Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
"LAST OF THE MONSTER KIDS" - Available Now on the Amazon Kindle Marketplace!

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

NO ENCORES: Honey, We Shrunk Ourselves (1997)

1. Honey, We Shrunk Ourselves
Director: Dean Cundey

As a cinematographer, Dean Cundey has had a long-running and very successful career. He started out working on low budget films like “The Witch Who Came from the Sea” or “The Human Tornado,” before being John Carpenter's D.P. on “Halloween.” He would go on to work on many of Carpenter's eighties classic before becoming Robert Zemeckis' cinematographer of choice, starting with “Romancing the Stone.” In 1993, Cundey would cement his status as one of the top names in his field after Spielberg picked him as Director of Photography on “Jurassic Park.” You'd think having a resume with huge blockbusters like that on it (not to mention “Roger Rabbit,” the “Back to the Future” series or “The Thing”) would make it easy for Cundey to transfer to directing. Yet his sole directorial credit remains 1997's “Honey, We Shrunk Ourselves.”

In the mid-nineties, Disney was making a killing releasing direct-to-video sequels to their beloved animated films. The video market was flourishing at the time and the Mouse Factory was obviously very willing to take advantage of that. The films, much more cheaply produced than their theatrical counterparts, could capitalize on world-famous titles for maximum profits. Most of these DTV spin-offs were animated though. “Honey, We Shrunk Ourselves” was conceived as a theatrical release but, seeing the success their video sector was having, Disney decided to pivot the film in that direction, making it the first live action direct-to-video sequel the studio would release. (That “Honey, I Blew Up the Kid” grossed considerably less than the original at the box office probably contributed to this idea as well.) A team of screenwriters, including “Mystery Science Theater 3000's” Joel Hodgeson, were brought into re-write the script for the now smaller budget. I don't know how or why Cundey would end up in the director's chair, considering he had nothing to do with the previous installments.

Eight years have passed since Wayne Szalinski blew up the baby. In that time, Nick and Amy have moved away form home, leaving now ten-year-old Adam as the only kid in the house. Wayne has opened a successful inventions lab with his previously unmentioned brother, Gordon. Their over-worked wives, Diane and Patti, are going on a weekend vacation, leaving the men to babysit the kids: Adam and Gordon's children, Jenny and Mitch. While the kids are out of the house, Wayne and Gordon start messing around with his shrink ray, which is being prepared to be inducted into the Smithsonian. The two men are shrunk and their wives, through a convoluted series of events, are soon microsized as well. Now the parents have to navigate the house while their kids run amok around them.

While the animated films of the Disney Renaissance were gorgeous, visually splendid experiences, the direct-to-video follow-ups were cheaply produced, usually with unimpressive animation on par with Disney's television productions. Considering that same formula is being applied here to a special effects-heavy series, it's not surprising that “Honey, We Shrunk Ourselves” looks extremely cheap. But you would think Dean Cundey, an obviously talented cinematographer, would at least try to make the film look less cut-rate. The film is comparable to the TV movies that would soon be flooding the Disney Channel. The direction is flat, the colors are washed-out. There's even a TV style wipe transition in one scene. Cundey was not his own D.P., passing that title to Raymond Stella, a camera operator making his cinematography debut here. Stella, unsurprisingly, has mostly worked in TV and low-budget genre films since.

It's also no surprise that this cheap quality extends to the special effects. There are a number of key effect sequences in the film. The Szalinski parents use a fishing lure to repel out a window. They ride in a Hot Wheels car on an elaborate track and end up sailing down the laundry shoot. A bubble-blowing machine is awkwardly introduced into the story strictly so the characters can ride around in bubbles. While interesting conceptually, none of these sequences are convincingly realized. More often than not, they are reduced to the actors waving their arms around in front of an obvious green screen. The Hot Wheels scene, which goes on for far too long, is especially guilty of this. The scenes involving giant insects – such as a massive cockroach attack or the appearance of a friendly Daddy Long Legs – do not have the realism of the big bug scenes in the original.

I would be able to forgive the movie's unimpressive special effects or even its flat direction if the script was actually funny or clever. Sadly, it is not. The film's characters feel disconnected from those of the original. This version of Diane Szalinski is much bitchier than the one that previously existed. She constantly nags Wayne and seems more annoyed by his inventions than supportive of them. Wayne, meanwhile, is a far goofier character. He has a newfound fascination with what he calls a “Tiki Man,” a seven foot tall tribal statue that is a serious strain on their marriage. This is an actual plot point that drives much of the movie's story. And that he'd be willing to be so cavalier with the shrink ray, after what happened the last time he used it, strikes me as unlikely. Wayne was always eccentric but he's never been this childish before.

The writing in “Honey, We Shrunk Ourselves” is fairly shitty in general. The movie gratuitously sets up everything that happens throughout in its first act. The first appearance of the Daddy Long Legs, a wedge being used to keep a car in place, Mitch having some sort of potassium defiance he must take medication for, are all gratuitously set-up. Many contrived story turns are made to ensure the story can operate the way it does. The moms coming back at the time they do, their car sliding out of view so the kids don't notice, the kids being out-of-the-house just as their parents are shrunk: All of these are unlikely events that happen strictly so the titular incident can occur.

The relationship between the kids and the parents are really hacky too. Adam wants to get into baseball, which is hard for his nerdy dad to understand. In the course of the story, Jenny invites an older boy to her improvised party. Later, she ends up rejecting his asshole advances. It's all very hamfisted and uninspired. I'm not really blaming Joel Hodgeson for this or even his co-writer Nell Scovell, who has also collaborated with Joel on a few other projects. (The wacky inventions in the film, like a device that translate dog's bark or a failed attempt to make road construction workers glow at night, are the only elements that feel like Joel's work.) Writer Karey Kirkpatrick, whose IMDb page includes a number of forgettable kid's movies, probably is more responsible for this lackluster stuff.

As of this writing, “Honey, We Shrunk Ourselves” is Rick Moranis' final live action credit. He would go into semi-retirement to focus on rising his kids. You can see Moranis straining to save the dire material, trying to get some wacky laughs out of this. Stuart Pankin, as Wayne's brother Gordon, tries a similar approach but lacks Moranis' affability so it just comes off as ugly mugging. Eve Gordon plays Diane Szalinski in a very shrewish manner, lacking the sweetness that Marcia Strassman brought to the part. Of the parents, Robin Bartlett as Patti is probably the best. Bartlett actually brings a mildly amusing edge to some of her lines. Granted, this is not saying much but it counts for something in a weak film like this.

Let's talk about the kids. Bug Hall plays Adam. Hall's child star career would have him playing iconic characters like Alfafa, Eddie Munster, and, uh, Buster Stupid. Despite that, Hall does not strike the viewer as the most appealing performer here. It's probably because Adam is written as a fairly snotty and annoying character. (You would also think that time he rampage through Las Vegas as a toddler would come up more often than it does...) Jake Richardson as Mitch has a similar problem. He might be a decent actor but it's hard to tell here. Future “Smallville” star/sex cult trafficker Allison Mack plays Jenny. Mack shows a molecule of charisma in a badly written part that leans very heavily on snarky teen girl stereotypes. Mila Kunis has a bit part as one of her friends, by the way.

The “Honey” franchise would continue pass this point, though in unexpected ways. A pretty cool immersive attraction called “Honey, I Shrunk the Audience!” would play at Disneyland until 2010. A television series spin-off debuted the same year as this film and ran for three seasons. (Despite the title, it featured few shrinking-related adventures and instead focused on other wacky sci-fi shenanigans.) And now, just this year, a legacy sequel focusing on a now-adult Nick simply entitled “Shrunk” has been announced. Supposedly, Disney is hoping this will relaunch the franchise for their upcoming streaming service.

I use to watch all of the “Honey, I...” trilogy frequently as a kid. In fact, I can recall revisiting this one pretty often. The film can be credited with teaching an entire generation of kids that bananas are high in potassium, for one example of how popular it was on video. While the first two installments hold up alright, this cheapie sequel now plays as the disappointing cash-in it is. I don't know how that upcoming reboot will turn out but it'll have to work hard to be more disappointing than “Honey, We Shrunk Ourselves.” One can't help but assume that Dean Cundy's decision not to direct again is directly linked to the lackluster quality of his one and only feature credit. [4/10]

No comments: