It’s always tough to see a kid in harm’s way, even a fictional one. While there aren’t too many children’s movies nowadays that put children in true peril — generally, they’re considered too scary and stressful for their young audiences — 1980s and 1990s kids’ movies had zero problems putting tweens, adolescents and even infants in life-or-death situations. Here are merely a dozen movies intended to entertain children with an incredible amount of child endangerment…
1) The Adventures of Huck Finn
Whether it’s Mark Twain’s novel or one of its many, many live-action adaptations, pointing out that Huckleberry Finn spends a great deal of his time in danger seems disingenuous, given that he also spends it with the runaway slave Jim (Courtney B. Vance), who is in mortal danger the entire time. That’s absolutely true of the 1993 movie as well, which takes it a step farther by having an angry mob nearly lynch Jim at the film’s conclusion — that’s after he stops to save Huck, who gets shot in the back when the aforementioned mob fires a hail of bullets at the duo as they try to escape. In the original novel, it’s Tom who is shot, and only in the leg (and also Tom is a huge asshole). Plus, Elijah Wood was only 11 or 12 when he made the film — in the book, Huck is thought to be in his early teens — which adds yet another several extra dimensions of “holy shit people are gunning down a child” to the whole affair.
2) The Witches
Everyone who’s read Matilda or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory knows author Roald Dahl was never afraid to add darkness and danger to his children’s books. Still, bonus points to The Witches — and the 1990 movie adaptation, directed by the uber-talented and unnerving Nicolas Roeg — for the horrifying scene of near infanticide. Child-hating Grand High Witch Miss Ernst (Anjelica Huston) chases young Luke (Jasen Fisher) to the beach after Luke learns of the witches’ plan to turn all children into mice, and unable to find Luke, Ernst flushes the child out in the most appalling way possible — by pushing an occupied baby carriage down a giant hill where a cliff and an extremely deadly landing await it. Luke manages to grab the carriage at the very last instant, which Roeg manages to shoot so the baby is visible at the same time. This scene makes the baby carriage scene in The Untouchables look like a Sesame Street sketch.
3) Baby’s Day Out
After writing and directing some of the most beloved 1980s teen romance-comedies of all time, the late John Hughes turned his attention to children’s movies. He seems to have had a very different view of adolescents than teenagers, as films like Home Alone, Dennis the Menace and 1994’s Baby’s Day Out all feature kids as sort of infallible punishers of adult criminals. But only Baby’s Day Out decides to torture its antagonists by forcing them to follow and attempt to rescue the infant Bink as Bink crawls (literally) into one deadly situation after another, including hanging out inside the ape cage at the local zoo and then crawling on various steel beams about 100 feet above the ground at a nearby construction site. The danger is pretty cartoonish — the construction site stuff was all done over 35 years prior in a Tom and Jerry cartoon — but since Baby Bink’s brushes with death make up the entire premise of the film, that surely counts for something.
Obviously, trying to shoot children and pushing babies off cliffs is detrimental to their health. But shooting those children into space in a shuttle without enough oxygen, thus necessitating that completely untrained kids travel through the vacuum of space in hopes of grabbing oxygen containers from an unfinished space station is another level of danger entirely. Yet, that’s exactly what happens in the 1986 movie SpaceCamp, and that honestly doesn’t begin to cover the peril the kids who are accidentally shot into space by a well-meaning robot find themselves in.
The space shuttle can’t communicate with ground control, so the kids have to figure out both how to hook up those oxygen tanks as well as land the damn spacecraft entirely by themselves, which is absolutely bananas. But for the ultimate in child endangerment, the above scene, where a 12-year-old Joaquin Phoenix hurtles through the inky blackness of space completely unmoored from anything that might prevent him from asphyxiating hours later, utterly alone in an incomprehensible void of nothingness, is simply unforgettable.
5) My Girl
After a kid nearly being swallowed by the depths of space, the famous/infamous scene of Macauley Culkin getting stung to death by bees in the beloved 1991 coming-of-age drama My Girl seems comparatively benign — y’know, apart from the fact that his character Thomas has a bee allergy and dies as a result. I mean, if Thomas hadn’t had the allergy he would have been fine… except for the fact he would still be a small child surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of furious bees incensed that their hive had just been kicked by a nitwit looking for his friend’s mood ring. Danger comes in all shapes, my friend.
For all of the musical’s catchy, upbeat songs (“It’s a Hard Knock Life” and “(The Sun Will Come Out) Tomorrow” being only two) it’s weird to remember that the climax of the 1982 movie adaptation featured the titular red-haired moppet (Aileen Quinn) dangling 50-plus feet above the ground, hanging on for dear life at the end of a raised bascule bridge while someone actively tries to make her fall to her death. But it does!
After discovering her two newly found parents (played by Tim Curry and Bernadette Peters) are fake, Annie rips up the reward check Daddy Warbucks (Albert Finney) had given them and hauls little orphan ass. Curry chases her, not in hopes of using her as a hostage, but simply to straight-up kill the kid who blew his score. There’s a lot of climbing and even more dangling, but much of the scene looks unpleasantly realistic thanks to it being shot on the abandoned NX Bridge in New Jersey. Surely the movie must have hired some other abandoned orphan to be Annie’s stunt double?
7) The Quest
Despite starring E.T.’s Henry Thomas (this will not be his only appearance on this list), I’d never heard of this 1985 kids’ adventure film before researching this list. I presume that’s because it’s an Australian film, where it was originally given the very evocative but quite unsettling title Frog Dreaming, and is about a 15-year-old adventurer named Cody (Thomas) who gets into several dangerous situations, including hurtling down train tracks on a BMX bike with no brakes, nearly into a truck and definitely into a tree, and later jumping 50 feet off a cliff into a lake of unknown depth.
The real danger, however, is that the lake contains a legendary monster called a donkegin, and Cody constructs a quasi-scuba suit with three minutes of oxygen to head into the water to slay the beast. Cody ends up staying down there for several hours until his panicked friend notifies the authorities, who drain the lake. Somehow, Cody is fine and the monster is a piece of construction equipment, even though it definitely murdered a dude at the beginning of the movie. It’s all just really weird. (And pretty damn racist.)
8) Ghostbusters 2
Although countless children have been menaced by the supernatural in movies since time immemorial, I don’t think getting attacked by ghouls, ghosts or poltergeists counts as an unspeakable danger because they aren’t real. You know what is real? New York City traffic.
9) Superman 2
Although a school bus full of kids nearly fell off the Golden Gate bridge in the original 1978 Superman movie, Christopher Reeve’s charming incarnation of the beloved superhero managed to push it back on the road without breaking a sweat — plus, the bus didn’t look like it was in that precarious a situation anyway. So kudos to the 1980 sequel, which upped the child endangerment factor several times by letting a dumbass kid play on the wrong side of the rail and plummet face-first into Niagara Falls.
10) Richie Rich
Culkin comes out rather better in his second appearance on this list, given that he doesn’t die in this 1992 movie based on the Harvey Comics character people stopped giving a shit about at least a decade earlier. However, Richie wins the child endangerment bifecta by getting shot several times in the chest by the movie’s villain John Larroquette — saved only by an aerosol spray created by the family’s resident inventor Professor Keanbean (Michael McShane) — then dangling from his father’s giant spectacles on the family’s life-sized replica of Mount Rushmore, featuring their own faces.
Admittedly, Larroquette plays the greedy CFO of Rich Industries, so it’s impossible to root for his selfish quest to amass more wealth, but on the other hand, it’s really, really difficult to see a family so goddamn wealthy and not hope they all die painfully one way or another.
11) Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
You could argue whether the second Indiana Jones movie is technically a kids’ movie, since it was so dark and violent that it led the MPAA to create the PG-13 rating to accommodate it, along with a push from director Steven Spielberg. That said, it was rated PG for two months before the change, and there’s nothing technically dark or violent about the scene where Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford), Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw) and the 11-year-old Short Round (Jonathan Ke Quan) jump out of a crashing plane, land on an inflatable raft, somehow do not have every bone in their bodies shatter into dust, slide at about a jillion miles per hour into a dense forest, then fall off a 100-foot-tall cliff into raging rapids and somehow remain alive instead of dark red stains in the water.
Of course, then Short Round gets kidnapped and used as child slave labor before nearly being murdered by cultists several times, later barely surviving a rope bridge incident that sees most of said cultists thrown to hungry crocodiles. Good, clean family fun!
12) Cloak & Dagger
Not many people remember this 1984 movie starring a post-E.T. Thomas, with Dabney Coleman as his imaginary secret agent friend Jack Flack. The 6-year-old Davey and Flack go on pretend spy missions together… until Davey sees a real spy get murdered after handing Davey a video game cartridge with secret military plans on it. The bad guys who wanted the plans from the spy now want it from Davey, and it turns out they’re equally as fine killing a first grader as they are a grown man.
I don’t believe there’s ever been an American movie where more adults fire more bullets directly at a child without ever having a single qualm about it. It’s absolutely insane, and it just gets worse: When one of the bad guys corners Davey, the goon tells him that because Davey had annoyingly escaped his clutches for so long, he’s not going to kill Davey — he’s going to shoot out one of his kneecaps, and then shoot him in the stomach, and then watch him bleed out. He says this, with total earnestness, to a six-year-old. I am not lying.
Luckily, Jack Flack is there to convince Davey to shoot and kill his would-be torturer, and that’s how little Davey commits his first murder! So in terms of psychological danger, Cloak & Dagger takes the child endangerment cake.