What would it be like to be a quarter of an inch tall? Moviegoers in the summer of 1989 were eager to find out. They flocked to theaters to watch as the Szalinski and Thompson kids dodged refrigerator-sized drops of water, befriended a giant ant, fought a fearsome scorpion, and feasted upon a massive cream-filled cookie. Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, starring Rick Moranis, is often viewed as the quintessential live-action Disney film, but its roots are firmly in the horror movie genre. Here are a few surprising facts about the film, which is about to get a reboot courtesy of Disney—with Moranis returning.
Stuart Gordon wasn’t the first filmmaker one would think of to direct a Disney film. With a background in experimental theater—including a trippy, in-the-nude version of Peter Pan—he made his name with campy horror films like 1985’s Re-Animator, about a scientist who brings the dead back to life, and 1987’s Dolls, about a murderous collection of dolls (tagline: “They Walk. They Talk. They Kill.”). After he became a father, Gordon decided to make a kids’ movie. Along with Brian Yuzna, who had worked with him on Re-Animator, and Dolls writer Ed Naha, Gordon came up with an idea for a film about a hapless inventor who accidentally shrinks his children and throws them out with the garbage. He pitched the idea to Disney, who loved it and gave Gordon the green light to direct.
The title was a nod to William Donahey’s comic strip from the early 1900s, which followed the adventures of a tiny, inoffensive band of characters. Disney executives hated it, thinking the title would turn off adult moviegoers. So Gordon and company changed the title to Grounded, then The Backyard before deciding to borrow a line of dialogue that Wayne Szalinski utters to his wife, Diane.
Although Disney was excited about Gordon’s idea, they weren’t exactly confident the horror director could deliver a family-friendly feature. “Disney was worried that I was going to kill all the kids,” Gordon said in one interview. “And I kept saying, ‘No, I’m not going to kill them. But I want the audience to think they might die.'” Disney’s trepidations extended to the movie’s creature effects—most notably Anty, the heroic ant.
The studio told Gordon they wanted Anty to look less like a real ant and more like E.T. “I said, ‘Well E.T. scared more kids than an ant does,'” according to Gordon. To convince the brass, Gordon invited them to the workshop where crew members were putting the finishing touches on the robotic puppet. Gordon made Anty nuzzle him like a horse to show how friendly the creature could act. And just like that, the executives were convinced.
Just as production on the film was set to begin, Stuart Gordon became sick and had to leave the set. Unable to delay the shoot, Disney brought in Joe Johnston, a visual effects specialist who had worked on Raiders of the Lost Ark and all three Star Wars films. It was his first directing job. After the success of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, Johnston went on to direct The Rocketeer, Jumanji, Jurassic Park III, and, most recently, Captain America: The First Avenger. Gordon, meanwhile, finally got his shot at directing Honey, I Shrunk the Kids—albeit 10 years later, helming one episode of the television show, which ran for three seasons in the late 1990s.
If you thought the Szalinskis’s suburban California neighborhood and backyard looked like the real deal, well, think again. The entire set—including several houses, complete with white picket fences and manicured lawns—was erected on a back lot at Mexico City’s Churubusco Studios. Established in 1945, Churubusco was the epicenter of Mexican film production in the 20th century and a favorite of cost-conscious American producers, with scenes from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Total Recall, Free Willy, and numerous other films shot there. The set work is very convincing, but there are a few seams showing: If you look carefully in the scene where the mailman is walking the neighborhood, you can see the beams in the back lot wall, which had been painted blue to stand in as the sky.
The heroic ant, who befriends the pint-sized Szalinski and Thompson kids and (SPOILER ALERT) tragically dies fighting off a scorpion, took a lot of effort to bring to life. The special effects team built multiple versions of Anty, including a miniature for stop-motion animation sequences. Most of the scenes in which Anty interacts with the actors involved a large robotic puppet whose legs, eyes, head, and antennae were all controlled by separate crew members. “It takes somewhere between seven and 12 people to make the ant run,” Peter Zamora, the film’s miniatures assistant, said in a making-of documentary.
Two weeks into filming, Marcia Strassman, who played Diane Szalinski, received a note from Disney head Jeffrey Katzenberg requesting she change her hair color from reddish-brown to blonde. Strassman complied, and she kept her hair that color for the sequel, 1992’s Honey, I Blew Up the Kid. “We said, ‘But we’ve been shooting for two weeks,'” Strassman told The Philadelphia Inquirer. “And [Katzenberg] said, ‘No one will notice.’ And no one did. No one noticed that my hair is two totally different colors in that movie.”
From giant broom bristles to towering blades of grass, the movie’s set designers were masters at fashioning latex and polyurethane foam into outsized versions of everyday objects. To show the kids getting swept into Wayne Szalinski’s dustpan, designers attached the giant foam bristles to a hanging screen that swept across the stage. The enormous cream-filled cookie, meanwhile, was also made out of foam, with globs of actual cream mixed in for the kids to shovel into their mouths.
By 1980s movie standards, and even current ones, the bumblebee ride that Nick Szalenski and Little Russ Thompson take is impressive. Creating the sequence required a giant bee model for close-up shots with the actors, along with an extended shot by a camera that zipped and dove around the Szalenski backyard. Pretty standard stuff, but visual effects lead Tom Smith added a third element: a small, $30,000 robotic bee with miniatures of the actors on top. The fine movements of the robotic bee were spliced in with the close-up shots against the green screen, then touched up with some added digital effects in post-production to create the final sequence. “We were able to cut them quickly enough and mix them up so that it gives the incredible sense of flight when you see it,” Smith said.
The movie opened with an animated sequence showing two tiny children running from a record needle, a typewriter, and other menacing everyday objects as title credits cleverly materialized. According to the graphic design site Art of the Title, the sequence—created by Kroyer Films—was one of the first to combine hand-drawn animations with 3D models. The team that created the sequence included Andrew Stanton, who would go on to work on Toy Story, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, and WALL·E, along with Eric Stefani, an acclaimed animator and brother of Gwen Stefani. Kroyer went on to produce animated sequences for two other films that year: Troop Beverly Hills and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.
The musical score that accompanies the animated credits, written by James Horner, sounds very similar to the 1937 song “Powerhouse,” by jazz composer Raymond Scott—a little too close, by some estimations. Scott’s estate sued Disney for failing to credit the composer. The studio settled the case out of court and made sure the estate received its fair share of future royalties.
Honey, I Shrunk the Kids’s $14 million haul on opening weekend was the biggest opening ever for a Disney movie—by a long shot. It was also a surprise for the studio, considering the movie wasn’t a sequel, and had received mixed reviews from critics. “Our tracking showed that there was awareness of the film out there, but there was nothing to make us think it would do what it did,” then-Disney head Jeffrey Katzenberg said at the time. In all, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids would earn more than $130 million domestically and $92 million in worldwide release.
Honey, I Shrunk the Kids opened on June 23, 1989—the same day as Tim Burton’s Batman, which finished number one at the box office and had fans lining up around the block to see it. According to the Los Angeles Times and other sources, many theatergoers who couldn’t get in to see Batman opted to see Honey, I Shrunk the Kids instead, helping to boost that movie to number two at the box office.
Those who saw Honey, I Shrunk the Kids in theaters may remember the animated short Tummy Trouble, starring Roger Rabbit, that preceded the film. The seven-minute romp—which also features Baby Herman, a swallowed rattle, and a trip to the hospital gone awry—was the revival of the short films that studios often played before a feature presentation. It was Disney’s first “short” in nearly 25 years, and one of several that the studio released aimed at boosting the popularity of classic characters like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck with younger viewers.
Given the popularity of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, released the previous year, Disney figured its goofball hare would also boost viewership for Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. Indeed, Disney gave the two productions equal space on promotional posters and print ads, despite the difference in run times.
As any English major could tell you, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids is not a grammatically correct title (it should be “Shrank”). This earned public ridicule from SPELL, the Society for the Preservation of English Language and Literature, which awarded the film its Dunce Cap Award for 1989. A Disney executive was quick to fire back that the mistake was deliberate, as it’s taken from a line of dialogue in the film (and the error certainly didn’t do anything to hurt the movie’s box office haul).
Aside from the film’s opening theme, which became tainted by controversy, the music from Honey, I Shrunk the Kids isn’t particularly memorable. Thus the film’s score wasn’t subsequently released as a soundtrack. But\ composer James Horner, who had previously scored Aliens and Cocoon, became increasingly popular in the years to come as he scored films like Field of Dreams, Braveheart, Titanic, and Avatar. Demand for the score also rose as Honey, I Shrunk the Kids became a reliable cable rerun. So in 2009, tiny music label Intrada put out a limited run of 3000 copies of the Honey, I Shrunk the Kids soundtrack. It’s sold out, but if you just have to have such classic tracks as “Watering the Grass” and “Lawnmower,” you can nab a used copy for around $60 on Amazon. Sadly, Horner was killed in a plane crash in 2015.
For the young actors in Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, box office success didn’t translate into long-term career success. Robert Oliveri and Jared Rushton, who played young Nick Szalinski and Ron Thompson, respectively, gave up acting in the 1990s. Same with Amy O’Neill, whose only other major role was in 1993’s White Wolves: A Cry in the Wild II (though she popped up in an uncredited role on Baskets earlier this year). Only Thomas Wilson Brown, who played Little Russ Thompson, continues to appear in films and TV shows, and only sporadically at that.
The adult ensemble, meanwhile, fared somewhat better. Matt Frewer (Big Russ Thompson) has worked steadily in films and TV series like Orphan Black and 12 Monkeys, while Marcia Strassman, known for roles in M*A*S*H and Welcome Back, Kotter, made regular appearances on shows like Tremors, Highlander, and Providence, until her tragic death from breast cancer in 2014.
In the mid-1990s, Rick Moranis went completely off the radar to focus on raising his two kids after his wife passed away. In recent years, he has said that he would return to acting if the right role came along and in 2018 he made a brief appearance on the 1980s-set sitcom The Goldbergs, reprising his role as Dark Helmet from Spaceballs. More recently, on February 12, 2020, it was confirmed that the 66-year-old actor would officially be coming out of retirement to appear in Disney’s planned reboot of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.
19. Honey, I Shrunk the Kids is basically a horror movie.
Consider the evidence: It’s got an obsessive scientist, giant bugs, a near-death by lawnmower, and the Freudian nightmare of a father nearly eating his son. The nod to horror films of the past was intentional on the part of Gordon, who sees the movie as an homage to fright-night flicks like Attack of the Crab Monsters and The Incredible Shrinking Man. In recent interviews, he’s quick to lump it in with other horror movies he’s made. “Really, it’s not that different than Re-Animator,” Gordon said. “It’s about a mad scientist and an experiment that goes wrong, and so forth. The potential for severing some heads was there when you have a giant ant coming at you with those big mandibles. Who knows what could happen?”