green plays Andy, the girl who Brand is after. The early scenes of going out with token asshole jock Troy are cliched stuff. Inevitably, she’s tossed along on the adventure, her and Brand confirming their mutual attraction too each other before too long. Green actually gives a likable performance but the character contributes so little to the story. Andy’s friend Stef doesn’t add much to the plot either. However, Martha Plimpton shows way more personality in her handful of scenes then most of the cast does over the entire run time. Nerdy Stef being way more my type then cheerleader Andy may have influenced my opinion slightly though…

Another reoccurring element of “kids on an adventure” flicks is a sense of danger. This is maybe where “The Goonies” works the best. Once the gang is in the underground tunnels leading towards One-Eyed Willie’s gold, the kids have to navigate a series of booby traps and hidden passage ways. Some of this stuff is total nonsense, such as the kids using a skull pendent to open a secret door. However, mildly spooky elements like skeletons and corpses littering an underground tunnel work well enough. The set design of “The Goonies” is excellent, which becomes immediately apparent when the ornately decorated pirate ship floats on-screen near the end. Maybe if “The Goonies” had played up the spookiness over the shrill comedy, I would’ve liked it a lot more.

Having already worked with great composers like Jerry Goldsmith and John Wiliams, Richard Donner paired up with Dave Grusin, another Oscar-winning composer. The score for “The Goonies” is not a masterpiece. However, it does feature some hummable themes that help establish a decent sense of adventure throughout the film. “The Goonies” also features a theme song from Cyndi Lauper, which is incorporated somewhat awkwardly into the movie. “The Goonies ‘R Good Enough” is pretty catchy, as far as Lauper’s tunes go. I may actually enjoy the music video, which is packed full of pro-wrestlers for some reason, more then the movie.

“The Goonies” was popular upon release but has become a beloved cult classic in the years since. Among toys and countless t-shirts, “The Goonies” also got a video game on the NES. Weirdly, that video game also got a sequel. Perhaps the video game tie-in furthered fan demand for a sequel to the movie. Such a follow-up, alternatively known as either “The Groonies” or “Goonies Never Say Die,” was discussed for years. Scripts were apparently written while cast members and directors were eager. Despite this, the sequel never materialized. I can’t match the enthusiasm shared by fans and the filmmakers. I’m not a member of “The Goonies” cult and the love that greets this film mostly eludes me. [Grade: C]

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