Once upon a time, kids could roam out of the house for an entire day without their folks wondering where the heck they were. Mainly, this was because both parents were either too busy earning a paycheck and the lack of mobile phones means kids could easily go off the radar. It was a time when children gathered in packs and managed to have adventures without blowing off too many of fingers, having too many run-ins with villainous adults, or committing too many wanton cruelties upon each other. It was a time that was bound to end someday, and Steven Spielberg, Chris Columbus and director Richard Donner seemed to understand that when they created a fun nod to a kind of adventure that doesn’t exactly lead to a coming-of-age, but is most definitely of an age, nevertheless. Which is why they made The Goonies.
Astoria, Oregon, 1985. A bunch of houses nicknamed the Goondocks face foreclosure to make way for an expanding country club. As the families all prepare to move, their kids—collectively known as the Goonies—get ready for a final weekend goofing off together. But when their leader Mikey finds a map to what might just be a long-lost pirate treasure, he gathers the rest of his buddies to go after it. As their search takes them to a location where now sits an abandoned restaurant, they stumble across the Fratelli crime gang, who are on the run themselves, and who learn that the kids are hot on the trail of a very large treasure. As the kids try to stay ahead of the Fratellis, they must navigate an increasing number of puzzles, challenges and deathtraps that challenge their wits and their ability to not scream at each other all the time. Which, when you’re 12 years old, is way easier said than done. But with the help of some older siblings and an unlikely (and humongous) ally, the Goonies are able to finally come face to face with the legacy of local legend One-Eyed Willy and his flagship, Inferno. But will they get the treasure they’re after, or will the Fratellis catch them first? And will any of it matter because they’ll all fall prey to an ancient pirate deathtrap? The answers are all pretty easy to imagine, and you know why? Because Goonies never say die.
Some stories are meant to evoke memories of childhood, but the Goonies is meant to evoke that particular childhood fantasy of just once going on a real adventure. Never mind that real adventures almost always entail genuine peril, hardship and the kind of transformation that strip away one’s innocence. To a kid, such things are all invisible behind the promise of excitement (which is probably why it’s so easy to sucker kids into running away and joining things they will regret). But the Goonies brings that particular kind of vision to life, all while threading the narrow territory between childhood invincibility and the mortal dangers of the grown-up world.
What makes the Goonies work so well is its cast of characters. The Goonies themselves tread awfully close to becoming a gang of stereotypes and caricatures—the optimistic leader, the loud mouth, the smart one, the fat kid, the fed-up older brother, the off-limits girlfriend, the underappreciated tomboy—but there is within them something recognizable, especially to viewers who are about the same age as this movie’s heroes. But beyond being easily identifiable touchpoints for one’s own childhood friends and escapades, the cast clicks enormously well, providing this movie with an organic kind of kinship it desperately needs, (and which so many other movies featuring children often lack). The Goonies brings out such great chemistry between the players that even when they’re all yelling at each other and collectively acting like a great, big need to be slapped upside the head, they do it on terms that feel right. We were all these little knuckleheads once. And just like them, we’re probably lucky to have survived our own childhoods more or less intact.
The Goonies might not be great cinema, and it might not be particularly deep, but it has a bunch of fun showing us that while there are bad people in the world, most people aren’t quite as bad as we think, and if you give them a chance, they might just surprise you. Mikey’s older brother Brandon should be a foil to the group, but he proves an unexpectedly loyal; he might not like that his kid brother is getting in trouble, but he’ll be damned if he lets the kid and his dumb friends do it on their own. Mouth, Chunk, Data, Andy and Stef have every reason to go for each other’s throats, but when it gets right down to it, they’re just too decent for all of that. And most of all, Sloth should be the arch nemesis of the story, a monstrous enforcer. But he’s just a kid himself, whose only crime is having a rotten mother. Once you’re willing to share a candy bar with guy, you’ve got a friend for life. All you have to do is give him a shot. It’s not hard.
Perhaps that’s why the moment of truth comes at the end of the movie, when the Goonies have survived their excursion into the pirate cave, the Fratellis have been brought to justice, Sloth has redeemed himself, and even the Goondocks receive an unexpected reprieve. Everything’s wrapped up nice and tidy, until Sloth is on his way to jail and the kids don’t just vouch for him, one of them adopts him into his home. Sure, that kind of generosity can only exist in a movie so detached from reality that we’re expected to believe that a pirate of the Spanish Main somehow sailed to Oregon. But what the hell. Kids know a kind of generosity of spirit that we forget as adults, and being a Goonie means never forgetting that. I’ll take it.