When it comes to adventure, our cinematic landscape of late seems to be dominated by superhero films, where the greatest threats usually come from outer space, or beyond. However, classic, down-to-earth adventures used to be box-office sensations.
To celebrate the origins of the genre, and draw a line between past and present, we take a look at some of the best family action adventure films of all time each delivering thrills, spills and a terrific sense of wonder.
1. The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
Could this be the greatest swashbuckling adventure? Or even just the greatest adventure movie? Errol Flynn is the titular hero, Olivia De Havilland Maid Marion, Claude Rains King John and a malevolent Basil Rathbone seethes as Sir Guy of Gisbourne. The colour is resplendent, Flynn is roguish charm personified, and the climactic sword fight would not be bettered until The Princess Bride came along some 50 years later. Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) might have reignited interest in the swashbuckler – though it brought diminishing returns with each subsequent entry in the series – but The Adventures of Robin Hood remains the pinnacle of the genre.
2. The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Another claim to the throne of greatest adventure movies of all time. And a contender for the greatest family film, too. It’s a flawless piece of entertainment. Garland is perfect as Dorothy, the switch between monochrome and Technicolour is magical and the whole enterprise still feels as fresh as the day its star rhapsodised about a world beyond a rainbow.
3. The African Queen (1951)
If Jungle Cruise’s plot sounds a little familiar it’s because the set-up has been lifted from this Hollywood classic. Two people making their way down a river might not sound like the recipe for a great adventure, but it’s the bickering relationship between Humphrey Bogart’s unctuous steamboat skipper and Katharine Hepburn’s prim missionary that drives John Huston’s World War One adventure. The ultimate buddy-buddy movie, before that term had been coined, it’s beautiful to look at, and Huston’s control of the action is something of a marvel. But like the jousting between Emily Blunt and Dwayne Johnson in Jungle Cruise, it’s the banter between Hepburn and Bogart that makes this film so memorable.
4. The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953)
This wouldn’t be a perfect family adventure film list if there wasn’t at least one Dr. Seuss tale in here. And this might be his strangest. It adopts the same framing device as The Wizard of Oz, with its central character conjuring up a world in his dreams. Young Bart Collins hates his piano lessons. When he slips into a reverie, he dreams of an otherworldly place where a mad tyrant has kidnapped 500 boys – including Bart – and forced them all (hence 5,000 fingers) to play a vast piano whose sound threatens the world. It was shot when the Cold War was heating up, and like so many red-baiting sci-fi movies of the era, the film is a thinly veiled allegory of the insidious threat of Communism to the United States. Barking mad? Absolutely. But so utterly strange it’s riveting.
5. The Red Balloon (1956)
From the ridiculous to the sublime; Albert Lamorisse’s Oscar-winning 35-minute film tells the story of a young Parisian boy who encounters a red balloon that seems to have a mind of its own. It follows him wherever he goes – or vice-versa – giving the boy an adventure around his city. The film was paid homage to by Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s in his 2007 drama The Flight of the Red Balloon. It also makes a perfect double bill with Iranian director Jafar Panahi’s 1995 directorial debut The White Balloon, which was written by Abbas Kiarostami and offers a beautiful portrait of Tehran.
6. Swiss Family Robinson (1960)
This is the classic adventure movie from a time when Disney churned them out. John Mills heads up a family who find themselves shipwrecked on a tropical island and are forced to fend for themselves, battling storms, repelling the odd carnivore, and outmanoeuvring a band of pirates who have chosen the island to stow away their treasure.
7. The Traveler (1974)
Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami’s feature debut is a wonderful portrait of a football-obsessed young boy who connives his way into making enough money to travel to Tehran to see his favourite team play. It’s impossible not to be impressed by Qassem’s chutzpah in raising the funds he needs. And the moral payoff is smartly done. Employing the understated style that would come to define Kiarostami’s work, The Traveler is a masterclass in transforming the everyday into an incredible adventure. No magic, fantasy, guns, explosions, dastardly villains or oversized heroes here. Just a boy on a mission to watch his team play.
8. Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977)
Later entries in the series might be bigger and feature better effects – and yes, The Empire Strikes Back is a better film – but this first entry in George Lucas’ homage to the 1930s matinée movies still retains an air of innocent wonder. The dialogue might be terrible, but its hokeyness only adds to the film’s charm. And it’s impossible to underestimate the brilliance of John Williams' brilliant score.
9. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Another film inspired by the matinée movies of yore, Steven Spielberg proved himself the master of family entertainment with this marvellous B-movie adventure. Harrison Ford cemented his star status as the dreamy archaeology academic-cum-adventurer battling the Nazis. The action sequences are staged to perfection, but it’s the whip-smart dialogue that carries the film along. It knows it’s hokum, but allowing the audience to laugh at its silliness while it keeps the thrills coming accounts for why it’s such timeless entertainment. Spielberg would outdo himself the following year with E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.
10. The NeverEnding Story (1984)
Of all the early 1980s films that made the most of the nascent visual effects industry, Wolfgang Peterson’s loose adaptation of Michael Ende’s novel is one of the sweetest. It was the most expensive non-Hollywood production at the time and it successfully conjures up a fantasy world unto itself. It also had a very popular theme song – sung by Limahl, ex-lead singer of pop group Kajagoogoo whose hairstyle at the time was more outrageous than any of the effects in the film, and re-popularised by Dustin in the terrific 80s inspired adventure series Stranger Things.
11. The Goonies (1985)
If Rob Reiner’s Stand by Me (1986) is the more mature boy’s adventure movie, The Goonies is its belching and farting, boisterous pre-frathouse younger sibling. It’s directed by Richard Donner, but it has producer Steven Spielberg’s hands all over it. He wrote the story (the screenplay was by Chris Columbus who would go on to direct the first two Harry Potter films) and it plays up to themes that appear in his own work, particularly absent fathers. And where the threat in Stand by Me was insidious and all too real, here it’s pantomime-like. Stranger Things may not have graced our screens had The Goonies not existed.
12. The Princess Bride (1987)
‘Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.’ It doesn’t matter how many times you hear those lines. If you know Rob Reiner’s flawless adaptation of William Goldman’s fantasy pastiche novel, you’ll smile. Goldman adapted his book for the screen. Reiner’s innate understanding of how to carry a laugh (just watch his comic timing playing Jordan Belfort’s volcanic father in The Wolf of Wall Street) lands every joke. And the cast is perfect, from Robin Wright and Cary Ewles’ leads, through to priceless cameos by Billy Crystal, Mel Smith and Peter Cook. And there’s the sword fight between Ewles and Mandy Patinkin – arguably the best fencing scene ever filmed.
13. The Witches (1990)
Novelist Roald Dahl and director Nicolas Roeg is the perfect combination for this darkly funny tale of witches converging on a small British coastal hotel to discuss a plan to rid the world of children. Roeg had never made a children’s film before and wisely chose not to infantilise or lighten Dahl’s mordantly wicked tale. Younger viewers might cower at some of the scenes, thanks to Angelica Huston’s Miss Ernst, the head of the coven. But along with Danny DeVito’s lighter, but no less inspired take on Matilda (1996), this is the best live-action film adaptation of the British writer’s work.
14. Jurassic Park (1993)
Spielberg again. (We could have also included his underrated 1991 fantasy Hook.) James Cameron took visual effects to a new height of excellence with Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991), but it was Spielberg who added that touch of wonder. One of the greatest ‘What if…?’ movies of all time, this adaptation of Michael Chrichton’s popular novel works thanks to David Koepp’s smart, tightly plotted script. Each character, no matter how minor, has their moment so that when their lives are in peril the stakes remain high. Sam Neill and Jeff Goldblum are great sparring partners, with Laura Dern the perfect voice of reason. And with the velociraptor cinema had a new favourite villain.
15. Jumanji (1994)
Joe Johnston’s film plays out like an otherwordly Jurassic Park. (He would go on to direct 2001’s Jurassic Park III). Based on Chris Van Allsburg’s 1981 novel, the details what happens when two siblings find a board game whose virtual world becomes all too real. The ace in the pack is Robin Williams, whose character has been trapped in the game for 40 years. It’s silly, but thanks to Williams, co-stars Bonnie Hunt, Kirsten Dunst, Bradley Pierce, David Alan Grier and a ripe Jonathan Hyde as the game’s villain, it’s great fun and a family favourite.
16. Fly Away Home (1996)
A young girl goes to live with her eccentric father after surviving a car crash in which her mother dies. Initially withdrawn, her discovery of a family of Canadian geese spurs her into action. If she can find a way to fly them down to a North Carolina bird sanctuary under threat of demolition, she can secure both the bird’s and sanctuary’s future. Based on a true story, Fly Away Home was Anna Paquin’s first major role after winning an Oscar for her debut performance in The Piano (1993). She’s perfect as the resilient Amy, while Jeff Daniels is understated as her father. It was directed by Carroll Ballard, whose much-admired debut The Black Stallion (1979) is one of the most beloved children’s films.
17. Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
The Two Towers (2002) and The Return of the King (2003) play out on a more epic scale, but if you want to watch a masterclass in adventure moviemaking, this first instalment in Peter Jackson’s extraordinary adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy behemoth is a must-see. Firstly, there’s that extraordinary six-minute introduction to Middle Earth. (To see how this can go badly wrong, watch the two-minute intro to the worlds featured in David Lynch’s 1984 version of Dune.) Then there’s the way Jackson makes us care for each of the characters, so much so that this episode’s climactic battle is as moving as it is thrilling. Again, not for the very young.
18. National Treasure (2004)
Pure and utter hokum. Like a young person’s Da Vinci Code – but far, far, far more entertaining – this modern-day Indiana Jones-style adventure is silly, but thanks to Nicholas Cage’s winning lead it’s a great ride. He plays a man whose family have, for generations, been convinced of a conspiracy created by the Founding Fathers to hide a vast wealth of hidden treasure. His investigations are initially supported by Sean Bean’s rich benefactor until he realises he is being double-crossed.
19. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)
Alfonso Cuarón was given the reins to the third novel in J.K. Rowling’s magical story and delivers the best of the entries. It helps that the cast are a little older and more comfortable in their roles. But it’s the darkness that Cuarón adds to the proceedings, along with his customary style, that make it so memorable. And the film profits from the presence of Gary Oldman amongst the already glittering cast. He’s a rapscallion delight as Sirius Black.
20. The Spiderwick Chronicles (2008)
After his success appearing alongside Johnny Depp in Finding Neverland (2004) and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2004), Freddy Highmore found the perfect roles as identical twin siblings in this adaptation of Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black’s series of novels. He plays Jared and Simon Grace, who move with their older sister and recently divorced mother into a dilapidated old mansion in the middle of the woods. On finding a magical book, Jared unleashes good and bad magic in the world around them, which the three siblings can only defeat with the help of the author and his daughter. But he disappeared decades ago and she’s now in her eighties.
21. Ready Player One (2018)
After the intermittently entertaining The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (2011) and The BFG (2016), Steven Spielberg’s magic touch was once again firing on all cylinders with this wildly entertaining adaptation of Ernest Cline’s YA sci-fi adventure. It unfolds in a near-future dystopia where most lives are lived in a virtual world known as the OASIS. The film follows one young man’s attempts to win a mythical egg that will give him complete control of OASIS. But a corporation, hell-bent on commercialising this world, is also chasing the prize. Spielberg balances the thrills of the online world with the dangers inherent in the real one and lets up the pace as he sends us hurtling towards the hugely entertaining, cultural mash-up climax.
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