I typically have a movie playing while I write. I have a rotation of these movies. They’re movies that I’ve loved for a long time, like Dirty Dancing and The Breakfast Club. They’re movies that fire me up, like Bladerunner or Aliens. I recently added The Lost City to the roster just for the leeches scene. On weekends, I almost always start with the 1985 film, The Goonies, which I love for the soundtrack and the nostalgic sense of childhood adventure.
The movie has a lot of merits.1 The cast is wonderful, including Sean Astin, Josh Brolin, Jeff Cohen, Corey Feldman, and Ke Huy Yuan. Although there is a main protagonist (Sean Astin’s character, Mikey), it’s a true ensemble piece and works best when the seven protagonists are “on stage.” Having written my own ensemble pieces with four main characters, I appreciate the talent it takes takes to juggle seven central characters without some of them getting sidelined. There’s a surprising amount of character development for a movie that is, at heart, an adventure. And it’s all done in less than two hours. The pace never slacks and every moment of the film serves multiple purposes: advancing three separate plot lines (defeating the evil Fratellis and freeing Sloth; recovering the pirate treasure and saving the characters’ homes from the rich developers; Mikey’s older brother romancing the love interest away from her rich but sleazy boyfriend). It’s an impressive feat of storytelling.
While watching the movie for the thousandth time, I noticed the way the film introduces the main characters in the opening scene. This could have been a mish-mash. There are seven characters to introduce; that is a lot of characters to throw at the viewer in one scene (plus the three antagonists who are leading the car chase). There’s no background framing, despite there being a lot of backstory to this movie with the treasure hunting/pirate subplot (which is dealt with in a later scene so full of wonder and character development that it deserves its own analysis).
The film starts in media res with a jail break and a car chase. The car chase winds through the beach town setting, passing each of the protagonists. Each character either interacts with or observes the car chase in ways that illustrate their defining characteristics. By the end of the scene, the viewer knows who these kids are (the adventurous group leader, the jock older brother, the cheerleader love interest, the inventor, the “fat kid” comic relief, etc.). This is all done in a scene that lasts less than four minutes.
It’s particularly impressive that the opening scene in The Goonies establishes the characters and the plot conflicts without an info dump. Without any authoritative narration. There’s a sustained action sequence which is both exciting and funny (setting the tone for the whole movie). The ways the seven protagonists react to this seminal event allow the viewer immediate access to their characters and build empathy without manipulating the viewer. The introductions are done with very deft touches, which would constitute just a few sentences in literary form, introducing each character in a memorable way via their “funny hat.” For example, the inventor character is introduced wearing a trench coat that contains all of his wild gadgets (in an obvious reference to the 1982 Inspector Gadget animated TV show). Similarly, the love interest is introduced wearing her cheerleading uniform. When these characters appear again, even after the introduction of several other characters, the viewer immediately knows who they are. In his wonderful Masterclass, Neil Gaiman advises writers to give characters metaphorical “funny hats” to make them identifiable by readers without making them into caricatures. This opening scene is the perfect application of that advice.
It’s no secret that I’m a proponent of the in media res opening. The first scene of The Goonies is a great example of that kind of opening, taking it a step further to introduce a large ensemble cast of characters. It is well worth studying and emulating.
The Goonies is not a perfect movie. Screenwriter Chris Columbus and director Richard Donner might be applauded for featuring a diverse cast, but there’s an ugly undercurrent of racism in the way some of the PoC characters are portrayed (particularly the hispanic housecleaner). Columbus’ movies (which include Home Alone, Mrs. Doubtfire, and two of the Harry Potter movies) often feature absentee parents (particularly mothers), which gives the protagonist children unsupervised space in which to have their adventures. The Goonies is no exception. The parents are clueless, bumbling, and generally absent until the end of the movie. This appeals to me as a Gen Xer, since it echoes my own childhood experience, but it makes for uncomfortable viewing as an adult with a child of my own. I find the scenes where the villainous mother, Mama Fratelli, abuses her two adult children for comic effect difficult to watch and often skip them. While making allowances for the age of the movie, I can still think critically about those elements of the movie which make it problematic nearly forty years later and ensure that I avoid them in my own storytelling.