Batman & Honey, I Shrunk the Kids 35th Anniversary Reviews: Reliving the Two Vastly Different Genre Movies

Summer 1989 gave us several high-profile blockbusters such as Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Ghostbusters II and Lethal Weapon 2. But that particular season of event movies ultimately belongs to Batman, which did great business in the U.S. box office and held the No. 1 spot for three consecutive weeks. The movie, which opened on June 23, 1989, played in cinemas for nearly six months until December 14 that year before capping off with an impressive US$251 million against a US$35 million budget.

Batman may own the June 23rd release but it’s easy to forget there’s another movie dared to open on the same day — a risky, yet suicidal counterprogramming to compete against the hugely-anticipated summer-movie tentpole. Besides, the hype surrounding Batman was massive and ubiquitous to the point it’s hard not to know its existence even if you are not a comic-book or movie fan.

That counterprogramming movie in question? Honey, I Shrunk the Kids — a family-friendly, effects-laden comedy which played second fiddle to Batman at No. 2 upon its debut. But instead of getting shrunk by Batman, money-wise, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids managed to stand on its own as it played for many months. Not only did the movie end up collecting US$130 million but also earned its place as one of the highest-grossing movies of 1989.

Batman (Michael Keaton) and The Joker (Jack Nicholson) in "Batman" (1989)

Both movies celebrate their 35th anniversary this month. Beginning with Batman, it was Tim Burton’s third movie following Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985) and Beetlejuice (1988). The latter two are beloved genre classics with elements of comedies. Judging by his past works at the time, Batman could have been a comedy reminiscent of Adam West-starred 1960s TV series.

And here’s the irony: Warner Bros. did consider making Batman a comedy with Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman alongside the casting choices of Bill Murray as the titular character and Eddie Murphy as Robin. Thankfully, it’s all talk during the earliest stages of the movie. You can imagine how bizarre this would end up if the studio greenlighted Ivan Reitman’s version.

Before Burton came on board, other directors such as David Cronenberg and Joe Dante were considered. Even Michael Keaton wasn’t the studio’s first choice to play Batman with various actors from Mel Gibson to Kevin Costner and even Pierce Brosnan potentially taking up the role. Keaton finally got the gig after co-producer Jon Peters was impressed with his rare dramatic performance in Clean and Sober. The pre-Batman actor was primarily known for his comedic roles such as Night Shift, Mr Mom and of course, Beetlejuice. So, it was a bold choice back in the ’80s era to imagine Keaton playing Batman, especially when the movie wasn’t going to be a campy take similar to the aforementioned ’60s TV show.

But the studio’s huge gamble paid off when the movie opened on June 23, 1989, and the rest, as they say, is history. From the moment Danny Elfman’s thrilling and heroic score played through the opening credits, it’s the kind of catchy superhero theme music that became an instant classic. Various composers from Elliot Goldenthal (Batman Forever) to Hans Zimmer (Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy) and Michael Giacchino (The Batman) gave their own musical interpretations of scoring the Batman movies. And yet, even after 35 years since its original release, Danny Elfman’s theme remains the most enduringly iconic music ever composed.

Credits go to Tim Burton and his crew, particularly the Oscar-winning art direction and set decoration that evokes the look and feel of the German expressionist style of Gotham City. More than just aesthetics, the iconic fictional city breathes life like a character itself — a dark and grim living hell where crime and corruption run rampant ruled by mob boss Carl Grissom (Jack Palance) and his trusted right-hand man, Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson).

Burton smartly inspired his movie from Frank Miller’s 1986 seminal comic-book miniseries The Dark Knight Returns, which forever changed the public perception of how they see Batman as an edgy and brooding superhero than the bright ’60s-era hammy version of the Caped Crusader. He did it by introducing Keaton’s Batman as a formidable figure that makes him like an urban legend terrorising the night. The opening scene perfectly reflects that when the two lowlife thugs encounter Batman on the rooftop, leading to one of the movie’s most iconic moments: A scene where Batman grabs one of the thugs by the shirt and hoists him while standing on the ledge of the rooftop.

What are you?
I’m Batman

Interestingly, the immortal “I’m Batman” line wasn’t originally in the screenplay because Keaton chose to ad-lib the delivery. It’s direct and concise, just enough to induce fear in anyone trying to mess with him. I was initially sceptical seeing Keaton of all people playing one of the most popular DC comic characters.

But it works as Keaton successfully imbued his character as Bruce Wayne/Batman, alternating between his introverted and eccentric billionaire persona and his no-nonsense alter ego engulfed in a sense of mystique. The only gripe I have about Keaton’s performance is his questionable physical build when he’s Bruce Wayne, giving me the impression that he doesn’t look bulking up for the role, unlike the more convincing ones seen in Christian Bale and Ben Affleck.

The movie also introduces Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger), an acclaimed photojournalist teaming up with reporter Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl) to investigate the mysterious Batman. Kim Basinger looks stunning but her damsel-in-distress character comes across as annoying and even screams a lot throughout the movie.

Jack Nicholson, who received top billing as Jack Napier/The Joker, steals most of the show here with his gleefully over-the-top sociopathic performance. Whether he fries one of the arrogant mobsters to a crisp after a deadly handshake or shoots down the Batwing with an unusually long revolver, Nicholson owns the role with his unhinged, bleakly comedic turn as Batman’s most famous antagonist. But the funny thing is, Nicholson wasn’t originally Tim Burton’s first choice to play the villain. Pre-3rd Rock from the Sun and Cliffhanger star John Lithgow was the one who got the offer but declined and so did Robin Williams, who expressed huge interest but the studio went for Nicholson.

It’s worth noting that Tim Burton alongside screenwriters Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren added a pivotal twist to the Joker’s origin. A twist revolving around the cold-blooded death of Bruce Wayne’s parents may have been comic-inaccurate but it does help to establish and raise the personal stakes between Batman and the Joker for the movie version.

Action scenes are integral in the superhero genre and the same applies to Batman. But Burton lacks the flair when comes to handling the action scenes with some of them looking stiff, no thanks to Batman’s bulky rubber suit that unfortunately limits his physical movements. Even watching the movie back in the day, there’s a sense of dissatisfaction with the way the action and fight scenes are presented here.

The success of Tim Burton’s Batman paved the way for the 1992 sequel with the director returning for one last time in Batman Returns. The 1990s era also saw the studio release two more Batman movies with different actors including Val Kilmer in Batman Forever and George Clooney in Batman & Robin, both of which were directed by Joel Schumacher.

Rick Moranis in "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids" (1989)

Moving on to Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, this little movie boasts a storytelling hook: A kid-friendly version that pays homage to the 1957 sci-fi classic The Incredible Shrinking Man. Not to mention the still-impressive special effects, thanks to Joe Johnston’s extensive VFX background in the original Star Wars trilogy and Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Stuart Gordon, best known for his darkly funny Re-Animator, first came up with the idea before Ed Naha and Tom Schulman turned it into a screenplay. The story itself is deceptively simple but fascinating: A struggling scientist and inventor Wayne Szalinski (a perfectly nerdy Rick Moranis) has just designed a ray gun in the attic of his home. His invention is supposed to shrink an object and he tries it on an apple but fails to make it work.

But it wasn’t until a freak accident involving his next-door neighbour’s younger son, Ron (Jared Rushton) hit a baseball through Szalinskis’ attic window and landed on the ray gun, triggering it to activate its laser. Long story short, Ron and his elder brother Little Russ (Thomas Wilson Brown) alongside Szalinskis’ teenage daughter, Amy (Amy O’Neill) and geeky younger son Nick (Robert Oliveri) find themselves being shrunken into human-sized insects.

Soon, these kids end up in a trash bag on the sidewalk and according to Nick’s calculation, it will be 3.2 miles (5 km) to reach from their backyard to the house. The otherwise ordinary-looking backyard becomes a visual playground for Johnston, marking his directorial debut, which perfectly rhymed with the familiar “It’s a jungle out there” phrase. Or just like how Amy tells her younger brother, “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore, Toto.”

From there, we see the shrunken kids going through the “jungle” of the backyard with the imposing height of the grass at a quarter of an inch tall. Johnston approaches his movie like an action adventure with notable entertaining moments like Nick and Ron hanging on to their dear lives while riding on a bee flying all over the backyard. An otherwise harmless water sprinkler that is accidentally turned on causes huge water droplets to splash around the kids like aerial bombs. Another scene worth mentioning here is the stop-motion battle between the kids’ friendly ant nicknamed Antie against the scorpion that looks like it was straight out of a monster movie.

Honey, I Shrunk the Kids is no doubt a technical triumph in the special effects department. It’s fun watching these miniature poor kids trying to survive the ordeals in the backyard. It was a promising directorial debut for Johnston, who would go on to helm several Hollywood blockbusters like The Rocketeer, Jumanji and Captain America: The First Avenger.

Like Batman, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids spawned a sequel titled Honey, I Blew Up the Kid, which also coincidentally released in Summer 1992. The third movie, Honey, We Shrunk Ourselves came out in 1997 as a direct-to-video sequel. There have been talks about reviving Honey, I Shrunk the Kids franchise with a legacy sequel to feature Rick Moranis’ long-awaited return to the live-action role since that 1997 movie while Josh Gad will be playing the adult Nick Szalinski. At the time of writing, the project remains in limbo due to many setbacks since its announcement in 2018.