Bale made his film debut as Tsarevich Alexei Nikolaevich of Russia in the made-for-television film Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna in 1986, which was followed by leading roles in the miniseries Heart of the Country and the fantasy adventure Mio in the Land of Faraway, in which he appeared for the first time with Christopher Lee and Nick Pickard.
In 1987, Amy Irving, his co-star in Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna, recommended Bale to her then-husband, Steven Spielberg, for a role in Empire of the Sun, adapted from the J.G. Ballard semi-autobiography. Bale’s performance as Jim Graham earned him widespread critical praise and the first ever “Best Performance by a Juvenile Actor” award from the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures. The attention the press and his schoolmates lavished upon him after this took a toll on Bale, and he contemplated giving up acting until Kenneth Branagh approached him and persuaded him to appear in Henry V in 1989. In 1990 he played the role of Jim Hawkins opposite Charlton Heston (as Long John Silver) in Treasure Island, an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic book.
In 1992, Bale starred as Jack Kelly in the Disney musical Newsies and also started filming Godmoney, but production ceased after funding for the film ran out three days into filming. The film was consequently abandoned until 5 years later. Christian Bale’s portrayal of the character Nathan can be found in the special features section of the Special Edition DVD under the title, “First 12 Minutes of Original Godmoney Filming Attempt”.
In 1993, there was another release, Swing Kids, a movie about teenagers who secretly listened to forbidden jazz during the rise of Nazi Germany. Bale was recommended by actress Winona Ryder to star in Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 film Little Women. The same year he appeared in a lead role in Gabriel Axel’s Prince of Jutland (later also known as Royal Deceit) with Gabriel Byrne and Helen Mirren. Bale provided the voice for Thomas, a young compatriot of Captain John Smith, in Disney’s Pocahontas (1995) and in 1996 he participated in two movies, The Portrait of a Lady with Nicole Kidman and The Secret Agent with Bob Hoskins and Patricia Arquette. In 1997 he played Chris in Metroland with Emily Watson, and in 1998 he acted as Arthur Stuart in Velvet Goldmine, Todd Haynes’ tribute to glam rock and as Robby Platt in All the little animals.