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Good Children’s Movies (1985-90): Dark Stories, Flying Deliveries & No Batteries

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David Appleford itcherThe latter half of the eighties was a great time for children’s movies. A market once dominated by Walt Disney was suddenly expanding in ways never expected. Studios that had never made animated features were suddenly releasing all kinds of family friendly films with varying degrees of quality and success. But by the end of the decade it was still the Disney organization that came out on top. They released a film that once again completely changed the animation landscape. Here’s the story. ~ David Appleford

Television as the Baby-Sitter

More than any other decade before it, the eighties became a time when, during the day, television was often the baby-sitter. Video tapes took off and a lucrative children’s market was born. Knowing how children loved to watch their favorite tape over and over again, parents suddenly found they had an extra aid when it came to keeping their children attentive: the children’s full length movie, but at home.

Knowing that whatever finances were lost at the box-office would probably recoup with the home release, studios made more family-friendly films than ever. It got to the point where some releases opened on the big screen for just a short time in order to qualify as being a genuine cinema movie, yet it was the video release that followed where the film’s biggest audience waited.

In addition to titles that may still sit on your shelf, like ‘The Goonies,’ ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit?’ or ‘An American Tail,’ there are several other children’s movies from the eighties worthy of attention, including a certain Disney feature that not only slips under most people’s radar, even the studio itself tends to ignore it.   

Here are five films from the latter half of the eighties, and even though you may have heard of one or two, remember, your children are a whole new generation. They’re all new to them.


Bubbly Children’s Movie Recommendations

‘D.A.R.Y.L’ (Simon Wincer, 1985)

A child with a stick of chewing gum has just rendered your hundred million dollars of hardware useless…

Daryl is the name of a little boy, only he’s not really a boy; he’s a robot, and his name stands for Date Analysing Robot Youth Lifeform. When his creator loses faith in the governmental experiment of playing with artificial intelligence, he lets the robot free. Daryl has no clue what he really is. He’s taken to an orphanage where he’s eventually adopted. There are shades of Pinocchio to Daryl except where the Disney adventure was a story about a toy who wanted to be a real boy, this is about a robot who thinks he already is.

There are plenty of children-in-jeopardy moments where government agents, who just want their robot back, corner what looks like a little boy, but don’t be alarmed. They’re the kind of chases that children thrill to. In fact, one of the criticisms that came from reviewers was that the film was inoffensive and that the action wasn’t hard-hitting enough. That may be true for older viewers, but for its younger target audience, it’s a nail-biter.

And take a close look at the scene that’s supposed to be a military base with all the computers. That’s a glimpse of a place the public rarely gets to see. Even though ‘D.A.R.Y.L.’ is not a Disney feature, the company allowed the cameras to film at the backstage computer rooms at EPCOT center.

‘Kiki’s Delivery Service’ (Hayao Miyazaki, 1989)

Without even thinking about it, I used to be able to fly. Now I’m trying to look inside myself and find out how I did it…

It’s an animated film from Japan and it’s a work of beauty. Kiki is a young and slightly headstrong witch who moves to a new town in Europe and uses her ability to fly a broomstick to help with her special delivery service.

There are several themes in ‘Kiki’s Delivery Service’ that extend way beyond the story of a child and her entrepreneurial adventures. None will be obvious to children, but the strength of this delightful film is how the animator and director use the story to illustrate that all-important transition from teenager to adulthood.  

There’s also the crisis Kiki faces. She temporarily loses her ability to fly, but among the lessons she will learn from this setback includes the understanding that being vulnerable doesn’t always indicate failing.  

The animation is hand-drawn, and for the record there were 67,317 individual cells used to make up the film. And for Continental European readers, have fun looking closely at the fictional European town Kiki moves to. It’s actually a mixture of several cities rolled into one, including Stockholm, Paris, San Francisco, Milan and Lisbon.

‘Explorers’ (Joe Dante, 1985)

It’s asking for coordinates on x-, y- and z-axes to locate a point in space relative to its terminal. How did you dream this?

‘Explorers’ is the fantasy adventure that most boys dream about. A young lad experiences vivid images at night while asleep. He sees circuit boards and dreams of flying through clouds. Each time he wakes, he draws the circuits on paper, builds a microchip based on those drawings and develops an electromagnetic bubble which can fly like a spaceship. With the help of two friends, the boys take off inside that bubble and literally fly to outta space to face the source of those vivid dreams. What they find is not what they, or anyone else, would expect.

The strange thing about ‘Explorers’ is that it’s not a completed film. It was never finished. The studio wanted to rush the project into theatres, so they told director Joe Dante that he was to stop filming and to put together a film with what he had, which is why the ending is wrapped up and rushed a little too quickly. Not that children will notice, but adults might wonder why such a great idea for an adventure doesn’t conclude well.

Having said that, this is still a film that younger children will enjoy, particularly during the discovery of flight scenes. They’ll be glued. And for movie buff parents there are some fun things to look out for.  

In addition to this being Ethan Hawke and River Phoenix’s first film, there are plenty of in-movie references throughout. Inside the basement belonging to one of the boys, you can see the famous toy monkey that was used in ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind,’ plus look closely at a pile of trash at a junkyard and you’ll spot something interesting on the top. It’s the Rosebud sled from ‘Citizen Kane.’

‘*batteries not included’ (Mathew Robbins, 1987)

The quickest way to end a miracle is to ask it why it is… or what it wants…

During the eighties, there was a TV show called ‘Amazing Stories’ from producer Steven Spielberg. From the several thirty minute scripts he read for the program there was one he really enjoyed above the others and saw the potential for a full-blown family adventure. It became ‘Batteries Not Included’ but the title was soon changed to the more gimmicky and stylized ‘*batteries not included’ in order to look similar to how the phrase would appear on a toy box.

The story revolves around an old apartment building in the middle of New York where the elderly tenants are in danger of losing their home. It’s when two small flying objects arrive that life for the troubled occupants change. The flying objects are actually living creatures who look like tiny UFOs, and they have a major talent. They can repair things. And they make things look brand new.  

A broken watch?  No problem; repaired in seconds. They even repair a café bar, recently vandalized, which puts the elderly couple in the building back in business. The adventures and conflicts that create the story will thrill younger children, but it’s the ending that really does the trick. Watch your child’s face as not one but hundreds of these flying machines arrive to help the tenants. It’s not quite ‘Close Encounters’ but it’s that same kind of UFO magic.

The elderly couple in the film were real life husband and wife, Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy. The old black and white photos used during the opening scenes illustrating past lives are all real; they’re Cronyn and Tandy when they were young.

‘The Black Cauldron’ (Ted Berman, Richard Rich, 1985)

Don’t they know that the Black Cauldron is indestructible? Now listen carefully. The Black Cauldron can never be destroyed. Only its evil powers can be stopped…

This is the widescreen Walt Disney film that the studio rarely talks about. In fact, unlike most Disney features that find their way to the home market within months, once ‘The Black Cauldron’ completed its run in theatres in ’85 it took thirteen years until the studio released it on video. The film resurfaced in 1998. It was known as ‘The Film Disney Tried to Bury.’

The adventure is a dark fantasy of the dark ages where a young boy and his pig look for the mystical, magical and all powerful Black Cauldron and aim to find it before it falls into the hands of the evil Horned King. There might be dark elements but this is still a Disney animated adventure, and all the usual hallmarks of lovable, comedic creatures, a young hero and an exciting, adventurous climax are here. Even if the studio had little faith in it, don’t let that stop you. It’s surprisingly spectacular.

And while watching it with the family, there are some important firsts for movie buffs to keep in mind. ‘The Black Cauldron’ was the first animated Disney movie not to feature songs. It was the first Disney film to use computer technology to help with the animation. It was also the first Disney animated feature to roll its credits at the end of the film.  

Up until ‘The Black Cauldron,’ all Disney animations faded quickly at the conclusion using only the words The End at the fadeout. Plus, in America, it was the first animated feature to be slapped with a PG rating instead of the usual G for general audiences. In fact, if it wasn’t for the deletion of two certain scenes that are now lost ‘The Black Cauldron’ might have been a PG-13.


Once Upon a Time…

The important thing to remember about the last half of the eighties is that for the Disney studios, ‘The Black Cauldron’ was thought to be the death knell of its animation department. They did well with the entertaining ‘The Great Mouse Detective’ in ’86, plus in ’88 they had another hit with ‘Oliver & Company,’ but neither films garnered the same kind of acclaim previous classics had achieved, not to mention that children were now getting the choice of other fun studio animations vying for their attention with very different styles, such as ‘The Land Before Time,’ ‘My Neighbor Totoro’ and ‘All Dogs Go To Heaven.’ Then in ’89, right at the end of the decade, the Disney animators surprised us all, including themselves.    

Just when it looked as though the famous studio was going to have to step aside to make room for other family-friendly features, it went and released a musical called ‘The Little Mermaid.’ Not only was it a great film – and one that has presumably found its way on your TV several times since it was first released on video and DVD – but it completely changed the path for animated films in the oncoming nineties.  

A different kind of quality animated feature was just around the corner and it was all to do with that little redheaded mermaid who wanted to be a part of our world. Keep reading. There’s more story to come.

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