The underappreciated gems that Steven Spielberg produced

Super 8 finally arrives in UK cinemas this week, shepherded by Steven Spielberg. Here are nine more movies he produced, that seem to have unfairly fallen off the radar…

Spielberg-produced films

Steven Spielberg has a well-known and extensive set of credits as a director. And as producer and executive producer, he’s also put his name to movies such as The Goonies, Transformers, Men In Black and Gremlins.

But what of the Spielberg-produced films that fly a little futher under the radar? We’re going to salute a collection of them right now…

Young Sherlock Holmes (1985)

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We’ve spent a lot of time on this site championing Back To The Future, The Goonies and Gremlins, and it’s a policy we fully intend to keep adhering to. However, there was a movie made around the same time, that Spielberg also produced, which deserves praise. And that’d be Barry Levinson’s Young Sherlock Holmes.

It’s a surprise that this didn’t ever get any kind of follow-up, and perhaps in the wake of the success of the new big and small screen Sherlock Holmes adventures, there may now be scope to revisit it.

Based on a script by Chris Columbus (always much better as a writer than a director, in my view), Young Sherlock Holmes casts Nicholas Rowe in the title role, and moves the location to a boarding school.

It’s a really good, light-hearted, fun movie, notable for including some very early animation work from an infant form of Pixar. And while it never set the box office alight in the way it, perhaps, should have done, it retains a groundswell of fandom that it does, in all fairness, deserve.

Batteries Not Included (1987)

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Based on a Mick Garris story, and with a screenplay co-written by Brad Bird (yep, that Brad Bird), *batteries not included (to give it its lower case title) was always going to be a tricky sell. It actually started life as a possible episode in Spielberg’s Amazing Stories TV show, but he saw something in it, and it was promoted to feature length.

In came Matthew Robbins to direct the film (his last helming job was canine caper, Bingo, at the start of the 90s), which had small alien machines attempting to save apartments from clearly very evil and nasty developers.

It’s quite an ambitious film, and one that was met with a generally warm response. Last time we encountered it, though, it was residing in the bargain bin at our local DVD emporium. Granted, its DVD release is hardly a labour of love, but Batteries Not Included is a fascinating oddity, and one that feels a cut above the vast majority of live-action kids’ fodder of today.

Arachnophobia (1990)

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A smashing film, this, and arguably the best that long-time Spielberg producer, Frank Marshall, has ever directed. It was always going to be a tough sell to audiences, being a comedy-horror that played on the fear of spiders. Yet, few movies of the past twenty-five years have blended comedy and horror quite as well as Arachnophobia manages.

At times, especially if you’re averse to creepy crawlies, the tension goes through the roof, with some expertly staged sequences, such as an arachnid finding its way into a bowl of popcorn.

On the downside, this is comfortably Julian Sands’ worst performance on film, and the sequences away from suburban USA don’t hold quite the same appeal.

But then, any time you fear the film might be genuinely losing some momentum, it sends for the glorious Delbert McClintock, in the form of John Goodman, in one of the funniest roles of his career. His pitch perfect, dry delivery is quite joyful. Take the moment where he checks the bottom of his shoe for a squashed spider. Very matter of fact. Very funny.

We’ll come to Arachnophobia in more detail on the site in due course. For now, it’s comfortably one of the creepiest films that Steven Spielberg has ever lent his name to.

Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990)

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Yep, I know we’ve talked about this before at Den Of Geek, and yep, I know that readers of this site tend to be a lot, lot more appreciative of Gremlins 2 than many in the outside world. But this is still a film that criminally underperformed on its release, and one that deserves every breath of publicity it gets.

It’s hard to think of a Hollywood sequel that’s more subversive and intent on deliberately trashing a franchise as Gremlins 2. And that’s meant in a positive way. Director Joe Dante took some persuading to return for the follow-up, and he made the film very much on his terms. As such, he gleefully sent up blockbuster films and the first movie, and in doing so, made one of the best Hollywood comedies of the 1990s, full stop.

And, full credit to Joe Dante. If his stated aim was to kill any chance of there being a Gremlins 3, thus far, he’s hit that target.

Cape Fear (1991)

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Spielberg’s name was kept off the credits of Martin Scorsese’s 1991 remake of Cape Fear, for fear that his name would both give the wrong impression of the film, and play too much against Spielberg’s more family-friendly reputation.

It’s a movie that’s finally arriving on Blu-ray this autumn, and there are several compelling reasons to watch it. The breakthrough performance of Juliette Lewis remains quite staggering to watch, not least in the uneasy moments she shares with Robert De Niro. And De Niro himself is in monstrous form, as a genuinely unnerving baddy, in the shape of Max Cady.

It’s Nick Nolte who often holds the movie together, though, along with Scorsese’s disciplined direction. And while the film falls flat come the last act, where a more conventional action sequence replaces the psychological and cerebral build-up, it’s nonetheless a movie that does justice to the terrific original.

Casper (1995)

Surely, this was a franchise in waiting. The big screen debut of Casper The Friendly Ghost was an ahead of its time example of how to integrate an animated character into a live-action movie (see also, of course, the Spielberg-produced Who Framed Roger Rabbit), which starred Bill Pullman and Christina Ricci.

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There’s nothing radical about the structure of storytelling here, rather that it’s just executed very well. In fact, you couldn’t draw a more telling distinction between this and the also Spielberg-produced The Flintstones (where, you might remember, he was credited as Steven Spielrock. Chortle).

Casper retains charm, and offers a good three act family movie. The Flintstones pisses all over what made the source material so much fun, and is an insult to the acting talents of everyone who graced it.

Casper, though, while a hit, never got the sequel treatment (laughably, The Flintstones sort of did, with the recast prequel). Granted, it could have used a better villain, but director Brad Silberling (who would go on to direct the wonderful Lemony Snicket film) still pulls together an entertaining family movie.

The Prince of Egypt (1998)

Spielberg was one of the founding fathers of DreamWorks SKG, and as such, he was an uncredited executive producer of the studio’s maiden hand-drawn animated movie. In fact, were it not for some uncomfortable competition with Pixar, The Prince Of Egypt would have been DreamWorks’ first animated movie, full stop, until Jeffrey Katzenberg brought forward the release of Antz to head off the threat of A Bug’s Life.

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The Prince Of Egypt is a massively ambitious movie, attempting to distil the biblical story of Moses, and put it across in a family-friendly movie. Personally, I’ve always thought it’s a terrific movie, let down at times by an over-reliance on really quite poor songs, but otherwise a hugely confident piece of accessible storytelling. The parting of the Red Sea sequence, too, is one of which any animated movie would surely be proud.

Seemingly forgotten in the flurry of computer animated movies that are fired out of DreamWorks every year, The Prince Of Egypt is ripe for a high definition release. And it’s arguably the best purely animated movie that Spielberg has been involved with.

Deep Impact (1998)

Ah, the big battle of the asteroid movies. It’s a bit staggering to think that Mimi Leder’s Deep Impact did battle with Michael Bay’s Armageddon over a decade ago. And, unlike the battle of the volcano movies that had taken place a year or two before (Dante’s Peak vs Volcano), both Deep Impact and Armageddon made a box office killing. There’s nothing audiences like more than being threatened with death by big rocks, clearly.

I’ve made no secret of my love for Armageddon, and Michael Bay’s film (his last good one) made more cash. That’s meant, over time, that Deep Impact has been pigeonholed as the more intelligent, cerebral one.

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It isn’t, though, really. What that basically equates to is that it makes a bit more sense, there’s a lot more talking, and Ben Affleck isn’t trying to cop off with Liv Tyler for most of the film. Aerosmith don’t sing a song in Deep Impact, either.

The film, though, is a really entertaining blockbuster. Its effects work has dated, not least the once-impressive tidal wave, but its more human story does give it a hook. It gave DreamWorks one of its very first big hits, too. I’d happily vote for Morgan Freeman as president, incidentally. He’d sort shit out.

The Mask Of Zorro (1998)

The sequel to The Mask Of Zorro, The Legend Of Zorro, has sullied this one a little. But back in 1999, when Antonio Banderas took over the Zorro mantle from Anthony Hopkins in The Mask Of Zorro, this was a rollicking, old-fashioned blockbuster. And it still is.

There’s an enormous amount to like here, and it’s a surprise that, in spite of its initial commercial success, it seems to rarely be talked about. Catherine Zeta-Jones gives, arguably, her best blockbuster leading role (Entrapment doesn’t really compete, does it?), while Banderas makes a dashing, matinee-style hero.

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It’s also a welcome reminder of just how strong a movie director Martin Campbell can make. He may have come a cropper with Green Lantern, but with The Mask Of Zorro (and his two Bond movies), he’s surely proven himself as one of the best contemporary directors of an action movie. Maybe Spielberg could find him something akin to Zorro to tackle next?

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