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Why the legend Rick Moranis's return is a true cause for celebration
By now, Disney has gone all-in on remaking, rebooting, or simply reviving its older films and TV shows. The reboots and revivals sometimes feel superfluous, but fans were collectively ecstatic about the news that Disney dropped on Wednesday about Shrunk, a revival of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids — the iconic 1989 sci-fi comedy starring Rick Moranis as a dweeby scientist who inadvertently... well, shrinks his kids. And Shrunk has a truly surprising ace in the hole: Moranis himself, who’s going to break his decades-long departure from movies to return for this sequel.
Details at this point are scarce, as Shrunk has yet to start filming. But the confirmed return of Moranis is a major coup for Disney, as well as for Josh Gad, who’s set to co-write the film and star as the grown-up son of Moranis' Wayne Szalinski. Moranis is a genuine rarity in Hollywood. He’s appeared in a number of beloved genre films from the 1980s, many of which have seen a revival of sorts in the last decade. But when he stepped away from making live-action feature films in the late 1990s to focus on his family, it wasn’t just some way to recharge his creative batteries after a slump.
The last live-action theatrically released film in which Moranis starred is the 1996 film Big Bully; aside from that, he provided his voice in Disney’s 2003 animated theatrical release Brother Bear, as well as a direct-to-DVD sequel to that film, and a live-action direct-to-DVD Shrunk sequel in 1997. And that’s it. Moranis largely stepped back from making movies throughout the '90s, even foregoing cameos in '80s-era revivals. His wife, Ann Belsky, died of cancer in 1991, leaving him as a single father to their two children, a task to which he dedicated the lion's share of his attention. He's appeared in only a handful of films since the '90s; most of his work has been in voiceover and writing.
To this point, Moranis has just 24 feature-film credits to his name (including the aforementioned direct-to-DVD titles and a cameo in Steve Martin’s L.A. Story). In that relatively small filmography, Moranis has managed to leave behind a legacy that’s pretty peerless in the genre and comedy communities.
What is it about Moranis that’s so special as to send the world of social media into a positive paroxysm? It’s not just that he’s stayed away from the spotlight for years. It’s that he’s always had a precise grip on the kinds of characters he plays. Yes, his characters are geeky or nerdy. But they’re rarely a stereotype, or a walking joke, even as Louis Tully in Ivan Reitman’s Ghostbusters. In that, and Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs, as well as Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, Moranis is able to be funny, to use his self-image as an ingredient for comedy, without feeling like the butt of the joke.
Moranis looks like the epitome of the nerd: Coke-bottle glasses, diminutive, slightly greased-up dark hair with a cowlick, etc. But the charm of Rick Moranis is that he was in on the joke, twisting the stereotype of the dweeb against the audience. Wayne Szalinski is the role Moranis has appeared in the most often; presuming all goes well with Shrunk, he’ll have played the character in 5 different projects, including the now-closed theme-park 4-D movie Honey, I Shrunk the Audience! Aside from this family-friendly role, Moranis may be best known as the nerdy accountant who gets entangled with the eponymous heroes in Ghostbusters, thanks to living on the same floor of a fancy but haunted apartment building as Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver).
Moranis had already proven his comic credentials with his years on the Canadian sketch-comedy program SCTV, but Ghostbusters was his introduction to the world at large. Louis Tully is a hopelessly romantic dork in both the 1984 original and the 1989 sequel; at least in the sequel, he winds up in a romantic relationship with the deadpan secretary Janine (Annie Potts). What’s so endearing about Moranis in the original is his haplessness. Louis winds up as a vessel of sorts for the supernatural Vinz Clortho (you know, the Keymaster), and in a setpiece perfectly blending comedy and horror, is possessed by the entity that no one else can see. Moranis makes Louis pitiable as opposed to a figure of mockery; he’s such a goof that even as he faces down a horrific villain, no one else even notices his presence outside a swanky New York restaurant.
In between the Ghostbusters films, Moranis worked with fellow comic directors like Brooks and Frank Oz on notable genre mashups. In 1986, he starred as the not-terribly imposing bad guy Dark Helmet in Brooks’ Star Wars parody Spaceballs. That same year, he was the dweeby lead in the musical adaptation of Little Shop of Horrors, crooning his heart out while trying to keep in line a rapidly growing, sentient plant with a taste for human blood and flesh. In such disparate pieces of work, Moranis is able to both establish himself as a unique comic voice and elevate himself above even weaker material. (Is it heresy to say that Spaceballs is far from Mel Brooks’ best comedy?)
Arguably, what’s made Disney’s announcement about Shrunk so exciting is that Moranis has largely stuck to his word, not appearing in any feature films in years. And those times he has shown up in film or TV in the 21st century have mostly been tied to the cult characters he co-created with SCTV alum Dave Thomas, Bob and Doug McKenzie, in various specials. (Even Moranis’ appearances in the Brother Bear films has an SCTV connection; the characters he and Thomas voice are directly inspired by the McKenzie brothers.) Aside from a brief vocal cameo as Dark Helmet on a recent episode of ABC’s The Goldbergs, Moranis has shunned the public eye, bringing life to the old adage that absence makes the heart grow fonder.
Of course, the flip side could end up being true: depending on how things shake out with Shrunk, the same people (myself included) who are genuinely excited and surprised by Moranis’ return might watch the film and think, “He came out of retirement for that?” Moranis, unlike many of his co-stars, didn’t appear in the 2016 version of Ghostbusters; unlike those same performers, there’s no implication at the press time that he’ll appear in Jason Reitman’s revival of the original Ghostbusters later this year either. In a profile in 2015, Moranis said that he was approached for Paul Feig’s film, but said a cameo “made no sense to me.” (In that same profile, he muses that Disney may one day make Honey, I Shrunk the Grandkids. Close enough!)
Shrunk, whatever else it does, will hopefully not just honor Moranis’ legacy as a comic performer, but further it thanks to his innate talent. To learn that he’s willing to return to the big screen in one of his most recognizable roles is exciting. The real question, though, is if Shrunk can handle the pressure of representing the return of one of the 1980s’ funniest comic presences. Disney has handled high expectations with its other remakes so far, but the level of excitement for this film has just ratcheted up. It’d be a shame to see those expectations shrink.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.