100 Film Favorites – #53: The Goonies
(Richard Donner, 1985)
We’re nearly halfway through the Countdown! Hopefully those of you who’ve been reading along are enjoying it so far.
Today’s entry is another one which continues to have a pretty big fanbase. Though Richard Donner is credited as director, executive producer Steven Spielberg came up with the story and, according to Sean Astin, co-directed much of the film. It shows: the film is rife with “Spielbergian” touches. Key among these are a group of children on an adventure, and the scourge of the decade – greedy 80s land developers!
Aptly enough, the film tells the story of the Goonies, a ragtag group of kids living in the “Goon Docks,” a blue-collar neighborhood in Astoria, Oregon. The group consists of asthmatic protagonist Mikey (played by a young Sean Astin), the smooth-talking Mouth (Corey Feldman), the tubby and tall-tale-telling Chunk, and budding inventor Data (Johnathan Ke Quan, who had worked with Spielberg a year earlier as Short Round in “Temple of Doom”).
All is fine and dandy for the Goonies until some fat-cat 80s land developers (curse them!) opt to foreclose on the Goon Dock houses to expand the local country club. Fearing that they will soon have to move apart from one another, the boys are eager to embark on one last “Goonie adventure.” They see their chance while exploring Mikey’s attic one rainy afternoon. Mikey’s father works at the Astoria Historical Museum, and various artifacts from the museum collection litter the attic. Among these objects is an old Spanish chart, which the boys deduce to be a treasure map belonging to One-Eyed Willie, a pirate notorious for pillaging areas nearby. Giving Mikey’s older brother Brand the slip, the Goonies go after the treasure, hoping that any “rich stuff” they find may enable their parents to keep their homes.
Unbeknownst to the boys, the Fratellis, a trio of Italian criminals consisting of the matriarch Mama and her two sons, Jake and Francis, have recently broken out of jail. The Goonies arrive at the first landmark on their map, which is the current site of a run-down restaurant…which just happens to be the Fratellis’ hiding spot. The Goonies (now joined by Brand, his love interest Andi, and her friend Stef) manage to sneak beneath the restaurant and find a passageway through a drain in the basement, which opens into a system of caverns. Aware of the threat posed by the Fratellis, the other Goonies instruct Chunk to run back to town and contact the police. However, before he can make it, Chunk is captured by the Fratellis and brought back to the restaurant.
Meanwhile, the other Goonies begin navigating the subterranean tunnels, which are heavily-laden with all manner of booby traps. Getting past the various obstacles requires the individual talents of each of the children. For instance, Andi’s (limited) piano-playing ability allows the group to successfully complete a deadly puzzle centered around a great organ made of human bone, and Data’s “Pinchers of Hell” (a spring-loaded set of chattering teeth built into his belt buckle) saves the group from falling down a spike-pit.
The Fratellis learn about the tunnel system from Chunk, and decide to pursue the children. They lock Chunk in a makeshift dungeon in the restaurant basement and descend into the caverns. In his cell, Chunk meets a fellow prisoner named Sloth. A hideously-deformed third Fratelli brother, Sloth is hated and neglected by his family. He and Chunk soon become fast friends, bonding over a shared candy bar.
The Goonies finally make it to the “X” on their treasure map: A massive central cavern where One-Eyed Willie’s pirate ship is still moored. They climb aboard and find the ship overflowing with “rich stuff.” The kids fill their pockets with gold, careful not to disturb the sack of doubloons held in the skeletal hand of One-Eyed Willie himself. Before they can leave with their booty, however, the children are cornered by the Fratellis. The criminals strip the children of their treasure, and it looks like curtains for our young adventurers. Then, an echoing yell of “HEY YOU GUUUUYYYS” resounds through the cavern. Chunk and Sloth come to the rescue, the mighty Sloth having broken their chains. The Goonies fight back, but the Fratellis continue snatching up treasure amidst the battle. When one of them grabs the sack of coins left behind as “Willie’s share,” they trigger one last booby trap, and the cavern begins to collapse. With Sloth blocking the cascade of falling boulders, the Goonies are able to escape through a hole in the cave wall.
On the beach nearby, the children reunite with their worried families. The children tearfully tell their parents that they were unable to keep the treasure, and thus the houses will still be foreclosed. However, Mikey’s housekeeper Rosalita peers into his marble bag and discovers the one stash of jewels the Fratellis failed to find. The Goon Docks are saved, and Mikey’s father triumphantly tears up the land developers’ contract. Yeah! Take that, you 80s fat-cats! You’ll never win, as long as the power of childhood wonder endures!
Suddenly, a gasp arises from the assembled crowd. The cavern’s collapse frees the pirate ship, and One-Eyed Willie takes to sea once more. The sodden Fratellis trudge up the beach and are quickly arrested (save for Sloth, whom Chunk defends and talks his parents into adopting).
This film merits a spot on the Countdown for a number of reasons. A major one is the premise: “Kids embark on a treasure hunt to save their homes” is an eminently watchable setup. Additionally, the characters (at least the Goonies themselves) are believable. Like The Sandlot, this film really captures the sense of being a kid in search of adventure on a rainy day.
Another element which contributes to the films effectiveness (and its personal significance to me) is the setting. Astoria, Oregon doesn’t really seem like the typical setting for a Hollywood film (though a handful of movies have been set there, including Short Circuit). However, my grandfather owned a house in Nahcotta, Washington, just north of Astoria, and I’ve visited nearly every year. The area is misty and cool most of the time. While this atmosphere gives the place a slightly gloomy feel, it also creates a sense of mystery, and of a place closely tied to the sea. All three factors make Astoria the perfect setting for kids fearing the loss of their homes to set off on a pirate adventure.
-Movie goof: When the children reunite with their families on the beach, a news reporter asks them what the scariest part of their journey was. Data responds, “The octopus was really scary!” This line refers to a deleted scene in which the characters fight an octopus in One-Eyed Willie’s cavern. This scene is available on the DVD.
-The film was shot mostly in Astoria, and many of the locations can still be visited. The jail used for the Fratellis’ break-out has since become home to the Oregon Film Museum.
Also, “Jailbreak / Fratelli Chase,” the opening instrumental theme of the movie, is a really great, pretty unappreciated piece of film music. Here it is, being played by a mediocre but passionate brass ensemble somewhere in Italy:
Brian Terrill is the host of television show Count Gauntly’s Horrors from the Public Domain. You can keep up with Brian’s 100 Film Favorites countdown here.
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