On first blush, the idea of a comedic adventure entirely set in a suburban backyard seems weak, a production financed by a paper route at best. But art director turned director Joe Johnston’s “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” gets more mileage from a yard of unmowed grass than you might expect. Two years after 1987s “Innerspace,” a marginally more adult shrink-me fantasy, “Honey” fought its way to blockbuster status during a summer of fists and heroes the likes of Batman, Indiana Jones, 007 and “Lethal Weapon”‘s Martin Riggs. As nice as it would be to hear Sgt. Murtaugh defy his hockey-haired partner with a “Go spit” in every summer film, I have to admit, “Honey” (no, not the Alba movie) is the kind of family film I’d like to see more of, the live-action adventure that excites the imagination without the now prerequisite string of boob jokes.
As the film begins, we descend into two fractured families. Wayne Szalinski (“Ghostbusters'” Rick Moranis) is the story’s absent-minded professor, a brilliant scientist who puts more TLC into developing a miniturization ray than his relationship with wife Diane (Marcia Strassman), teenage daughter Amy and precocious son Nick. A separation appears pending. The blue-collar patriarch next door, meanwhile, shares nothing in common with Wayne save the perils of fatherhood. Big Russ (Matt Frewer of “Max Headroom”) is a gung-ho fishing dad who can’t quite connect with eldest son Russell. Why the youth doesn’t salivate over football and weight-lifting is beyond him. His younger brother Ron is the family brat.
The adventure officially begins when the four kids are accidentally zapped to microscopic proportions, swept into a trash bag and plopped at the far end of the yard (The parents are none the wiser.). On the surface their mission is simple – get home and get big, but at this scale it’s literally a jungle out there, where flower stems resemble tree trunks, ants have become dinosaurs and a discarded creme cookie sits like a pantry item from Roald Dahl’s “BFG.” At least the Szalinskis were good about picking up after Quark, the family dog. It helps to have a pet with an acute sense of hearing when you’re small enough to sleep in a Lego block by the way.
Despite its age, “Honey” is a movie that will probably still thrill its CG spoiled target audience. The sets are real and impressive and the illusion of being swallowed by an unmowed back lawn still believable. But regardless of some unforgettable giant props including the world’s biggest Cheerio, the film in Johnston’s hands is more neat than thrilling (his “Rocketeer” is an improvement) and the young actors unconvincingly engrossed in their situation. When they cut through the trash bag and see their predicament, they’re not exactly awestruck. Amy still has her sights set on the mall and Ron on a family fishing trip. Goonies they’re not. More than once I wanted to stay with the tour but change the guides.
Joe Dante’s “Innerspace” offers a similar balance of comedy and action in a miniturized setting but its Oscar-winning special effects don’t come quite as close to stealing the show from its stars. The three here have some of the widest smiles in Hollywood and are far better at inducing ours.
Tuck Pendleton (Dennis Quaid) is a talented Navy test pilot with Top Gun-itis, an ego-writing-checks-your-body-can’t-cash kind of thing. Passed over by more disciplined pilots, he signs on to play guinea pig in an experimental miniturization project. The specifics of the procedure don’t matter much. Like “Honey” and “Fantastic Voyage,” the 1966 Cold War shrinker that helped influence the Dante film, we’re not meant to understand the “how” of the science as much as believe in the results. All three films pull it off (“Voyage”‘s miniatures resemble mucus-filled lava lamps.). In a brilliant white light, Tuck and his submersible are shrunken to the size of a pepper grain and deposited into a syringe meant for a rabbit. When a group of technology thieves crash the experiment though, project leader Ozzie is left with no choice. To protect the technology and Tuck, he runs, then stabs the needle into the first available buttock.
Luckily for us it belongs to Jack Putter (Martin Short), a gawky supermarket clerk never more than a step away from a panic attack. Charlie Chaplin once said, “Failure is unimportant. It takes courage to make a fool out of yourself.” By that account, Short is fearless and “Innerspace” as much a showcase for the comedian’s gifts as “The Jerk” was for Steve Martin. As a former SCTV and SNL alumnus, Short has made a career playing well-meaning but awkward characters, many with make-up effects. Ed Grimley. Franck Eggelhoffer. Jiminy Glick. The list goes on. “Innerspace” is arguably his best film.
When we first meet Putter, he’s explaining his latest paranoid nightmare to a physician. But it’s nothing compared to how he reacts to a new voice from within. “I’m possessed!” he shouts after hearing Tuck’s voice in his head, delivered using one of the submersible’s many gizmos. Soon the pair are on the run from an assortment of spy-movie types including Victor Scrimshaw (Kevin McCarthy all in white) and Vernon Wells as a henchman with an Inspector Gadget hand. Meg Ryan plays Tuck’s adorably plucky on-again off-again girlfriend Lydia, recruited to help Jack steal a microchip to enlarge her beau. Oh, and he’s running out of air. Oh, and then there’s the Cowboy (Robert Picardo).
Yes, there’s a lot going on here. If “Honey”‘s story runs like a string of sausages, “Innerspace” has those sausages stuffed close to bursting. But this chunky story by Chip Proser has something more important going for it, infectious characters. Like a Bond film, the color and enthusiasm of its heroes and villains are enough to guide us through any confusion in the story. This mostly sits on the shoulders of our male leads, and Short and Quaid have great chemistry given that they don’t physically share screen time until the finale. Some of their best scenes happen while Putter is still in full hypochondriac mode, with Tuck instructing him to be the hero he himself can’t be. By the end, the two develop an almost endearing rapour. “Honey” could have used a bit of this magic. Moranis (also of SCTV) has the ability to create some original comic moments but here he’s underutilized, held back by a script full of obvious jokes. As for Jack, Tuck and Lydia – what great hosts. They’re caught in an unpredictably zany adventure and know it. Better yet they show it.
And the “winner” is: “Innerspace”