The Sandlot (1993) is set in San Fernando Valley, California in 1962, but the film exists elsewhere, in another realm entirely, in a place insulated by adventure and imagination and wonder. Everything there is a caricature—bigger, better, sexier, scarier—and everything there is possible; the film takes place somewhere between reality and hyperbole, between true stories and tall tales.
It’s a place where shoes give you supernatural powers and where you steal a kiss from the impossibly unattainable lifeguard and where your heroes speak to you in your dreams. In his memoir, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, Bill Bryson gives these landscapes a simple, profound name: Kid World.
To me, The Sandlot epitomizes Kid World films, movies I loved in my youth and that have evoked intense fondness and deep nostalgia on every screening since. I adore other Kid World classics, too: The Goonies (1985). Home Alone (1990). Hook (1991). The universe of these films is borne from the imagination of youngsters, and as viewers, we experience the films through their gaze.
How do filmmakers create the worlds of these movies, and what magic formula makes them so timeless and irresistible? Want to know the way to Kid World? Follow me.
1.“Legends Never Die”: Tall Tales and Folk Heroes Who Live For-Ev-Er
“Remember, kid,” says the ghost of Babe Ruth, who appears to Benny in a dream. “There’s heroes and there’s legends. Heroes get remembered, but legends never die.”
The Sandlot is endlessly invoking legends—characters that straddle the line between man and myth, and outsized oral histories whose validity is unverifiable, yet widely believed.
“People say [Babe Ruth] was less than a god but more than a man,” Benny explains to Smalls. “You know, like Hercules or something.”
Hercules is also the name of Mr. Mertle’s junkyard dog, better known as The Beast.
“He’s a killing machine,” Squints warns, his face eerily illuminated by a flashlight. “When Mertle asked the cops how long he had to keep The Beast chained up like a slave, he said, ‘Until for-ev-ER, for-ev-ER, for-ev-ER.’”
That’s also how long One-Eyed Willy, the notorious pirate, is destined to be bunkered in an unfindable cave, according to one of Mikey’s asthmatic monologues in The Goonies.
“One-Eyed Willy…was the most famous pirate in his time,” Mikey says, spinning a yarn about Willy’s treasure and a British armada’s attempt to reclaim it. “He got into this cave and then the British, they blew up all the walls around him and he got caved in and he’s been there ever since.”
“Forever?” offers Data.
“Forever,” Mikey confirms.
The timelessness of the characters and the stories in the films helps solidify the timelessness of the films themselves. In other words, the legends in the film perpetuate the legend that is the film. Legends, like Kid World movies, always arouse exhilaration and excitement and wonder and possibility, no matter how much time passes. It’s true both onscreen and in our lives: Legends never die.
2. “Pickle The Beast”: Thrilling Action and Epic Adventure
The Sandlot kids exhibit impressive ingenuity, persistence, and resourcefulness in their attempts to “pickle The Beast”—as in, recapture Smalls’s stepdad’s autographed Babe Ruth ball from the yard and the unrelenting clutches of the monstrous dog.
With each failed attempt to retrieve the ball, the suspense, the stakes, and the thrills multiply: Attempts using an Erector Set catapult, a kid-in-a-harness airborne tactic, and a high-powered vacuum cleaner end in screams, a tree house explosion, and ultimately, failure. It all culminates in the boys’ last-ditch effort, where legends go mono a mono: Benny laces up his PF Flyers, snags the ball from The Beast’s yard, and hops the fence back to safety—or so he thinks. Moments later, the dog clears the fence in a single bound and pursues Benny on an epic chase through town.
Adventure is a prerequisite for Kid World movies. The Goonies forge an epic treasure hunt and defeat a trio of ruthless bandits. In Hook, Pan and the Lost Boys overcome the pirates and slay their captain. Kevin (Home Alone) outfoxes the robbers and saves the day in time for Christmas.
As a kid, one of my chief concerns was escaping the mundane reality of my exceedingly ordinary life. Whether it was playing make-believe with friends, launching an early career in drama and dance, or acting out thrilling scenes with action figures, living these imaginative scenarios were a welcome departure from an all-too-cozy suburban upbringing. Living vicariously through the kid heroes in these films was another method; every obstacle they overcome and every enemy they foiled felt like a thrill and a victory for me.
3. “The Most Amazing Thing I Ever Saw”: Blurred Lines Between Possible and Impossible
“Maybe two or three guys in history ever busted the guts out of a ball,” Squints tells Benny after The Jet literally hits the cover off a baseball.
“That’s the most amazing thing I ever saw,” Kenny adds, awestruck.
Harry Potter presents a wizarding world where magic is commonplace, and X-Men is based on adolescents with bona fide superpowers. The Sandlot, meanwhile, depicts ordinary kids who, to their own surprise, occasionally do extraordinary things. Kid World blurs the lines between human and superhuman. Events don’t seem possible, but they don’t quite seem impossible; we’re faced with the possibility of possibility.
Even in a fairytale like Hook, characters are forced to confront the real versus the surreal. In the famous food fight scene, after steadfast adult-like resistance, Peter finally suspends his disbelief.
“You’re doing it,” says one of the Lost Boys.
“Doing what?” Peter asks, holding a once-empty spoon that’s suddenly covered in technicolor pudding.
“Using your imagination, Peter!”
When we watch characters realities’ straddle the line between possible and not, we can’t help but (wishfully) map these experiences onto our own lives. When we watch ordinary kids do extraordinary things, we wonder (hope) to achieve the same. And as their sense of wonder grows so, too, does ours; we begin to consider the unlimited power of our own minds. That is truly amazing.
4. “Their Own Baseball Kingdom”: Kid Worlds Within Kid World
The Sandlot (the movie) lives in Kid World, and The Sandlot (the place) is a Kid World inside that. These microcosms—even more intimate, more fortified from adults—are a common trope of Kid World movies.
The Goonies’ house, specifically the attic, is one example. The Lost Boys’ Neverland territory in Hook is another. I’d argue that Moonrise Kingdom (2012) isn’t actually a Kid World movie: It’s not intended for children, and we don’t totally experience the movie through the child’s gaze. But while parents (at least try to) make the rules in the film, the central location of the movie is governed by pre-teens.
“This is our land!” proclaims Sam when he and Suzy happen upon their beachside retreat.
“Yes it is!” Suzy echoes.
They jump into the water, fully clothed. She lies on the beach while he sketches her. She reads to him. He pierces her ears.
“I like it here, but I don’t like the name,” says Suzy.
“I know,” Sam agrees.
They claim and later, rename, the space. The last shot in the film reveals their chosen moniker: Moonrise Kingdom.
“[The Sandlot] was like their own baseball kingdom,” Smalls narrates. “It was the greatest place I’d ever seen anyway.”
The monarchical terminology is intentional: In these meta Kid Worlds, youngsters hold sway and live in harmony, secluded from enemies or outsiders, namely adults.
In my youth, I created a Kid World in the suburban carpetscape of my parents’ basement, a bastion of creativity and privacy and play. I made up imaginary basketball teams and played entire tournaments by myself against invisible opponents. Other times, a friend and I took on nicknames, donned costumes, and choreographed WWE-style wrestling matches using papasan chair cushions as our ring.
The kids played every summer day from dawn ’til dusk, Smalls says. “It was like an endless dream game.”
It sure was.
5. “This Magic Moment” (aka “You Little Pervert!”): Semi-Consummated Puppy Love
Of all the classic moments in The Sandlot, the most iconic scene is Squints’s kiss with the lifeguard-as-teenage-Aphrodite, Wendy Peffercorn.
One afternoon at the pool, Squints is driven to insanity by Wendy’s relentless “lotioning, oiling, oiling, lotioning…” from on high in her chair.
“I can’t take this no more!” Squints erupts, and splashes away. The diminutive, bespectacled non-swimmer plugs his noses and tosses himself into the deep end; a suicide mission.
When Wendy pulls Squints from the bottom of the pool and drags him, unconscious, to land, she applies frantic CPR and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Just when it seems he may be down for the count, Squints opens his eyes and shines a mischievous smile at his friends. When Wendy goes in for more mouth-to-mouth, Squints pulls the back of her head into his face for a stolen smooch, and the Drifters’ “This Magic Moment” adds an exclamation point to the tableau.
“You little pervert!” screams Wendy, before dragging Squints out by the arm.
Sam and Suzy’s relationship in Moonrise Kingdom is brilliant in its nuance: It’s sophisticated and juvenile, sexy and awkward, exaggerated and realistic. These films mirror my most prominent sexual fantasies as an elementary schooler: making out with my camp counselor and rounding first base with my crush cloistered in—wait for it—the coatroom of our synagogue.
Watching the Wendy Peffercorn scene as an 11-year-old, when my sexual and romantic urges both began and peaked, was nearly pornographic. To this day, things have never been hotter onscreen or in real life.
6. “Uh, Bill. I Mean, Dad”: Ideal Parents and Stable Families
In The Sandlot, Dennis Leary plays Smalls’ mother’s new husband, Bill, an absolute caricature of lousy stepdad. Stern, distant, and condescending, Bill (“I mean, Dad. I mean, Bill”; Smalls can’t decide what to call him) has to be coerced by the mom into merely playing with his stepson. Their first game of catch ends in Smalls taking a baseball and, consequently, a slab of frozen meat to the face. But in the end, after a summer at The Sandlot, Smalls is proficient in the game.
“Wow, you’re really starting to hurt my hand,” says Bill (I mean, Dad), smiling, as
Smalls zooms a ball into his glove during one of their now-regular games of catch.
Kid World movies don’t merely offer kids-as-heroes and coming-of-age narratives; their plots fulfill fantasies of children, specifically in regards to parents and families.
In Moonrise Kingdom, Sam, a survivor of the foster system, is adopted by the town’s endearing sheriff. In 3 Ninjas (1992), the boys save their grandpa from the hands of an evil martial arts master. In Home Alone, Kevin protects his house and gets the family Christmas of his dreams. Sure, Henry (1993’s Rookie of the Year) leads the Cubs to their first World Series victory in a century, but his biggest win is convincing his widowed mother to dump her skeezy boyfriend for the Cubs’ ace, who acted as a father figure for Henry throughout the season.
As much as Kid World movies lampoon or criticize or ignore adults, their characters ultimately yearn for a stable home, supportive parents, and a loving family. While we, as viewers, live and lived vicariously through the characters’ thrilling episodes, heroics, and romance, we really want what those kids eventually achieved: normalcy.
In childhood, we seek familial stability; in nostalgic adulthood, we seek childhood. As we age, childhood feels far away, but thanks to these timeless films, Kid World never does.
What are your favorite Kid World movies and what makes them so endearing both then and now?
Did you create your own Kid World as a child? What was it like and what did you do there?
What do you think of my Kid World criteria? What would you add or change?