Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Director Report Card: Joe Johnston (1989)

If you're reading this blog, you probably know who Joe Johnston is. However, the director is far from a household name. His directional style is not especially memorable and most of his films belong to the special-effects driven blockbuster genre, rarely a format that allows for great art. Which is fitting, considering he began his career as an Oscar-winning effects supervisor and Spielberg's protege.

Yet, for film nerds my age, Johnston is a secret architect of our childhood. The guy directed so many movies I grew up watching and loving. Moreover, most of Johnston's popcorn flicks are pretty good, his boys-adventure style finding solid footing in a number of entertaining motion pictures. So let's indulge a little nostalgia as I watch my way through his films. (Plus, a few of the franchises he started.)

1. Honey, I Shrunk the Kids

In the late eighties, Stuart Gordon and Brian Yunza would bring a script called “Teeny Weenies” to Disney. Gordon and Yunza, of course, were best known for gory, kinky horror movies like “Re-Animator” and “From Beyond.” Not exactly the kind of content you associate with the Mouse Factory but I guess Gordon and Yunza wanted to branch out. Gordon had originally intended to direct but became sick just as filming was about to begin. Brought in as the last minute replacement was Joe Johnston, making his official switch from special effects to directing. After realizing “Teeny Weenies” was a terrible title, Disney changed the name to the generic “Grounded” and non-descriptive “The Big Backyard.” Eventually, the studio touched upon the grammatically incorrect but nevertheless catchy “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.”

Wayne Szalinski is an absent-minded scientist. His latest obsession is with a shrinking ray, which he hopes to sell to NASA and other industries that would prosper from the ability to shrink large loads. Yet his fixation on getting the device to work is causing trouble with his wife, real estate agent Diane. Their schism leaves the two kids, teenager Amy and nerdy youngster Nick, home alone for a day. A mishap with the neighboring kids causes a baseball to fly into Wayne's lab, accidentally activating the laser. Amy, Nick, and the neighbors' kids – Russ and Ron – end up getting zapped by the beam. Now shrunk down to the size of ants, the kids have to survive the dangers of their now super-sized house and backyard.

Beyond wanting to expand their talents into the lucrative kids market, there's another likely reason Stuart Gordon and Brian Yunza came up with “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.” Since both have displayed a love of classic sci-fi films in their work, one can presume that both were fans of “The Incredible Shrinking Man.” Though not very many attempts have been made, the shrinking movie a premise with a fairly evergreen appeal. “Fantastic Voyage,” “Innerspace,” and “Ant-Man” have all proven that. The idea of the world around us remaining the same but made into a massive metropolis by us getting smaller is a fascinating one. “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” certainly takes advantage of that. Here, the backyard becomes a massive jungle. Bugs become giants, oatmeal cookies become a feast, puddles and raindrops are deadly obstacles. It's an interesting premise with a lot of potential.

Whatever pulpy appeal the premise had, “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” is also very eager to conform to kids movie cliches. (I want to blame that one on Disney, Johnston, and screenwriter Ed Naha and Tim Schulman but Gordon/Yunza are both more than capable of following stereotypes.) This is another kid's movie about workaholic parents that need to spend more time with their kids. Wayne is fixated on perfecting his invention. Sue is working so hard, that she's away from the house for long periods of time. Neither seem to have time for their offspring. After coming close to loosing them to the mircoverse, that will change. I don't know why but this story type was endemic to kids movie of the decade of my youth.

Beyond that, “Honey, I Shrunk the kids” has an even more general moral that you often see in kid's movies. The Szalinski kids do not have the best relationship with their next door neighbors. Nick is a nerd and Ron is a jock that loves baseball and fishing. He actively bullies the smaller kid a few times throughout the film's early half. Russ Jr., meanwhile, has a crush on Amy the minute he sees her. However, she only has eyes for some other boy, who is kept off-screen. Throughout their adventure, all four kids will open their eyes to these new buddies. Ron and Nick work through their differences, learn to appreciate each other's skills, and become friends. Amy and Russ, meanwhile, develop a romance after he proves his bravery to her. This is the sort of wholesome message – overcome your difference and don't judge books by their covers – you also saw in a ton of kiddie movies at the time.

Yet none of these points really get at why “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” is a cool little movie. It's easy to see why Joe Johnston was both interested in and allowed to make this movie. The film is essentially an extended special effects reel. The film is an impressive achievement in production design, special photography effects, and advanced puppetry. Massive sets make the floor of an attic or the backyard into exotic locations. The dust in the cracks in the boards, the huge pollen in a flower, and the towering blades of grass are all highly memorable images. The film brilliantly blends effects, such as the way a kid leaps over a giant nail that probably wasn't there to begin with. The special effects in “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” hold up surprisingly well specifically because it depends on physical effects that never really age.

And when the effects have aged, they remain charming. “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” especially delights in giant insects. (Or, more accurately, insects that are normal sized but rendered giant by perspective.) When not brought to life with elaborate puppets, the big bugs are created with ever-charming stop motion effects. A really fun scene involves a bee swooping up some of the kids, buzzing them around the yard. Along the way, the gang befriends an ant. Dubbed Antty, he becomes their steed and pet. The way the ant squeaks at the kids, refusing to leave when pushed away, makes him surprisingly adorable. Antty even gives his life, protecting the kids from an also vividly brought-to-life scorpion. Johnston shows his inner monster kid by paying homage to “The Black Scoprion” in these scenes. Moreover, Antty's death is genuinely a tear-jerker. He was a good little buddy.

Another thing to like about “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” is, despite a wacky new invention starting the story's troubles, it's not another anti-science fable. In fact, the film embraces invention. Nick is just as creative as his dad, creating a pretty cool remote controlled lawn mower and a convincing miniature version of the shrink ray. After everyone is returned to normal, the family is eager to keep inventing and studying, using the size-changing ray to make their lives better. And just from a coolness factor, the device looks really beat. The shrink ray is a fantastically rough-hewn device, exposed cables everywhere. The magnifying helmet Wayne wears is another classic too.

For a family film from the late eighties, “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” is consistently amusing. Most of the jokes land, the literally oversized sight gags being solidly delivered. Like the particular way the gang leads Antty along or the way they fashion a bed out of a massive Lego brick. There are other funny jokes too, such as the neighbors' bemused reaction to a pair of apathetic cops. Yet some of the jokes become too aggressively wacky. Like a misbegotten sequence where Wayne spins around in a hammock and is eventually tossed through the air, a moment of overdone physical slapstick that really doesn't seem to belong in the movie.

A talented cast ties the film together. The four kids that star in the film are never mugging or obnoxious. Amy O'Neill is likable as Amy, who nicely straddles the line between being a girly teen and a more grounded person with practical concerns. Robert Oliveri as Nick is sweet as a super nerdy kid. While Oliveri's delivery can sometimes be a little goofy, you get the impression that this type of character lines up with his own personality. Jared Rushton, as Ron, is enjoyably hammy as a rowdy kid that is perhaps overconfident. Lastly, Thomas Wilson Brown projects a wholesome heart as Russ Jr., a teen struggling to figure out who he is.

“Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” was made during that funny time when meek-seeming Rick Moranis could be considered a genuine box office draw. Of course, a quiet and exceedingly nerdy guy like Wayne Szalinski is comfortably within Moranis' wheelhouse. I like the excitement Moranis brings to the character's interest in science and the sweetly dissolving tension he has with his wife. Speaking of which, Marcia Strassman is pure sweetness and suburban-mom-charm as Diane Szalinski. Matt Frewer is a delightful contrast to the geeky Wayne, playing a glorified redneck dad with his typical eccentric energy. I also couldn't help but notice Kristine Sutherland – otherwise known as Buffy's mom – as Frewer's wife.

Nostalgia may be coding my enjoyment of “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.” The film unquestionably makes me think of my childhood. It has a feeling and atmosphere that is hard to pin down but immediately identifiable as coming from the late eighties or early nineties. James Horner's score is light-hearted, whimsical, and frequently heavy on comedic melodies. I can't exactly tell you why this music is so indicative to this time and place but it definitely is, perhaps if only because so many other family movies sounded this way. “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” also has an animated opening credits sequence, another hallmark of the day. And it's a fun one too, showing cartoon kids being attacked by everyone objects – a record player, an oscillating fan – turned deadly by their shift in size.

It's hard to say if Disney had much confidence in “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.” The film was packaged theatrically with the Roger Rabbit short, “Tummy Trouble,” suggesting an extra incentive was needed to get people into the theaters. It was released the same weekend as “Batman,” a pop culture juggernaut that would dominate the entire summer. Despite that, or maybe because it was positioned as counter-programming, the film turned into a surprise hit. Grossing 222 million, the film would remain Disney's highest grossing live action production for quite a few years. An entertaining family film, it would establish Joe Johnston style as a director: A fantastic utilization of special effects and a tone of fun, nostalgic adventure. [Grade: B]

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