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: