Sunday, July 13, 2014

80s Revisited: Honey, I Shrunk the Kids

Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989)
Directed by Joe Johnston; screenplay by Ed Naha and Tom Schulman; produced by Penny Finkelman Cox.

This Disney flick just showed up on Netflix and I was enthusiastic to give it a re-watch. I don't remember the last time I saw it, but I'm sure I was in my teens. I was really excited about it as a kid, and I remember seeing it in the theater maybe twice in the summer of '89 (a summer which was dominated for me by Batman and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, but which had a lot of buried treasures in it). To be fair, I do remember that part of the reason I was so incredibly excited about it was that it had the first Roger Rabbit theatrical short, Tummy Trouble, attached to it.

Turns out I enjoyed the movie just as much in 2014 as I did in 1989, but from a different approach. In 1989, I loved it because I was 12 and special effects adventures were very much my thing. Let's be honest, they still are. But I loved it yesterday morning because it reminded me so much of being a 12 year-old who was excited about such things. Part of that is the special effects themselves, which are all outdated now, so they carry the charm of something older and handmade. When an ant fights a gigantic scorpion, the effects look like Ray Harryhausen. The big backyard sets which include the back of a giant Lego, kids hanging on to a bee in flight, a kid trying not to drown in his father's bowl of Cheerios; they're cheesy and fun and just quirky enough to be endearing. And the inventor's home... man, I'm a sucker for 80s movie homes with weird inventions all over the place.

What surprised me is that the movie refused to give in to its inherent quirky silliness and plays a lot of what happens pretty straight. Casting Rick Moranis--and god damn it, I miss Rick Moranis--and Matt Frewer as the two dads is pretty crucial, because they both add a lot of comic warmth to their roles. Though the movie itself and its effects are pretty clever and even witty, I attribute a certain lack of confidence in the characters to this being Joe Johnston's first movie as a director. He's a special effects guy--one of the original ILM guys who worked on the Star Wars trilogy--and the attention to the effects and the sets and the situation are top notch, but the characters can be a little flat, especially when the kids are trading one-liners. (Robert Oliveri, though, is pure gold.) But I also appreciate that the kids are genuinely worried about their situation; they're in an adventure movie, not a quirky comedy, even though the movie more or less acknowledges the silliness of the premise and occasionally has fun with it.

(Johnston's made some of my favorite adventure movies over the years--The Rocketeer, Jumanji, Jurassic Park III, and Captain America: The First Avenger.)

Another thing that struck me was the score. I have a troubled relationship with James Horner; he writes some great music, but mostly I just hear him repeating himself or outright ripping himself off. There are a lot of his usual go-to's in here, and I can even hear cues from a couple of his then-recent scores, like Willow and The Land Before Time. He also just blatantly uses Raymond Scott's "Powerhouse," which you've heard in a thousand Looney Tunes cartoons, and was threatened with a lawsuit over it which Disney had to settle out of court. He's also borrowing (or approximating) Nino Rota's score for Amarcord. And a LOT of Dave Grusin's The Goonies. The rest of the time, Horner sounds like he's doing a style parody of Danny Elfman, particularly the Pee Wee's Big Adventure score, to the point that I initially thought I had forgotten Elfman scored the movie before his credit came up. It's jazzy and bouncy and it works, but sometimes Horner's stuff can be distracting for precisely these reasons.

(Also, opening credits: I love it when the opening credits are a fun animated sequence.)

I just love that this story originated with Stuart Gordon and Brian Yuzna. Disney actually made a Stuart Gordon movie. That's crazy and wonderful. Ed Naha, one of the writers, used to write a lot for Starlog and Fangoria, so I kind of grew up on the guy. Crazily, I most often associate him with RoboCop. He wrote the RoboCop novelization, but the bizarre thing is, I never read it. So why does that linger in my mind so much? He also wrote the novelization for Ghostbusters II... which I also never read. And hey, he wrote the movie Troll, which was my first-ever 80s Revisited post back in 2008. I guess that means this is the last one I'll ever do.

(Note: this is not the last one I'll ever do.)

So, I really enjoyed Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, partly out of nostalgia, and partly because special effects adventure flicks with kids are just coded into my DNA because of when I grew up. (Come on, the kids make friends with a baby ant. That kind of thing just pleases me on some primal level.) Interesting how the dated quality actually helps it now. It could have used a little more gee whiz and a little more sadistic humor, but it's breezy and adventurous and I still dig it.


Jason said...

Funny, I was just thinking about this movie the other day. I was 19 when it came out and working as an usher at a theater, so I mostly remember it as the out-of-left-field hit that took us by surprise... lots and lots of kids and heavy lifting to clean the auditorium between shows. But I did manage to actually see the thing (or at least most of it) and remember being surprised at how enjoyable it was, even for a wanna-be-tough-and-cynical 19-year-old college student.

Nathan said...

I recently watched this one with Beth because she's had a bit of a revival of her childhood crush on Rick Moranis. I distinctly remember the first time I saw it being at the drive-in, though. I also remember my dad pointing out that, if the shrinking machine just removed empty space, the shrunken people should weigh the same as they did before.

SamuraiFrog said...

The shrinking machine is another one of those things I want to ask Neil deGrasse Tyson about.