Expectations are everything when it comes to enjoying a movie. Whether consciously or not, we’re constantly weighing our opinion of the movie against the idea of the movie that we had imagined in our minds prior to entering the theater. With technology and social media being what they are, it’s become harder and harder to enter a movie with zero expectations. Sometimes this makes for an uphill battle for the movie - something like what The Force Awakens faced, or how the new Ghostbusters will have to combat the audience’s preconceived notions for what level of quality to expect. But sometimes, our expectations will be set so low prior to seeing the movie, that we wind up being delightfully surprised.
In this list, we’ve gathered 17 movies that, for one reason or another, we expected to be forgettable at best, atrocious at worst. Whether they looked to be shameless cash grabs, long delayed sequels, or shallow children’s entertainment, the movies on this list all surprised us by not just being serviceable, but being fantastic. Here are 17 Movies That Had No Business Being As Good As They Are.
17 The Lego Movie
If you went back in time to 2013 and told someone that The Lego Movie was going to be passed over for Best Animated Feature nomination the next year, and that that would be considered one of the bigger snubs of that award season, they would have laughed in your face. When the movie was announced, most people naturally assumed that it would be, at best, a cute, brainless film for their kids to enjoy, and also a shameless plug to buy more Lego toys. What people did not expect was a smart, satirical, warm film that actively encourages imagination and teamwork in its young audience, while also warning against the dangers of big business. But that’s exactly what we got in this delightful animated film from Chris Miller and Phil Lord.
We should have known better, considering Miller and Lord had already helmed the fun Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. But just about everyone was surprised at the amount of depth the directors were able to find in a movie about block toys. The complex themes and clever world-building made this one of the best movies to be released that year. Talk about going above and beyond what’s expected.
16 Fast Five
How many franchises can you name that made it to a fifth entry? Out of that list, how many were actually good? And out of those, which ones were so good that they essentially kicked the franchise into a new gear, becoming some of the most wildly successful films of all time?
The Fast and Furious franchise is a fascinating case in blockbuster cinema. Who could have expected when the first movie was released in 2001 that the sequels would still be coming fifteen years later, and that they would be some of the biggest moneymakers of all time?
It’s all thanks to Fast Five. This was the movie that took the series to the next level. The next, ludicrously insane, over-the-top, ridiculously explosive level. It was this film that launched the series into near Wile E. Coyote levels of chase physics. The cartoonish reality was such a natural fit for this car chasing series, it’s a wonder it took them five films to discover it. But once they did, they embraced it wholeheartedly. The eighth film is set to be released in 2017.
15 Wes Craven's New Nightmare
The Nightmare on Elm Street franchise burned out fast. The first film was immediately embraced as a horror classic, with an instantly iconic villain. Unfortunately, the sequel reached nowhere near the levels of greatness of the first, and each subsequent film in the franchise showed diminishing returns. No one expected the seventh film in the franchise to be any better than the sixth, the fifth, or any of the others.
But Wes Craven had something up his sleeve. He turned his own franchise on its head and shook it. The movie plays with the entire reality of the series by starring Craven himself as the director directing a new Nightmare on Elm Street movie. Many of the actors return, playing fictional versions of themselves. It’s into this meta world that Craven releases the “real” Freddy Krueger and all hell breaks loose.
New Nightmare is more daring, clever and inventive than it had any right to be. It saw Craven toying with the meta nature of horror films two years before he would perfect it in Scream. New Nightmare is an absolute joy to behold, and is considered by many fans the only required viewing in the series besides the first film.
14 Die Hard
Die Hard has become so ingrained in our consciousness as the seminal action film, it’s hard to imagine a time when it’s success wasn’t guaranteed. But that’s exactly the circumstance Die Hard was released into. It didn’t have to be as good as it was. It was an action film starring an average guy when all other action films at that time starred macho, beefy supermen like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. Add to that the fact that Bruce Willis was primarily known for his comedic work on the sitcom Moonlighting, and that the villain was a complete unknown, and we could have had a major flop on our hands.
Instead, we got a movie that completely changed the course of action cinema. The beautifully simplistic plot and tense, heart pounding action coalesced into a thrilling film that no one could help but love. Alan Rickman created one of the most memorable villains of all time with Hans Gruber, and Bruce Willis became a sensation overnight with his immediately endearing John McClane. Die Hard didn’t have to become an action classic. It was just too good not to.
Children’s animated movies, as a whole, tend to be fairly forgettable. For every Toy Story, there are a dozen Angry Birds. So when trailers first started appearing for Zootopia, the world took little notice. Zootopia didn’t seem much different from any of the other children’s movies on the slate for 2016. It was colorful, it had some cute jokes in the trailers, and it starred a multitude of movie stars as talking animals. Same old, same old.
But then Zootopia came out, and people were forced to take notice. This was not like every other animated film. With this film, Disney was really reaching outside the box. The movie slyly dealt with a plethora of adult issues and themes, from sexism, to race, to government corruption. Zootopia was smarter than it had any business being. Zootopia made a killing at the box office, and was the subject of think pieces for weeks after it’s release. The movie that none of us expected anything from completely surprised us.
12 21 Jump Street
Phil Lord and Christopher Miller have made a career out of turning potentially bad movies great. They’re the directors who have no business being as good as they are. They turned the Lego Movie from a potential nostalgia cash-grab to one of the best children’s movies ever released. And in 2012, they took what could have been a lazy rehash of an old television show and used it as a platform to satirize Hollywood.
21 Jump Street brilliantly uses it’s position as a Hollywood reboot to comment on Hollywood’s lazy tendency to reboot old properties. Many of these tendencies are voiced by the police chief played by Nick Offerman, who tells the young officers played by Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill that their department is “out of ideas”, so they’re just re-using stuff from the 80s.
This sharp, satirical commentary is well balanced with just plain, goofy fun. Tatum and Hill have an infectious chemistry, and the movie plays to their strengths wonderfully. 21 Jump Street was the comedy we didn’t know we needed.
11 Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl
Four sequels and several hundred million dollars later, it’s hard to believe there was ever a time when “Pirates of the Caribbean” didn’t mean gold at the box office. But surprisingly, the climate that the first Pirates was released into did not bode particularly well for this seafaring adventure. For one, pirate movies had not been popular in years. Also, the film was based on a theme park attraction, which has never really equaled success for a movie, either critically or commercially. And above all, the studio was worried that Johnny Depp may have ruined their film with his swishy, eccentric portrayal of Captain Jack Sparrow.
Of course, all of these things, particularly Depp’s performance, culminated into one of the biggest box office smashes of all time. The film raked in tons of cash, and Depp was acclaimed for his bold performance, even netting an Oscar nomination. The movie that everyone, including the studio releasing it, thought was going to tank, wound up sailing strong across the high seas.
10 Mad Max: Fury Road
While the Mad Max franchise is considered a cult favorite, we’re not sure that a huge portion of the population was clamoring for a fourth movie in 2016. Throw in the fact that it would be a soft reboot of the series, not starring Mel Gibson at all, and people had the right to be cautious about Mad Max: Fury Road. Then the first trailer hit the internet, and everyone took notice.
That first trailer perfectly encapsulated everything great about this phenomenal action film. The dizzying spectacle, the practical effects, and the explosive stuntwork was all on display, set to epic orchestral music.
When the movie was finally released, it surpassed all expectations. Critics hailed it as one of the best movies of the year. It swept many of the technical categories at the Oscars, even netting a Best Picture nomination. It reinvigorated the franchise and new sequels were greenlit. Audiences flocked to the film. All this for a long belated sequel/reboot. Not bad!
9 You're Next
The home invasion genre is not a particularly respected one. While there are occasional diamonds in the rough, such as The Strangers or Funny Games, the majority of home invasion films do not inspire artistic praise from critics and audiences. Based on the marketing campaign, Adam Wingard’s You’re Next looked to be no different. Killers wearing creepy masks, gruesome violence, and a beautiful heroine were all easily found in the early trailers and posters. But Adam Wingard had something else in mind.
You’re Next turned out not to be a mindless guts-fest, but a sharp, incisive, clever riff on an overplayed genre. The film surprised everyone by straddling the line between horror and comedy, while fully delivering on both. Sure, the film has excessive violence and gruesome deaths, but it’s presented in such a subversive, gleefully clever way, the movie feels like a total breath of fresh air.
There is a shocking reveal that a lesser film might use as a final twist, but Wingard smartly employs halfway through the film to deepen the character’s and more accurately explore their motivations. In every way, You’re Next was smarter than it had any right to be.
Jaws is so ingrained in our cultural consciousness as a classic that it can be hard to step back and think about what expectations must have been like prior to its release. When you think about it, Jaws was nothing more than a monster movie from a relatively green director, based off a popular, if fairly trashy, beach read. In another universe, Jaws could have joined the pantheon of cheesy and forgettable Roger Corman style monster movies. Instead, we wound up with one of the greatest films ever made.
Much of this is owed to Spielberg’s craftsmanship behind the camera, but a lot of it also comes down to plain old good luck. What if the mechanical shark, which infamously gave the production trouble from day one, had worked perfectly instead? Spielberg might not have been forced to get inventive with his depiction of the shark early in the film, and we could have lost so much of the terror that comes from the mysteriousness of it. What if Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, or Robert Shaw had turned the film down? We would have lost the chemistry that keeps this monster movie grounded in humanity. A lot of disparate elements had to come together in 1975 to make this film a classic, and we should thank our lucky stars they did.
The second Jonah Hill film to make it’s appearance on this list, Superbad didn’t have a whole lot going for it prior to its release. It would be joining a league of generally atrocious teenage sex comedies, a genre that was not particularly profitable in 2007. It was famously written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg when they were teenagers, which tends to not be a good omen for movies.
Somehow though, Superbad managed to capture both the hilarity and heart that very few teenage sex comedies manage to attain. It became an instant box office sensation, and spawned catchphrases that would carry on for years afterward, such as “Chicka chicka yeah,” and “McLovin’”. It cemented Jonah Hill, Michael Cera, and Emma Watson as bona fide comedic talent, as well as provided hilarious supporting turns for Bill Hader, Joe Lo Truglio, and Rogen himself. Whatever your opinion of Superbad, you can’t deny that it’s pretty impressive for a teenage sex comedy.
6 Starship Troopers
It’s easy to see why many people might have misunderstood Starship Troopers upon its initial release. On the surface, the movie looks to be exactly the thing that it’s trying to make fun of. A rah-rah, “Go America!”, brainless sci-fi shoot ‘em up. But underneath the surface is a far smarter movie. Paul Verhoeven chose this sci-fi action movie as a vehicle to deliver a scathing commentary on the military, war, and America. Verhoeven, who had already had experience masking satire as action with Robocop, delivered on a whole other level with Starship Troopers. The movie is ridiculous in all the right ways, and really benefits from a deeper analysis of the story. The over-the-top performances clues you into the fact that this movie should not be taken at face value. No one needed a movie about astronauts blowing up giant bugs to be a cutting satire of the state of American affairs, but Verhoeven gave it to us anyway.
5 Silence of the Lambs
Silence of the Lambs stands as one of the rare horror films to ever win the Best Picture Oscar. The movie created a huge sensation across the world. Hannibal Lecter was immediately seared into our consciousness as one of the most iconic and terrifying villains ever introduced. But the movie’s success was far from a guaranteed thing.
There’s a reason that Adaptation pokes fun at the serial killer genre. Done well, it can result in some of the greatest thrillers ever made (Zodiac, Psycho) but the serial killer genre also lends itself easy to hacky tropes and overused cliches. And a movie starring a cannibal serial killer named Hannibal could very easily have devolved into camp and ridiculousness. The inferior sequels have proven as much.
Fortunately, Jonathan Demme’s expert direction, Jodie Foster’s wonderfully restrained performance, and especially Anthony Hopkins chilling character work made what could have been a trashy thriller into an iconic and beloved drama. Years later, Bryan Fuller would strike the same perfect balance with the terrific Hannibal series on NBC.
Who could have expected Frozen to become the worldwide sensation that it has? On paper, there’s nothing particularly special about it. It looked to be a cute, enjoyable animated film, on par with Disney’s recent efforts like Tangled. But something about Frozen struck a nerve with audiences. Maybe it’s the refreshing fact that the two leads are both independent young women. Maybe it’s the catchy and charming songs. Maybe Josh Gad’s hilarious vocal work as Olaf. Most likely, it’s a combination of all of these things. Because instead of being the direct-to-DVD animated feature it could have easily become, Frozen sparked a worldwide frenzy. Families attended the movie in droves, making it easily the highest grossing animated movie of all time. Merchandise flew off the shelves, and everywhere you went you could hear “Let it Go” on the radio. Idina Menzel became a household name overnight. And the movie itself was a charming fable full of heart and positive messages, as well as some genuine laughs and thrills.
3 Looney Tunes: Back in Action
If you haven’t watched Looney Tunes: Back in Action lately, you might think that it’s inclusion on this list is a joke. But go back and watch it. That movie is miles ahead of where it needs to be, quality-wise. Much of this is owed to Joe Dante working behind the camera. The mastermind behind Gremlins imbues the Looney Tunes revamp with an anarchic, wild, free-wheeling and hilarious sensibility.
We really can’t talk highly enough about Looney Tunes: Back in Action. The movie is so much smarter than it had any right to be. It’s delightfully meta, with lots of fourth wall breaking and winks to the audience. It manages to be this subversive and adult, while also staying true to the spirit of the Looney Tunes cartoons. It truly is a movie that is as enjoyable for adults as it is for kids. It also features a hysterical Steve Martin in a villainous role, which should be enough to peak your interest right there.
2 Toy Story 2
It’s hard to believe now, but at one time Toy Story 2 was actually being planned as a direct-to-DVD sequel to the first film.While the first film had been a massive hit, not much emphasis was placed on animated sequels at that time. It wasn’t until studio bosses at Pixar saw what John Lasseter, Lee Unkrich, and Ash Brannon had come up with that they realized they had something special.
Toy Story 2, which could have easily just retread the steps the first film had taken, took on an entirely different life than it’s predecessor, and in the process, became one of the greatest sequels of all time. It improves on the already wonderful original in almost every way. The animation is beautiful, the voice work is better than ever, and the emotions running through the film hit entirely new levels. The famously tragic sequence following Jessie’s separation from her child stands in our minds as one of the most powerful sequences in any film, animated or otherwise. Pixar would surprise everyone again by delivering a wonderful third film in an animated franchise with Toy Story 3 a few years later. Let’s see if they can repeat the magic with Toy Story 4.
1 Star Wars
The original Star Wars is one of the greatest cinematic underdog stories of all time. The myths and legends surrounding its conception are almost as vast and fascinating as the myths and legends contained in the actual film. In the early 1970s, George Lucas imagined a space adventure unlike anything put on film at that point. He wanted to combine his favorite elements from samurai films, to Flash Gordon serials, to WWII fighter pilot films into one grand space saga.
No one expected Star Wars to perform like it did. Prior to its release, it must have seemed like silly children’s entertainment to most of studio executives, and it easily could have been! There was no driving need for a sci-fi adventure as ambitious as this. But Lucas and his team dreamed big, and the results paid off in unbelivable ways. Star Wars became a worldwide phenomenon and destroyed box office records everywhere. It has now become regarded as one of the most famous properties of all time, and it continues to ignite audience member’s imaginations for years after it’s release. Pretty impressive for a silly children’s movie.
What movies do you think exceeded expectations in spectacular fashion? Let us know in the comments below!