Home > Reviews > HONEY, I SHRUNK THE KIDS – James Horner

HONEY, I SHRUNK THE KIDS – James Horner

THROWBACK THIRTY

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

One of the most popular and successful children’s adventure films of 1989, Honey I Shrunk the Kids starred Rick Moranis as Wayne Szalinsky, a scientist and inventor who makes a machine capable of shrinking objects down to miniscule size. One day, Wayne accidentally shrinks his son Nick, his daughter Amy, and the two brothers who live next door, and throws them out in the trash. Stranded at the bottom of their back yard – which, due to their size, is now the equivalent of several miles away from their house and looks like the Amazon rain forest– the children must fight their way through this jungle of plants and enormous insects in order to return home; meanwhile, Wayne has realized what he has done, and desperately begins searching for his kids so he can restore them to their regular size. The film co-starred Thomas Brown, Amy O’Neill, Robert Oliveri, and Jared Rushton as the kids, and marked the directorial debut of Joe Johnston, a special effects genius who had previously worked on several Star Wars and Indiana Jones films.

The score for Honey I Shrunk The Kids was by James Horner, and was the first of several projects he and Johnston would work on together, the others being The Rocketeer, The Pagemaster, and Jumanji. Horner was in the middle of a creative purple patch in the summer of 1989 – he had just written Willow, The Land Before Time, and Field of Dreams, and would shortly write Glory, among others – but Honey I Shrunk The Kids would go down in history as one of the most controversial scores of his career. Almost from day one, Horner had been dogged by accusations of plagiarism and self-plagiarism, passing off other composers’ work as his own, and repeating the same pieces of his own music over and over across different scores. Although there are multiple explanations and theories as to why he did this, some of which are valid and actually quite fascinating, there is no getting around the fact that he did do it. What makes Honey I Shrunk The Kids so controversial is the fact that (as far as I know) it was the only score of his where he was successfully sued by the estates of other composers after Horner had ‘borrowed’ pre-existing themes.

The first composer in question is Nino Rota, and the piece Horner borrowed from him was the theme from the 1973 Federico Fellini film Amarcord; the Rota estate successfully lobbied to have Rota’s name and credit included in the end credits crawl, and if you watch the film today you will see it there. The second composer in question is Raymond Scott, and the piece Horner borrowed from him was ‘Powerhouse,’ which was used in numerous Warner Brothers cartoon scores in the 1930s. Scott’s piece was used without payment or credit, and his estate threatened legal action against Disney. Disney subsequently paid an undisclosed sum in an out-of-court settlement and changed the film’s cue sheets to credit Scott, although his name still does not appear in the film itself. The bottom line is that, as I have said before, you have to simply acknowledge that this was something Horner did and move past it in order to appreciate scores like this. It was an unfortunate tendency of his which really has no justification or reasonable explanation; so, having gotten that out of the way, let’s do exactly that and look at the score itself on its own terms, because it really is a gem.

There are three main themes running through the film. The first one is the Main Theme, as heard in the “Main Title,” and is a madcap explosion of big band jazz which is built around Scott’s Powerhouse theme, but heads off into a number of wildly entertaining directions. The performance of the orchestra here is especially outstanding – ignore the main muted trumpet line and listen to the speed of what the horns and tubas are doing with the bass countermelody, especially in the sequences beginning at 0:17 and 0:49. The whole thing is a showcase for the London Symphony Orchestra’s world class brass. In fact, one of the really fun things about Honey I Shrunk The Kids as a whole is the orchestration. To capture the madcap wackiness of the story, Horner augments his orchestra with a battery of peculiar percussion items, ranging from slap-sticks and shakers, to ratchets, plus specialty instruments such as harmonicas, accordions, and so much more.

The second theme is the ‘Science Theme’ which tends to accompany Wayne and the various madcap inventions he uses throughout the movie – both the shrinking machine, and the additional machines he uses to find the kids as the story progresses. It first appears in the second cue, “Strange Neighbors,” and is more lithe and limber than the main theme, but is still very much rooted in the sound of 1950s jazz. Here, the orchestra is again accompanied by an array of instruments ranging from a harmonica and clarinet, to horns neighing like horses, pizzicato textures, a calliope, and a church organ. This theme is the one which most sounds like Rota’s Amarcord theme – you can hear it at 0:33-0:44 – and the melody is often carried by a soprano saxophone. There are numerous bold and vivacious statements of both the Main Theme and the Science Theme as the score progresses, notably in “Test Run” where the science theme is transposed to oboes and the main theme appears on roaring horns, in “Flying Szalinsky,” and in “The Machine Works” which contains a wonderful burst of pipe organ goodness as an intentional homage to the classic horror movies of the 1930s, especially James Whale’s Frankenstein.

The third recurring theme is the ‘Friendship Theme,’ which pulls triple duty: it begins to emerge as the Szalinsky children and the Thompson children begin to bond over their need to work together to survive the garden, and is also used to convey the love Wayne has for his kids and his desperation to find them, but more often than not it explores the relationship between the kids and Antie, a friendly ant who helps them on their journey. It first appears half way through ‘Flying Szalinsky,” but gets its most noteworthy statement in “Night Time,” a quiet, intimate, poignant cue for lush strings, breathy ethnic woodwinds, soft horns, and a notable cascading cor anglais. It’s a beautiful theme, and is very much in the mold of other Horner love themes. It has some superficial similarities to main theme from The Land Before Time – Horner perhaps drew parallels between Antie and the dinosaurs from that film – and is a welcome addition to this score as it breaks up the rest of the score’s madcap carnage.

The rest of the score is given over to Horner’s brand of action and adventure writing. One of the things that’s most notable about the action music in Honey I Shrunk the Kids is how detailed it is. It’s probably best described as mickey-mousing. because it does intentionally mimic movement, and often changes style and tempo, but whereas other composers’ mickey-mousing can come across as scatterbrained and unfocused, Horner’s never does. It’s tasteful and appropriate, clever and intricate, regularly bringing in one or more of the main themes, or one of the specialty orchestration sounds to make a particular statement. For example, “Shrunk” opens with an explosion of sound – screaming brass, a touch of horror – as the children realize what has happened. This quickly turns into music that conveys a sense of wonderment, with warm strings, pianos, and glittery harp textures. A pretty new theme for sparkling flutes then gives way to some vibrant action music that is often reminiscent of that in Willow. The thunderous percussion and flashing horns illustrate the disorienting frenzy as the children are unwittingly swept up in a gigantic dustpan and brush by their father. There are regular interjections from the saxophones, and the whole thing builds up to a majorly cacophonous conclusion, as the kids are dropped in a trash bag and marched to the bottom of the garden – where the real adventure begins.

“A New World” offers more magic and wonderment, a fun appearance of the four note ‘danger motif’ for trumpets, some abstract ethnic woodwinds, and slower paced, purposeful variations on the Willow-esque action material that actually sounds appropriately dangerous, considering just what an arduous journey they have ahead of them to reach the safety of home. Several of the subsequent action cues are superb, many of which not only recall the action music of Willow, but also have tonal and rhythmic similarities to things like Aliens, Star Trek II, Krull, and the action music from The Land Before Time, while also foreshadowing some of the writing he would later do on The Rocketeer and others. “Scorpion Attack” is a dark, ominous piece filled with dense piano clusters, a sampled church organ, snare drum tattoos, and vivid trumpet triplets. The contrapuntal piano and brass scales that appear throughout the cue are very redolent of his action writing at the time. The middle section of the aforementioned “Flying Szalinsky” contains some wild and frivolous jazz textures, while “Watering the Grass” inserts both main themes into yet more intense action music, rhythmic lines that recall Danny Elfman’s Beetlejuice, expressive runs for strings and brass, and several explosions of dissonance.

“Ant Rodeo” is a fun, energetic, playful piece for the scene where the kids figure out how to ride Antie and guide him towards home by tempting him with giant pieces of Oreo cookie. This cue contains a clear reference to Aaron Copland’s ‘Rodeo’ from his ballet Appalachian Spring at 1:54, which is something Horner would later go on to explore in more depth in An American Tail: Fievel Goes West in 1991; the eagle-eared will also spot an unexpected burst of Dave Grusin’s theme from The Goonies at 1:33, which I am at a loss to explain. “Lawn Mower” starts with a lovely statement of the friendship theme, rich and warm, but quickly embarks on a series of frantic action pieces filled with huge explosions of terrifying noise, heavy use of the pipe organ, and frequent statements of the 4-note danger motif, the magic motif, and both main themes. There is an especially terrific variation on the Main theme where it brilliantly combines with both the action ideas and the pipe organ.

The conclusion of the score – and film – takes place in the Szalinsky family kitchen where the kids, having successfully crossed the garden, try to attract their parents’ attention while they are having breakfast. Unfortunately little Nick falls into his dad’s bowl of cheerios and is almost “Eaten Alive” – Horner scores the piece with yet more rambunctious action and mickey-mousing, including a fantastic sequence of rat-a-tat string writing at 1:17 which Carl Stalling could have written. There is a warm sense of relief in the finale, and this leads into the conclusive “Big Russ Volunteers,” where the Szalinsky theme and the Friendship the combine with hesitant, high strings and muted saxophones, and builds up to the big finale where Wayne figures out how to bring the kids back to their normal size. “Thanksgiving Dinner” is the finale and end credits sequence, and features a warm and endearing performance of the Friendship theme, and a prominent statement of the Goonies-esque theme, before reprising all three main themes to close.

Despite the success of the movie itself, the score for Honey I Shrunk The Kids was not released at the time the film came out – most likely because of the copyright controversy – and so for many years this was one of Horner’s most sought-after gems. A bootleg of the score, which combined music from this film with pieces from In Country and Testament, existed for much of the early 2000s, but it was not until 2009 that the score was released properly by Intrada Records; the album was supervised by Horner himself, and featured a cleaned-up stereo mix by engineer Simon Rhodes. Unfortunately the score has been out-of-print and sold out for many years, and copies of it sell for high prices on the secondary market, but if you do manage to find a copy of it for a reasonable price I cannot recommend it enough. If you can reconcile yourself with Horner’s musical kleptomania, Honey I Shrunk The Kids is a wonderfully entertaining and anarchic adventure score, filled to the brim with enchanting themes, dynamic action sequences, roaring big bad jazz, and a lot of heart.

Buy the Honey I Shrunk The Kids soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Main Title (1:59)
  • Strange Neighbors (1:49)
  • Shrunk (5:37)
  • A New World (3:31)
  • Scorpion Attack (3:34)
  • Test Run (2:08)
  • Flying Szalinsky (1:59)
  • Night Time (5:04)
  • Watering The Grass (4:13)
  • Ant Rodeo (3:45)
  • The Machine Works (2:05)
  • Lawn Mower (5:45)
  • Eaten Alive (2:44)
  • Big Russ Volunteers (1:24)
  • Thanksgiving Dinner (5:27)

Running Time: 51 minutes 04 seconds

Intrada ISC-94 (1989/2009)

Music composed and conducted by James Horner. Performed by London Symphony Orchestra. Orchestrations by Greig McRitchie. Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy. Edited by Jim Henrikson. Score produced by James Horner. Intrada album produced by James Horner, Simon Rhodes, Douglass Fake and Roger Feigelson.

  1. mike
    June 28, 2019 at 12:16 pm

    One of my favorite Horner scores, although the Goonies theme always bothered me more than anything. Also, I wish the Intrada release was in order and complete!

  2. Riley KZ
    July 4, 2019 at 12:30 pm

    Not sure how I missed this posting on Filmtracks, but glad I read it now. I actually had no idea about the plagarism suits, and just listening to Powerhouse now, and….wow, yeah, that’s blatantly the exact same theme. A shame, cause this was always one of my favourite Horner themes in the 80’s. Ah well, like you said, it’s a damn good score regardless. Excellent review Jon!

  3. Nick
    July 12, 2019 at 10:23 pm

    The Rota estate suit is a total fabrication. Never happened that way at all. It’s just gone on to be one of those rumors that persists to this day.

    The other two, Goonies and Powerhouse, well….have any of you actually seen this film? If you have and you’re bothered by what is clearly, blatantly parody….that’s on you.

    • July 13, 2019 at 2:05 pm

      Parody, you say? Care to elaborate? The Powerhouse theme I can maybe see – machinery, assembly lines, science, etc. But what is the Goonies theme doing in there? I’ve seen the film multiple times and never been able to figure it out.

      • July 13, 2019 at 3:10 pm

        Both films deal with groups of kids on a larger-than-life adventure filled with obstacles and was of course, THE hit film about a group of kids that this film would have been silly to not try to recapture some magic from.

        Referencing a score from a highly successful children’s adventure film is homage, parody (in this case since it’s a comedy) but not plagiarism.

        Both Goonies and Honey, I Shrunk The Kids were orchestrated by Greig McRitchie. I highly doubt he would have overlooked that detail…hell for all we know McRitchie encouraged James to use it.

        Nino Rota’s estate never sued Horner / Disney for Honey, I Shrunk The Kids. In fact, the Amarcord score was used as temp and Horner agreed to use it because the director Joe Johnston was so fond of it. Rota was properly credited on the cue sheets and the film – as originally shown, not after-the-fact.

        That came from Jim Henrikson himself. Our mutual friend Tom was there to hear it.

        If it and Powerhouse were both subject to supposed lawsuits, why was Powerhouse not added to the end titles? Because of an error, the music was on the cue sheet, but not the film. That made the Scott estate upset because of an administrative error James Horner had nothing to do with whatsoever.

        Reminds me a little of our old Hornershrine days…

        Someone sued but it wasn’t who you might think…Warner Bros tried to because of their own use of the music in “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure”. Doesn’t make a lick of sense considering Elfman did the same thing, using it as parody/ homage, but that’s movie studio logic for ya.

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