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Movie Review : Mite-Size Entertainment From 'Shrunk the Kids'

June 23, 1989|MICHAEL WILMINGTON

"Honey, I Shrunk the Kids" (citywide), in which shrunken suburbanites are thrust into the ominous jungle of their Gargantuan back yard, is a cautionary comedy about human beings deformed by science, a bright, overloud fable about suburban conformity.

In the movie, four squabbling kids, the Szalinskis and the Thompsons (Amy O'Neill, Robert Oliveri, Thomas Brown, Jared Rushton), are zapped to sub-insect dimensions by Mr. Szalinski's wacko attic experiments and accidentally tossed out with the trash. They have to trek back to the front porch, evading killer bees and oceans of yuck, while the Szalinskis frantically try to locate them.

In a weird way, what happens to the kids is what happens to the movie. The humans shrivel to crawling piffles or get deformed into caterwauling robots; the super-tall grass and the giant cookies and insects take over. Through this yard prowl gigantic roaches and one compassionate ant, big as a yak, who befriends the quartet after they harness him and feed him cookie crumbs. Befitting the story's frail antic tone, this benevolent pismire is called "Anty."

Even so, there's something delightful about this grotesque perversion of scale--there always has been, from the 1940 "Dr. Cyclops" to the 1957 "Incredible Shrinking Man." "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids" is a prodigy of visuals and special effects, amusing as long as production designer Gregg Fonseca, art directors John Iacovelli and Dorree Cooper, creatures supervisor David Sosalla and mechanical effects co-ordinator Peter M. Chesney keep yanking out the wonders they've wrought from polyurethane foam and machinery: bees like helicopters, cookies like flying saucers, a bowl of Cheerios like a condo pool filled with crusty inner tubes and a subtropical forest of a back yard with blades of grass, wondrously lit by cinematographer Hiro Narita, towering like palm trees.

Like "Back to the Future," "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids" is a little toy balloon of a TV sitcom episode pumped up to zeppelin proportions. But it lacks "Future's" panache. Director Joe Johnston is a longtime art director for George Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic, but, in the beginning, he hammers the jokes at you as if he were making 40 successive kitchen cleanser commercials.

The actors who play the parents are mostly TV veterans: Rick Moranis (SCTV), Marcia Strassman ("Welcome Back, Kotter") and Matt Frewer ("Max Headroom"). They and the children play their scenes at a deafening rip, screwing up their faces, screaming the lines and larding them up with huge takes and pauses.

The movie was shot on a sound stage in Mexico City, and in the press book, Moranis notes jocularly that the non-bilingual technicians laughed at the movie's slapstick, but couldn't get the verbal humor. I couldn't get it either. The comic timing of the first 15 minutes of the film has the lugubrious, gallumphing hysteria of a mating dance by six jealous blind elephants, without its compensating grace and charm.

It's not just the direction that's at fault. We might ask why it takes the youngsters, even at mite-size, half a day and night to traverse the Big Back Yard. Or why they don't try to whistle for their dog after a first failed attempt. Or why Szalinski doesn't yell out for them to signal him--instead of dementedly crawling around and swinging himself on a Rube Goldberg hoist.

Original director Stuart ("Re-Animator") Gordon wrote the story, with Ed Naha and Brian Yuzna; Naha and Tom ("Dead Poets Society") Schulman finished the script. And, possibly, if Gordon had directed this film, it would have had more edge. It certainly would have had better timing.

You can see his original intentions: burlesque horror and a cheery little post-'60s allegory about neighbors learning to get along. But, since the acting is as overblown as the grass, the story's heart shrinks as the mechanical wizardry gloriously expands.

"Anty" winds up stealing the show, as the only character in "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids" (MPAA rated: PG) capable of arousing human feelings. When that brave arachnid met his fate, my heart felt a little like a 6-foot-tall Cheerio about to sink.

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