The Movies That Define The Kids On Bikes Adventure Genre

The definitive kids on bikes movies taught us the power of friendship, youth, and, ten-speeds.

Elliott and ET riding on bike in ET
Photo: Universal/Getty Images

Within the wonderful world of kids’ movies lies a subgenre that doesn’t get discussed enough: the “Kids on Bikes” adventure movie. A combination of early adventure movies and the “latchkey” kid culture that afforded teens and pre-teens incredible new freedom, these movies occupy a unique space. They’re often intended for audiences in the same young age ranges as their protagonists yet they explore more adult themes and genuinely dangerous situations through the lens of an often wistful version of a particular kind of childhood. And yes, they explore those topics with the help of bikes.

Some are scary, some are uplifting, and some… well, to be honest, some don’t actually have many bicycles in them. In their own ways though, these are the movies that have come to define the “Kids on Bikes” adventure genre.

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

While there are a few films released before E.T. that serve as spiritual precursors to the kids on bikes subgenre (the first Escape to Witch Mountain of 1975 and 1979’s Over the Edge, for instance), Steven Spielberg’s E.T. is inarguably the most significant early example of this concept and, more arguably, the best movie on this list.

It’s strange to watch E.T. as an adult and realize how the heart of this movie isn’t its extraterrestrial creature but rather the film’s depiction of childhood. The core of this subgenre (kids being in genuine danger and often overcoming it through childlike means) truly began here. There is something truly special about the way this movie creates distance between kids and the adults in their lives but treats those kids like adults within the context of their world and how they see it. Even if your childhood wasn’t quite as suburban pristine as some of the ones depicted in this movie, you will almost inevitably connect to elements of our heroes’ unlikely toy-based inventions, thirst for adventure, and, yes, the freedom offered by their bicycles. Hey, there’s a reason why the silhouette of a kid on a bike became this movie’s defining image, and it’s not just because the alien creature is, let’s face it, incredibly creepy. 

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BMX Bandits (1983)

You may think BMX Bandits’ most notable quality would be the fact that it stars a young Nicole Kidman in only her second role (her first movie, Bush Christmas, was released in Australia a week prior). However, I think it’s actually the movie’s director: Brian Trenchard-Smith. Largely known for his work on various exploitation-esque B-movies, Trenchard-Smith wanted to make a movie for kids that felt genuinely dangerous yet cartoonish enough to allow him to get away with putting young characters in otherwise nightmarish peril.

That contrast is fascinating to look back at. While BMX Bandits didn’t receive a wide release in its day, the film’s balance of wacky antics and criminal-fueled danger feels like a precursor to a subsect of this subgenre we’d see in many kids movies of the late ‘80s and throughout the ‘90s. BMX Bandits was also released amid the rising BMX bike fad. As such, it leaned into the marketing idea that BMX bikes were the teenage evolution of typical kids’ bikes and were capable of taking you on entirely different and more wondrous adventures. 

The Goonies (1985)

Released just three years after E.T., The Goonies shows the escalation within this subgenre that was already occurring around this time. Though it’s rooted in a classic Treasure Island-esque adventure story (complete with an actual treasure map), the movie is downright bizarre in the most ‘80s ways. It is loud, violent, crude, and there is an almost body horror-esque quality to the design of Sloth that has somehow become even more jarring in the nearly 40 years since its release. There are reasons why some can’t tolerate the film’s chaotic energy, especially if they didn’t grow up with it.

Yet The Goonies is not only a culturally significant film but also a milestone moment in the evolution of this subgenre. It’s led by a notable triumvirate of latchkey kid-era creators (Richard Donner, Christopher Columbus, and Steven Spielberg), and it incorporated elements of outright ‘80s horror in ways that some of the movies we’ll soon discuss expanded upon. This film showed how the kinds of movies kids theoretically shouldn’t be watching were nonetheless informing their language, attitudes, and adventures.

Explorers (1985)

Released the same year as The Goonies (oops) and just a week after Back to the Future (yikes), Joe Dante’s Explorers was a box office bomb that didn’t flirt with cult classic status until many years later. Even then, some understandably grappled with the film’s bizarre ending which sees its protagonists go to outer space and confront alien lifeforms who have been studying popular culture to better understand humanity. As someone who patrols that same beat, I empathize with those aliens and how they came to think the worst of us.

Yet Explorers’ best moments may be some of the greatest examples of the power and cultural impact of this subgenre. There’s a meta quality to this movie’s pop culture-obsessed characters that comments on the potential pitfalls of such obsessions. It also celebrates those kids who split their youth between computers and bicycles. Compared to something like the dreadful Revenge of the Nerds (which was released the previous year), Explorers honors and acknowledges a shifting form of ‘80s “geekdom” without coming across as condescending or patronizing. Also “children use their knowledge of sci-fi and computers to build a spaceship” is a top-tier kids on bikes premise. 

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Stand by Me (1986)

Aside from the comical evilness of its villainous bullies (who hurt you, Stephen King?), Stand by Me lacks many of the more fantastical elements seen in previous kids on bikes adventures. It instead offers a comparatively grounded tale of four boys whose journey leads to the discovery of a dead body and a series of circumstances that ultimately exhibit the joys of childhood while forcing our heroes to reckon with the twilight of that point in their lives. 

While “coming of age” was a prominent theme in previous kids on bikes movies, Stand By Me cemented the relationship between that subgenre and that thematic concept. Few films capture the terror and thrills of the latchkey era quite like this one, and few such movies offer a thesis as concisely powerful as “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12. Jesus, does anyone?” It’s such a powerful kids on bikes movie that you probably forgot it doesn’t even really have bicycles in it.

Monster Squad (1987)

The Goonies offered a peek at the emerging relationship between latchkey kids on bikes and horror movies, but The Monster Squad dragged that concept into the light and solidified it as an inarguable part of the pop culture landscape. If you and your friends didn’t imagine yourself as monster hunters from the comfort of your treehouse before you saw this movie, you almost certainly did afterward. Even if it wasn’t monsters, who among us didn’t ride our bicycles like they were steeds carrying us toward some secret quest?

One of the most notable aspects of The Monster Squad is also one of its most divisive qualities: its obscenity. This movie shows kids swearing, bullying each other, and saying things that we’ve thankfully (hopefully) since learned not to say. Those scenes can serve as The Monster Squad’s most effective jump scare moments to those of us who have forgotten about them, but they are also, sometimes regrettably, largely accurate. When you ask Shane Black to write a movie for kids, you get what you get. 

My Girl (1991)

While earlier entries in this subgenre sometimes featured a tacked-on romantic subplot, My Girl offers a full-on (and relatively rare) kids on bikes romance. The film follows a pair of pre-teens (Vada and Thomas) who fall in love over the course of a memorable summer that sees them explore their town, their feelings, and the perils of encroaching adulthood. That is until Thomas dies after being stung to death by bees. 

This movie is often remembered for that truly traumatizing ending, which means you may have forgotten how disturbing the rest of the film is. My Girl covers topics ranging from infidelity and dementia to puberty and maternal mortality. The reason we tend to forget about those parts of the movie is perhaps due to both its gut-ripping nightmare of an ending and the ways the film otherwise captures the beauty of young love in ways that prove its ability to shine through any darkness. 

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The Sandlot (1993)

In many previous kids on bikes movies, the overactive imaginations of bicycle-driven kids bump up against a real threat. In The Sandlot, the biggest perceived threats (“The Beast” and its owner) turn out to be the products of such imaginations. Yet when presented through the perspective of this movie’s wonderful characters, those threat feels as real as the monsters and aliens in previous subgenre works, as well as those terrors you and your friends likely crafted when you were kids. 

Ultimately, The Sandlot follows a bit closer in the footsteps of Stand by Me by presenting a timeless coming-of-age story in a particularly notable era of latchkey childhood: the early 1960s. Few films have ever romanticized the joys of that particular kind of childhood quite like this one does. It also ends on a surprisingly optimistic note whereas other movies in this genre typically present adulthood as the killer of the bonds formed during this point of our lives. 

Now and Then (1995)

One of the most fascinating things about the kids on bikes subgenre is that it largely focuses on male characters (specifically, young white boys). In some ways, that approach feels like a potentially unintentional commentary on the nature of the “boys will be boys” culture that many such movies ultimately captured. In other ways, it feels like yet another example of Hollywood’s historic hesitation to produce movies that focus on female friendships that don’t end in tragedy and betrayal. 

That’s what makes Now and Then so special. Led by a stacked cast (Christina Ricci, Thora Birch, Melanie Griffith, Demi Moore, Rosie O’Donnell, Rita Wilson, and more), this movie follows four adult women who meet up in their hometown and reminisce about their youth. Writer I. Marlene King of Pretty Little Liars fame has this magical way of showcasing the unique qualities of a young girl’s life in that era while capturing the essential elements of childhood that many of us were hopefully fortunate enough to experience. There is turmoil, lessons learned, memories forged, frightening moments that seem to stop the world, and, naturally, bicycles. 

Super 8 (2011)

The early 2000s saw a rapid decline in latchkey kid culture and, with it, a decline in the kids on bikes genre that culture helped inspire. Events like 9/11 and the Columbine shootings, a series of long-gestating moral panics, and natural social changes led to different philosophies regarding such previously unchecked childhood independence. At the very least, there was more hesitation about presenting movies aimed at kids that showcased kids in mortal peril. When the genre did prominently return, it would do so as a tribute to the era that came before. 

Super 8 is one of the earliest and most noteworthy examples of such tributes. J.J. Abrams’ 2011 movie was an unashamed love letter to the genre Abrams’ idol Steven Spielberg essentially pioneered. Truth be told, this story of an aspiring young filmmaker who gets him and his friends caught up in a dangerous sci-fi scenario isn’t nearly as fun, creative, or well-crafted as the movies that inspired it. But the infectious joy of this concept is evident throughout the movie. Its bicycles practically function as supporting characters. This movie would also kick off a renaissance of kids on bikes tributes that include Summer of ‘84, Turbo Kid, and, most notably, Stranger Things

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Attack the Block (2011)

The same year that Super 8 ignited an era of kids on bikes tribute projects, Attack the Block offered something even more interesting: a genuine examination of what those movies might look like if they were made in a more modern era. By moving the genre from the suburbs to inner-city London, director Joe Cornish found the modern version of latchkey teenagers and gave them a sci-fi adventure to call their own. While we’ve certainly seen other films that told the stories of kids around the same age in socially similar environments, Attack the Block was unique (and very much welcome) in the ways it used that setup as the basis for a slightly more classic subgenre adventure rather than to wallow in countless real-life horrors. 

Unfortunately, relatively few films followed in Attack the Block’s footsteps by exploring modern versions of those classic genre concepts. As nostalgia (particularly ‘80s nostalgia) came to dominate sectors of the entertainment industry, the classic stylings of the kids on bikes subgenre soon became effective shorthand for another time and place. It’s a shame, really. Things may not be exactly as they once were, but we still need movies that show kids embarking on an adventure of their own as they forge friendships, learn about life, and make memories that will be impossible to make later on. We need them as much as those kids need bicycles.

It: Chapter One (2017)

Much like Super 8 before it, It: Chapter One functions as a nostalgic love letter to the latchkey era and the golden age for the type of films found higher up on this list. It’s the exact reason why Warner Bros. and director Andy Muschietti moved the action of Stephen King’s sprawling novel about childhood and the traumas we suppress from the 1950s (when King grew up) to the 1980s (when the novel was published and made its biggest impact on young readers).

Like half that book, It: Chapter One is about a group of middle school outcasts (they call themselves the Losers Club) making life-defining friendships during what should be an idyllic summer. Unfortunately, this being a more standard King story, halcyon days turn dark when the kids realize they’re being hunted by a supernatural clown (or something at least in that shape) which is eating children throughout their small New England town. That doesn’t mean they, nor the audience, can’t have some bicycle-accompanied fun and glory along the way. It’s also worth noting that when they adapted the other half of King’s novel, audiences enjoyed it a lot less when the kids grew up… and thus caused a sharp drop-off in bikes on-screen.