For a proper kids’ adventure story, you need a magical or fantastic element. A collection of Universal movie monsters, bandits who travel in time, even a hidden pirate ship full of rich stuff will do. Something that adults would consider too silly to be real, something that only a child’s mind can really grasp. If a weirdly sexual Goblin King has kidnapped your brother and you need to get him back, you’re Labyrinth, without that you’re just My Girl watching your best friend get murdered by bees. A good fantasy element separates a magical kids’ adventure from some basic-bitch coming-of-age story like Stand By Me.
…That was a weird flex against Stand By Me. Not sure where that came from. Apologies to Wil Wheaton and moving on.
Locke and Key drives the whole “only the mind of a child” part home by making most adults literally incapable of grasping magic, forgetting anything magical the moment it leaves their eye line. Which means that only the kids can unravel the mystery of the keys and stop the evil well-woman, and boom, that’s some textbook magical kids’ adventure right there. Where Stranger Things used the nightmare shadow world of the Upside Down and its many monsters, Locke and Key uses the magical keys, and the things they can and in some cases utterly should not open.
They keep it interesting for adults by drawing out the mystery, introducing keys one at a time while the Lockes gradually uncover their late patriarch’s past and we, the audience, learn more about evil well-woman Dodge’s agenda. Goes at a decent pace, too. Not too many keys too fast, but also not wasting a lot of our time with only Bode knowing something’s up.
Titans… well, they’re superheroes. That’s the magic. Maybe Dick, Hawk, and Dove don’t have powers, but the rest do. Raven/Rachel has magic powers she doesn’t fully understand and can’t fully control; Kory/Starfire is an alien with energy powers; Gar can change into a tiger and move past the tiger thing he can turn into any animal (Animal? Animal! Yes, any animal!); Donna Troy is an Amazon. And season two also brings Connor, the half-Kryptonian clone. And they each have their own arc, and most of them work! Connor/Superboy is a good addition (even if they immediately started finding ways to keep him out of the A-plot), Teagan Croft is still killing it as Raven…
It doesn’t really fit the mould of your Monster Squads or Labyrinths or Goonieses… but the fact is that they’ve taken the characters who one month before the series premiere were starring in a movie aimed at children (albeit with some brilliant jokes for the rest of us and especially for DC fans) and turned it into a hard R melodrama. So it remains a kids’ story reimagined for adults, just more thoroughly than Locke and Key, which sure is much darker than Goonies or… just Goonies? Monster Squad was darker than I remembered, lots of cops died, and nobody who knows about the Swamp of Sadness is going to buy claims that Neverending Story isn’t dark…
But the two shows are very similar. First in that they both keep things fun for adults by making the characters legit interesting, which usually helps. Second, in that the real magic is family. All the protagonists in both shows need to sort out their individual nonsense and stand together against the evil trying to tear them apart. In the words of DuckTales’ famed pilot Launchpad McQuack, “family is truly the greatest adventure of oh no, the ground!“
Next Page: About those protagonists