A Brief History of Big Films About Tiny People

Chris Tilly
Movies Sci-Fi
Movies Sci-Fi

With Ant-Man and the Wasp about to hit screens, we’re taking a look back at the biggest films about miniature people. They may not all be ant-sized, but here are a bunch of fantastic films featuring shrunken folk.

The Devil-Doll (1936)

Directed by Tod Browning (Dracula, Freaks) The Devil-Doll falls into a horror sub-genre we’re calling ‘shrunken horror.’ Lionel Barrymore — so good as the villainous Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life — plays Paul Lavond, a bank manager wrongly convicted of robbery and murder, who escapes from prison with a scientist and his shrinking formula. Lavond uses said formula to exact revenge on the former partners who framed him via the titular dolls, the film cleverly combining oversized props with superimposed images.

Dr. Cyclops (1940)

Based on Harry Kuttner’s short story of the same name — which first appeared in ‘Thrilling Wonder Stories’ — Dr Cyclops combines ‘shrunken horror’ with the mad professor sub-genre to thrilling effect. A group of scientists head deep into the Peruvian jungle to meet with Dr. Aalexander Thorkel, whom they quickly discover to be quite deranged, and  keeping himself busy by shrinking creatures with radiation. When challenged, Thorkel miniaturises his guests. The rest of the movie tells the story of the puny prisoners’ escape, and of course, their inevitable battles with giant jungle creatures.

Alice in Wonderland (1951)

There have been scores of Alice in Wonderland adaptations onscreen, including a 1903 silent film, a 1972 musical, and a 2010 Tim Burton blockbuster that made more than a billion dollars at the global box office. These, of course, all tell the tale of the title character, who shrinks after drinking from the bottle marked ‘Drink Me.’ But despite them all having their quirks, Disney’s 1951 animated version is perhaps the most beloved, bringing Lewis Carroll’s twisted tale to life via lurid colours, trippy animation, and jazz-infused tunes.

The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)

More ‘shrunken horror,’ but this time in the shape of a superb sci-fi scarer that’s based on a book by Duel and I Am Legend scribe Richard Matheson. The title character is exposed to a radioactive cloud, and starts shrinking. Which brings him national fame, but triggers marital troubles. Particularly when he has to move into a doll house. The mini-man continues to get smaller, ending up in a cellar where he battles a spider, and slowly comes to terms with the fact that the shrinkage won’t stop.

Fantastic Voyage (1966)

At the height of the Cold War, a scientist figures out how to miniaturise matter, and is promptly very nearly killed by the Russians. To save his life, a team of scientists get shrunk, and enter his comatose body in a submarine to remove the blood clot on his brain. What follows is a colourful action-adventure through the heart, lungs and ear; one that spawned an Isaac Asimov novelization, and a spin-off cartoon and comic. Guillermo Del Toro is currently developing a remake.

The Incredible Shrinking Woman (1981)

Lily Tomlin stars in this remake of The Incredible Shrinking Man which replaces the scares with laughs. Tomlin plays a housewife made small via exposure to an experimental perfume. John Landis was the original director on the flick, but left due to budgetary concerns, causing the film to become Joel Schumacher’s celluloid debut. But the tone is all over the place, and sadly, those laughs few and far between. Fun fact: make-up legend Rick Baker plays the gorilla who helps Tomlin escape the bad guys at the end of the film.

Innerspace (1987)

Owing a pretty huge debt to Fantastic Voyage, Innerspace stars Dennis Quaid as a naval pilot who is miniaturised and accidentally injected into grocery store clerk Martin Short. The twist being that Short is very much awake, and can interact with the little guy inside him. Director Joe Dante wrings every drop of fun out of the ridiculous premise, while Quaid and Short are a winning comic duo.

Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989)

You know this was coming. Featuring visual effects that have surprisingly stood the test of time, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids stars Rick Moranis as an inventor who accidentally miniaturises his children. Though being a somewhat dopey scientist, he doesn’t realise what he’s done, and takes the kids out with the trash. Meaning they must navigate the many dangers in their backyard to make it to the house to get big. Clever, funny, and endlessly innovative, it was followed by inferior sequel Honey, I Blew Up the Kid, while the less said about straight-to-video threequel Honey, We Shrunk Ourselves, the better.

Downsizing (2017)

A socially and politically charged shrinker, Downsizing stars Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig as a couple who decide to undergo a procedure that makes them five inches tall, to help the environment, and to live like kings on a tiny palatial estate. But all does not go according to plan, with Wiig bottling it, leaving mini-Matt to fend for himself. It’s an intriguing set-up, and the first half of the film is filled with smart satire and jaw-dropping special effects. But gradually Downsizing loses focus, becoming preachy and patronising, and ultimately something of a mess. Full review here.

Chris Tilly
FANDOM Managing Editor in the UK. At this point my life is a combination of 1980s horror movies, Crystal Palace football matches, and episodes of I'm Alan Partridge. The first series. When he was in the travel tavern. Not the one after.
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