Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989)
My daughter is afraid of bugs. Period. She can admire them from afar, but let a fly loose in the house, she’s either freaking out or arming herself with a swatter and as Bela Lugosi once said…”hunting.” Even butterflies aren’t her cup of tea, although I’ve made it clear that they have diplomatic immunity and are NOT to be touched. So you can imagine my trepidation, then utter surprise at her approval of Anty, the alternately creepy and sweet baby ant that helps our protagonists on their incredible journey. “He’s so cute!” she squealed. Of course, I’m pleased that she’s enjoying a film I watched countless times as a child myself, but I knew what was coming. It’s been seared into my brain by the branding iron of traumatic 80’s kids movies. I haven’t forgotten how it ends for poor Anty. Such is life inside the dangerous tiny jungle where four kids find themselves lost in Joe Johnston’s feature debut, the mega-hit Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989).
Alice in Wonderland, both the 1951 Disney animated film and the terrifying 1985 TV movie, may have been the first time I became aware of the concept of shrinking. It’s a truly scary scenario. Imagine the world you’ve always felt comfortable in becoming a non-stop barrage of life-threatening obstacles. Right off the bat, creating a live-action version of tiny objects that appear huge is a daunting challenge, but fortunately, the studio behind this unexpected box office draw was the powerful Walt Disney Company. Although the budget was only 18 million, they threw their weight behind the film’s deliriously rich concept and the results are mostly jaw-dropping. Sure, the CGI effects, particularly some early green screen bits where you can clearly see the outline, are a little rough, but the practical’s are spectacular. These sets are not only fantastically realized, the attention to detail is impressive as well. Of course, effects can only go so far to elevate a film, so it’s a good thing the film is full of likable characters and a built-in interest in the ultimate fate of our four young protagonists.
Nowadays, there’s no shortage of films that finish with elaborate animated end credits. They’re often very cool and sometimes even rival the film that preceded them. I remember there being a glut of animated opening credits around the late 80’s and early 90’s, including those of City Slickers and Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead, both released in 1991. Troop Beverly Hills also had one and it came out in 1989 as well. The Roger Rabbit short “Tummy Trouble” played in the theatre beforehand, but then the credits rolled and it may be the most impressive one I’ve seen in a while. Not only is it very complex and unpredictable, but all of the credits turn up in clever places, rather than a simple cartoon playing while printed text appears over it. It comes as no surprise that Shrunk and Troop’s very impressive animation was designed by Kroyer Films, who had a breakout year in ’89.
Accompanying the credits is the antic and very popular opening piece by James Horner. Only, is it really? I wasn’t very familiar with Raymond Scott’s “Powerhouse,” so I gave it a listen. Yeah, the Scott estate had a right to sue. This is a very popular piece of music that’s often used in film trailers. James Horner is a brilliant composer, so once you ignore the ugly legal matter regarding the opening music, the rest of the score is exciting and spot-on.
The wacky inventor is a movie trope that can be played all wrong if not done properly. Dr. Emmett Brown may be the gold standard, but Rick Moranis’ Wayne Szalinski gives Doc Brown a good run for his money. Although I think Martin Short, originally cast as Wayne, is brilliant, Moranis was the right choice for the role. If you’ve seen his work on SCTV, you know how unbelievably versatile he is. The problem is, Hollywood always insists on ‘typing’ people and it’s quite hard to break out of that mold once the studios have decided what kind of person you must portray onscreen. It’s strange. I don’t often think about Rick Moranis and I don’t even necessarily miss him, and yet when I think about the films he made before his self-imposed retirement, they’re absolute classics. Certainly Spaceballs (1987) is phenomenal, “Smoke if you got ‘em,” but there’s also iconic work in Ghostbusters (1984) and Little Shop of Horrors (1986). As Wayne, Moranis grounds the character and plays him as a driven and absent-minded professor type while also being aware that family comes first. The depiction of a family on the rocks is subtle here, with the film informing us that the mother, Diane (Marcia Strassman) did not sleep at home last night. It’s very telling when Wayne assures Diane that if he can sell the idea for his shrinking machine, they’ll be able to be a family again.
I’ve stated before that there’s an art to acting in a children’s film and the entire cast acquits themselves very well. There isn’t a weak link in the entire chain. The performers are helped in no small part by the joyfully silly production design, which is appropriately kooky for the Szalinski household and rustic for next door neighbors The Thompsons, who are constantly having to weather the brunt of Szalinski’s loud experiments. The Szalinski’s adorable little wire-haired terrier, Quark, snatches the mail and delivers it right into the house, where we meet two of our four child stars. There’s pretty and popular Amy (Amy O’Neill), who never comes off as a brat or a snob despite her stereotypical social life, and Nick (Robert Olivieri, also Kevin in Edward Scissorhands, 1990), a brainiac who’s a chip off the old block.
Next door, The Thompsons are getting ready for their annual fishing trip. They’re not exactly roughing it as Big Russ (the amazing Matt Frewer, also known as Panic, Moloch, and of course, Max Headroom) is packing everything but the kitchen sink. His wife, Mae (Kristine Sutherland, better known as Buffy Summers’ mother) is the voice of reason and remains ever-patient with Russ’ ridiculously high standards. Perhaps the reason they’re trying to get away is that the neighborhood is a war zone since their son Ron (legendary child actor Jared Rushton, whose unbelievable credits include Lady in White, Overboard, Big, and that asshole bully from Pet Sematary II) has booby trapped the backyard. Big Russ gets an arrow to the head for his trouble, which is thankfully rubber but also smeared with super glue. Mae cleans him up, warning he’s “wiping away brain cells and there aren’t too many to begin with.” Big Russ is already aggravated since Little Russ (Thomas Wilson Brown, Silverado) got cut from the football team for being too small.
There’s a bit of a heavy-handed theme going on here about size not mattering and Little Russ can do anything if he works hard. In this case, it’s lifting the weights Big Russ provides but can’t lift himself. He tells Little Russ that his coach put me on these “babies,” and for a minute, I honestly thought he was going to pull out some steroids. A recurring joke about the opposing families calling each other “weird” runs throughout the film. Big Russ thinks of himself as a man of the world, even passing along some sage advice: The early worm catches the fish.
For 1989, the literal computer effects are pretty nifty. When I say computer effects, I mean the images that come up on the screen for Wayne’s ray as he attempts to shrink an apple. It doesn’t go well and he blows up the apple. Quark licks the applesauce off Wayne’s face as he sits on his thinking couch, distraught. Quark has got it made, by the way, since he has his own elaborate treat dispenser.
Nick is told to mow the lawn while Wayne goes to his conference, but Nick has more important things to think about, so he enlists a local kid, Tommy (Carl Steven, young Spock in Star Trek III and a tragic case of a child actor who went downhill) to do his chores. Tommy can’t do it right now, but he’s excited to get to it since the lawnmower is a tricked out remote-controlled doohickey that looks like a lot of fun. We see that Nick and Ron don’t get along since Ron, looking for someone to play baseball with, tells Nick, “You could be the base,” to which Nick replies, “Maybe you could be the mound.” Sick burn?
Little Russ glimpses Amy dancing with a mop while she cleans the kitchen. I guess she was a fan of The New Adventures of Pippi Longstocking (1988) too. To this day, I can’t clean anything unless it’s accompanied by a musical number. My marriage is...fine, thanks. Anyways, check out the little TV Russ is carrying. It’s pretty cool! He sees Amy and definitely has a thing for her, but he’s shy.
For some insane reason, Ron is practicing his swing in the backyard, but these yards are so tiny that when he connects, he hits the baseball right through Szalinki’s window, activating the shrink ray. I’m sorry, I just don’t get where he expected the ball to go if he tried to hit it as hard as he could. If he didn’t hit a house, he’d have definitely lost it pretty quick. Regardless, Little Russ takes Ron next door to apologize and get the ball. Ron is a little prick and says the window “shouldn’t have been closed in the first place! It’s a nice day!” Nick takes Ron upstairs to get the ball while Russ and Amy share a sweetly awkward meet-cute. Rushton is a jerk in this movie but he is hysterical, asking Nick if his dad is “still in contact with his home planet.” You know what’s going to happen next. They step into the attic and ZAP! The baseball fixed the problem and when Amy and Little Russ come up to check on the boys, they too are shrunk. Now we get to the real selling point of the film. Ron says they’re “the size of boogers!” Ew. I can’t praise the sets enough here along with the striking cinematography by Hiro Narita, who specialized in creating a sense of wonder with films like Never Cry Wolf, Hocus Pocus, and Star Trek VI. The fish eye lens photography of a gigantic world creates a scary and daunting problem for the kids.
After a terrible time at the conference, where Robert Altman regular Craig Richard Nelson chastises Wayne for wasting their time, he returns home to find his thinking couch missing. Taking out his frustrations on the machine he’s worked on for 5 years, he smashes the hell out of it. Moranis is such a sweet guy that it does come off as a little extreme, but he immediately cleans up his mess, inadvertently throwing the kids out with the trash. Sadly, nowadays we get excited when a movie touts its predominate use of practical effects since CGI has dominated the industry thanks to its relative cheapness. Here, we see the gigantic, pipe-size strands on the broom shoving the kids into a dustpan as they cling for dear life.
The trash is taken to edge of the yard, which Nick calculates is 3.2 miles away from their house, based on their size. He drolly comments, “That’s a long way...even for a man of science.” The banter between the kids is amusing. When Ron insists he’s going home for the big fishing trip, Amy asks how he’s going, “as bait?”
I can proudly say that I did indeed see the Honey, I Shrunk the Audience show in the mid-90's. My memory is fuzzy, but I remember being amazed by the 3D and the fact that the seats moved (up to FOUR INCHES) blew my mind. In the film, the giant blades of grass create the impression of a vast jungle. As they traverse this unfamiliar terrain, we get a variety of clever and kid-friendly touches. How to get down to the ground? Slide down a blade of grass, of course. A tiny plastic dinosaur looms large as they pass. A razor thin stream of dirt looks like a mucky, impassable river to them, complete with a dead bug. When it’s suggested they try to cross, Nick says, “Have a ball, baby.” It’s been over 30 years since I’ve seen this film, and I finally caught this line. It’s not an important line, I just literally never understood the words Nick had said. And hey, his name is Nick. You know I’m going to pay attention to what he says
A major action scene takes place when they climb up a tall flower to get a better look at the yard. The film may be abdicating for proper lawn care since the kids have a devil of a time getting home. While climbing, Nick falls into a flower and lands smack dab in a pile of pollen. I used to have no problems with allergies. Now, allergy season is a gauntlet of punishment only alleviated by the constant use of Zyrtec, Claritin, and nasal spray. So Nick falling into a huge mound of pollen is a nightmare scenario for me. Way worse than what actually happens to him, since a swarm of bees arrive and one of them takes Nick and Little Russ on an epic flight. The integration of live action and a digital/stop-motion bee is actually pretty smooth. Let’s not forget, Joe Johnston was part of the Oscar-winning effects team on Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Check out the clip of Joe Johnston and the rest of the group accepting their Oscars. He looks like he’s twelve.
The group gets separated. There’s a widely-held belief that kids films from the 80’s were better than most movies that came after. The main reason for this is the simple fact that several of the best 80’s kids movies don’t sugarcoat their more adult-themed moments and there’s a sense of realism and even consequence to dangerous situations. Honey, I Shrunk the Kids isn’t the greatest example of this belief; The Goonies, The Neverending Story, The Dark Crystal, and Return to Oz are just a few of the many films made with children or very young adults in mind that delve into some pretty frightening scenarios. Still, when Nick and Little Russ get away from the bee, they’re pretty banged up. They’ve got bloody wounds. It’s not graphic, but other films may have just thrown a little dirt on the boys and called it a day. Johnston and his team find a delicate balance between making the action swift and wondrous but also keeping the audience on edge, worrying about the kids’ safety.
Meanwhile, Amy and Ron fight like cats and dogs. Ron says he hopes her “face ends up on a milk carton.” She tells him after they get rescued, they’ll be rich thanks to the invention, so Ron changes his tone pretty quick. “I’ve always liked your family! I love you, and Nick, he’s like another brother to me!”
Wayne figures out what happened to the kids thanks to the discovery of his tiny thinking couch and the movie becomes one wacky hijink after another as he has to figure out a way to scour the yard without accidentally stepping on them. Both Moranis and Frewer are great at the slapstick in the film. Wayne accidentally turns on the sprinklers and massive water droplets crash down around the kids. When the drops explode onto the ground, they appear thick and even a bit viscous, likely due to the actual substance used to create them. Another intense scene arrives when Amy nearly drowns in a pit of mud and has to be resuscitated by Little Russ. Nick keeps repeating, “don’t die,” under his breath.
The Thompsons finally realize something is definitely wrong since the kids are nowhere to be found, but remember, there are no amber alerts at this point. Big Russ’ buddy Don (Mark Taylor, a prolific character actor, often playing doctors or fussy types) and his wife Gloria (wonderfully funny Kimmy Robertson, only a year away from being immortalized on Twin Peaks) arrive for the trip. Don and Russ have a special fishing handshake and that makes it all the more tough for Russ, who chickens out of telling the truth and blames their trip cancellation not on missing children, but on his wife’s “plumbing.” Yikes. Plus, he’s out EIGHTY BUCKS! NON-REFUNDABLE! And just to pile it on, the relationship between Don and Gloria seems fraught and I worry for Gloria’s safety being all alone with Don. I haven’t seen all of the sequels, but I’m hoping she wasn’t murdered and dumped in the lake.
In one of my favorite scenes, the kids are very hungry, with one of them describing a corn dog the size of a truck, which is what it would look like to them right now anyways. They come upon a piece of an oatmeal cream cookie, which are Nick’s favorites. As someone with a sweet tooth and an appreciation for those delicious treats, they’re a favorite on road trips since every gas station has them, my mouth watered at the prospect of an enormous cookie and a near-endless supply of frosting. A lone ant spoils the party and scares them off, but after Nick explains how ants can lift fifty times their own weight, “that’s like bench pressing a bulldozer!”, they try to use the ant as transportation. Anty, as he’ll come to be known, is an adorable live-action creation mixed with a few effective stop-motion shots. These kids try to ride and tame him and it’s satisfying to see them interacting with a real thing. Eventually, Anty is coaxed into pulling them along thanks to the sweet treat of a cookie crumble. Night falls and they make their way across the yard, stopping to sleep at a discarded Lego, which was likely a lot easier to get the rights to use back then but probably impossible now.
Wayne tells Diane the truth, she faints, and after an awkward scene with a couple of cops (one of whom is played by Laura Waterbury of Better off Dead... and Mac & Me fame), the Szalinski’s decide to tell the Thompsons about the kids. We get four fine actors together in one scene and there’s a ton of great dialogue including Russ calling Wayne “a waste of skin,” and another amusing exchange between the two: “This is a microscope.” “I know!” The Thompsons question how the kids could be shrunk if the apples kept exploding, to which Wayne explains that it’s not possible since “there’d be pieces of them everywhere!” The Thompsons leave without believing a word and Big Russ enjoys a forbidden cigarette before flicking it into the Szalinski’s yard. There’s a huge explosion and the kids end up using the still-lit cigarette to light their way.
Now we get to the dreaded moment I referenced earlier. If the scene weren’t heartbreaking, it would just come off as an action beat, but thanks to the sweetness of the kid's relationship with Anty, it’s pretty upsetting. I’ll admit that it’s incredibly silly and hypocritical to feel bad for a tiny, insignificant ant considering how many I’ve likely stepped on throughout my life, but he was their friend. A scorpion shows up out of nowhere and attacks the kids. It’s quite a creation and its unnatural movements recall the ED-209 killing machine from Robocop (1987). A quick Google search indicates that although it’s unlikely based off of where we presume they live, it’s still possible a scorpion could have been lurking somewhere in the yard. Anty valiantly tries to save them and in a cruel and somewhat graphic fashion, the scary and nasty scorpion brings its stinger down hard on Anty. The kids fight back and although it would’ve been fine for them to kill the scorpion, who is a fearsome enemy, it’s also realistic that they’d only be able to drive it off. As Anty lays dying, Ron tries to comfort him. The camera pulls back on the somber scene. I assure you that neither I, nor my brave daughter cried, but it’s still legitimately tragic. I’m reminded of Werner Herzog’s quote from his amazing 2005 documentary Grizzly Man: “I believe the common denominator of the universe is not harmony; but chaos, hostility and murder.” The filmmakers are essentially having it both ways by showing a real loss of life but not the actual death of a main character. This is what’s meant by films of this era being a little or even a lot darker than the films of the last several years. I’ll go out on a limb and say Anty didn’t even deserve to die. They could have simply been separated, but the film wants to make it clear that this is a harsh and unfair world. The only comfort that can be taken is that Disney Hollywood Studios would immortalize little Anty by creating a full-size model for children to ride on the Honey I Shrunk The Kids Movie Set Adventure Walk-Through.
Welp, that little shit Tommy shows up a day late to mow the lawn and didn’t even bring Nick the cookies he promised to pay him with. I do find that to be a little sketchy that Nick wants Tommy to pay him to mow the lawn, but fine. Whatever. “Trailer moment” alert! “Earthquake!” “No worse! Lawnmower!” The kids try to find refuge in an earthworm’s tunnel but Nick is nearly sucked out through the hole. These guys really are put through the ringer. Wayne and Diane get Tommy to go home while the kids grab Quark’s fur to catch a ride into the house. The Thompson’s asshole cat tries to intimidate Quark, but he finds his confidence, even though he isn’t a “big dog.” See what’s happening here?
We get some big “trailer moment” feels here as the iconic ‘Cheerios scene’ plays out. In a bit that really feels as if it were written directly for the preview trailer, Wayne ponders about the dangers the group has to face. We get the famous shot of the kids running onto the breakfast table off of Quark’s nose and then Nick falls into the cereal. This must’ve been a tough one to shoot and the giant Cheerios are pretty wild looking. And then the truly infamous shot of Rick Moranis nearly eating his kid while he splashes in the spoonful of milk and cereal. Thank goodness Quark is super smart. He bites Wayne at the last second and he sees Nick. All is well.
The film adds a dash of realism by having Russ question whether Wayne will kill the kids, so he volunteers to be the guinea pig for the repaired shrink ray. It’s pretty brave and although it works, he seems to be slightly smaller than he was before. The kids are zapped back to normal and Little Russ reconciles with Big Russ. We get a cute final scene where the families are feasting on an over-sized turkey and Quark nibbles on a giant dog treat.
Joe Johnston has always been a favorite filmmaker of mine and I feel a director who’s underappreciated. He was a major part of the Spielberg/Lucas crew for years and worked on a ton of great projects in various positions. It’s still very unfortunate that his follow-up, 1991’s The Rocketeer, wasn’t the runaway hit Disney was expecting. It’s a fabulously entertaining film and Johnston’s ability to instill a sense of wonder, likely learned at the feet of his mentor, Steven Spielberg, was on full display there. He’s taken his time between projects, but his output, which includes Jumanji, October Sky, the live-action sequences in The Pagemaster (remember that movie?), and Hidalgo are all admirable pieces of work. It’s even arguable that Jurassic Park III is better than The Lost World. I felt it was a stroke of genius for Marvel to hire Johnston to helm the first Captain America (2011) movie. To have the director of The Rocketeer make a movie about the most patriotic hero of them all was quite brilliant. Even though the Russo Brothers would smartly take Cap in a darker, more intriguing direction, Johnston did lay the groundwork. Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the fact that he wasn’t even the original director of this kid-friendly film.
No, the wildly talented Stuart Gordon was all set to go mainstream with this one. Of course, this wasn’t the only time the horror master had come close to going the big studio route. If you knew who Stuart Gordon, and to a slightly lesser extent, who producer Brian Yuzna was when this film came out, your mind was likely blown. What are the creators of From Beyond, Dolls, and of course, the classic Re-Animator doing on a Disney Studio production? They, along with prolific writer Ed Naha (who doesn’t want to admit that he wrote the ridiculous Bud the Chud) conceived the story and Gordon was all set to direct until he fell ill, prompting Johnston to step in as a replacement. Looking at the work he did later on The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit (1998), Gordon had the ability to do family comedy. The other most famous what-if is his production of Fortress (1992), which was very nearly a 60-million-dollar feature starring Arnold Schwarzenegger thanks to Ah-nuld's appreciation for Re-Animator. Alas, it was not meant to be and it became a much lower-budgeted affair starring Christopher Lambert. We lost Stuart Gordon in early 2020 and I feel proud that I rented many of his lesser-known films from Blockbuster, including Dagon, Stuck, and King of the Ants. I even finagled a copy of The Pit and Pendulum from a young lady I was dating. I realized pretty quick that we weren’t going to be “drift compatible,” as it were, but I was able to make a copy of his little-seen Poe adaptation before we broke up. What’s most impressive was his ability to adapt the notoriously difficult works of H.P. Lovecraft. No other filmmaker has come close to achieving what Gordon achieved in his Lovecraft films. He remains the premier interpreter of that author’s twisted vision. I remained a loyal fan all the way up until his death and he’ll be sorely missed.
What makes Honey, I Shrunk the Kids work is its refusal to pander to the audience. Yes, it’s silly and somewhat over-the-top, but it never shies away from the life-threatening dangers of being shrunken down and cast off into an unknown land. It’s surprisingly stood the test of time and remains an enduring family film that will be enjoyed by many generations to come.