Humanity has spent the entirety of its existence trying to make itself as big as possible, meaning there’s something quietly radical about making ourselves small. Meet the humble shrinker: They don’t long for empire or domination, but to reduce themselves to the meek heights of the universe’s smallest elements. Animals, structures, oversized foods—everything is a wonder and a challenge to the shrinker. They’re usually more interested in scientific and sociological discovery than weaponizing their technology, and because a shrunk person is much less intimidating than a giant one, they can go unnoticed amongst the hectic demands of human life. Sometimes, their new diminutive state attracts a lot of celebrity, but because shrinking is inherently an act of humbling, rarely do they take advantage of it. As everyone’s favorite pocket-sized superhero (citation needed: who’s ride-or-die for Ant-Man?) voyages to subatomic extremes, it’s time to scrutinize the best shrinking films in tiny detail.
Here are the 10 best movies about shrinking:
An excellent entry into the “stop wasting my time” cinematic universe, Alexander Payne’s most recent film doesn’t just waste a good premise, but by stretching its promising elevator pitch into a bloated 137 minutes, you become convinced the story should have just been an above-average SNL skit. Middle-class citizens unhappy with their lack of undeserved social mobility in the wake of economic downturn jump all-in on shrinking themselves down to enjoy a gated community high-life. It gets credit for diving into the political implications of shrinking technology, and manages to be mildly interesting for a few scenes at a time, but ironically, this film needs to be a hell of a lot shorter.
The late, great Albert Pyun made non-stop contributions to the B-movie canon—for better or worse in the case of Dollman. When space cop Brick Bardo (a perfectly straight-laced Tim Thomerson) travels across the galaxy to Earth, he finds out that he’s only 13 inches tall—and what’s worse, he’s in a Full Moon Picture. It’s a point of controversy about whether or not Bardo actually shrinks or if his planet is just proportionally smaller, but seeing as the same filmmaking techniques, production design and special effects are used in Dollman as these other shrinking movies, you’ll forgive our grievous transgression for including it here. The film opts for cheapness too often to be accepted into the shrinking movie hall of fame (a budget rather than talent constraint), but watching a sci-fi lawman finally deliver whoopass while only a foot tall is worth the price of admission (note: this film was never released in theaters).
8. Attack of the Puppet People
Rushed into production after the success of a different ‘50s shrinking film, this 79-minute sci-fi tale feels like an over-extended Twilight Zone episode in both good ways and bad. People keep going missing after coming into contact with an eccentric dollmaker, and it’s signposted pretty immediately that he’s been shrinking them into action figure-sized display pieces, but it takes another 25 minutes before we get down to that sweet shrinking action. Something that this film shares with some of the best “shrinkers” is having a significant group of people shrunk down, meaning they’re less isolated in their plight to regain height. That’s right, there’s a real sense of community in Attack of the Puppet People, but neither that nor the characters forced to perform theater with a marionette doll can push it higher up this list.
7. Ant-Man Series
When the first Ant-Man film was in production, Stan Lee told Paul Rudd how glad he was that this Avenger was getting the big-screen treatment because he had always felt frustrated in trying to capture the scale of his half-inch hero on the comic page. Modern visual effects came to Marvel’s aid, with a couple of refreshingly small-scale adventures as palate cleansers for grander, bulkier ensemble pieces—that is, until Ant-Man became the center of a universe-altering superbad in Quantumania. Still, the sequences where our heroes shrink down and interact with all sorts of regular-sized environments and objects are delightful, offering a lightness in adventure that’s lacking from the too-often lumbering action we’re used to from Marvel properties.
6. The Dwarf and the Giant
The world’s first shrinking movie was created by Georges Méliès, but it’s not the only landmark visual effect captured in the one-minute film. Méliès (who also stars in the film) doesn’t get around to shrinking himself until he’s duplicated his own body and then enlarged himself. Such boundary-pushing transfigurations undoubtedly evoked pure terror in the 1901 audience, meaning that when the OG Méliès shrinks himself back down (after tormenting his clone by showering confetti on him), the crowd must have breathed a deep sigh of relief. It’s very nice to see how much of early cinema was just French people fucking around and finding out.
Joe Dante’s Innerspace is the rare shrinking movie to not overly invest in oversized sets and compositing a small person alongside a larger one. Instead, it’s a self-confessed rip-off of Fantastic Voyage, where a submarine explorer is shrunk down and injected into a hapless nobody’s bloodstream. It’s basically an exercise in Kuleshov effect-ing a shrinking movie: We are presented with Dennis Quaid messing around in veins, nerves and windpipes; we see the effects in Martin Short’s peerless slapstick acting. There’s a weird, deranged electricity throughout Innerspace, commonly found in Dante’s films, and it proved you could improve on the stories from the Golden Age of science fiction by injecting some of that sweet ‘80s silliness.
4. The Incredible Shrinking Woman
Another ‘80s remake of a ‘50s sci-fi movie, this Joel Schumacher flick also injects a metric ton of silliness into its B-movie plot, but trumps Innerspace with the sheer volume of shrinking hijinks involved. Lily Tomlin’s exposure to a smorgasbord of slightly toxic household products triggers a drastic shrinking process—catapulting her to celebrity. Trust Schumacher to direct Tomlin and the faultless Charles Grodin towards the exact right blend of goofy and deadpan comedy, making the romantic ideal of a regular-sized and shrunken couple. Largely maligned on release, Shrinking Woman is a lasting remnant of exceptionally-cast outlandish comedies where getting silly was a finely tuned skill.
3. Alice in Wonderland
The most iconic instance of fictional shrinking came from Lewis Carroll’s absurdist fairytale, where young Alice samples from a bottle marked “DRINK ME” that, alas, makes her shrink to a completely unhelpful size. After some confusing repartee with a talking doorknob, she ends up shrinking again after a cake makes her grow to an embarrassing height, and once a few tears have been spilt, she makes it out of her conundrum by coasting away inside the bottle she drank from. Carroll’s use of shrinking comes at the start of Alice’s adventure in Wonderland, and effectively sets the tone for her journey while highlighting the key side-effect of shrinking: Disorientation, with a dream-like, overwhelming bafflement of your surroundings being hellishly out of proportion. Still, there’s a clear communication breakdown in Wonderland that should really be addressed.
2. The Incredible Shrinking Man
Sometimes, Americans were so afraid of the Ruskies that they made science fiction movies, never clearer in this atomic-anxiety B-movie written in part by I Am Legend and Twilight Zone scribe Richard Matheson. After being exposed to a strange cloud, a ‘50s man begins rapidly shrinking, leading to a lot of visually striking (if amusing) shots of him half the height of his wife, chair and, eventually, cat. Soon, he becomes small enough to fall under floorboards, and presuming him dead, his wife abandons his solitary and subterranean shrunken plight. The scaled sets, while restricted by budget, are really creative, and Shrinking Man works brilliantly in near-silent stretches where it becomes a proper survival film. Plus, its downer ending reaches a state of philosophical beauty. It’s undoubtedly the best film out of any listed here, even if its shrinking sequences were fated to be outmatched.
1. Honey, I Shrunk the Kids
Every time you put on a Walt Disney movie from the ‘80s (especially one you didn’t watch as a child), there’s always a moment of thinking, “Oh, is it going to be like this for the whole film?” Fears of a cheap and irritating film vanish from your mind, however, once this family classic really gets going, and like Dante and Schumacher’s ‘80s romps, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids director Joe Johnston (in his feature debut) takes advantage of modern visual effects to update the ‘50s sci-fi vision for new audiences. Honey is not exactly a brilliant film, but certainly the most impressive—the massive-scale sets and size-contrast composite shots look better than any film listed here. What’s more, the ‘50s are emulated again with seamless big-insect stop-motion, helping to sell the required fantasy-adventure tone for these kids’ adventure in tiny-land. Everything in regular-sized-land, led by a peak-of-his-powers Rick Moranis, sells the high stakes of losing your children in your own backyard. Watching Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, you’re easily charmed, and it’s easier for kids to want a shrinking adventure of their own.
Rory Doherty is a screenwriter, playwright and culture writer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. You can follow his thoughts about all things stories @roryhasopinions.