Listless: Essential Childrens’ Movies of the 1990s

cool runnings

When watching the trailer for this week’s new release Rango, an animated film featuring the voice stylings of Johnny Depp, with my younger sister, I had an alarming moment of realization. I began comparing it to things like Beauty and the Beast, because I tend to simplistically villify things, only to have her inform me that “those are old movies, though.” That sucked a whole bunch, but it got me thinking about some of the films that us children of the ’90s grew up on, and so this week’s Listless was born.

You’ll note above that I’ve strategically left the word “most” out of this week’s title. There’s a bit of an inherent bias, having grown up as a young man in said decade, so that must be qualified. That’s also because, were I to assess what the most essential movies were, I would have to consider things like major social impact and canonical importance. Instead, I feel it more important to give shine to things like…

1. D2: The Mighty Ducks (1994)

The first installment in the Mighty Ducks trilogy is pretty essential too, for scenes like Fulton Reed (Elden Henson) destroying alleyway property with a slapshot or children recklessly assaulting a limo on ice. That said, D2 is the quintessential installment. There are so many absurdly iconic (to a certain group) moments in this movie it’s nearly impossible to enumerate, but I’ll do my best: the evil Icelandic hockey team of 20-year-olds, a lasso coming into play in the climactic game, the Bash Brothers, roller-blading through the Mall of America (still the dream, to this day), soul-skating in South Central, the dangers of sponsorships and endorsements, the young men discovering the joys of Beverly Hills and, most importantly, this:

2. The Little Rascals (1994)

Let’s disregard for a moment the drinking game to be had with this movie, every time the title is actually said. Instead, let’s focus on what is admittedly an overdose of kids saying the darndest things, but a pretty cute one that at times is genuinely amusing even when you’re not 6. The film ends with a surprisingly well-shot race sequence, and features cameos from Mel Brooks, Daryl Hannah and a host of other talented actors. This isn’t about them, though, so much as the kids, some of whom are quite talented for their age, especially Bug Hall as Alfalfa. (Though, shame on whoever allowed the line “I just whipped out my lizard!” into the screenplay. They knew better.) Plus, this makes the list just for the Pickle Song:

3. Toy Story (1995)

Absolutely. To this day this is one of the best Disney movies of all time, and heralded the arrival of Pixar, who I hear have done pretty well for themselves. This is one of the few films on this list that actually gets better with time, not only for nostalgic value but for the fact that you realize with age what Pixar was doing all along: telling a story about the need to be loved and validated, to belong to somebody and how the most important thing you can do is find your own purpose without somebody else giving it to you. Also, The Claw.

4. The Pagemaster (1994)

Man, 1994 was the year. We also received this tale of the magic of reading, through the lens of Macaulay Culkin (more on him in a bit) as a young boy who, after suffering a fall in his town’s inexplicably grandiose library, is literally transported into the world of literature. With Christopher Lloyd as the oddly sinister librarian, and Patrick Stewart as the pirate-styled book of Adventure, The Pagemaster is sustained by a genuine sense of wonder, one which almost seems naive, about the power of imagination to give a young man courage and strength, enough so that he can…jump off a 2-foot bike ramp on his street? I forgot that kid was kind of a huge pussy.

5. The Lion King (1994)

I’ll forever argue for this as Disney’s best traditional animated film. Simba (Jonathan Taylor Thomas or Matthew Broderick) is the ultimate hero of the ’90s. A relentlessly idealistic thrillseeker, undercut by his corrupt, power-hungry (Gekko-esque) elder Scar (Jeremy Irons, pretty much playing Jeremy Irons), leaves home to find himself, befriends a couple of wacky sidekicks and returns in glory to unseat the corrupt old regime and bring peace to the African savannah. There’s still something oddly sinister about the Circle of Life beneath its ability to teach children about life and death, though. As a bonus, in what I’d argue is the funniest moment of this movie:

6. Space Jam (1996)

Before we knew that Michael Jordan enjoyed women and gambling, he was a national hero unlike any that athletics had given us before. He was also a massive crossover hero, and the magic of Space Jam is how meta it gets in portraying this. The movie starts off with his ill-fated minor-league baseball career, features countless references to endorsements and his public stature and features the second-best Bill Murray cameo in movie history. This, combined with some of the best Looney Tunes writing since the Warner golden age, makes for a surprisingly smart movie aimed at children. Even if they were totally advocating steroid use.

7. Jumanji (1995)/Home Alone 2: Lost In New York (1992)

The reason I’m putting these together is not only so that I can justify working in #10 but because these two both feel like remnants of the family movies of the ’80s, like The Goonies or Beetlejuice, insofar as those films were allowed to be dangerous in a way that family movies are usually no longer allowed to be. Now, we have to worry about our kids imitating every single thing they see (like that darned Marilyn Manson!), so we get sterile, totally unremarkable fare like Gnomeo and Juliet. Back in the ’90s, however, you could have cherubic Macaulay Culkin being left alone in New York City to be pursued by felons (between that and Baby’s Day Out, NYC was a horrible place for movie kids back then). You could also have Robin Williams being trapped in a board game for several decades, only to unleash a zoologist’s wet dream upon a small suburban town. I’ll come right out and say it: They don’t make ’em like this anymore.

8. Pokemon: The First Movie (1999)

It’s silly to think back on it now, but this movie was a goddamn phenomenon for about two weeks when it first came out, and a big part of the reason for that was the #151 Mew card that you received with ticket purchase. The movie itself is a pretty run of the mill affair; kids get stuck on island, sinister creature makes them battle, heartwarming things occur. Mostly it sticks out in memory for being the definitive moment of the Pokemon craze, when kids the world over could see them battle on a massive screen, and also for featuring possibly the most traumatizing thing those kids ever saw in a movie:

9. The Sandlot (1993)

In addition to the fact that The Sandlot is an essential bit of ’90s nostalgia, it’s also just a really, really good movie. More than most any other film I’ve seen, this nails the feeling of being a kid in the suburbs, when the smallest instances (a trip to the pool, a lost baseball) can have cataclysmic effects on your life and when summer felt like an endless and infinite thing. The ending, especially, works as a poignant microcosm of aging and growing; as a kid you don’t understand what Smalls means when he says that “Bertram got really into the ’60s, and nobody ever saw him again,” but when you’re older, well, that can hit uncomfortably close to home. Finally, because you have to:

10. Cool Runnings (1993)

One of the best sports movies ever made. Not the best shot, or the best acted (though the comic interplay between the five main characters of this thing is well above-average for Disney’s live-action fare), but one of the most rewatchable and entertaining. John Candy turns in an unexpectedly deep performance as a formerly corrupt Olympic bobsledding coach who takes on an unlikely team of Jamaicans to make a run at the Winter Olympics. This was based on a true story, and though it takes a great deal of liberties with the source material, the climactic march to the finish is still a genuinely moving sequence. It’s easy to discard this as a silly nostalgia item, which is true of many of the films on this list, but consider that every time the Winter Olympics roll around, somebody in the press is always asking where the Jamacian bobsled team is. Now, play me off, Yul Brynner: