10. The NeverEnding Story (1984)
Not Quite Timeless (Runtime): 1 hr. 42 min.
Once Upon a Time: A bullied bookworm still grieving the loss of his mother borrows a magical book from a bookshop and soon finds that he’s not just really into the story — he’s really in the story. Support your local, independent bookstores, people.
Fantasians (Cast): Barret Oliver, Thomas Hill, Deep Roy, Noah Hathaway, Alan Oppenheimer, and Tami Stronach
Moment of Pure Imagination: Just like with movies, if we’re reading a story and find ourselves getting too caught up in it, we can always put down the book and say, “It’s only a story.” The fact that Bastian can’t do that is partly what makes The NeverEnding Story so magical. As enthralling as Atreyu’s quest to cure the Childlike Empress may be, it’s just as magical to slowly discover that Bastian plays the most crucial role in this adventure. It’s a fantasy equal parts wondrous and unsettling. After watching this move as a child, it was a good number of weeks before I could pick up a book again without wondering if I’d find my name printed on its pages.
Somewhere Over the Reading Rainbow: Some authors churn out novels that already read like movie scripts. Others are much tougher to adapt and get very frustrated when they barely recognize their creations up on the silver screen. German author Michael Ende fits that latter category and actually sued when he saw what was being done to his novel. Ende’s major gripes came over plot deviations and the fact that the film only tells the first half of Bastian’s story. The second half of Ende’s novel would loosely inform the godawful, Jonathan Brandis-starring 1990 sequel, but that’s, as they say, another story.
You’re Scaring Me, Smalls!: This is a dark, dark film full of adventure and triumph but also misery and grief. As a child, so much of this movie comes across as absolutely terrifying. It’s a completely subjective pick-’em situation when it comes down to selecting the scariest moment. For me, I always struggled near the film’s end when the Empress calls out to Bastian as the Ivory Tower crumbles around her. It felt like she was calling me. And I”ll be damned if I was going to answer back.
Give It to Me Now! (Veruca Salt Moment): A wise luckdragon once said, “Having a luckdragon with you is the only way to go on a quest.” Sold. I don’t have many quests lined up these days, but I wouldn’t mind roaring through downtown Chicago and finding some bullies who need a dumpster visit.
Why It’s Timeless: The best children’s books and films speak up to children, not down to them. Really, at the heart of this film is a young boy grieving the loss of a mother without a supportive father or any friends to help ease his pain. “The Nothing,” rightly or wrongly, can be read as the grief and depression that threaten to consume young Bastian. Far from a critical darling when it originally ran in theaters, the decades since have been far kinder to The NeverEnding Story. It’s an adventure-quest equal parts wondrous, dark, and fun that blurs the lines between reality and imagination. If you want a “safe” movie, this story is not for you. Now, could you get ’round and scratch behind my right ear? Ah, that’s the spot.
09. The Sandlot (1993)
Not Quite Timeless: 1 hr. 41 min.
Once Upon a Time: An L-7 weenie, his mother, and his stepdad move to a new town where he befriends the local star athlete who helps him out of a pickle involving a Babe Ruth-autographed baseball, a very tall fence, and a giant, man-eating mongrel. It’s a summer of foul balls, friends, fangs, and maybe even legends.
Starting Lineup: Tom Guiry, Mike Vitar, James Earl Jones, Karen Allen, Denis Leary, Patrick Renna, Chauncey Leopardi, and Art LaFleur
Moment of Pure Imagination: The moment of pure nostalgia comes on the 4th of July when the boys play their annual night game under the fireworks amid neighborhood cookouts and block parties. The explosions illuminate the sky, Ray Charles belts out “America the Beautiful”, and the boys, or at least Benny, live out their fantasies of being big leaguers under bright ballpark lights. However, the scene that really sparks the imagination is when Benny pickles The Beast. We finally see Mr. Mertle’s killer guard dog, Hercules, and the secret chess match the boys have been waging for days spills over into the rest of town. While the locals just see a dog chasing a boy in a Dodgers hat, the sandlot gang are witnessing not a hero, but a legend being born. And remember the difference: “Heroes get remembered. Legends never die.” Follow your heart, Benny, man!
You’re Scaring Me, Smalls!: Sandlot isn’t a particularly scary movie, but between Squints’ tree house story (“FO-EV-ER”), all the terrible snarling and growling, and the overblown screams and facial expressions from the boys anytime they see The Beast, you do start to wonder just what type of monster Old Man Mertle might have chained up on the other side of that fence.
Give It to Me Now!: As a young athlete, I wanted Benny’s P.F. Flyers, guaranteed to make a kid run faster and jump higher. Maybe that tree house pre-vacuum explosion. Now, though, a consensual kiss from Wendy Peffercorn would be my top pick. All these years later, she still knows exactly what she’s doing. Just ask Squints. He married her and had nine kids! Actually, scratch that. I’d rather play catch in a backyard with Denis Leary and call him Dad, I mean, Bill. Can somebody make this happen?
Why It’s Timeless: Most of the stories on this list take place in a fantasy world. The Sandlot is probably the only film here that actually approximates what growing up was like for some of us. It was a time when life was simple enough: baseball, buddies, and, forgive me, babes, or, more accurately, girls as seen through the eyes of curious chickenshits. These few formative summers existed for so many of us, and as we see the sandlot gang slowly move away one by one, until it’s just Smalls and Hercules left, we can’t help but think of the Squintses, Hams, and Jets from our own childhoods. The ending of Sandlot tugs at us in the same way the closing lines of Stand by Me do:
08. The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
Not Quite Timeless: 1 hr. 16 min.
Once Upon a Time: “‘Twas a long time ago, longer now than it seems in a place perhaps you’ve seen in your dreams. For the story you’re about to be told began with the holiday worlds of auld. Now you’ve probably wondered where holidays come from. If you haven’t, I’d say it’s time you begun. For holidays are the result of much fuss and hard work for the worlds that create them for us. Well, you see now, quite simply that’s all that they do — making one unique holiday, especially for you. But once, a calamity ever so great occurred, when two holidays met by mistake.”
Pumpkins, Monsters, and Santa: Chris Sarandon, Danny Elfman, Catherine O’Hara, William Hickey, Glenn Shadix, and Ken Page
Moment of Pure Imagination: What makes The Nightmare Before Christmas click in the eyes of so many youths is how the story involves the two greatest holidays: Halloween and Christmas. The cold, spooktacular open stirs up all the right feelings for anyone born under a pumpkin, but there’s little arguing over Jack Skellington’s initial discovery of Christmas Town. The candied lights, the powdery snow, and the wistful wonder on Skellington’s face are further embellished by Danny Elfman’s ridiculously catchy anthem, “What’s This?”. As our bony hero hops from one Christmas trope to another, it’s damn near impossible not to sing along with him as he screams, “This looks like fun, this looks like fun!” Truth be told, it is fun.
Somewhere Over the Reading Rainbow: There’s a reason the film reads Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, even though the veteran auteur didn’t direct the film or write the screenplay. Way back in 1982, a good 11 years before the film would scare and charm children all over the world, Burton penned the holiday mashup as a poem. At the time, he was working as an animator at Walt Disney Feature Animation, and when the ol’ Mouse House caught a look, they realized they had a hit on their hands. Naturally, it took over a decade to come to fruition, and by then, they issued the film through their Touchstone banner. Reason being, the suits thought Skellington’s conquests “too dark, and scary for kids.” Still, the poem’s a choice bedtime story.
You’re Scaring Me, Smalls!: Honestly, as someone who grew up worshipping Halloween and horror films, I’ve never found Nightmare to be that scary. In hindsight, though, there is something pretty disturbing about Sally’s jerkstore “father” Doctor Finklestein. Voiced by the great and late William Hickey, aka Uncle Lewis in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, the brainy, freewheelin’ mad scientist has this weird stranglehold over his creation and the way he barks demands and keeps Sally locked up is all sorts of messed up. At one point, she has to jump out of the tower like some suicidal rag doll just to sneak away from his grasp. Sorry, Oogie, but when it comes to Psychoville, Finklestein’s the mayor.
Sing It Again, Jack: What typically tends to happen with most musicals is that the best song is usually paired with the most stirring moment. It’s the nature of the beast, so naturally “What’s This?” is arguably the strongest composition of the bunch. Who doesn’t immediately jump around whenever anymore mutters the titular phrase? What’s more, most people totally get it, too, which only proves how ubiquitous the song has become over the years. Having said that, if there’s a runner-up, well, then let’s start celebrating All Hallow’s Eve early with “This Is Halloween”, the introductory jam that follows Elfman’s delicate opening notes and Santa’s foreboding prologue. Given the myriad voices and characters, the whole thing sounds like a children’s pop-up book, as everyone gets a piece of the pumpkin pie. FYI: The late Glenn Shadix is the true MVP on this one.
Give It to Me Now!: This one’s easy: Zero. Who wouldn’t want to walk around with a ghost pup? You wouldn’t have to feed it, it’s already dead, and there’s zero shedding. He even has a cute, lil’ jack-o’-lantern nose!
Why It’s Timeless: The Nightmare Before Christmas is eye candy, sure, but it’s brilliant, tasty, and sugary eye candy. As a child, it’s a compendium of everything you love: tricks, treats, gifts, and sweets. Youngsters will feverishly look forward to Halloween and Christmas forever and ever, and Burton’s twisted parable will be right there, haunting the two holidays with much delight, especially since the idea of an Alternative Christmas Movie has essentially evolved into the Classic Christmas Movie. There’s also something to be said of its ambiguous time frame, and that’s partly why it continues to resonate with multiple generations. As for all the adults out there, it would take a real cynical son of a gun to scoff at Henry Selick’s slick stop-motion direction or Elfman’s rousing earworms. How anyone could watch “Jack’s Lament” and not shake their heads in wonder is a total mystery. Nevertheless, see you in October…
07. Home Alone (1990)
Not Quite Timeless: 1 hr. 43 min.
Once Upon a Time: A precocious eight-year-old thinks he’d be better off sans parents and gets his wish when his family accidentally goes to Paris without him for the holidays. When he discovers that a pair of burglars are targeting his home, he turns pipsqueak Rambo and makes them wish they’d robbed that guy with the tommy gun instead. Poor filthy animals.
Head Count: Macaulay Culkin, Joe Pesci, Daniel Stern, John Heard, Catherine O’Hara, Roberts Blossom, John Candy, and Big Pete!
Moment of Pure Imagination: Okay, okay. I saw this film six times when it first came out because who doesn’t love seeing a little smart-ass light up baddies with paint cans and hearing Tommy Devito, I mean Harry Lime, eh, I really mean Joe Pesci, mumble “Ruffa-fedga-fudga” again and again. But most healthy, normal children don’t really fantasize about Joe Pesci or having to protect their house from burglars. The real kid-tested, mother-abhorred appeal of Home Alone — and, yes, we learn it’s a fleeting fantasy with diminishing returns — comes when Kevin realizes he has the run of the house. That means jumping on beds, eating junk, watching trash, and, yes, tobogganing down the stairs and out the front door. My house was soooo set up to try that sledding stunt as well. Unfortunately, I had good parents.
Somewhere Over the Reading Rainbow: Sir John Hughes (yeah, I knighted him) wrote Home Alone as a movie script, but they novelized everything back then — episodes of Family Matters and Full House and, yes, popular kids movies like Home Alone. All I remember of Home Alone the novel was Buzz’s tarantula was named Axl. Hey, GNR were huge back then. No fat joke coming.
You’re Scaring Me, Smalls!: Old Man Marley is a bit creepy. Mac was the star, so you knew the Wet Bandits weren’t really going to get him. Could you imagine Pesci actually plugging him and then driving him out to a hole in the middle of the desert? But, damn, that kid-eating furnace in the basement. Now, that’s the fuel of childhood nightmares. That and Buzz’s girlfriend. Woof! Made me put off puberty for about a decade.
Give It to Me Now!: A bootleg copy of Angels with Filthy Souls would sit nicely under my Christmas tree this or any year. But, believe it or not, as a kid, I really envied Kevin’s “lovely cheese pizza just for [him].” As an adult, it’s usually depressing to hunker down alone with a pie. As a child with a sizable family, it’s so rare to have anything that you don’t have to share with several other people. Bon appetit, Kevin.
Why It’s Timeless: It’s an alternative Christmas movie in which an eight-year-old in a large family (basically, the lowest-ranking McCallister) finally gets the chance to run the show. That’s every kid’s dream, really — to act as the grown-up without having to act, well, grown up. But as young Kevin finds out, the world doesn’t work that way. Growing up means responsibilities more so than just getting your way, and being alone, Christmas or not, is no way to go through life. Just ask the guy with the shovel across the street. By the time he makes his final stand to defend his castle, Kevin already realizes he’d much rather have his family at his side, even Buzz. The fact that he has to learn the exact same lessons in New York a year later hardly seems to matter. By the way, this last paragraph reads better if you make your internal voice sound like Daniel Stern narrating The Wonder Years. Try it.
06. The Lion King (1994)
Not Quite Timeless: 1 hr. 28 min.
Once Upon a Time: Welcome to the sunny Pride Lands of Africa, where a young prince’s future is jeopardized after his scheming uncle slays his father. Of course, he doesn’t know that; in fact, he thinks it’s all his fault. As he flees the kingdom and into exile, evil prevails and eventually it’s all up to our aging prince to return and reclaim his furry domain. Okay, so it’s Hamlet with lions.
We Bought a Zoo! Matthew Broderick, James Earl Jones, Jeremy Irons, Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Moira Kelly, Nathan Lane, Ernie Sabella, Rowan Atkinson, Robert Guillaume, Madge Sinclair, Whoopi Goldberg, Cheech Marin, Jim Cummings
Moment of Pure Imagination: Disney went all out for The Lion King. One can imagine Jeffrey Katzenberg, who deftly managed the animation department at the time, walking straight into the offices with the determination of a State-bound Coach Taylor and writing “Epic” on the white board. Needless to say, the team delivered, and the film became a box-office stud, conquering that year’s receipts and becoming the second highest-grossing film of all time. That prestige was already anointed, however, with the film’s glorious cold open, when King Mufasa and Queen Sarabi parade through the African terrain and up to the edge of Pride Rock. The way the title slams down after Elton John and Tim Rice’s “The Circle of Life” comes to a crashing end is the stuff of legend. It’s the Everest of the Disney Renaissance.
You’re Scaring Me, Smalls!: How about that Nazi imagery during “Be Prepared”? Jeremy Irons added a certain wit to his poisonous Scar, and his theme rules, but when those rabid doggies of his start marching together, it’s spooky stuff. It’s also a brazen move from Disney, considering they’ve long been accused of being anti-Semitic. Hey, even Academy Award-winning juggernaut Meryl Streep argues as much: “Disney, who brought joy, arguably, to billions of people, was perhaps, or had some … racist proclivities. He formed and supported an anti-Semitic industry lobby. And he was certainly, on the evidence of his company’s policies, a gender bigot.” It’s cool, though, at least the Mickeyland helped our boys in blue with some propaganda. But, yeah, Scar’s troops … sheesh.
Sing It Again, Timon and Pumbaa: When a song turns into a phrase, a colloquialism, or a mantra, you know it’s gold, Jerry. That’s why, yes, over two decades later, we still have to sit through the insufferable musings of “Hakuna Matata”. It’s not the best song — once again, that honor goes to the sweeping majesty above — but it’s by far the one that’s resonated most over the years. Blame it on all the soccer pops who tell their wimpy youths to chin up, stand tall, hakuna matata (read: Swahili for “no worries”). Still, there’s no denying the universal charm of Nathan Lane, and he adds a sense of levity to the track that goes above and beyond John’s maudlin overtones that flood the piss-poor-yet-Oscar-winning ballad, “Can You Feel the Love Tonight”.
Give It to Me Now!: Speaking of which, Lane’s stand-up meerkat, Timon, was cute, funny, and savvy enough to leave every child across the world wondering, Whoa, can I have a Timon? Fortunately for future youths, the little buggers have since become domesticated pets, but according to The Guardian, they’re “savage little home wreckers” and “not as cute as they look.” Whatever, dude, they’re still probably better than a talking hornbill. You suck, Zazu.
Why It’s Timeless: The Lion King was really the last animated film to resonate with a wide audience. A year later, Pixar would change the game with Toy Story, and, well, that was that. And while the Disney Renaissance would continue into 1999, coming to a proper close with the over-budgeted Tarzan, not one film could even sprint to keep up with Simba’s Hamlet. There are a lot of complicated reasons for this, but it all boils down to the simple fact that The Lion King was a worldwide cultural phenomenon — and it still is. Thanks to Julie Taymor’s stage adaptation, which is currently the third longest-running show and highest-grossing Broadway production in history, the African epic’s themes of family, honor, and pride continue to influence the lives of millions of people, and it will always come back to this film. Just take comfort knowing someone somewhere will likely still be muttering “hakuna matata” long after you’ve left your death bed.