Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Walt Disney, part XXXVII: It could be a stream of dog pee, and it would look like a river to us


Directed by Joe Johnston
Written by Stuart Gordon, Brian Yuzna, Ed Naha, and Tom Schulman

Spoiler alert: moderate

Besides the obvious exception of its director, Joe Johnstonand of course some of the people involved I've never actually heard of, and thus the following paragraph shall largely pretend they don't existWalt Disney Pictures' 1989 hit, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, feels like it comes from some of the last folks you'd have expected to make it.  This needs no explanation in terms of two of its scenarists, Stuart Gordon and Brian Yuzna, who are best known for directing and/or producing the vast majority of the good H.P. Lovecraft movies.  Ed Naha, the third scenarist, who also helped write the screenplay with Tom Schulman, is one of those aforementioned "people I've never heard of," but he was also a horror guy, otherwise most "famous" for writing 1986's terrible Troll, which is itself "famous" for being the non-predecessor to its famous-but-only-for-being-terrible "sequel," Troll 2.  (As for Schulman, he actually does have some real credits, though it's possible that What About Bob? does not impress you.)

Meanwhile, and more closely related to our quest to cut a path through Disney historythough I'll admit I don't even have a fig-leaf of an excuse to put Honey, I Shrunk the Kids into a Disney animation retrospectivethe film was one of the first major live-action projects to have emerged from the new regime of CEO Michael Eisner and head of production Jeffrey Katzenberg, and it had to have seemed like a surprise move, coming from the Paramount veterans.  After all, Disney's live-action division under Ron Miller had spent so much of the late 1970s and early 1980s failing to replicate the kind of high-concept, well-budgeted, teen-centered blockbusting that Eisner and Katzenberg had helped pioneer that you'd naturally imagine that, once they were situated, Disney's new bosses would've simply shown their ill-starred predecessor how you go about doing the job right.  Instead, once they got their bearings and had an opportunity to think about what they wanted to make under the Disney brand*, the most lucrative immediate result wasn't a Raiders of the Lost Ark, let alone a Beverly Hills Cop, it was thisa high-concept well-budgeted blockbuster, sure, but also a full-tilt kid's movie that unabashedly chased one of the most ignorable legacies in cinema, the vast and ephemeral empire of frothy fantasy comedy nonsense built up by Disney's live-action unit over the course of the 1960s and 1970s, exemplified by such eternal works as The Love Bug, The Cat From Outer Space, and (duh) The Absent-Minded Professor.

Okay, it may also have some things in common with

When Eisner and Katzenberg arrived, they had no special love for Disney as an institutionit is almost ridiculous how little they even knew about itbut once they got there, something about the company possessed them with a sense of mission and, yeah, legacy: for Katzenberg, it was the animation studio, and its rich history; for Eisner, it was the whole enterprise, and the growing recognition of whose shoes he was stepping into, alongside his growing conviction that if the Disney company needed a new Walt to lead it into a new era of prosperity, then its new Walt was going to be him.  Thus when Roy E. Disney declined Eisner's request to become the face of the companyessentially, an advertising mascotEisner enthusiastically took on the role himself, much as Walt had half a century earlier, despite being hilariously bad at it initially, and despite everyone begging him to let somebody else do it.  (Personally, I think he's kind of low-key charming; Roy, on the other hand, remarked that if he'd known what would happen, he'd have said yes after all.)

I bring this up because Eisner gets an unfair rapconsidering, anyway, his peers and his milieu, not to mention billionaires in general.  Goodness, Eisner's not even a serial sexual harasser, a claim not every former Disney executive can make these days.  Now, Disney's new CEO could be (probably still can be) a profound shithead.  But we've all seen the infamous excerpt from his 1981 memo/manifesto at Paramount, which outlined his philosophy on cinema: "We have no obligation to make art.  We have no obligation to make history.  We have no obligation to make a statement."  To this is sometimes appended, "To make money is our only objective."  Eisner's famous memo appears to exist today only in the memories of the people who read ithell, I've seen it said he plagiarized his then-colleague, Don Simpsonbut this quotation is at least disingenuous and incomplete.  After all, it does go on: "...[but] to make money, we must always make entertaining movies, and if we make entertaining movies, at times we will reliably make history, art, a statement, or all three."

I don't feel like explaining the concept of "rhetorical devices" to an audience of adultshere's Julius Caesar, Act III, Scene II, try not to hurt yourselfso I suppose my main question would be to ask what the hell's meant to be wrong with it.  Maybe a philosophy of making art that audiences actually like, and which therefore can be rendered a self-sustaining process, doesn't stir your soul, but if that's the case perhaps you'd be happier with a medium that does not require billions of dollars and the labor of millions of people to properly function.  In any event, I believe it takes very motivated reasoning to come to the conclusion that, in his bottom-line-oriented way, Eisner was ever less than sincerely committed to making good movies, which is to say, good artcertainly no less than Walt Disney at any point in that artist's history, after Fantasiaand this remained true, even as he stopped demonstrating any particularly pronounced aptitude for it during his later years as the head of Walt's company.

So, alright: maybe it's too much to say that Honey, I Shrunk the Kids represents Eisner (and Katzenberg) sincerely pursuing "good art"somehow, it seems like the film itself would consider it putting on airsbut it's very difficult not to think it represents the new guys sincerely attempting to recapture a sense of half-joshing wonder and goofy matinee fun that Walt would've appreciated.  The story, of course, is just a set-up for goofy wonder; and so, somewhere in the California suburbs, we find Wayne Szalinski (Rick Moranis), scientist, inventor, and would-be disruptor, who has spent the past half-decade trying and failing to perfect a shrink ray, and while he's actually made a pretty effective death ray, in that it causes anything it hits to explode, this doesn't seem to interest Wayne much.  His obsession has come perilously close to derailing his relationship with his wife, Diane (Marcia Stassman), who's presently the only one actively capable of keeping a roof over their family's head; but in case this seems too tense for a kid's movie, his elder daughter Amy (Amy O'Neill) and younger son Nicky (Robert Olivieri) each seem to have accepted their dad's descent into monomania with a benevolent shrug.  Wayne's science project will become a much more urgent problem for them very soon, however, for as he departs to give a flailing presentation to his dubious peers, and Diane leaves to go actually make money, the neighbor kid Ron (Jared Rushton) accidentally hits a baseball through the Szalinskis' attic window, striking the shrink ray in just such a way that it 1)activates and 2)for the first time, actually works.  (Hence the funniest line in an often-amusing movie comes right in the midst of the denouement, as Wayne is compelled to explain to Ron's parents, Russ (Matt Frewer) and Mae (Kristine Sutherland), that, yes, he is sure he shrank the kids, because otherwise they'd be standing in their gooey remains.)

Well, what happens next is inevitable: Ron's older brother Russ Jr. (Thomas Wilson Brown) drags the little demon over to the Szalinskis' to apologizemostly, of course, as a pretext to talk to the teenage girl who lives thereand when they go to retrieve the ball, they're blasted down to quarter-inch versions of themselves.  When Wayne returns, he angrily surveys the damage, cleans up the mess, and tosses the unheard, unseen children into the garbage, dutifully taking it out back with the rest, leaving the kids with an arduous journey back across his overgrown backyardto them, now miles of trackless jungle, inhabited by enormous monsters like bees and scorpionsin order, hopefully, for Wayne to return them to their full size.

I don't want it to sound like Honey, I Shrunk the Kids has nothing but a visualization of its scenario.  That's mostly what it has, but it does have to fit that into a narrative, and the narrative it chooses is enjoyable and, in a way, loveable for the mood of pure functionality it creates, with just the right balance of scrappy lowest-common denominator humor and actual stakes (a balance clearly favoring the former) to make it almost the very platonic ideal of "a fun time at the movies," which is probably why it became a surprise hit despite the fierce competition out in the summer of '89, sufficient to return $223 million on its $18 million budget.  Soin case we were ever tempted to take the scenario too seriouslya substantial amount of runtime is spent not on the kids, but on our very-slow-on-the-uptake scientist, with Wayne finally realizing what's happened and searching the backyard while slapstickily attempting to avoid accidentally crushing his offspring, and eventually reciting something close to if not exactly the same as the film's title to his stunned wife.  This is all fine, genial comedy, with both Moranis and Strassman committing very hard to the wacky shenaniganry the story calls forthere's something wonderful about Wayne's incremental development of a system to get a real close look at every blade of grass in his backyard without actually touching itand it practically announces itself as Moranis's signature role.  (Besides ol' Seymour Krelborn, its only possible rival is Louis Tully in Ghostbusters, and even then, that's more of a matter of taste: do you prefer your Rick Moranis Nerd to be bumbling, intelligent, and put-upon, or bumbling, stupid, and delusional?  I don't expect to settle that burning controversy, but as he occasionally has to play a human being as Wayne Szalinski, I suppose I prefer his performance here.)

It is not likely, however, that hewing more closely to the kids would have actually gotten you to take it more seriously, for both the screenplay and the performances reach a level of admirable defiance in their absolute refusal to have any of them ever be more than slightly worried, unless they happen to literally be in mortal danger at the time.  (Even when they're separated, and Amy could easily presume that Nicky is dead, not one thing changes about the tone, no doubt because since we know Nicky is alive, why gunk up the works with something that won't matter in five minutes anyway?)  In fact, the characters and the performances approach the scenario exactly the same way the film and its director expect the audience to: as an unusual hike that is largely defined by joy, from the joy of discovering a giant Little Debbie oatmeal creampie (which are delicious, albeit hopefully it's one that hasn't been laying in the damn yard too long), to the joy of, er, domesticating a friendly ant (which is so absurdly dumb it practically comes back around to clever, and I feel like it aptly sums up the nutty alchemy of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids to say that if this movie evokes any genuine feelings, every one of them involves an ant).

The characters are efficient little stereotypesthe smug nerdy one, the shitty jock one, the sensitive male one, and the vain girl oneand if it mixes this up at all, it's maybe that the vain girl one arguably feels the most like the protagonist, though it might just be that she's the tallest.  They fundamentally workthere's a lot to like about the interplay of these stock personalities, and while these personalities don't come close to raising it to the top tier of 80s kid's adventures, you can tell a fair amount of effort was expended to update the creaky middle-aged man-centered Disney live-action romps of years past for the new idiom.  (Indeed, the whole "secrets of suburbia" thing actually does establish a tiny bit of nexus with Yuzna's filmography, in that I think this and his best-known directorial effort, Society, could at least potentially be recognized as the work of the same mind.)

But mostly, it is all about using these kids as vehicles to explore the (extremely inconsistent) 300:1 scale world that Johnston's created for them.  This was his feature debut after a decade spent in visual effects, which was the most effective preparation for Honey, I Shrunk the Kids imaginable; and, considering that he followed it up with the likes of The Rocketeer, Jurassic Park III, and Captain America: The First Avenger, the most reasonable thing to do probably is to call it an auteur vehicle for a guy you will rarely see described as one, though I hardly see how the label's avoidable if you use it as a value-neutral term rather than a synonym for "filmmaker I like."  There's an ecstatic sense of play to Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, the same kind you always get out of Johnston's best movies, and, like his very best movie (JP3), it is almost explicitly designed as a theme park ride.  (And given that Eisner fell in love with Disney above all for the opportunity to build empires with the company's theme parks, I think we may have found the biggest reason for this movie to exist.)  The thing about Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, however, is that I think it might transcend even Johnston's best instincts toward spectacle, not because that isn't its fundamental operating mode, but because it's such a celebration of ancient techniques that, in 1989, would not be around for much longer.  It is one of the last movies that really look like this, and besides the comparatively new advent of motion controlled cameras, and the ILM-ish complexion of the laser effects, there is very little about it that could not have been accomplished in the 1950s or 1960s, or even the 1940s.

Johnston and his production designer Gregg Fonseca (who, like Yuzna, Gordon, and Naha, also came out of horror) were thus given $18 million to build giant sets and develop practical effects that are undeniably real and expensive, yet also arguably less convincing (and certainly a lot more blatantly plastic) than the blunt minimalism of the basement in The Incredible Shrinking Man.  But Johnston has a blast serving as our guide to these exhibits of cinematic artifice, from the giant blades of grass to the frequent (and beautifully-done!) Harryhausen riffs that represent the only real threats in the whole film up until a lawnmower appears.  It's obviously not grittily realistic, but it's also extremely persuasive if you're willing to be persuaded, with Johnston and cinematographer Hiro Narita making an awful lot of very smart lens choices to sell the now-cyclopean scale of a once-mundane world, and managing an extremely lovely work of special effects craft considering how many matte shots there are in this film and how almost all of them sit right on the line where they're just fake enough for you to appreciate the work.  Maybe best of all, Johnston and editor Michael Stevenson keep it flying (particularly once past the necessary, if slightly-logy, first act), ending up with a perfectly right-sized movie for what it is, at 93 minutes including credits.

Honey, I Shrunk the Kids is, needless to say, not a masterpiece.  It's not even the perfect version of itself.  For one thing, Frewer apparently decided randomly at the beginning of any given shot whether he would have a Southern accent, though at least he's the only weak link in a cast given largely thankless roles.  The big probleminsofar as I'm excluding the objection, "this movie with giant scorpions is never scary," from my definition of "problem"is composer James Horner, who turns in what I think might be his worst score, at least his worst at this level of noticeability.  Horner is frequently cited for self-plagiarism, but this time he left himself out of it, with something like a solid third of Horner's work here amounting to a refashioning of Raymond Scott's "Powerhouse in B," which, if you don't recognize the title, is the jazz song that appeared in every 1940s cartoon about complicated machinery.  It actually fits the pseudo-UPA-style cartoon that plays over the opening titles (courtesy non-Disney animator Mark Pompian), and of course it's hardly inappropriate for a tale of mad science to incorporate a jazz standard about modernity; but then, it probably does not need to be heard ten times over the course of a short movie, either, and you'd expect something more out of a professional in exchange for a paycheck, though at least his underscoring here is usually pretty decent.  Overall, however, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids is much better than decent.  It made Disney a lot of money, rightfully so, and gave Eisner a lot of ideas about what kind of other crazy worlds Disney live-action might be capable of creating, with even bigger budgets and stars behind it.

Score: 8/10

*As opposed to Miller's Touchstone or Eisner's Hollywood imprints, which were of course "Disney," but not, like, Disney-Disney.

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