clock menu more-arrow no yes

From the Devil-Doll to Ant-Man

A visual history of Hollywood's shrunken people

Marvel's Ant-Man, which opened last weekend, is centered on an old movie theme: the shrinking human.


The concept has a universal appeal. In our early years, each of us was a tiny being trying to navigate a land of giants. And for generations, kids have played with action figures and dolls. Miniaturization allows us to see mundane environments in a newly exciting way — the yard becomes a jungle, and a cute kitty is transformed into a saber-toothed tiger.

It's easy to understand, then, why shrinking movie characters date back to the dawn of cinema. Early film pioneers discovered that certain camera techniques could exaggerate or reduce the size of an actor. One of the first Georges Méliès shorts, The Dwarf and the Giant — which was produced in 1901 — used special effects to split an actor into twins who then stretched and shrank into the namesake characters.

Since then, the challenge of reducing a person's size on the big screen has captured the imagination of many notable filmmakers, from Jack Arnold to Ray Harryhausen to Tim Burton. Before the use of digital effects, the trick involved the use of composite screens— a complex technique employed in early movies that required double exposures, giant props, and imaginative acting.

Audiences were charmed by the resulting pint-size heroes, and many of the B-movies they headlined were lauded by critics for their ingenuity and entertainment value. Most still boast decent scores on film rating websites. (There are indeed exceptions, however, such as The Incredible Shrinking Woman.)

And the fascination with making people small eventually stretched beyond the movies. In 1967, a pair of MIT civil engineering professors proposed using genetic engineering to shrink human bodies so that we could live in smaller homes, drive smaller cars, and leave smaller ecological footprints. Perhaps they hoped a figure like Ant-Man could save not only the day, but also the planet.

Here's a chart that compares the relative sizes of cinema's various shrunken characters:

antmangraphic

1

The Devil-Doll (1936)

Directed by Tod Browning (who also created 1931's Dracula and 1932's Freaks), this movie tells the weird tale of a fugitive mad scientist, disguised as an old lady, who shrinks gangsters and sell them to his victims as dolls. The film is pure silver screen horror-melodrama, but the special effects were well ahead of their time.

2

Dr. Cyclops (1940)

Who better than Ernest B. Schoedsack, the co-creator of the original King Kong, to tackle the challenge of making people tiny? The plot of Dr. Cyclops is bonkers — it involves a mad scientist in the Peruvian jungle who miniaturizes his competitors — but the Technicolor visuals are a pulp delight. The movie was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects.

3

The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)

A key entry in the canon of shrinking people on screen, this film was adapted from a Richard Matheson novel and directed by Jack Arnold, the iconic director of '50s sci-fi features. After being exposed to radiation, a man finds himself shrinking steadily to minuscule proportions and facing the dangers of his own basement. The success of this existential science fiction adventure prompted several similar movies.

4

Attack of the Puppet People (1958)

Attack of Puppet_poster

Bert I. Gordon directed this movie for American International Pictures, the production company behind many double features. (It was paired with War of the Colossal Beast.Attack of the Puppet People was rushed into production to capitalize on the success of 1957's The Incredible Shrinking Man. Despite the weak plot and low-budget production values, it has a cheesy charm as an example of sci-fi flicks marketed to teenage audiences in the '50s. Also, the movie played a minor role in the Watergate scandal: A lookout for the burglars was so engrossed in a broadcast of the film that he was unable to warn his colleagues about the detectives who made the historic arrests.

Image credit: AIP/Public Domain

5

The 3 Worlds of Gulliver (1960)

Special effects by the legendary Ray Harryhausen are the highlight of this loose adaptation of the Jonathan Swift classic, which was directed by Jack Sher. Two years prior, Harryhausen had created effects for another tiny human, the princess in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.

Image credit: retrotrailer

6

Fantastic Voyage (1966)

Fantastic Voyage took the miniaturization theme to the next mini-level when it shrank a submarine and its crew to microscopic size and injected them into the bloodstream of a diplomat. Richard Fleischer directed the colorful and imaginative trip through the human body, which won two Academy Awards — for Art Direction and Special Effects.

7

Land of the Giants (1968)

Land-of-the-giants

This TV show was the fourth of Irvin Allen's science fiction series, after Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Lost in Space, and The Time Tunnel. Land of the Giants followed the passengers of a spaceship to a planet where everything was larger than on Earth. The show's budget was gigantic, too: At $250,000 per episode, it was the most expensive TV program of its day, airing two seasons before it was canceled in 1970.

Image credit: ABC Television

8

The Incredible Shrinking Woman (1981)

Shrinking_woman_still

Joel Schumacher's directing debut was this sci-fi comedy starring Lily Tomlin, which was based on Jack Arnold's classic 1957 movie. The action begins when an exposure to chemicals in consumer products causes a suburban housewife to shrink.

Image credit: Universal Pictures

9

Innerspace (1987)

Innerspace_still

Steven Spielberg produced this comedy based on the premise of Fantastic Voyage. The director, Joe Dante, often mixes his love of '50s science fiction classics with comedy. The movie won an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects.

Image credit: Warner Brothers/Getty Images

10

Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989)

Honey I shrunkposter

Another comedy that took inspiration from the '50s classics, this family-friendly science fiction film tells the story of an inventor who accidentally reduces the size of his kids with a shrinking ray. The film was an unexpected box office hit for Disney, spawning several sequels and a TV show.

Image credit: Walt Disney Pictures

11

Alice in Wonderland (2010)

alice poster

Tim Burton's adaptation of the Lewis Carroll book received mixed reviews, but earned praise for its special effects and imaginative visual style. The movie was a box office success, grossing more than $1 billion worldwide; it's Burton's most successful film to date, and there's a sequel set for 2016.

Image credit: Walt Disney Pictures


Features

The horror century

TV

Succession turns a box of doughnuts into a stealthy statement about abuse

Culture

What Dave Chappelle gets wrong about trans people and comedy

View all stories in Culture

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for The Weeds

Get our essential policy newsletter delivered Fridays.