If you find yourself unable to stop watching Netflix’s Stranger Things, take comfort in the fact that you are not alone. Though it may not have received much hype (at least in comparison to other major Netflix releases) this charming throwback has captured the hearts of retro sci-fi fans everywhere with its spot-on tributes to the genre’s very best.
It’s also got us reminiscing about the many great childhood adventure films over the years. Though perhaps not a genre that you’re likely to see added to your Netflix menu in the near future, this type of movie is beloved by nearly every young film fan for its portrayal of kids on incredible journeys fraught with peril and brimming with excitement. They are the movies that inspired you to explore the boundaries of your world just a bit more in the hopes that a great quest that could change your life forever would present itself to you.
These are the 15 Greatest Childhood Adventure Movies Ever.
15. Adventures in Babysitting
1987’s Adventures in Babysitting is a bit of a bizarre example of the childhood adventure genre simply because there aren’t really any sci-fi, supernatural or mystical elements to it. While most childhood adventure films aim to portray what would happen if the fantastic journeys that children imagine themselves embarking on while they simply walk up and down their neighborhood streets, this movie tells the comparatively more grounded story of a babysitter that must leave her suburban home and take some kids on an adventure through Chicago in order to help her friend.
As you might guess, however, things don’t exactly go according to plan. What makes Adventures in Babysitting such a memorable entrant into the genre is the way that it treats the city of Chicago like some mystical land of fantasy and horror while only really playing up most of its natural elements. There are thieves, heroes, treasures and many incredible occurrences typically spurred on by the most rambunctious group of kids a babysitter could ever hope to find themselves having to watch. For presenting the city as the kind of urban jungle of wonders that most kids imagine them to be, Adventures in Babysitting manages to achieve its well-earned cult classic status.
14. Honey, I Shrunk The Kids
It’s hard not to be a little nostalgic for the untainted imagination many of us had as a child. Although there’s plenty of reasons to be happy you’re not a kid anymore (most of which are school related) it’s a shame that age seems to deprive most people of their ability to look at the most mundane elements of their life and see something extraordinary. In a way, Honey I Shrunk The Kids is all about childhood imagination. It recognizes that most kids are able to look at our own backyards and see a world of infinite adventure.
Rather than limit those adventures to the minds of children, however, Honey I Shrunk The Kids manages to take that same backyard setting and turn it into the staging ground for an on-screen journey as epic as The Odyssey by shrinking the main characters down to the size of a bug. What’s amazing about this movie all these years later is how it is able to get so much out of its relatively simple premise by throwing nearly every obstacle at these kids that could possibly occur in this situation. As scary as their adventure was, though, there wasn’t a single kid who saw this movie that wouldn’t have gladly embarked on it at least once.
While it sometimes feels like all the good childhood adventure films were released sometime between 1980 and 1989, that’s not really a fair analysis. Things changed drastically following the ’80s, and it just became much more difficult to produce a movie about kids in danger that wasn’t seen as potentially offensive by some and overplayed by others. Still, every now and then, a director is able to reach back into the genre’s glory days and find a way to translate that magic to modern times.
Mud is one of the most notable instances of that technique. On the surface, its story of a slightly deranged fugitive hiding from the law somewhere along the Mississippi river sure doesn’t sound like the set-up for a classic young adventure film, but what makes it one is the presence of two young boys who run across the fugitive and form a kind of friendship with him. Mud has been called the modern-day Huckleberry Finn, and that comparison is hard to argue against. Despite the movie’s inherently dark plotline, there is a simple innocence to this story which allows it to ultimately feel more like a kid’s film disguised as an adult one.
12. Radio Flyer
By their very nature, childhood adventure films are kind of dark. After all, what’s an adventure if there isn’t a little risk involved in it? Still, Radio Flyer does really milk that leeway for all its worth. It tells the tale of a father named Mike that is trying to teach his kids a lesson about broken promises by telling them a story about his childhood friendship with his little brother Bobby. While Bobby and Mike always liked to have adventures, they suddenly find it much more necessary to embark on them after their mother meets a man named Jack who, in his alcoholic rage, begins abusing Bobby. In order to help young Bobby, the boys form a plan to turn their Radio Flyer wagon into an airplane that can help the little brother escape.
Without digging too far into the film’s controversial ending, let’s just say that things either go very bad or very well, based on your personal interpretation. Regardless, the movie was heavily criticized at the time of its release for suggesting that kids should, or even do, use escapism to run away from problems. That’s an interesting take because, in all honesty, that’s exactly what many kids and adults in such a situation will naturally do. Radio Flyer’s portrayal of using imagination as a shield may not be pretty, but it’s one that most kids can certainly relate to.
11. The Last Starfighter
It was a shared dream among many kids of the ‘80s that one day they would be able to translate their incredible video game skills into a great adventure (or at least a high-paying job). Somehow, we all knew that that time spent saving the world from ninjas, dragons, and robot ninja dragons would eventually be used to help us solve some incredible crisis. As most of those same kids now know, that didn’t prove to be the case. Actually, all that time spent playing video games may have created more crises than it solved.
That’s why The Last Starfighter holds a special place in the hearts of so many children of that era. It follows the journey of a young boy without much going on in his life — besides some considerable skills at a fictional game called Starfighter — who finds his fortunes have turned one day when an alien race recruits him as their newest warrior based on his gaming skills. Though certainly outlandish, it’s amazing how close that story comes to capturing the common dream of young gamers everywhere at that time. It’s the ultimate in wish-fulfillment and a pretty great adventure film to boot.
10. Super 8
While movie studios are seemingly always on a mission to try to bottle it up for profit, the truth is that nostalgia is not always that easy to capture. A director may know everything there is to know about a piece of nostalgic pop-culture (and maybe even have a deep personal affection for it) but when it comes to trying to create a throwback film that captures what made that subject matter so special, it’s easy to end up with predictable drivel.
Super 8 isn’t like that. Though its aesthetics (small-town America, kids riding in formation on bicycles, etc.) are certainly reminiscent of childhood adventure films’ glory days, Super 8 is more of an honest love letter to the genre delivered in a genuinely compelling narrative. The adventures of a group of aspiring young filmmakers trying to unravel a mystery developing in their little part of the world manages to join the illustrious ranks of the genre’s best by being both incredibly relatable and impossibly fantastic. It’s the kind of kind of movie that makes you want to walk away from your screen and seek out an adventure of your own.
9. The NeverEnding Story
Believe it or not, there was actually a great deal of controversy surrounding the release of The NeverEnding Story that almost prevented it from being released at all. See, the author of The NeverEnding Story novel looked at the production of the film and became outraged over the fact that the movie had strayed so far from the spirit of the book and had cut out the majority of the book’s second half. He sued the producers over the matter and requested that either the title of the film be changed or for filming to stop entirely.
While The NeverEnding Story may not be a faithful adaptation of the original novel, it is nonetheless a classic adventure film in its own right. The more traditional fantasy style of the movie may vary slightly from other childhood adventure films, but it’s implication that a magical book exists that is capable of transporting any child to a fascinating new world is without a doubt one of those cornerstone pieces of childhood adventure lore. Not to mention that the flying dog dragon Falkor is still the greatest mythical pet a kid could have.
Hook is a rather interesting childhood adventure film if for no other reason than it doesn’t technically star a child. Instead, it follows a much older, much less imaginative Peter Pan on his journey to escape the crazy world of Neverland as quickly as possible with his children in tow. Throughout much of the movie, he makes it perfectly clear that he wants nothing to do with this Peter Pan character, that Captain Hook guy, or any of the other childish nonsense that is peppered throughout Neverland.
Though Peter may not be a child, Hook certainly retains the spirit of a childhood adventure film. Here’s a movie that addresses a secret fear that many kids have (“What happens when I get old?”) by showing that your inner child does not have to age. It also certainly doesn’t hurt the movie’s classification that there are plenty of actual children having adventures found throughout the movie, including the infamous Lost Boys, whose swashbuckling style and table of seemingly infinite colorful food have no doubt inspired many a young Hook fan to honestly consider the possibility that they may truly belong living in the trees of some mythical land far, far away.
7. The Monster Squad
There’s nothing like watching horror movies as a kid. Even if they’re the ones you shouldn’t technically be watching, turning off the lights and letting a movie scare you stiff for a couple of hours is enough to send any kid’s imagination into overdrive. While your imagination in those instances can betray you sometimes with images of your horrible demise at the hands of whatever monster you just witnessed on film, occasionally it would also lead to elaborate “What If?” scenarios that allowed you and your friends to discuss just how you could take down any monster that crossed you.
That’s the exact premise that The Monster Squad runs with. The young heroes of Monster Squad represent nearly every childhood horror fan in the sense that they are entirely convinced monsters are real and possess a frightening amount of knowledge about them. So when an actual gang of classic monsters invades their town, they are not frightened. Instead, they do what most kids their age like to imagine they’d do in such a scenario, and fight back through whatever means necessary. Monster Squad is the kind of movie you would pop in for both entertainment and the chance to take some notes regarding what, exactly, will bring the Wolfman down.
6. Flight of The Navigator
Flight of the Navigator wasn’t on every ‘80s kid’s best-of list, and it’s not hard to see why. It centers around a young boy whose mysterious journey eight years into the future so happens to coincide with the arrival of an alien spaceship, and proves to be a surprisingly complicated movie that takes some time to really get going. It’s a big part of the reason why the film didn’t instantly join the ranks of other Disney classics, nor the hallowed halls of the ‘80s sci-fi hall of fame.
Watching the movie now, however, what’s most remarkable about it is its ability to speak as clearly to adults as it does to children. Flight of the Navigator’s story may not be the kind that kids everywhere used to run around pretending to take part in, but it is a shockingly intelligent film that manages to balance grand moments of special effects wizardry with much more subtle examinations of what a child’s need for adventure can lead them to. Flight of the Navigator is also lovingly loaded with that good old-fashioned movie science talk that has the remarkable ability to sound both completely ludicrous and surprisingly plausible.
Explorers was a huge box office flop. Reportedly made for a budget of around $20-$25 million, the movie would end up grossing just under $10 million. The troubles don’t end at the box office, however, as director Joe Dante (Gremlins) would later reveal that the movie’s production was haunted by studio executives who rushed along the process and refused to let Dante make the movie that he wanted to make. Sure enough, an eagle-eyed viewer can easily spot the rushed effects and sometimes sloppy sequencing caused by these reported outsiders. Of course, it certainly didn’t help that E.T. had beaten this film to release and that the movie’s parallels to that film led to many at the time labeling it as a knock-off.
Despite all that, Explorers is regularly regarded as a classic movie these days, and with good reason. Though it may be rough around the edges and slightly derivative in parts, one of the movie’s greatest strengths is its core cast of characters. Not only do these kids know everything there is to know about science fiction pop-culture, but their unwavering enthusiasm makes them the perfect vessels for the spirit of childhood adventure.
4. The Sandlot
Is The Sandlot a childhood adventure film? It’s an interesting question. The argument against the movie’s classification as an adventure is that it’s really more of a movie about kids at play. Those who hold that belief tend to suggest that if you’re going to call this a children’s adventure movie, then you can basically label just about any movie that primarily stars kids as such. It’s a reasonable enough argument, but what it fails to take into account is that The Sandlot is a rather ordinary movie about kids playing baseball that becomes an adventure because it is told from the perspective of a nostalgic narrator.
That presentation makes all the difference. It turns what are otherwise relatively normal events in a kid’s childhood (trips to the pool, playing baseball, watching fireworks) and presents them as glorious occurrences that represented major moments of life and death for everyone involved. That playful sensationalism not only adds an appropriate amount of epicness to the film, but it helps The Sandlot speak directly to the hearts of just about anyone who had a fairly standard American childhood. Of course, the movie’s scenes involving the world’s most vicious dog (allegedly) are ripped straight from the frames of an adventure serial in the most glorious way possible.
And judging from this, it looks like the film’s cast has gone on to some pretty interesting adventures of their own.
Ah, E.T. It’s one of those movies that managed to become an instant hit the moment it was released and somehow has only gained popularity as the years go on. What is it about this movie, though? What is it about E.T. that makes it such a beloved childhood institution and a pillar of the decade’s film scene? Sure, it’s a very well made movie with a tremendous score, great writing and a bunch of iconic moments, but why did E.T. manage to succeed so incredibly whereas similar films like Explorers bombed miserably?
It’s all about the film’s heart. Steven Spielberg put it best when he said that he intended E.T. to be a kind of counterpart to Poltergeist. Whereas the latter is a suburban nightmare, the former is a suburban dream. Indeed, there are many aspects of E.T. that feel pleasantly dream-like. The movie exists in this kind of wonderful haze that allows you to look past any signs of aging it’s taken on over the years and focus instead on the heart of the movie, which will always remain what happens when a friendly alien disrupts the lives of several ordinary kids and the adventure that occurs when they develop a bond with it.
2. Stand By Me
Many of the movies on this list present a fantastical adventure that may or may not take place in our world, but are all united under the fact that most of the events in them probably could never happen. Stand by Me is a little different in that respect. Though it’s slightly worrisome to imagine the film’s plot playing out in real life, there’s no reason that a perfectly normal group of four friends wouldn’t perhaps set out to find the body of a missing boy and encounter an escalating series of threats and obstacles along the way.
Yet, the adventure in Stand by Me somehow feels more spectacular than even the most absurd of mystical movies. Perhaps the reason why that is has something to do with that morbid cloud hanging above the film known as the future. Told in retrospect by one of the boys who lived through these events, every action in Stand by Me (no matter how intentionally dramatic) carries an additional weight to it because of the implication that this is seemingly the last innocent adventure that any of these kids will embark on. With good intentions, they walk willingly into the perils of adulthood, and the events of their fantastic voyage ensure that none of them will be quite the same.
1. The Goonies
It’s rare that you get to call a movie “genre defining” and not sound like you’re giving into hyperbole just a little bit, but there’s little argument that The Goonies is the definitive childhood adventure film. It’s not as smart as Flight of the Navigator, not as real as Stand by Me, and perhaps not as universally recognized as E.T., but what The Goonies has going for it that no other film on this list or in this genre does (besides the considerable three-headed production trio of Steven Spielberg, Richard Donner, and Chris Columbus) is a story that would fit right in with the classic adventure serials of film’s golden age that just so happens to star kids.
Yes, this tale of pirate’s gold, monsters and crooks could just as easily have been translated into an Indiana Jones-type film, but instead, The Goonies puts kids in the leading roles and comes out all the more classic because of it. Every character in The Goonies represents some kind of child you either were or knew growing up, and each of them has something to contribute to this incredible journey that is not only easy to point to as the example of why childhood adventure films are so great, but in many ways summarizes what makes movies themselves so beloved.
Side note: it’s probably for the best that this adventure begin and end in the ’80s.
How does Stranger Things stack up with these classic childhood adventure films? Will any movie ever surpass The Goonies in this sub-genre? Let us know in the comments!
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