Since the beginning of quarantine, film and television has become a crutch upon which many teenagers rely for respite from the waves of bad news suffocating every other media outlet. Luckily, there’s obviously no shortage of films to draw from. The slow on production of all current works has only meant revisiting favorites from what seemed to be simpler times. There’s a great amount of vastly influential films in terms of cultural impact and popularity, but a select few which have been popular enough to warrant current discussion. For the sake of fairness franchises will be excluded from the list, seeing as more films means more of an opportunity to reach teens, and are widely recognized enough already. (i.e. no Avengers, Star Wars, Harry Potter, etc.) While there are more than enough of these instances of cult favorites or revived classics, in the interest of brevity this article will focus on the 5 most popular of the group. (In no particular order)
5- The Breakfast Club (1985)
John Hughes’ edgy coming of age comedy-drama began as an indie movie with a budget of about 1 million, miniscule in comparison to the blockbuster budgets of the time. Fortunately, this was more than made up for by the money it brought in; around 115 million dollars adjusted for today’s inflation. More than immediate cultural influence, the movie became a template for all would-be filmmakers of the coming decades. It inspired more films to focus less on a plot driven teen movie and more on one based on mood, reflecting the emotional world of the American high school student. Sixteen Candles had attempted a similar thing before this but was more rooted in action and romanticism. The Breakfast Club was deeply and unabashedly emotional for its time. While cheesy looking back in its depiction of 80’s high school stereotypes, that’s mostly set dressing for the character analyses that drive the film. The great resurgence of 80’s fashion in recent years has contributed to its place in the zeitgeist of gen z, but its depictions of teen psyche allow it to exist as more than a fad, and garner it a lot of modern merchandise. It does something that resonates with every generation of kid; try to understand.
4- The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
Tim Burton’s stop motion macabre musical wasn’t actually directed by the man himself, contrary to what is listed on every DVD box and poster. Henry Selick was in charge of most of the visuals, and later went on to make movies like Coraline and James and the Giant Peach. Burton however had a clear hand in the aesthetics of the film, seen in his trademark black and white stripes nearly everywhere in Halloween town, and the skeletal (literally) main characters. In the 90’s, the disney musical was king. However, Burton made the decision to go in a different direction with claymation- something which had proven to be unprofitable in the past- to match the horror themed vision of the project. Burton’s aesthetic is now voraciously popular, especially in the world of teenage alternative and semi-gothic fashion.The music was greatly important to the film’s popularity as well, Danny Elfman’s score is distinctly recognizable. Without this movie, there would be no Coraline, Alice in Wonderland (remake), or other similarly whimsical dark and stylized stories.
3- Toy Story (1995)
When computer animation was in its infancy, Disney was struggling. The 2D market was drying up- people wanted to see visually impressive (for the time) movies with new CGI effects. The latest movies Disney ever produced in this format floundered in popularity. Some you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who’d even heard of them, case in point, the 2004 failure that was Home on the Range. Meanwhile, a computer company by the name of Pixar was experimenting with 3D animated shorts. This was the first time computer animation had ever been used in the place of traditionally animated sequences, it was mainly used for action scenes and visual effects in live action flicks. Soon Pixar began development on the film Toy Story, while Disney tried and failed to produce their own 3D films. Toy Story was a massive undertaking with an even more phenomenal success. The movie made millions in both box office revenue and merchandise sales. Seeing the company’s fledgeling success, Disney purchased Pixar in 2006. This is why this film is exempt from the franchise rule, as all of its sequels were produced later under the Disney umbrella. The success of this movie defined all animated movies to come. After Shrek solidified the idea of edgy star-studded 3D films for children in 2001, 3D became the new standard. It’s hard to find a teen today who didn’t see Toy Story as a kid, and even if they haven’t, every CG animated film after it is a product of its success.
2- My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
Moving on to the world of Japanese animation, Studio Ghibli has been likened to “Japanese Disney”, as it’s style and theming is very similar to that of its western counterpart. Excluding anime TV shows, this film laid a lot of the groundwork for the Western obsession with anime. It was Ghibli’s most popular film of all time, and is still arguably the most recognizable. It’s beautiful backgrounds and scenes remind, as many Ghibli films do, of the beauty that can be found in the mundane. The success of Totoro signified success for future Ghibli films, and after that success for anime in general.
1- Mean Girls (2004)
While certainly not the first of its kind, Mean Girls is objectively the most popular film to date about the ins and outs of female high school hierarchies. Inspired by the 1989 film Heathers, Mean Girls tells a similar story with less macabre and dark leanings. It solidified the place of the girl trio in television and film and worked its way into pop culture very well. The film was even popular enough to warrant a musical adaptation in 2018. Deeper than its memorable quotes or fashion, Mean Girls shows a very true depiction of social psychology. Conformity, aggression, scapegoat theory and cognitive dissonance are all big themes within the story. It’s this dramatized truth which is likely what resonates so deeply with teens of today, despite the cultural barrier. Most every high school has a Regina, most every high school girl sometimes feels like a Cady or a Janis. It’s empowering and liberating to see that story told on the big screen, and even more so to know that not only are you not alone, it gets better. While plastics and Reginas might be a universal truth, so is kindness and empathy.