With "The Goonies," Steven Spielberg secures his position as the Ray Kroc of pre-adolescent fantasy. Teamed with his alter ego, screen writer Chris Columbus, he doesn't have to make movies anymore -- he can simply franchise his formula to others, in this case director Richard Donner. The result is an artfully crafted movie, thrumming with energy and sometimes wit, and utterly uninvolving for anyone over the age of 12.

The Goonies are a crew of young kids, outcasts all: Data (Ke Huy-Quan), a pint-sized Harpo Marx whose raincoat harbors boxing gloves, headlights and suction cups; Chunk (Jeff Cohen), a compulsive eater; Mouth (Corey Feldman), a precocious gab artist; and Mikey (Sean Astin), an asthmatic dreamer. The action begins when the bank threatens to foreclose on "the Goondocks," Mikey's home. Rummaging in the attic, he finds a pirate's map, and the Goonies are off to find the treasure that will fend off the bank.

Weaved into what is essentially one long chase scene are the Fratellis, hoodlums on the lam, holed up in an abandoned restaurant that sits atop the treasure; Mikey's big brother Brand (Josh Brolin); the girl he loves, Andy (Kerri Green); the girl's best pal Stef (Martha Plimpton); and Sloth (John Matuszak), the black sheep of the Fratelli family, a lovable freak with a turnip head and pointed ears that swivel like wind indicators.

The best that can be said of Spielberg and Columbus' work here is that they do this sort of thing better than their legion of imitators; the best that can be said of Donner is that he knows how to follow orders. The story is credited to Spielberg, and it bears the earmarks of his blockbusters.

Once again, a kid's fantasies come true, his ineffectual parents are upstaged, good monsters are adopted and bad ones foiled. Columbus' script keeps the action at a fast boil, and his dialogue is sprightly, punny and sometimes funny (trapped at the bottom of a wishing well, one of the kids identifies the face on a half-dollar as "Martin Sheen"). But this has got to be the most horrendously mixed soundtrack of the decade; between the kids' chatterbox delivery and the booming of the music and special effects, much of the dialogue is inaudible.

Joe Dante was able to infuse "Gremlins," another product off the Spielberg assembly line, with some of his unique perversity, but if Donner has a personality as a director, it's not apparent here. According to rumor, Spielberg shot much of "The Goonies" when the production ran behind schedule, and from the signature opening sequence (which masterfully introduces each of the Goonies while a cops-and-robbers car chase skitters around them), the movie shows Spielberg's touch, the almost overwhelming compression of the storytelling, his skill with montage. "The Goonies" is a two-hour blur of three-second images, with the camera flitting up, down and around like a ping pong ball in a gale -- the Brothers Grimm for the video generation.

Columbus shamelessly despoils everything from Tom Sawyer to Martin Brest's first feature, "Hot Tomorrows"; there isn't an original idea in the script. The movie's only virtues are mechanical ones: Rube Goldberg contraptions, underground toboggan chutes, corpses falling out of freezers, skeletons just around the bend. Don't be surprised if you find a Goonies pavilion at Disneyland by Christmas. It's a masterpiece of production design (by J. Michael Riva), but to what end?

Columbus manages the large cast by giving each a readily identifiable hook, which he then plays with later in the story (Chunk's food lust, for example, keeps recurring). Only Martha Plimpton displays any resources as an actor; the kids themselves range from inoffensive (Astin) to aggressively cute (Cohen) to intolerable (Feldman), but mostly they're just fodder to drop through trap doors. They're not characters -- they're cartoon figures, so their continuous jeopardy just gives you a headache.

Which isn't surprising in a movie about kids this age -- there just isn't much to build a character from. "The Goonies" is a movie about kids fresh from elementary school, told from their point of view. "I feel like I'm babysitting but not getting paid," says Stef as she encounters yet another skeleton with the Goonies. Gee, Stef, funny you should feel that way.