10 Life Lessons from 1980s Family Movies

When you’re stuck inside with the kiddos and just need a little break before you … um … break them, you might consider leaning on your roots and reaching for some 1980s family movies.

To help you out, let’s run down ten great choices, one from each year of the decade, and each one offering up a unique life lesson.

Here, then are some stellar 1980s family movies, and what they can teach you … and your kids.

Popeye (1980)

This Robin Williams version of the classic sailor man pays homage to that weird early period in the cartoon’s history marked by warped music and shaky animation that always made you a bit uneasy. The long-nosed crewmen didn’t help anything, either.

Here, that breathtaking scenery and flighty music, along with hushed background noise, give this film that same sort of out-of-body feel.

There are strong and depressing family overtones here, too, as Popeye goes looking for the father who deserted him as a baby. Along the way, he falls in love but discovers the object of his affection just can’t quite commit.

The Lesson: Dudes with nobody in their lives often develop big forearms.

The Great Muppet Caper (1981)

Kermit, Fozzie, and Gonzo land an exciting news gig reporting on a jewel heist in jolly old England.

Not long after they arrive at the Happiness Hotel to interview the victim, Lady Holiday, Miss Piggy shows up across the pond, too, as the Lady’s assistant. But Piggy soon finds herself framed for the crime.

Kermit — and his buds — dig in to clear the Miss’s name.

The Lesson: Even an ocean can’t keep your albatross at bay for long (via Kermit).

Annie (1982)

You know the story, as old as time — rich bald guy goes looking to boost his image, so he turns to the only place that can help him … an orphanage.

He ends up with a spunky, exhausting, red-headed Shirley Temple tyke who sings her way into his heart, and then decides she wants to find her real family.

Daddy Warbucks — the bald guy — of course agrees to help Annie — the orphan.

And, also of course, the reward he offers brings out all sorts of shammers.

The Lesson: Opposites attract, baldies seek curlies, and people suck.

A Christmas Story (1983)

This is a Christmas movie, sure, but it’s not just a Christmas movie.

This is a movie about what it was like to grow up in a nuclear family in middle America during the 1930s or 1950s or 1970s, or basically whenever.

Especially, what it was like to grow up with old parents.

And bullies and unrequited desires and overbearing family members and shattered dreams.

There’s something here for everyone, including the sole of Santa’s shoe, making it one of the most unforgettable 1980s family movies.

The Lesson: Don’t eat soap. (What, you thought I was going to talk about shooting your eye out??)

The Karate Kid (1984)

Daniel moves to southern California with his mother and promptly gets his ass kicked by a gang of local karate blowhards.

Luckily, he finds a karate master to help him hold his own, and Arnold from Happy Days proceeds to teach him how to build fences.

Along the way, Daniel falls in love with the local hottie, who just so happens to be dating one of the Dojo Douches.

It all culminates in a high-profile karate tournament, where Mr. Miyagi shows Daniel-San that tough love and a little hand friction can fix anything.

The Lesson: Sweep the leg when times get rough.

Back to the Future (1985)

You know how it is — you’re trapped in suburban hell with your “happy” family and teenage angst, and you want something more.

So you hook up with the local mad scientist and suddenly find yourself plunged back in time 30 years, plunked right down into your parents’ social circle.

Only you have the power to change their lives — make your dad fulfilled and successful, turn the bully into a groveling underling, clear a path for your future happiness.

But first … well, you have to stave off your mom’s advances. (Michael J. Fox does horrified just right in this one, too.)

The Lesson: Mom had other options, and was OK exploring them.

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)

School sucks, right?

I mean, lunch is OK, and you get to talk to girls (and boys), but mostly it’s a waste of time.

So it’s no wonder smart kids like Ferris Bueller pour their mental powers into skirting the rules The Man has laid over teenage life, even if it buys just one day in the sun.

Wrigley Field, fast cars, anxiety-ridden administrators, love on the run.

This movie has all the elements your kids need to really stick it to you — better they learn it with you in the room than on the streets, right?

The Lesson: Your kids are cooler than you.

Ernest Goes to Camp (1987)

Camp movies are among the greatest family film fare of all-time.

I mean, what says “togetherness” and “wholesome entertainment” better than all those Friday the 13th movies?

In Ernest Goes to Camp, we get another dose of Ernest P. Worrell, who first came to audiences through a series of local commercial spots.

Mostly ice cream here in Indiana.

So, here, the ice cream guy tries to redeem a camp full of juvenile delinquents while sabotaging a mining group hell-bent on stripping the joint for the goodies below ground.

The Lesson: Even fools can make a difference. There’s hope.

Big (1988)

Every kid wants to be older.

Every adult wants to be a kid again.

And, so, this film gives Tom Hanks the chance to play through that fantasy, when a 12-year-old’s wish lands him in Hanks’ 30-year-old body … and in the world of toy development and marketing, too boot.

Who better to come up with the next blockbuster toy than a kid?

A potential love interest sort of derails the whole thing, though, as the 12-year-old trapped in the man struggles to control himself.

The Lesson: Puberty is wasted on the young.

Uncle Buck (1989)

When we fail to build contingencies into our lives, sometimes we end up in a bind.

That’s how Cindy and Bob wind up calling on human mess Uncle Buck (Bob’s bro) to take care of their kids when a family emergency drags them out of town.

Buck is a bit, um, different than the kids’ parents and teaches them about things like eating junk food, having respect for themselves while fending off boys, and handling problems at school.

The potential for disaster is deliciously close to the surface throughout, but Buck manages to keep everyone alive.

The Lesson: John Candy was a magnificent talent. And you should keep an eye on that wart/mole thing on your face.


So … which 1980s family movies are your favorites? And … what lessons did they teach you??

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