Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: though Epic might be the third-place finisher of the week's new releases, it is first in the hearts of somebody, I'm certain. So let us take this time to celebrate the last time that a big hit was made from a movie about young people with geeks for fathers being shrunk to the size of ant food..
The Little Mermaid, and as the histories have been written, this is certainly the chief significance of that year for that corporation's history. Odd as it is to think, though, that wasn't the studio's highest grossing film of that year, not by a long shot. That honor goes to Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, a return to form in a different way: it was the first live-action family adventure that the studio released following its mid-'80s resurrection at the hands of Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and Roy Disney, thus reviving a tradition stretch back deep into the 1950s, though Disney's live-action films, however accomplished or however banal, are not typically regarded with the same generation-defining attention accorded to the animated musicals. Still, facts are facts, and if you were born in the early '80s or before, mathematics say that it's likelier that you saw HISTK than Mermaid during its first theatrical run. Deal with it.
Anyway, while the effects-heavy Disney adventures whose legacy the film continues aren't necessarily all that famous, that's no reason to go around saying they can't also be pretty decent, and that's almost exactly what HISTK is: pretty decent. Not great. Not an all-time legendary accomplishment of family-friendly cinema. But pretty damn decent altogether, with just enough B-material aimed squarely for the grown-ups (there's a menstruation joke I got for the first time watching the film just now for this review, though in my defense, I probably last saw it when I was 10) that it's entertaining on a level beyond that of imaginative spectacle. Though, it's worth emphasising, the movie is clearly best at imaginative spectacle, and I don't think you need to be an 8-year-old to appreciate the gee-whiz fantasy elements of the scenario. Just to have, at one point, been an 8-year-old, ideally one in a suburban house with a lawn.
The inciting situation (conceived in part by gory horror specialists Stuart Gordon and Brian Yuzna - I would love to know what that was about) and the characters involved are all stock models: there are two families living next door in a California community (the sequel indicates that it is Fresno), and they are mismatched as can be. The Szalinskis are easygoing kooks, basically: dad Wayne (Rick Moranis) is an inventor of many overly-complicated and not especially useful high-tech gadgets, and his eccentricities are pleasantly tolerated by his children, teenager Amy (Amy O'Neill) and preteen Nick (Robert Oliveri) - there are lines of dialogue to the effect that Wayne and his frustrated realtor wife Diane (Marcia Strassman) have been having an unusual number of fights lately, but this is reflected nowhere in the drama or in either Moranis or Strassman's performances.
The family that the movie is frankly more interested in are the Thompsons: bossy alpha male Big Russ (Matt Frewer), stable but fraying wife Mae (Kristine Sutherland), older son Little Russ (Thomas Brown), angry at his dad's attempt to mold him into another alpha male, and younger son Ron (Jared Rushton), angry that nobody notices that he'd like to be the macho manly dude that his father is trying to force Russ Jr. to become. A considerably larger portion of the first act is devoted to carving out these character relationship than the Szalinskis, because as we all know, conflict makes more interesting drama than watching four people who've all pretty comfortably figured out how to live with each other, even though Moranis is the only above-the-title star, Wayne is the narrative's prime mover, and once the actual plot kicks in, the Thompsons swiftly descend into supporting-player status, and their familial reconciliation glossed over in a single line, while Big Russ's meeting of the minds with Wayne is favored in a dramatic piece of staging and editing that calls lots of attention to it.
This kind of strange, imbalanced script defect would be a much bigger problem than it is if the entire first act weren't largely a stretching exercise for the cast and filmmakers, en route to the main event. See, Wayne's newest invention is a shrinking gun that he can't get to work (possibly because the physics underpinning its theoretical function are total bullshit, but heavens, let's not go poking holes in the physics of a Disney fantasy), but when Ron knocks a baseball through the Szalinskis' attic laboratory window, turning on the gun and slightly altering its laser system, events quickly transpire which shrink the four kids to ¼ of an inch in height, where they are helpless to get out of the way as Wayne resignedly sweeps up the mess in his room, and dumps the trash - and the children - into the trash that he leaves behind the backyard. Just like that, a quick stroll through the lawn turns into a terrifying trek through a grassy jungle, relatively miles and miles of confusing, uneven terrain.
From this point, HISTK becomes two movies: the impressively designed but still visibly stagebound adventure movie in which the four young people engage with very large versions of totally unexceptional objects and insects, made spectacular movie magic creations by virtue of their size (which isn't consistent, by the way, unless the film intends us to believe that common black ants are something like an inch and a half long in Fresno); and the slapstick comedy of Wayne trying to find the shrunken kids without stepping on the lawn and potentially crushing them. Both bits work fairly well - Moranis is perfectly cast and goes for broke in the part, one of the most important qualities of physical comedy - but it's obviously the tiny adventure that's the main draw, and visual effects designer-turned-director Joe Johnston dedicates virtually all of his creativity and energy to lovingly showcasing the effects and setpieces of the workshop floor, or the treacherous backyard (incidentally, I am persuaded that the obviously rubbery grass and other such props might have been deliberate, based on the evidence of Johnston's later films - especially The Rocketeer and Captain America: The First Avenger - which suggest a genuine, unironic love of the cheesy parts of classic Hollywood adventure movies).
This cuts two ways. On the one hand, Johnston plainly understands what a fun environment this would be to explore, and there's a palpable joy oozing off the screen at the interactivity that the kids get to have with giant Legos, giant cookies, giant dustpans; a year later, the movie would inspire a playground, basically, at what was then still called the Disney-MGM Studios Theme Park, one of the oldest attractions still in operation there, and it's easy to see where the connection was made. It's already a playground, given the excited little kid attitude it's shot with. The problem with this, as befits the Disney brand name and the family-suitable rating, is that HISTK doesn't feel dangerous: there's not one scene (okay, there's one scene, a lawnmower attack) where it actually feels like the kids are actually at risk of anything but a fun story to revisit through the years. Even the big stop-motion scorpion is carefully kept from being too scary, that is to say, too threatening, and too legitimate a threat.
Hard to blame an adventure-comedy for soft-pedaling its threats, sure: but it does end up leaving HISTK a largely hollow and simple experience. It's fun for the mere sake of it, which is a good thing and necessary, but fun where the characters aren't so one-dimensional and their emotional arcs aren't so mechanically determined by the shape of the plot is, on the whole, a better and more lasting sort of fun than this.
It's no help that the film feels generic in most ways that aren't its truly awe-inspiring stunt work and production design: flat cinematography by Hiro Narita that only tires for anything like atmosphere during the twilight scenes, lit by the embers of a lucky cigarette butt; flat acting by literally everybody who isn't Moranis (though in her defense, Sutherland is plucky and likable in a complete nothing part). The costumes are notable chiefly for how cleanly they date the film to the last two years of the 1980s; the score does much the same, a reliably derivative James Horner number that witnesses him transitioning from ripping off his own rip-offs of John Williams to making a passably copy of Danny Elfman's early work, while overtly copying Nino Rota's Amarcord music (which is credited) and stealing an instantly recognisable passage from Raymond Scott's 1937 jazz tune "Powerhouse", familiar to anybody who ever saw a Warner cartoon involving a machine operating (not credited, resulting in a lawsuit).
One looks at The Little Mermaid, also a bit of fluffy fun for kids and their parents, and respects the depth of artistry, the care, the ingenuity. Here, there is... not that. I admire the film for its breeziness, and for Johnston's clear sense of how whimsical this could all be, even as I curse it for being so sapped of emotional complexity or legitimate dramatic stakes. The worst thing I can say is that by all rights, I should have had a massive nostalgia trip watching the film; instead, it was a virtually nonstop parade of "I remember that. Huh" moments, not at all the kind of enthusiasm one feels for revisiting a beloved childhood relic with actual meat on its bones.