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MMYIF Happy Birthday Double Feature: Batman / Honey, I Shrunk the Kids

My Misspent Youth In Films...

Batman
Directed by: Tim Burton
Starring: Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson, Kim Basinger
Released: June 23, 1989

The Dark Knight of Gotham City begins his war on crime with his first major enemy being Jack Napier, a criminal who becomes the clownishly homicidal Joker.



Honey, I Shrunk the Kids
Directed by: Joe Johnston
Starring: Rick Moranis, Matt Frewer, Marcia Strassman
Released: June 23, 1989

The scientist father of a teenage girl and boy accidentally shrinks his and two other neighborhood teens to the size of insects. Now the teens must fight diminutive dangers as the father searches for them.

What I Thought Then

These two movies released on my ninth birthday, and it's quite likely I saw them both in the theater at some point. Both had huge hype trains--I owned Batman trading cards--and were considered special-effects bonanzas for their time. And both were in heavy rotation in our home. For a few years, Batman was a mainstay of Thanksgiving Day watching when we got tired of the parade.

What I Think Now

Both movies hold up reasonably well, although of the two Batman feels like a curio. You know that superhero that DC keeps making movies about even though no one is asking for them anymore? Well, this was the first. Er, well, the second... or possibly seventeenth. Anyway, this was the first modern Batman movie in an era where the only superhero movies we had were Superman movies, half of which sucked. And in many ways it is a triumph of tone over substance. Tim Burton's made-for-Hot-Topic visual aesthetic of horny goth camp is a perfect fit for a comic book character who isn't actually dark and gritty but feels that way to a nine year old. This is fortunate because it's a nothingburger of a story populated by empty characters and visual effects that don't stand up well in the era of high-definition televisions.

And, mah gawd, there were some choices that went into this film that speak more to Burton's sensibilities than Batman's. Why is the Joker a self-styled artist? Why is every building in Gotham a work of art-deco brutalism? Why is Bruce Wayne such a nobody that he can disappear into the background of his own party? What prompted the filmmakers to turn this into a collaboration with Prince? And the casting! Let's leave aside the leads--Nicholson was stunt-cast and Keaton had worked with Burton on Beetlejuice. Jack Palance is in this movie! Billy Dee Williams is Harvey Dent. Lee Wallace is not-Ed-Koch. The two most dynamic characters are Robert Wuhl and Kim Basinger as journalists Alexander Knox and Vicky Vale, the latter having just returned from Corto Maltese because of a fascination with bats (Oh, hey, Corto Maltese is in this! If that name sounds familiar, it's because you've recently watched The Suicide Squad.)

It sounds like I'm griping, but I was entertained. The film moves briskly and endearingly between set-pieces, and while Nicholson and Keaton don't have much to their characters, they've got on-screen charisma in spades. I like that it doesn't start with the origin story--oh, don't worry, we get the origin story, this is a Batman movie after all, but we get it as a flashback in the Act II. The effects don't look great, but it's a dark movie so you can't really see how bad they look for the most part. The matte paintings in particular look extremely fake, but in a painterly way, which is at least appropriate. And all of it is held together by a very specific tone, the elements of which would get cranked up to eleven in Batman Returns, at which point Warner Bros would take the keys away from Burton.

By comparison, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids is much more straightforward. Premise plus complication. Four kids get shrunk and thrown out with the trash, and they have to navigate the back yard in order to get home to their parents, who are: Max Headroom, Buffy's mom, Louis Tully, and Marcia Strassman as "the sane one". Apart from its larger-than-life (or smaller-than-life, depending on how you reckon these things) set-up, the story is a by-the-numbers family comedy. Kids who don't like each other have to learn to get along. Parents who have unrealistic expectations of their children have to let go of those expectations. One thing I was struck by on this re-watch was how the Szalinki's marriage was falling apart in the background of the movie. "Mom spent the night at Grandma's" is a line that didn't resonate with me, but there are a lot of kids who would have known exactly what that meant.

But parental drama is relegated to the background. The real stars of this movie are--billing notwithstanding--the kids. The mom one, the dad one, the brain, and the annoying little brother. And they're all good. They laugh, they cry, they struggle, they succeed. They ride a bee. And Jared Rushton was fresh of off Big, so that's a fun connection. The effects hold up mostly well. The stop-motion animation and elaborate matting looks fake by modern standards, but by and large the movie uses oversized props to sell the illusion of shrunken-ness, and they still look great. The characters are charming and the jokes are funny--who among us has forgotten the callback to "French class"? The story moves along at a steady clip, and James Horner's bouncy score keeps the proceedings light and energized. And the movie is just over ninety minutes, a very watchable length.

Recommendation?

Both are worth revisiting. Batman is more of an exercise in anthropology, but it's an entertaining one. Honey, I Shrunk the Kids stands on its merit. It's charming and a lot of fun. And it even starts with a Roger Rabbit cartoon, so that's a thing.

Tune in next week to see a drooling dog...

In My Misspent Youth In Films, Kurt is going through his the movies he grew up on. Read the explainer or see more posts.

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