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Teenie Weenies – The Making of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids

A family adventure from the makers of Re-Animator? That’s ostensibly what Honey, I Shrunk the Kids was when it first surfaced in 1989, the latest live-action fantasy from the Walt Disney Company. Another tale of a mad scientist causing havoc on those around him, the movie starred comic actor Rick Moranis as a fledging inventor who creates a machine that is able to resize matter, resulting in both his own and the neighbours’ children shrinking to a quarter of an inch and becoming lost in their backyard. One of the last special effects-oriented family blockbusters before Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Jurassic Park ushered in the age of CGI, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids struggled through a difficult production but was met with considerable acclaim and success at the box office when it finally made its way onto the big screen.

Released in 1985 amid a slew of similar zombie pictures, Re-Animator was a low budget adaptation of a series of short stories from legendary horror writer H.P. Lovecraft that raised the bar on excessive blood-letting and nudity, blending outrageous horror with a unique brand of dark humour. Marking the filmmaking debut of former theatre director Stuart Gordon and producer Brian Yuzna, the movie became an unexpected critical success, with Roger Ebert declaring that viewers ‘have been assaulted by a lurid imagination, amazed by unspeakable sights, blind-sided by the movie’s curiously dry sense of humour. I guess that’s our money’s worth.’ Distributed through Charles Band’s then-lucrative independent studio Empire, the film introduced horror audiences to a new anti-hero, Herbert West, an ambitious and mentally-unbalanced medical student obsessed with discovering the cure for death. 

Following its unexpected acclaim, Gordon and Yuzna reunited to adapt a second Lovecraft story, From Beyond, along with their own tale of horror, Dolls. It would be the latter that would introduce them to a writer by the name of Ed Naha. An alumnus of horror magazine Fangoria, Naha had first made the acquaintance of Gordon and Yuzna through their association with Band, Naha having written Empire’s 1986 creature feature Troll for FX artist-turned-director John Carl Buechler. Band would often pitch concepts to writers as a poster and basic premise and following the completion of Troll he showed Naha artwork for an idea called The Doll. Gordon and Yuzna adapted Naha’s screenplay into a cheap horror called Dolls, one of many Band productions that would focus on dolls and puppets that would come to life and wreak havoc. 

Having created three horror pictures that had earned them considerable acclaim in the genre through their no-holds-barred approach to sex, violence and comedy, Yuzna wanted to create a story that his young children could enjoy and so they began to brainstorm ideas for a family fantasy until they came upon the concept of kids being shrunk and the unimaginable terror that they would face. ‘I remember really clearly how it all began. I was with Brian Yuzna in his backyard and he was really upset because his kids had gone to see a movie called The Journey of Natty Gann, which was directed by a neighbour,’ recalled Gordon to author Maitland McDonagh. ‘The director’s kids invited the entire class to come to an advance screening and Brian’s kids came home afterwards and said, ‘Dad, how come we never get to see any of your movies?’ which knocked his nose a little out of joint.’

While Re-Animator would owe a debt to the zombie films of the 1980s their latest concept would borrow heavily from the 1950s B-movie, specifically The Incredible Shrinking Man. Directed by sci-fi master Jack Arnold from a script by legendary author Richard Matheson, the movie told of an everyday-man who, after being exposed to a bizarre mist, slowly begins to shrink, eventually becoming lost in his basement where he struggles to survive in this new world, ultimately fighting a giant spider for supremacy. Bringing the basic outline to Naha, the writer began to craft a story using various set pieces that would utilise the imaginative concept and soon a script entitled Teenie Weenies began to take shape.

‘Stuart and Brian had young children back then and came up with this idea about shrunken kids. They pitched it to Disney and the studio was interested,’ explained Naha to Love-It-Loud in 2011. ‘So they approached me about working with them and we came up with the story. When I was a kid on the East Coast there was a comic strip in the Sunday edition of the New York Daily News called the Teenie Weenies. It was one huge frame showing little people riding around on mice or sitting in thimbles and I just loved that. There was also a little guy or girl that you could cut out of the newspaper and paste on cardboard to play with. So, in a way, I was prepared for this sort of thing ever since I could hold a newspaper in my chubby little hands.’ 

Teenie Weenies would incorporate one of the most common devices of science fiction: the mad scientist. From the eponymous protagonists of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and R.L. Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to the various tales of H.G. Wells, crazed inventors have long since been a staple of the genre, their crimes against science often being the catalyst for the horrors that would follow. This would continue through the 1980s, from the family fun of Back to the Future to the graphic horror of The Fly; the lengths that a scientist is willing to go in order to bring their visions to life have continued to fascinate and repulse audiences for centuries. In Teenie Weenies, the man in question was Wayne Szalinski, whose projects and obsessions often make him the joke of his peers, yet his latest opus, the electro-magnetic shrinking machine, promises to revolutionise every aspect of modern life. But if only he could get it to work.

Despite his desperation to prove himself Szalinski is looked upon with animosity by his alpha male neighbour Big Russ Thompson, while his own wife feels frustrated that he is more focused on his crazy ideas than a respectable career. But when an accident results in both of the Szalinski children being shrunk alongside Thompson’s two sons, the scientist must use every resource at his disposal to locate the kids amongst the jungle of their backyard, where they face scorpions, bees and even a friendly ant. ‘If you look at the Disney movies of the ’60s and ’70s, ‘mad’ scientists were pretty family-friendly,’ insists Naha. ‘You had The Absent-Minded Professor and Son of Flubber with adult scientists. You had The Misadventures of Merlin Jones and The Monkey’s Uncle with younger science whizzes. No matter what the age of the scientist, if you give him the sense of wonder and glee and spontaneity of a kid, you’re gold. They weren’t so much ‘mad’ as they were ‘animated.’’

But as the concept began to develop the studio would take a more hands-on approach, slowly forcing out Gordon and Yuzna in favour of more respected artists who, having no association with the likes of Re-Animator, had a repertoire more akin to the likes of Disney. The director chosen to helm the production would be Joe Johnston, a special effects artist known for his work as art director for Industrial Light and Magic on Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Howard the Duck, but Teenie Weenies would mark his first time as a filmmaker. Yet despite his experience behind the scenes, history had proven that a knowledge of staging FX gags did not necessarily make for a commercially successful director, as Buechler’s slasher sequel Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood and Pumpkinhead, the filmmaking debut of the legendary Stan Winston, had shown. The production would require numerous elaborate set pieces, yet directing also demanded a certain chemistry with the performers and the ability to oversee the function of an entire set.  

The more anticipation grew for Teenie Weenies the more the creators found they were being pushed aside. Gordon, Naha and Yuzna would receive story credit, while the latter would remain on board in a production capacity, and so Gordon decided to focus on another project, the post-Transformers sci-fi flick Robot Jox for Empire Pictures. ‘The original idea on Robot Jox was that it was a family film,’ claimed Gordon in an interview with author Dennis Fischer for his book Science Fiction Film Directors, 1895-1998. ‘It was intended to be a little departure from the other films and in a way it was the beginning of what became Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, the idea of using science fiction as a way of making a family film in the science fiction vein.’ With Johnston having replaced the original director, Naha found that more executives were giving their input on the creative process and so ideas began to contradict each other, while original concepts were jettisoned in favour of new ones and entire scenes were being completely rewritten.

One of the most notorious of these instances was in the death of the friendly ant which, with the children reduced to a similar size, had become their protector while they were struggling to find their way home. ‘I was adamantly opposed to having Anty die. At a certain point during the creative process, the whole experience tanked,’ admits Naha. ‘After two solid years of development we got a green light on the script. Then Stuart got sick, Brian was nudged out of the way and a new producer and director were air-dropped in. I was very naïve at the time and figured, ‘Okay, the show must go on.’ Things had to be changed. Why? Because that’s what happens when a new team comes in. One of the changes involved Anty dying. The original ending had Anty alive and well.’

Even Naha wasn’t safe, with Dead Poets Society scribe Tom Schulman hired to rework the screenplay. ‘I actually never worked with Tom,’ continues Naha. ‘I’d done countless drafts of the screenplay over two years. Each time I did another pass the studio would have to add an amendment to my contract. My final contract was about the size of the Gutenberg Bible. After going head-to-head about Anty’s fate and a couple of other ideas I loathed when the studio asked if I’d do another script. I signed a three-script deal and went off, happy as a clam, figuring all was well on the Teenie Weenie front. I was asked if I would mind if someone else did a polish. Two months later I saw the polish, which was a re-write and I hit the ceiling. After my Donald Duck squawking some things were fixed. Other things weren’t.’

With such an eclectic collection of characters, the casting process for Teenie Weenies would one be of the most important aspects of pre-production, particularly the role of Wayne Szalinski. While Jeffrey Combs had brought Re-Animator’s Herbert West to the screen with such delicious relish, Disney would need someone more recognisable from family entertainment and so the part eventually went to Rick Moranis. Following his breakthrough performance in 1984’s Ghostbusters as the eccentric Louis Tully, Moranis had starred in the musical remake of Little Shop of Horrors and the Star Wars spoof Spaceballs, in which he played the Darth Vader-esque Dark Helmet. ‘Casting was exhausting,’ declared Penney Finkelman Cox, who would replace Yuzna as the producer. ‘One element was appearance – the kids had to look as though they could be siblings; they also had to resemble the actors who were playing their parents. Amy O’Neill and Robert Oliveri look like they could be Rick Moranis.’

While not exactly the antagonist, Big Russ Thompson would provide Szalinski with the most confrontation, particularly upon discovering the fate of his children. In this significant role was Matt Brewer who, following acclaim on the stage in various Shakespeare productions, was cast as the computerised pop culture icon Max Headroom in the mid-1980s. The remainder of the cast would include TV veteran Marcia Strassman as Moranis’ long-suffering wife, while theatre actress Kristine Sutherland would be cast alongside Brewer as Mrs. Thompson. The children, ostensibly the stars of the story, included Jared Rushton, fresh from his co-starring role alongside Tom Hanks in the blockbuster Big; Amy O’Neill, who had previously enjoyed a recurring role in the soap opera The Young and the Restless; Thomas Brown and ten-year-old Robert Oliveri, who had recently made an appearance in the small-screen spinoff of Friday the 13th.

Despite having a script in development with Disney that looked set to be a big budget event movie, Naha confessed that he was a little disappointed that both Gordon and Yuzna, who would make his directorial debut in 1989 with the body horror satire Society, did not remain on board in creative capacities. ‘I am blissfully unaware of the dancing that went on after Stuart and Brian left. Again, this was my first experience at a major studio and I was incredibly naïve. I was thrilled to be at Disney because, well, it was Disney. I grew up with Disney. I’m sure that what went on didn’t exactly resemble the happiest place on Earth. I was really disappointed when Stuart left. Stuart is brilliant. His background is live theatre and so he brings a lot to a sound stage in terms of connecting with actors and getting amazing performances. He also knows how to work with a cinematographer to get the most on the screen. I thought the cast was great. They really were ideal. In terms of the overall feel of the movie, I think Stuart would have kept a lot more heart in it.’

Naha was not the only horror veteran to participate in the making of Teenie Weenies. With the story set in the microscopic world of the backyard it was imperative that elaborate sets were built that not only reproduced the garden itself but also other set pieces such as a giant discarded piece of lego. For the task of bringing this landscape to life was Gregg Fonseca, whose prior work had included Wes Craven’s 1984 slasher A Nightmare on Elm Street, a production which required, during one sequence, a rotating set. Another important contributor to the production was executive producer Thomas G. Smith who, like Johnston, was a graduate of Industrial Light and Magic and had worked alongside Spielberg on both Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. Much as with The Incredible Shrinking Man the script for Teenie Weenies would make the most out of its unique environment, allowing the protagonists to battle large insects, survive natural disasters and utilise household objects for survival.

Production finally commenced in September 1987 at Churubusco Studios in Mexico City, a location chosen out of necessity due to the demands of numerous elaborate sets and structures. The studio had previously been home to a variety of impressive productions, from David Lynch’s visually striking yet critically underwhelming adaptation of Dune to the long-gestating Philip K. Dick adaptation Total Recall. Both projects, incidentally, had been in development for over a decade and had seen the involvement of both notorious producer Dino De Laurentiis and cult filmmaker Dan O’Bannon. It would not only be the yard that was replicated in Mexico City but also the neighbourhood in which the Szalinskis and Thompsons reside, with both streets and houses built within the giant studio.

Due to the production being based in Mexico, far from the familiar surroundings of Hollywood, the language barrier would sometimes prove to be an issue between the American filmmakers and the local crew. ‘It was exciting to shoot in Mexico City,’ stated Moranis, who would go on to play the role of Wane Szalinski in the two subsequent sequels, before being succeeded by Peter Scolari for the small screen spinoff. ‘Even more interesting was the idea of filming a comedy on a set where half the crew didn’t speak English. I learned a lot. I’d be rehearsing these scenes and everybody would think I was really being hilarious, then I’d look over at the Mexican crew and they would have this deadpan expression on their faces. They didn’t understand a word, but when we were doing physical comedy they laughed right along with everyone else.’

The script for Teenie Weenies would require several ambitious sequences that would push the talents of the crew to near breaking point, with the producers having to import dirt from California after exhausting the supply at the studio. Arguably the film’s greatest achievement would be in the creation of the ant that would prove to be the hero of the story after sacrificing its own life to save the children from a deadly scorpion. ‘We wanted the audiences to think of the ant as they would a character, so we designed its antennae to move in certain ways that communicate its feelings and emotions,’ said Peter Anthony Zamora, one of eight model makers who would make up the miniatures crew. The creation of the ant would be a collaboration between a large model operated by twelve technicians during shooting and a stop-motion version designed by David Allen, the man also responsible for bringing the diabolical creatures to life in Charles Band’s Puppet Master.

Once the children had survived the challenges of the yard they then had to overcome numerous obstacles in their own home, including almost drowning in a large bowl of Cheerios. To accomplish this scene, Johnston required sixteen thousand gallons of milk to be created from water and food thickener to be poured into the giant bowl that the young actors were then forced to act inside of. This is where Johnston’s background in special effects would prove useful, as he would be able to convey his vision to the crew and even assist in their creation. ‘My job was to remind the young actors that as far as their characters were concerned, the backyard was four miles long and at any moment they could be eaten by a bumble bee; I reinforced the fantasy,’ claimed Johnston on how he worked alongside his cast to create believable performances from such an outrageous story.

Even during production the executives at Disney were constantly making amendments to every aspect of the project, from the technical side to the script. As promotion on Teenie Weenies began the studio decided the picture needed a more commercial name and so rebranded the screenplay as Grounded, but due to its lack of commercial appeal the producers finally settled on the more memorable Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. ‘I have no idea who came up with the finished title,’ confesses Naha, who had no involvement with the new moniker. ‘For a while it was called Grounded. The studio sent out these magnifying glasses with the word Grounded etched into the handle. All the members of the press got them. I was also a member of the press, at the time, having a column for the New York Post, so I got one as well. I thought, ‘Great, this title will appeal to electricians.’ Whoever came up with the final title deserves a medal.’

Yet while Naha immediately saw the marketing potential of the final title not everyone involved was impressed. ‘When I first heard that title I hated it. In my mind the movie was about the kids and that title was about the parents,’ admitted Gordon in 1995. ‘But the title turned into one of those things that becomes part of the collective consciousness of our society. You see variations on it everywhere…‘Honey, I did such-and-such.’ So I ended up really liking it…Jeffrey Katzenberg hated the title Teenie Weenies. That was something he made very clear from the start. I suggested Itsy-Bitsies, which wasn’t any more appealing. His biggest problem with the title was that he thought it sounded like a little kids’ movie, which I think is probably true. He wanted to appeal to more of a teenage audience and Teenie Weenies sounded as though it was aimed at third graders.’

Honey, I Shrunk the Kids made its debut in the summer of 1989, backed by an extensive marketing campaign from Disney that would include an animated short film called Tummy Trouble serving as the opening entertainment. Starring Roger Rabbit, fresh from his own acclaimed feature Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the seven minute cartoon saw the clumsy hero fighting all manner of dangerous obstacles while forced to babysit the mischievous Baby Hermin, last seen alongside Roger in his blockbuster movie the previous year. Directed by Frank Marshall alongside Rob Minkoff, the latter finding success during the 1990s with The Lion King and Stuart Little, Tummy Trouble was intended to prepare audiences for the over-the-top shenanigans that the main presentation would have in store for them.

The critical reaction for the movie would prove that Disney having taken a chance on the feature, their first live action feature for several years, had finally paid off. In a summer that had included such blockbusters as Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Batman and Ghostbusters II, a B-movie concept from the creators of Re-Animator had proved to be one of the surprise delights of the season. ‘Honey, I Shrunk the Kids is as sweet, straightforward and funny as its title,’ stated Caryn James of the New York Times. ‘Unlike most shrinking-people movies, this is not a savvy film full of lines that zoom above kids’ heads to amuse their parents. And though it includes some startling special effects, this is no high-tech marvel. It is an old-fashioned romp that conveys a sense of wonder simply by placing young actors next to fantastic oversized props.’

Johnston would continue to direct special effects pictures throughout his career with Jumanji, Jurassic Park III and Captain America: The First Avenger, all utilising his past experience with Industrial Light and Magic. For the director, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids followed a long tradition of not only Disney flicks but also B-movies that revelled in both science and fantasy. ‘Those of us who grew up in the ’50s remember a special kind of Walt Disney film, wonderful excursions that spoke to the adventurous spirit, regardless of age. They were boldly stated films, not afraid to push the envelope of wonder and credibility, yet they had a certain kind of from-the-heart honesty. Through all the unusual perils of moviemaking, the challenge of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids was to capture that same kind of Disney electricity that makes an audience willingly lose itself in an impossible world.’

While some aspects of the experience may have left a bad taste in his mouth Naha, who would subsequently work on the TV series adapted from his script, looks back fondly on the end result. ‘I can’t speak for Stuart or Brian but I thought the movie was solid. It was about eighty per cent there in terms of heart and emotion. There were some things that irritated the hell out of me. For instance, the bookend scenes in the movie concerning a Thanksgiving fishing trip. I mean, when I think of Thanksgiving I think, ‘Screw the turkey! Let’s go fishing!’ Doesn’t everyone? Most of that was edited out of the finished film. The movie wound up being Disney’s biggest live action release up until that time, which was kind of amusing. It opened on a Friday in June, opposite Batman and for the two weeks prior to its release there were a flurry of news articles in the Los Angeles papers about how the studio was disappointed in the movie. Allegedly, that’s why they added the Roger Rabbit cartoon to the release.’

With sequels always promising concepts that are bigger and better 1992 would see the release of the inevitable follow-up Honey, I Blew Up the Kid. While the film would see the return of Moranis, Strassman, Oliveri and, in a brief cameo, O’Neill, neither Johnston nor the original trio of creators would reprise their roles behind the scenes. In place of Johnston was a veteran of family entertainment, Randal Kleiser, whose résumé included such crowd-pleasers as Grease and Flight of the Navigator, while the screenplay would be developed from a story by actor Garry Goodrow. ‘There was a script I had been sent, actually about the same time as I started working on Honey, I Shrunk the Kids called Big Baby,’ explained Gordon to McDonagh. ‘It was, naturally enough, about a giant baby, kind of an homage to The Amazing Colossal Man. And it struck me that without a lot of work, this script could be turned into the sequel to Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.’

What started as a basic concept for a children’s story from the makers of Re-Animator would ultimately become one of the biggest box office sensations of 1989, launching a brand new Disney franchise that would include sequels, a television series and even the 4D experience Honey, I Shrunk the Audience!, which became a popular attraction at Disneyland in the mid-1990s. Taking the high concept of ’50s B-movies and combining it with the revolutionary special effects of the 1980s created a cinematic experience that has delighted audiences for the last three decades. ‘It’s hard for me to grasp the idea that Honey is going to be remembered as a Disney film the same way that I remember The Absent-Minded Professor or Darby O’Gill and the Little People,’ confesses Naha on the legacy that has built around Honey, I Shrunk the Kids

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