The Joy of 90s Feel-Good Movies

Are we just nostalgic, or were the decade's movies just better than what followed? Emily Watkins revisits what we now look back on as a golden era of filmmaking: the 1990s, from Mrs. Doubtfire to Austin Powers.


Are we just nostalgic, or were the decade’s movies just better than what followed? Emily Watkins revisits what we now look back on as a golden era of filmmaking: the 1990s, from Mrs. Doubtfire to Austin Powers.

1996 Danny DeVito, Mara Wilson, Brian Levinson, and Rhea Perlman star in Matilda

Picture the scene – nineteen ninety-something, a producer’s meeting in LA. A table of bouncy men are chain smoking and running their fingers through their hair; ‘come on, boys, think! We’ve done it before, we can do it again – what’s the next big thing? The film that’s going to change the world? Hit me!’ ‘Boss, I think I’ve got it. How about a film about a TRAIT guy who suddenly can’t BLANK? His TRAIT will make BLANK especially poignant, and in the end he’ll learn to be less TRAIT.’ ‘Bobby, you’re a genius. Here’s a bazillion dollars.’

You have seen at least one of them ten times…

After the dizzy heights of old Hollywood glamour, and before we all became too cynical to enjoy ourselves, there existed a golden era of moviemaking. Critically un-acclaimed, burying into souls around the world like a special genre of heart-warming parasite, came the feel-good nineties flick. You have seen at least one of them ten times – but even without repeated watching, this kind of film is defined by its familiarity. A bit of comedy, a love interest and an epiphany; hey presto, you’ve got yourself a blockbuster.


Mike Myers starring in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999)

Before we wised up to the formula, we queued round the block to see each iteration at the cinema. Wow, that really got me! we said. How do those producers do it? In retrospect, the answer is abundantly clear: these films are all basically the same film, often rearranging the same cast over very slightly divergent roles which nonetheless hit the same beats en route to an identically cheerful resolution. Liar Liar, Mrs Doubtfire, Sister Act – the list goes on, but the stories hardly change.

In retrospect, the answer is abundantly clear: these films are all basically the same film…

The moral questions at the heart of these films are no more complicated than cartoons or fairy stories, and the plots make no more sense than a kid’s book either. From the opening minutes of Liar Liar, a chimp could guess how it ends; what’s more, as far as the film itself is concerned, that formulaic plot is the opposite of a problem. The premise – slick lawyer’s son makes a birthday wish to stop him being able to lie for 24 hours (to hilarious and heartwarming effect) – could be lifted from the Brothers Grimm or Greek mythology if it weren’t so insistently wholesome. 1 + 1 = 2, always and forever, amen.

1997, Jim Carrey Stars in ‘Liar Liar (Photo By Getty Images)

Films like Liar Liar, Clueless, Pretty Woman or Hook, are relics of a bygone era: they’re what we turn to when we feel vulnerable, bedding down with a cold or the Sunday blues, after a bad day or a breakup. Some stand up to analysis, and others crumble – nonetheless, smart or stupid, we reach for them all with the same desire to be totally transported. This weekend, in the name of intrepid reporting, I bravely self-administered a hangover and watched some old favourites as well as hitherto unseen classics. 

I wanted to remind myself of the genre’s curious magic, but also to test my pet copy-paste theory – to find out once and for all whether these films are, in fact, the same film from different angles. After rigorous scientific analysis, I’m pleased to report that not only does my hypothesis hold water, but that the repetitive story arcs are even more pronounced when you’re looking out for them. Will the guy get the girl/promotion/transformative epiphany? Of course! But only after some mad-cap capering, sassy one liners and light soul searching. Oh, and a montage.

Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell in a scene from the film ‘Groundhog Day’, directed by Harold Ramis, 1993. (Photo by Columbia Pictures/Getty Images)

Everything is going well for Central Character [feisty lounge singer Deloris (Whoopi Goldberg, Sister Act) or misanthropic weatherman Phil Connors (Bill Murray, Groundhog Day)] until Something Unexpected But Ultimately Teachable happens [going into witness protection in a convent, finding oneself stuck in a time loop]. Distracted by this Unexpected Thing, a Sub-Problem [mafioso ex-boyfriend, a work assignment] from their old life appears and the resolution of both Sub and Unexpected plotlines race towards a dual crescendo. Briefly, it looks as though all is lost – but it isn’t, because that would be illegal in Nineties Feel-Good Land. On the contrary, we’re all going to Learn A Lesson and Come Out Smiling, A Little Battered But Richer For The Experience :).

1995’s Clueless, starring Stacey Dash (left) and Alicia Silverstone (right)

Because, to qualify for the crème de la crème of this ineffable category of cinema – churned from the writers’ rooms of Hollywood’s last heyday like so much sausage meat, very smart people working very quickly indeed – a film must have a premise the size of the moon: a Premise with a capital P. No room here for nuanced observations about the state of the soul, grey moral quandaries or agony that can’t be resolved in 90 minutes. Not really any room for logic, either… After all, when the story is staying exactly the same (shhhh), it’s important to make at least the window dressing look different.

Repetitive plot: check. Ludicrous, distracting circumstances: check. In my imaginary producers’ meeting, this is what the development exec for Sister Act has written at the top of Paul Rudnik’s script: Get that good time girl into a convent and watch her initial resistance melt into a new-found respect for loosely Christian values. Who cares how witness protection actually works

Repetitive plot: check. Ludicrous, distracting circumstances: check.

Or take Mrs Doubtfire, 1993. Daniel Hillard won’t get shared custody through the divorce courts – at least, that’s not the funny way for him to do it! says one of my most seasoned imaginary writers. Let’s dress him up as a Scottish madam, have him pose as a housekeeper who crystallises all his character’s best traits and lie to his children. It’ll all come out in the wash, and no one will be arrested.

Look. If my dad had dressed up to pose as a childminder and hang out with me without my knowledge when my parents got divorced, I don’t think I would have been touched so much as confused/freaked out. Then again, I’m not that cute kid from Matilda and my dad isn’t Robin Williams – somehow, for them, fraud and/or stalking aren’t so much illegal as adorable. And didn’t we all learn some lessons about the power of parental love? Or something?

Robin Williams in the kitchen in a scene from the film ‘Mrs. Doubtfire’, 1993. (Photo by 20th Century-Fox/Getty Images)

The requirement to suspend one’s disbelief at the door is part of the nineties feel-good genre’s pleasure, and Mrs Doubtfire’s actually at the lower end of the scale when it comes to off-the-wall narrative conceits. Many such films are just as likely to use sci-fi tropes as, say, rom-com ones – in fact, Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands, 1990, does both, as do the Austin Powers films (what philistine could forget ‘Machine gun jubblies? How did I miss those, baby?’).

In these movies, every skerrick of real-life messiness is carved away until the purest core of a story remains, realism be damned. Surely, the neatness of the plots, with nothing left unresolved, no suffering uncompensated, no cruelty unpunished, is what makes them so irresistible. Like fast food, there is an invisible threshold where sugar rush turns to crash (only so many times you can watch Jim Carey/Robin Williams/Billy Murray fall in love with Winona Ryder/Andie MacDowell/Julia Roberts) – good while it lasts, though, isn’t it? 

Like fast food, there is an invisible threshold where sugar rush turns to crash…

Here arrives the elephant in the room: the question of age. I was born in the nineties, and you probably weren’t far behind/ahead if I understand whynow’s readership demographic; as such, few of us witnessed the real time roll out of the nineties feel-good genre. By the time we first clapped eyes on them, Sister Act and Clueless were already classics: safely ensconced in the cultural psyche, already much imitated and fondly broken out from their VHS boxes or DVD cases when movie night rolled round. 

These films come from a time when you couldn’t binge-watch a series without forking out for a hard copy, when whole families watched things together – not because it was some glorious time of intergenerational harmony, but because we hadn’t come up with broadband yet. In many cases, it’s hard to pinpoint these movies as for kids or adults; that’s because they were for everyone. Now that you can stick little Justin in front of Peppa Pig, his big sister in front of the Sabrina reboots, and settle down with whatever your heart desires, there’s not such a demand for material that a 40-year-old can bear and an eight-year-old will laugh at. 

Whoopi Goldberg stars in 1992’s Sister Act

But there used to be – and conveniently for people now in their mid-twenties, those films are precisely the ones we grew up watching and haven’t aged out of. It’s tempting to say something hokey at this point – maybe, you’re never too old for an adventure! Or, a good story is timeless. But it’s not as simple as all that, and arguably it’s our own capacity for complexity (or lack thereof) which drives the enduring appeal of an adult-ish story with a child-friendly outcome. 

It’s safe here, with familiar faces and a film whose end I can see before it’s even begun. It’s good to see bad guys get what they deserve, but there’s nothing more soothing than letting something wash over you like your favourite bedtime story – your favourite because you’ve heard it so many times before that you could murmur it to yourself. Of course, that’s never quite the same: so press play, and submit.

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