Among the most ardent of Disney fans, the series of films produced by the studio from 1989 to 1999 have been dubbed “the Disney Renaissance.” That string of films, starting with The Little Mermaid and ending with Tarzan, mimicked classic animated musicals like Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. The era gave the world beloved films like The Lion King, Mulan, and chief among them, Beauty and the Beast.  These were animated Broadway-caliber musicals featuring gorgeous animation. All of them drew critical acclaim and awards.

The true Disney fans, however, know a secret. Tucked away in the era’s second tier movies, beyond the acclaimed classics and tentpole favorites, is the real king of ’90s Disney cinema. It’s not an animated fairy tale or updated folk tale, but a feature-length spinoff of a Saturday-morning cartoon. It has excellent music, gorgeous animation, quotable quotes, and laugh-out-loud sight gags. It oozes with pathos. It’s so ’90s that Pauly Shore voices one of the characters.

Let me tell you about A Goofy Movie, which turned 25 years old this month. It’s a Disney cult classic featuring a story of teenage romance, parenting nightmares, family systems, and grace for sinners. In an era of Disney magic, it truly stands out above the crowd(!).

Let’s first answer the question of why this movie exists in the first place. A certain millennial generation grew up on a series of Disney-produced Saturday-morning cartoons — Chip & Dale Rescue Rangers, Darkwing Duck, Tailspin, Gummy Bears, and the like. One of the most popular was Goof Troop. It featured classic Disney character Goofy as a single father to adolescent son Max, who played the straight man to his father’s zany cartoon antics. Goof Troop was successful enough to produce 78 episodes, so the Disney executives ordered a movie with the show’s characters.

A feature length Goofy film presented a challenge for Bill Farmer, the actor who has voiced Goofy since 1987. The zany dog character needed to transition from slapstick clown to fully fleshed out father figure, which isn’t something Goofy had done since his creation in 1932. It’s one thing to voice a manic character falling off a cliff. It’s another thing altogether to voice that manic character faced with the prospect of his teenage son going to jail.

That is, of course, the premise of the film. On the last day of high school before summer break, Max and friends have plotted an elaborate interruption of a school assembly to impress his love interest, Roxanne. The plan works. Even though Max is busted by the principal, he is invited to join Roxanne at a viewing party for pop star Powerline’s pay-per-view concert. But while Max connects with his crush, his principal calls Goofy to relate the assembly incident. The principal terrifies Goofy into thinking that his son is a delinquent headed for a life of crime and jail. Goofy’s solution is to take a road trip with Max to fish in Lake Destiny, Idaho, repeating a trip Goofy and his father took a generation prior. As Max departs on the trip, he breaks his date with Roxanne. In a moment of panic, he tells her that he can’t attend the Powerline concert viewing because the pop-star invited Goofy to dance on stage live at the show.

Father and son hit the road, and together, they are a powder keg of expectation ready to explode. Goofy hopes to bond with his son by recreating the same trip he had with his father. Max wants nothing to do with his father and resents his dad for breaking his date with Roxanne. Goofy, in his attempt to replicate his own father-son experience, is oblivious to Max’s growth into young adulthood. Max, in his resentment toward his father, shuts down and refuses to connect. The two are at an impasse.

The first length of their road trip is miserable. The two visit Lester’s Possum Park, a theme park mashup of Chuck E Cheese and Deliverance. Goofy attempts to teach Max his family’s “perfect cast” for the fishing to come, to disastrous results. There’s a Bigfoot attack. Along the way, they regularly reconnect with the foil father-and-son duo Pete and P.J., who travel in a cool state-of-the-art RV that highlights Max’s jealousy of other families.

After these initial setbacks, Goofy has a change of heart about the trip’s itinerary. He dubs Max the trip’s navigator, giving him the map (in a pre-GPS world) and control of their stops on the way to Idaho. The duo avoid further animatronic possums and instead make stops that both father and son enjoy — baseball games, theme parks, monster truck rallies, and even Carl’s Amazing House of Yarn.

But while the duo bond over their newfound fun, they still haven’t dealt with the core of their relational distance. Goofy still hasn’t grasped that his son is nearly his own man, with his own problems that are different from his own upbringing. Max still resents his father’s oblivious goofy-ness to the point that he still hasn’t opened up. In fact, Max has discreetly changed the map. He is no longer navigating them toward Lake Destiny, Idaho, but to Los Angeles, California, where pop-star Powerline is performing his pay-per-view show.

The duo approach a literal fork in the road by the Grand Canyon, and Goofy confirms Max’s plan to change their destination. He pulls off to the side of the road fuming, and berates Max for changing the map. Max responds with equal anger, bringing to light his frustration at his father’s refusal to treat him as an adult. While they are arguing, their car begins to roll down the steep canyon road where it had been parked. The duo continue their argument while they chase the car down. Eventually, the car falls into the canyon river below with Goofy and Max landing on the car’s roof. The two argue to a frustrated silence as they ride the automotive raft down rocky whitewater.

Here’s where the movie’s emotional core resolves. Max cuts at his father: “I’m not your little boy anymore dad. I’ve grown up. I have a life now.” But Goofy’s response is equally pained: “I know that. I just wanted to be a part of it.” Both Goofy and Max are right to be angry, each justified in their accusations. Goofy treats Max like a child. Max shuts his father out of his life, which causes Goofy to treat Max even more like a child. Finally, the father and son lay their frustrations bare, but both parties are at fault.

Passing the rapids and floating down the river on the roof of their car, the two reconcile over a father son duet, “Nobody Else But You.” The lyrics are full of real love. The son recognizes that his father will always rescue him him when he’s in trouble, and the father recognizes that his son is his own individual with his own likes and needs. Here’s the first verse:

MAX: There are times you drive me, shall we say, bananas.
And your mind is missin’, no offence, a screw.
Still, whatever mess I land in, who is always understandin’?
Nobody else but you.

GOOFY: Oh, your moodiness is now and then bewilderin’.
And your values may be, so to speak, askew.
Who deserves a hero’s trophy as we face each catastro-phee?
Nobody else but you.

Max is able to release resentment against his father’s oblivious and accident prone character when he realizes that his father’s love is unconditional. Goofy is able to recognize his son’s bravery and adventurous spirit and love him even when he makes different choices. When the duo finish their song, the movie fades forward, and we find that Max finally lets down his guard. He confesses to his dad the great lie he told to Roxanne about dancing with Powerline in Los Angeles. His father responds with grace, insisting that he help Max get on stage and impress his crush.

After a near-death catastrophe with a waterfall, the duo arrive in Los Angeles. At Goofy’s lead, the pair sneak backstage to the concert, dodging bouncers, invading dressing rooms, and causing a ruckus. When they accidentally land on stage during the concert, they use the family’s “perfect cast” as a dance move, which Powerline and the back-up dancers embrace. Roxanne and the rest of Max’s classmates see Max on the TV and cheer. With his father’s help, Max is now officially high school cool. 

The duo return home from their road trip, and at his father’s coaxing, Max comes clean with Roxanne. He confesses his initial lie, and she forgives him. She also has a confession: she finds his family’s unique laughter, the Goofy “hyuk,” to be cute and attractive. It turns out Max doesn’t need to be cool to win his gal. The whole time, Roxanne wanted to be with Max the goof, not Max the pop star. The movie concludes as Max introduces Roxanne to his father, no longer ashamed of his uncool family.

The power of A Goofy Movie isn’t just that it’s a movie of reconciliation and restoration between father and son. The power of the movie is the grace shown to Max as he repents of his parental resentments. Carole Holliday, one of the animators on the project, had this to say about the film’s cathartic ending:

The ending doesn’t work unless the director and his head of story and the story crew have set up from the beginning what the character’s emotional want is. The fact that Max thought he wanted one thing and was fighting the very thing that Goofy wanted through the whole thing, and at the end, gets the relationship with his father. It’s like, “I’ve missed out on everything else, but I got this one thing I wasn’t expecting.” Then the Powerline concert at the end becomes the cherry on top. It’s like, “Oh my goodness, you get your dad and you get this! You were a bad kid, but you won because you actually acknowledged your foolishness!” I think that’s why it pays off, is because he repents. He gets what’s important, and then he gets given this other gift on top of that.

Teenage Max wanted to be free of his father, his father’s laugh, his father’s uncool personality, and the uncoolness that comes from being a Goof. He wanted to be a different kind of adult. In the end, he loses that battle, and gratefully moves from resentment to appreciation. In most circumstances, that would be enough. Instead, reconciliation with his uncool father became the gracious bridge that takes him to Los Angeles to fulfill his initial desire to be cool and attract Roxanne.

Isn’t it true that God uses the goofy and the square to confound the wise and the cool? Don’t we believe that people who simply repent aren’t just given forgiveness, they’re given a kingdom? Don’t we wish we had a father who would go to such lengths to break down our walls so he could give us the things our hearts truly desire? A Goofy Movie is saturated with the themes of the gospel. Its music is also excellent, a much preferable soundtrack in comparison to the ear-worm tracks from Moana or Frozen.

And it has real staying power too. Twenty-five years later, the film is a Disney cult classic. Members of the crew continue to hear stories in 2020 about how the 1995 film helped a generation of fathers and children reconnect. Bill Farmer, Goofy’s voice, says that the film has continued to be the most fan-loved creation that he’s ever worked on. Give it a watch yourself and see what you think. By the time you’re done, I think we’ll see eye to eye (!) that the film is a theological classic.

Strays:

  • The two pop tracks from the movie were produced by David Z (not to be confused with our own David Z), who discovered Prince early on in his career and helped produce Purple Rain. The music, sans vocals, was recorded at Paisley Park, where Prince recorded a number of his records. The Powerline character was inspired by a mix of Prince, Michael Jackson, and Bobby Brown. As if you couldn’t tell.
  • Carole Holliday, who gave the quote above, explained that the Roxanne character was inspired by the “innocent” teens she taught in her church’s youth group. Also, the character Roxanne’s favorite song was “Roxanne” by The Police. So if you ever had a crush on the youth group girl with good taste in music, you can very much empathize with Max in this film.
  • In case you’re wondering, the direct-to-VHS sequel, An Extremely Goofy Movie, is not good. Don’t waste your time.
  • In a recent episode of the DuckTales TV show reboot, Goofy has a cameo. In the cameo, he shows Donald Duck a number of photos in his wallet. One of the photos shows Max and Roxanne together as an Easter egg. Fans have taken this to mean that the duo are still together. So, you know, happy endings all around.
  • A Goofy Movie is, so far, the only Disney property to acknowledge the existence of Star Trek.