Welcoming the juggernaut of “Batman” and feeling pleasantly surprised by “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.”
June 23rd, 1989
Nutshell: Billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) stalks the streets of Gotham City at night as superhero Batman. When supervillain Joker (Jack Nicholson) rises to power, Batman sets out to spoil his murderous wrath, while Bruce tentatively romances comely reporter Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger).
1989: Was there any other film besides “Batman” released during the summer of ’89?
The answer is, of course, no. While the rest of the ravenous blockbuster competition assumed their rightful place at the center of the media hurricane for brief passages of time, “Batman” was a steady year-long cultural phenomenon. A gorgeous symphony of woozy anticipation. It was the cinematic bee’s knees that season, with the aggressive marketing wizards at Warner Brothers doing an extraordinary job whipping not just the comic book fanboys, but anyone with at least one viable sense and a reservoir of curiosity into a tizzy over the picture. The buzz on this baby was beautiful to behold.
I wasn’t about to be left out of the hype. “Batman” was an exhilarating publicity machine to ride, from the fragments of production tidbits that tumbled into view during 1988 to its deafening, take-no-prisoners release. It summoned a feral geek hysteria that’s sadly commonplace today, but felt incomparable at the time -- a resurgence of comic book/event movie craving that I can only assume buttered “Superman” screenings eleven years prior. For me, attempting to become a member of the elite tier of “Batman” appreciators meant plunging into the thick, sweltering jungle of Shasta-fueled comic book admiration, to better walk the walk. While the funny books failed to hold my attention, at least I gave it the old college try, finding some pleasure in the monthly adventures of The Punisher and Superman along the way. However, being thoroughly ink and paint savvy was the thing to be during the summer, and I played along to the best of my ability.
Merchandising was also a huge component of frenzied “Batman” enthusiasm. Kids everywhere were plastered with Bat-crap ranging from pins and stickers to t-shirts and underwear. There wasn’t an area on the body that wasn’t destined to see some Bat-action. I ate up the goods whenever I could, feeling a brilliant gang mentality as I walked the streets decked out in whatever “Batman” paraphernalia I could get my hands on. All this, and the movie wasn’t even released yet. The merch was everywhere, long before the movie was shaped in the editing room. No young male was immune to the tractor beam of Batmania (goosed by the character’s 50th anniversary celebration), stumbling hopelessly to anything with the Bat-symbol stamped on it. Just ask Wil Wheaton.
When the film was ultimately unleashed, after a good twelve months of teaser footage and media saturation stoking the fire (now an inferno), “Batman” achieved the unthinkable: the final product matched the hype. Granted, there were many who couldn’t stand what director Tim Burton did to the Dark Knight, especially when Prince and his platform heels got involved and glazed the picture with instantly dated pop songs to help soundtrack sales out. I would say the majority of those exiting the packed theaters were impressed. I know I was, feeling the butterflies from Danny Elfman’s percussive opening credits to the heroic closing shot of Batman watching over Gotham, waiting to pounce on the next villain. Nicholson was insane! The gothic production design felt authentically majestic. Basinger was a pouty, 1000-hairbrush-rep golden goddess. Tim Burton was easily bullied by powerful producers. Michael Keaton was the man. While drunk on expectation, “Batman” hit me where I needed it the most. It was a delight and I was a perfect age to be exposed to this, my first pop culture event. I hit up the picture numerous times during the summer to recharge those giddy batteries, feeling the pop-rock sizzle of buzz slowly wear down to simple and pure fandom.
2009: There’s no ample two-decade distance between “Batman” viewings for me. I visit the film with some regularity, especially when it shows up on television, allowing me an opportunity to cherry pick all the best scenes. Today, “Batman” has an imposing challenger in Christopher Nolan’s brutal, urgent take on the Caped Crusader, and while the comparison is ultimately unfair, the reality left behind is that Burton’s vision feels a smidge creaky at times. Muffling the sinister urge to nitpick, I stand behind “Batman” as a superb action film. It’s epic in a thousand ways, precariously balancing on thin rope between abyssal trenches of whimsy and rage, nurtured agreeably by Burton, who clearly didn’t prepare a proper game plan with this film, instead flying by the seat of his pants, guided by his every last art-school-rebel, Hollywood survivalist instinct. “Batman” is a tightly corralled mess of opinions that somehow miraculously lined up in perfect order, save for the Prince songs. God bless the Purple One, his music just doesn’t belong here -- delightful pop trash fruitlessly trying to turn Burton’s frown upside down. We’ll always have “Purple Rain,” Mr. Royal Badness. “Batdance?” Um, something suddenly came up.
“Batman” is late-‘80s all the way, but there’s a charm in that. It’s an earnest bit of superhero do-goodery that eschews a slick presentation to play a little grittier and unexpectedly, enlivened by Nicholson’s legendary performance and solidified by Keaton’s remarkable concentration. Trying to stand out in Burton’s textured world, the actors actually make themselves heard, blending into the wall of special effects, complex comic book lighting, and Danny Elfman’s absurdly perfect score with a gifted precision that’s never received proper credit. “Batman” is great simply because nobody in the production knew just how in the hell any of this madness was going to turn out in the end. The element of surprise appears in every frame of this motion picture, creating a rich sense of joy and mystery that seems to befuddle Burton and his primitive instincts. There’s no better way to isolate “Batman” and its stumbled upon majesty than “Batman Returns,” which was thoroughly bridled by Burton’s newfound creative control, resulting in a crushingly disagreeable sequel and an even worse superhero film.
Yes, I understand there are those who adore “Batman Returns.” I can’t stand the picture, despite its many artistic triumphs. Compared to the straitjacket pleasures of original picture, the sequel felt like a pack of matches in the hands of a pyromaniac.
Honey, I Shrunk the Kids
Nutshell: Inventor Wayne Szalinski’s (Rick Moranis) shrinking machine gets a firm workout when it fires on a nervous assortment of offspring and neighborhood kids. Now miniaturized, the youngsters fight the elements and insects of the backyard, hopeful to find home and return to normal size.
1989: Any film that dared to open on the same weekend as “Batman” was bound to suffer some diminished expectation. Yet, “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” ended up one of the biggest hits of the year, surprising most audiences with its full course meal of teeny adventure and itty bitty comedy. Like the innocent viewers who caught the picture during its initial weeks of release found out, “Honey” holds amazing quality; sold as cutesy Disney pap and adorned with a new Roger Rabbit cartoon to encourage ticket sales, the film was positioned as a flimsy family one-weekend-wonder, shoved out to counterprogram the coal-black treats of “Batman.” I don’t think anyone was expecting a jolly adolescent adventure, bedazzled with imaginatively designed oversized special effects, roughhouse action that left the titular kids in a bloodied state of distress, and Rick Moranis taking a first step toward the ruination of his career. “Honey” seized the Disney brand and gave it a needed sense of mischief, especially to younger audiences who didn’t have much to gnaw on with all the restrictive PG-13s tossed around that summer. It was a fun, fresh, exciting picture that allowed for a glowing four-quadrant response. For me, it was a film slightly humiliating to buy a ticket for, but the shame was short lived once immersed in the backyard wonderland of lawn mower peril, teen smooches, helpful ants, water drop bombardments, and monstrous oatmeal cookies. Having a kid from “Big” in there didn’t hurt either.
2009: It had been a long time since I viewed “Honey” in its entirety, and I didn’t know what to expect. Having slogged through the indignity of two lackluster sequels (1992’s “Honey, I Blew Up the Kid” and 1997’s DTV “Honey, We Shrunk Ourselves” -- the picture that pushed Moranis into retirement) and a moldy Disney park 3-D show (the long-running “Honey, I Shrunk the Audience”), the “Honey” brand stopped welcoming smiles long ago. I’m thrilled to report the 1989 film still packs a substantial punch, due in great part to the efforts of director Joe Johnston to build the picture with a speedy theme park ride mentality.
While flecked with a few cringy ’89 touches such as a tangled rotary phone cord gag and generous plugs for Micro Magic food products, “Honey” retains a filmmaking purity that’s timeless, aging well against a summer of now dated motion pictures. Made during a lenient era before John Hughes and Pixar steered family entertainment into stale, repetitive directions throughout the 1990s, “Honey” keeps a sharp eye on high impact adventuring, using the fantastical miniature world to stage greatly amusing, fully smashmouth set pieces, tossing the kids around massive sets like the jellybeans they’re supposed to be. Johnston (in his remarkable debut) captures the epic qualities of the script with his magnificent visual panache, working overtime to create a sense of peril for the pea-sized kids that swells with every step forward. It’s a pitfall mentality centered on children that recalls fantastic ‘80’s escapism like “The Goonies,” though “Honey” is Disneyfied to a certain degree to keep in step with corporate moral standards. Still, they don’t make pre-teen entertainment like this anymore, and that’s a crime.
Obviously, “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” hasn’t really evaporated from the public consciousness over the last 20 years, but I hope it continues on as staple of family distraction for years to come. It’s a blissfully playful motion picture and, so far, one of the happy highlights of this 1989 recreation.
Coming next week…
The Karate Kid struggles to become a man.
Dennis Quaid loses his goddamn mind.
And Spike Lee makes his finest film.