Twenty-five years ago, back when ESPN still devoted a sizable chunk of its production budget to Scholastic Sports America, skateboarding-phenom-turned-entrepreneur Stacy Peralta produced, directed, and filmed something called The Search for Animal Chin. The film, which combines skate footage with a road-trip narrative starring a crew of professional skateboarders known as the Bones Brigade, forever changed the sport by transforming skaters into movie stars. It also functioned as a coming out party for a precocious towheaded string bean by the name of Tony Hawk and, in the process, paved the way for the extreme-sports explosion that eventually begat the X Games —a big-air, high-flying Olympics of the generally long-haired that ESPN begins broadcasting on Thursday.
In the movie, five skaters trek from Hawaii to Las Vegas, and beyond, in an attempt to locate a 62-year-old skate legend known as Animal Chin. Chin, we are told via Star Wars–style scrolling text, has been forced underground by unnamed “dark forces” that infiltrated the world of skateboarding. When not pulling off Andrecht inverts and executing method airs, the main players in the film mostly spout awkwardly-delivered dialogue related to where Chin might be hiding and whether certain skate sessions were sufficiently gnarly.
But Animal Chin is much more than just a skate movie. It represented a branding and marketing breakthrough. Skateboarding had gained a good deal of commercial traction during the mid-’80s, but, despite the valiant efforts of Thrasher magazine, the sport lacked a media vehicle that could propel it into the mainstream. Animal Chin provided that missing piece. And while it’s true that Peralta had a lot to work with here—foremost, the charisma and ahead-of-their-time capabilities of Bones Brigade members Hawk, Steve Caballero, Lance Mountain, Tommy Guerrero, and Mike McGill—he maximized the opportunity. Almost immediately following the film’s release, this crew of skaters and the company that sponsored them, Powell-Peralta, advanced into the big time. Powell-Peralta T-shirts began appearing on the torsos of not just skate punks and kids who really liked the Misfits, but also on jocks, dweebs, and, importantly, girls. The company’s stickers popped up everywhere, kids spray-painted Powell-Peralta’s repeating P logo on the undersides of bridges, and tattoo artists made a mint. The next thing you knew, Bones Brigade members show up in a Police Academy movie, and David Spade is wearing a Powell-Peralta Rat Bones shirt.
What set Animal Chin apart from other skate flicks of the era was this: a coherent story. Peralta, who is now a highly accomplished, award-winning director, wasn’t interested in merely placing a camera at the top of a half-pipe and pressing record. He wanted to make a real movie—or at least something that would better approximate a real movie than footage of guys ollieing over empty oil drums. So there was a semblance of a script here, and a narrative progression that actually made sense. It may not sound like much, but at the time there was virtually nothing like it in the genre.
Early in the film, after spinning tabloid headlines announce the disappearance of Chin, the skaters journey to the Chinatown section of San Francisco. There they run across both a guy with a great launch ramp and a missing-persons ad featuring Animal Chin on the back of a milk carton. (McGill takes a swig from it after a skate session.) The ad, which for some reason includes contact information related to Bakersfield, Calif., spurs the next leg of the trip but ultimately proves to be a dead end. After a few other leads turn up empty, the Brigade heads to Vegas. Stuck at a dive motel, the crew quickly determines that the pool out back is empty, which allows Caballero to slingshot himself around it at about 100 miles per hour sans shirt or pads.
That night, the guys sleep uncomfortably. The viewer sees terrible falls, devastating tumbles, and assorted traumatic brain injuries. But, as it turns out, those were just bad dreams. (Mountain: “Wake up and smell the concrete!”) To celebrate not having taken a railing to the groin in real life, the skaters purchase a ‘59 Cadillac, throw a cinderblock through the back window, cut off the roof with a Sawzall, and drive it at dangerously high speeds to a party hosted by lounge singer Johnny Rad. Subsequent to some scatting, Rad informs the Brigade of a secret ramp that may or may not have been built by skate Martians. Find the ramp, he says, and they’ll find Chin.
Spoiler alert: Animal Chin turns out to be a metaphor for having fun while skateboarding.
With that out of the way, it’s much easier to focus on the epic finale of the movie, which consists of the Bones Brigade skating one of the greatest megaramps ever built. The “Chin Ramp,” created especially for the film, consisted of two half-pipes set back-to-back, with a tunnel in the middle. (Consider it a great-grandfather to the ridiculously oversize ramps now used during the X Games.) Hawk kills it on the Chin Ramp. This was his star turn. He is a twisting, spinning, Gumby-like skate god decked out in bubblegum pink. Hawk, on that ramp, in the mid-’80s, provided us all with an advance look into the go-big-or-go-home, extreme future. It was like nothing before and everything since. That session marks the exact point in time when a soothsaying skateboarding swami could’ve looked into some polyurethane-based version of a crystal ball and plausibly envisioned an event as large-scale and commercially viable as the X Games. (More than 35 million Americans watched last summer’s competition, and it was broadcast to 382 million homes worldwide.)
At various moments during the film, Peralta takes well-intentioned jabs at the rising commodification and commercialization of skateboarding occurring at the time due to escalating sponsorship deals and an uptick in media attention. Skateboarding, he seemed to be suggesting, should be a more pure endeavor focused foremost on fun. It’s a nice sentiment to be sure, but as it happened, Peralta’s movie served to accelerate commercialization of the sport, not slow it down. Without Animal Chin, there is no X Games, and onetime skate wunderkind Shaun White is less famous than a second-rate relief pitcher for the Philadelphia Phillies. Skateboarding as a sport, and as a cultural phenomenon, was never the same after The Search for Animal Chin, and, for the record, that’s not a bad thing. Had Peralta not asked kids worldwide nearly 25 years ago, “Have you seen him?,” it’s likely you might be watching golf or poker on ESPN this Friday night instead of witnessing Bob Burnquist gracefully launch himself skyward during the X Games big-air finals.