4 out of 5 stars

1989 was a big year for movies. From the first animated film of the Disney Renaissance era (The Little Mermaid) to the first truly good Batman film, we had many reasons to visit the cinema between May and December in particular. But one of those reasons came as a surprise to critics, the studio, and even the creators…

It was a film from a first-time director, made on a reasonable budget, and expected to be a passable family film with no real staying power. However, the little film about shrunken children outperformed expectations and enjoyed the longest theatrical run of any live-action Disney release. A title it would hold for an impressive 12 years. Now, 35 years later, it’s easy to see why Honey, I Shrunk the Kids is considered a classic. But while the practical effects are magical and its concept evergreen, there’s one thing it dared to do that set it apart from other comedies of its day and continues to decades later: it takes kids seriously.

Set in California, the film follows Wayne Szalinski (Rick Moranis), a struggling scientist and inventor, as he attempts to perfect a shrinking machine. When he leaves it unattended, his supposedly faulty gizmo accidentally shrinks his two children, Amy (Amy O’Neil) and Nick (Robert Oliveri), along with their neighbours’ kids, Little Russ (Thomas Wilson Brown) and Ron Thompson (Jared Rushton). What ensues is the kind of back garden adventure every youngster dreams about, complete with rideable ants and bees, and an oversized oatmeal cookie.

The fantastic quality of the sci-fi adventure is largely helped by nearly every visual effect being achieved practically. Made years before CGI became the norm in Hollywood by the mid-1990s, if you wanted to see a giant Cheerio in a bowl of milk, you had to make one out of hollowed-out tyres, questionable liquids, and good old-fashioned grit.

However, as difficult and time-consuming as practical effects are to pull off, in the right hands, they work wonders. And that’s certainly true here. Not only is there something magical about knowing that four child actors were genuinely stuffing their faces with giant oatmeal cookies, but the sheer ingenuity behind the FX adds another layer of charm to the movie.

Many actors talk about the difficulty of playing against a greenscreen or tennis ball that will become an animal or monster in post-production. This difficulty is increased when dealing with child actors, or even first-time actors, who aren’t yet confident on camera.

But there was no issue in Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. For example, in a scene where Amy is coaxing an ant out of hiding with a piece of cookie, what might seem laughably ridiculous feels entirely real and suspenseful. This is made possible by the fact that she’s actually holding a physical object the same size and weight as a piece of cookie would be at her shrunken size. The trepidation, fear, and touch of disgust in her voice are made all too real, in part, by the fact she was, indeed, coming face to face with a giant animatronic that could, realistically, crush her.

It should come as no surprise to know that the director, Joe Johnson (The Rocketeer), initially established himself as a VFX supervisor for George Lucas (Star Wars) and Steven Spielberg (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade). It was his work on major blockbusters from those cinematic legends, and not his unimpressive student film, that secured him the job of directing this sci-fi comedy.

That said, as brilliant as the practical FX are in Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, what truly makes it a classic is the story. The concept itself is, of course, brilliantly simple. But while Rick Moranis’s acting is predictably on-point and the children are generally good, the other adults veer rather quickly into OTT schlock territory. However, despite mediocre acting and a simple premise, this movie achieved what few had done before and took the children’s plight seriously.

From the opening scenes with Amy attempting to fill her mother’s shoes by making breakfast and Nick attempting to copy his dad’s ingenious scientific designs, we can tell that the children, not comedy icon Rick Moranis (Ghostbusters), will be the film’s focus. It didn’t have to be this way.

They could have easily made a family comedy where the children simply disappear, and the film follows the adults’ attempts to find them. The adults could have had the major character arcs and poignant moments in the film. The fact that they didn’t is what makes Honey, I Shrunk the Kids so universal and so special.

Not everyone will become a parent, but everyone is or was once a child. There are many people in the audience who will be able to relate to Little Russ’s frustration with his father who seems determined to turn him into a clone of himself rather than letting him forge his own path. Amy is a stand-in for many school friends I had who felt as though they had to act as surrogate parents to their younger siblings and often struggled under the weight of the responsibility.

When you re-watch this film as an adult, you’ll notice even deeper levels of the struggles of childhood hidden in the story. In the third act, after the children have a terrifying experience with a lawn mower, they’re able to move close enough to see their parents searching for them. They yell and do everything possible to get their parent’s attention but, at their miniature stature, their screams fall on deaf ears.

“We were right under their noses and they didn’t see us!” Nick opines. I felt my heart twist at that line during my latest viewing. I remember all too well the feeling of being invisible to adults, even my parents, as a child. When you’re young, many grown-ups see a child’s problems as small and trivial. They think your feelings are something you quickly grow out of, like a new pair of shoes.

But, when you’re young, those feelings are enormous. Problems seem as gigantic and frightening as a three-metre-tall scorpion and as impossible as a trek through a dense jungle. What Johnston did with this film was visualise the enormity of the world through a child’s eyes. And, in doing so, he helped kids watching feel seen.

In the end, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids was one of the first films in what I call a “kid-centric” era of family filmmaking. Other movies like Home Alone (1991), The Sandlot (1993), and Rookie of the Year (1993), along with countless other theatrical and straight-to-video releases, replicated this formula by allowing children to become the heroes of their own stories. Even if the kids didn’t always get top billing (which is still a shame), they received the focus and screen time they needed to make their voices heard.

So, to Joe Johnston and screenwriters Tom Schulman, Stuart Gordon, Brian Yuzna, and Ed Naha, from an imaginative little girl, I want to thank you. Thank you for giving children a voice. (And for inspiring a childhood obsession with oatmeal cream cookies.)

USA • MEXICO | 1989 | 93 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

director: Joe Johnston.
writers: Ed Naha & Tom Schulman (story by Stuart Gordon, Brian Yuzna & Ed Naha).
starring: Rick Moranis, Marcia Strassman, Amy O’Neill, Robert Oliveri, Thomas Wilson, Jared Rushton, Matt Frewer & Kristine Sutherland.