Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) Written & Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Japan often remixes Euro-American fantasy tropes to create incredibly different contexts and characters. This is done with traditional Western witches in Kiki’s Delivery Service. The black cats and flying brooms are here, but the context is changed so that being a witch is passed down from mother to daughter. There are no wicked witches here; instead, the women serve as community healers and advice-givers. This does tie into the Japanese folklore of tsukimono-suji (hereditary witches), but the iconography is most definitely the classic Western culture witch.
My Neighbor Totoro (1988) Written & Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
No one wanted Totoro. From the first pitches by Miyazaki and his producer Toshio Suzuki in the early 1980s, they were rejected by multiple studios who didn’t believe that such a pastoral, simple story about two little girls and the spirits of the forest would appeal to too few people. This was also the first film from Miyazaki to take place in an identifiable 1950s Japan, further diminishing the escapist fantasy the distributors were looking for. When My Neighbor Totoro was released, it was shown as a double-feature with Grave of the Fireflies, a brutal tragedy about Japan’s victims of the American atomic bombing. It wasn’t until a year after its release when it began airing on television that My Neighbor Totoro finally found its fan following.
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984) Written & Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is not the first Studio Ghibli movie, but it is considered the first one. Studio Ghibli, a Japanese animation studio, was founded in 1985 after Nausicaä was released. However, because it is the first film by Hayao Miyazaki to present the themes and types of stories present in his later work, Nausicaä has retroactively been made a part of the Ghibli canon. It fits perfectly, and for most fans, they don’t even notice the difference in dates.
Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991) Written by Chris Matheson & Ed Solomon Directed by Pete Hewitt
Right away, you can see the budget difference between Bogus Journey and its predecessor, Excellent Journey. The first film had an $8.5 million budget while the sequel was given $20 million. The production design and score are very apparent elements of this change. The film opens in the future, which consists of more than just one room like the original. We have high schoolers in San Dimas attending a course taught by Rufus. We have many more practical effects throughout the picture, matte paintings, and even some early digital effects. Instead of a time travel rehash, the story goes in some more spiritual and cosmic directions. The sense of humor is still the same, and our leads are so charismatic you enjoy watching them in action.
A Little Princess (1995) Written by Richard LaGravenese & Elizabeth Chandler Directed by Alfonso Cuaron
When I watch films intended for families or children, I always focus on the theme or lesson being communicated. I think, as an elementary teacher, I want to know what this picture is telling kids about the world and humanity. I’d heard very positive things about A Little Princess, mainly from the perspective that Alfonso Cuaron did a great job directing. From that technical perspective, the film is well done, save for some poorly aged computer special effects. But I actually found the lesson of the picture to be deeply troubling yet very much in line with many of the films that come out of Hollywood for kids.
The Indian in the Cupboard (1995) Written by Melissa Mathison Directed by Frank Oz
Frank Oz is one of my favorite comedy directors of the 1980s and 90s. I consider Little Shop of Horrors, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and What About Bob? among my favorite movies from that period. He was also no stranger to making family-friendly fare with The Muppets Take Manhattan directorial credit as well as being one of the top performers among Jim Henson’s Muppet troupe. That’s what makes The Indian in the Cupboard feel so strangely disappointing and lifeless. The movie isn’t horrible, but it feels like it’s missing a critical emotional component that ends up leaving the picture ultimately forgettable.
Brazil (1985) Written by Terry Gilliam, Tom Stoppard, and Charles McKeown Directed by Terry Gilliam
Brazil has often been explained as George Orwell’s 1984 played as a comedy, and that is not too far off. I don’t think the art deco world of the film is as authoritarian as 1984, but the flow of disinformation is just as crucial to the narrative. Brazil presents a prophecy of the world we live in now where the specter of faceless terrorism is used to cow people into apathy. The power is not sleek and sharp but buffoonish, making fatal errors and killing innocent people. But the stratified class system and a fear of being targeted if you speak up keeps the ordinary person docile.
Santa Claus the Movie (1985) Written by David & Leslie Newman Directed by Jeannot Szwarc
In the wake of the box office failure of Superman III, producer Ilya Salkind wanted to cash in on more pieces of Americana, so he conceived the idea of Santa Claus the Movie. In the same vein as that 1979 film that kicked off the Superman franchise, Santa Claus the Movie, would explore the origins of the iconic figure, explaining all the facets from how he travels down chimneys to where his red suit came from. The resulting movie is a horrible piece of garbage that lacks any heart or humor, it’s a shallow, tedious drudgery that I cannot imagine any child enjoying for more than a couple of minutes.
Return to Oz (1985) Written by Walter Murch & Gil Dennis Directed by Walter Murch
The Wizard of Oz comes with iconic images that pop into the mind as soon as you hear the name. Dorothy. Scarecrow. Tin Man. Cowardly Lion, The Wicked Witch. Emerald City. These are so embedded in the pop culture zeitgeist that to present the idea of a sequel must have been relatively daunting. Return to Oz was released forty-six years after the original and was a stark contrast to the rainbows and Technicolor of MGM’s film. Disney brought in Academy Award-winning film editor and sound designer Walter Murch (The Godfather trilogy, Apocalypse Now, The Conversation) for a brainstorming session on potential projects for him to direct. This is the only film Murch has and ever will likely direct, but it is a cult classic like few others.
Ladyhawke (1985) Written by Edward Khmara, Michael Thomas, Tom Mankiewicz, and David Peoples Directed by Richard Donner
Director Richard Donner released two films three months apart in 1985: Ladyhawke in April and The Goonies in June. That’s quite a feat and two more genres tackled by the director who was never an auteur but simply made movies he was interested in. While Donner is still alive, he hasn’t directed a film since 2006 and will likely stick to producing and semi-retirement. His filmography is quite eclectic with everything from The Omen to Superman the Movie to Lethal Weapon to Scrooged, the two films mentioned above, and more. Donner doesn’t have a particular style or signature trademark, he’s one of those journeyman directors like Ron Howard or Joe Johnston that simply do the work. This can lead to great films just as much as it can deliver duds.