In 1989, Disney released a sci-fi comedy called “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” – the tale of a nerdy scientist who, well, shrinks his kids. Audiences had a pretty good idea what they were about to see from the title alone. Surprisingly, “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” turned out to be what was then Disney’s highest-grossing live-action film of all time (not adjusting for inflation). How could something so predictable be such a hit? Perhaps its invariability attracted audiences, rather than repelled them.
Rick Moranis was at the height of his popularity in 1989 – coming off recent star turns in “Little Shop of Horrors” and “Spaceballs” – when he made his appearance as Wayne Szalinski, the suburban family man perfecting a ray-gun shrinking machine in his attic. (And no, it wasn’t considered politically incorrect for the Ed Naha and Tom Schulman screenplay to give the nerdy wannabe scientist a Polish name.) This was a role Moranis was born to play; even if you didn’t know who he was, he certainly looked the part. Marcia Strassman played his long-suffering wife Diane, and the four poor shrunken kids were essentially unknowns.
Disney’s biggest expense with “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” was the special effects, which are admittedly convincing, given the low-budget sound of the title. The bottom line is the neighbor boy, Russ, accidentally hits a baseball through the Szalinski’s attic window, hitting the ray-gun prototype and causing it to engage, thereby shrinking Russ, his brother, and the two Szalinski kids to a size so small they can’t be found (or heard) in the tall grass of unmown lawn. Wayne and Diane return home and eventually piece together the events which have caused their children to disappear.
Lost in a suburban lawn
The bulk of the film concerns the teenagers’ adventures in a suburban lawn. Russ and Nick (the Szalinski boy) take a harrowing ride on a bumblebee, the four of them befriend an eager ant, and they all use their ingenuity against a scorpion. My favorite scene involves the cleverness required to escape a lawn mower. Again, the effects are strong, and the story is cute, but this is essentially a script I could have written in my sleep, given the unremarkable subject matter.
Inconsequential, but entertaining
I don’t dislike “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.” In fact, I find it stands up as one of those enjoyable ‘80s escapes (like “Back to the Future”) – instantly forgettable, but not one audience member would admit to not being thoroughly entertained. First-time director Joe Johnston never intended to change the world – merely to amuse. In that respect, “Honey I Shrunk the Kids” succeeds.
For Moranis’ best work, his very next picture was Ron Howard’s underrated “Parenthood,” released later in 1989. Moranis’ supporting role ranks as his most memorable (save perhaps for “Little Shop of Horrors”). Catch it whenever you can. It’s entertaining (like “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids”), but it’s also funnier, and at the same time, more consequential. With all Howard’s great work, “Parenthood” still stands as one of his finest.
Showing this weekend
As far as “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” is concerned, there’s no time like the present to relive the magic, and this is a film that works best with an audience. Watching it alone merely accentuates its absurdity. It happens to be showing this coming Friday and Saturday, January 19th and 20th, at the Historic Artcraft Theatre in downtown Franklin. It’s not the best you’ll ever see at the Artcraft, but you’re guaranteed to be thoroughly entertained.