There’s a mythology in cinema about kids who find themselves in a situation where they improbably and comically outsmart adults. It’s a predicament that drives the plot forward, believability be damned, seen in spades in such classics as “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and “The Goonies.”
It’s also very much at the forefront in “Adventures in Babysitting,” the 1987 comedy headlined by Elisabeth Shue, in which she plays a babysitter whose rather straightforward gig goes horribly off the rails.
The film, which celebrates its 35th anniversary this month, is a delightful ‘80s romp that remains enjoyable to adults who grew up watching it at a time when “The Baby-Sitters Club” books, first published in 1986, made possible the idea that babysitting could make for entertainment.
“I think the story is very tight,” star Elisabeth Shue told TODAY in a phone interview.
“It’s episodic, which I think maybe people are used to today in our culture. Its innocence, I think, resonates today, possibly, just watching these young kids trying to navigate a really complicated world and how they learn and grow from there. Their night out together, I think is a story that obviously is timeless. But maybe in today’s world, its innocence kind of shines through.”
Shue played Chris Parker, who has to settle for a night of babysitting after her boyfriend, played by Bradley Whitford, cancels their date. When her best friend, Brenda, runs away and freaks out at a bus depot in Chicago, Chris is summoned to her rescue, hauling her two charges, Sara and Brad — who happens to be smitten with her — along with Brad’s smart-aleck best friend, Daryl.
They get a flat tire and things spiral out of control after they wind up in a warehouse that’s the center of a stolen car ring. They escape the warehouse and have to outfox the brains behind that operation, while getting the car fixed and picking up Brenda before the children’s parents get home. A normal night for suburban kids it’s not. And therein lies the appeal.
Chris is hardly an adult herself, yet she is forced to frantically maneuver around Chicago, as one obstacle after another comes her way — she and her crew wind up in the middle of a gang fight, become witnesses to their tow truck driver’s rage when he learns his wife is cheating on him and have to retrieve Sara after she winds up climbing the outside of the skyscraper where her parents are at a party. If you were a child in the ‘80s, it was escapism on a grand scale.
Shue was best known as Ralph Macchio’s love interest in “The Karate Kid” — a role she reprised in that movie’s Netflix reboot series “Cobra Kai” — but playing Chris in “Adventures in Babysitting” offered something more.
“What’s interesting for me, too, is looking back at the few great roles that I feel like I’ve had, and I think there are a few, and I really do believe in my heart that is one of them because she gets to carry the movie,” she said.
Shue also notes it was a little ahead of its time.
“There weren’t too many lead roles for women at the time, for sure,” she said. “So I think the fact that the film had to have a girl, because most babysitters were girls at the time, that’s kind of nice.”
And something else that was ahead of the curve? The underlying theme of superheroes. Sara is obsessed with Thor and one scene even mentions Captain America, Spider-Man and Daredevil. In 1987, superheroes on the big screen lacked the panache and omnipresence they possess today, but in “Adventures in Babysitting,” it plays an important part, especially when the mechanic who ultimately fixes the car is mistaken by Sara for Thor.
“It really hadn’t taken hold in our culture at all. Maybe it was embarrassing if you cared about superheroes back then,” said Shue, who herself went on to appear in several episodes of “The Boys,” a series about superheroes who abuse their powers.
It’s the fantasy of kids out in the world when they should be home in bed that seals the movie, though. One of the most memorable scenes features Chris and the kids accidentally ending up onstage at a blues club, where the late singer and guitarist Albert Collins commands them to sing before they leave. They proceed to put on a rousing number, while continuing to evade the crooks hot on their trail.
“That was probably one of my favorite experiences in film, like at the top, top, top of every experience I had,” Shue said.
“I had so, so, so much fun. I think you can probably see it in in my performance. I probably had way too much fun,” she added.
“Adventures in Babysitting” was not a smash in theaters. It opened in ninth place, with $2.9 million and only grossed a total of $34 million. But it maintained a stranglehold on the imagination of fans, mostly youngsters who could only wish they’d get to experience the wild night out that Chris and the kids did.
The movie was also the basis of a 1989 CBS pilot that featured Joey Lawrence and Brian Austin Green and would be remade in 2016 for Disney Channel.
“Adventures in Babysitting” also featured a solid cast that had yet to reach its prime. Penelope Ann Miller (Brenda) would go on to star in best picture winner “The Artist,” Anthony Rapp (Daryl) would star in the original Broadway production of “Rent” and Whitford would hit paydirt and collect Emmys for his work in “The West Wing,” “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “Transparent.” Vincent D’Onofrio (Thor) became a star on “Law & Order: Criminal Intent.” Keith Coogan (Brad) would star in another babysitting-themed film a few years, playing a slacker in Christina Applegate’s “Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead.”
And then there’s Shue, who years later found herself up for best actress in the gritty drama “Leaving Las Vegas,” playing a prostitute who forges a relationship with alcoholic screenwriter Nicolas Cage. They’re two movies with seemingly nothing in common, but Shue says they are connected.
“I do know that without ‘Adventures in Babysitting,’ I wouldn’t have gotten ‘Leaving Las Vegas’ because (director) Mike Figgis said that that was one of his favorite movies, oddly enough So, I’m grateful for that,” she said.
“Adventures in Babysitting” also marked the debut directorial effort by Chris Columbus, who, perhaps not coincidentally, was the screenwriter for “The Goonies.” The themes of children getting the better of adults would be present again three years later when he directed the smash hit “Home Alone.” Shue said it was “so easy” working with him and that “Adventures in Babysitting” represented a moment where so many were getting their feet wet in film.
“There’s just such a grateful energy on a film like that where everybody is excited and it’s new to them. And that kind of energy really, really comes forward,” she said.
“It’s not surprising that he would choose these kinds of movies, because his spirit is very, very alive and very excited and just present,” she added about Columbus.
In a career that has woven its way into the 2020s, Shue remains grateful that this teen comedy is something she got to make.
“‘Adventures in Babysitting’ has definitely always been, for me, one of the most special films that I was given the opportunity to be a part of,” she said.