The weekend when Rick Moranis ruled the box office

Back in the summer of 1989, Rick Moranis had three films in the US top 20 - each going on to be a $100m+ hit....

On August 4th 1989, the film Parenthood opened at number one in the US, taking $10.5m on its opening weekend. It knocked Turner & Hooch off the top spot down to second, with Lethal Weapon 2 rounding out the top three.

Parenthood is lots of things. It’s a very strong comedy. It’s a film that boasts one of the finest comedic ensembles brought together in one movie in the last 25 years. And it’s a movie that’s spun off two really quite different television series.

But if you look at that top 20 box office chart for the weekend of August 4th-6th 1989, then you might just notice a pretty impressive achievement on top of all of that. For one actor had three films in the top 20, at the same time. Furthermore, each of those three films would go on to gross over $100m at the US box office, and each continues to be enjoyed to this day.

That man is the mighty Rick Moranis. And what’s interesting about the three roles here is that they bring slightly different things out of a genuinely tremendous comedy actor.

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Parenthood sees Moranis, if anything, playing things rather straight. In a film that allows Steve Martin to make lower intestines out of balloons (although it’s a terrific Steve Martin performance we get here), that sees Diane Wiest shrieking at her vibrator, and has Keanu Reeves galloping around in his undergarments, it’s Moranis who gets, on paper, the less interesting role.

As it happens, it turns out to be one of the best. For Moranis plays Nathan, a father who has big plans for his young daughter. He’s the parent who’s done all the research, who understands that there needs to be “five years between sibs”, and who has a whole cultural programme planned for young Patty.

He looks with scorn when Justin, one of Steve Martin’s brood in the film, walks around with a bucket on his head. And it’s his character that has to go through the further journey, culminating in the show-stopping moment where he walks into the middle of a school classroom singing a Carpenters number. Up until then, there’s been a good deal to dislike about his character, although inevitably, Moranis’ skills make Nathan a joy to watch. Evidence:

Other new releases that week, incidentally, were the US cinema unveiling of Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies And Videotape, the Stallone prison drama Lock Up, and Yahoo Serious’ sole leading man top ten hit at the US box office, Young Einstein. Parenthood topped the lot.

But back to Rick Moranis. And next up? Honey, I Shrunk The Kids. That sat at number seven in the chart, crossing $100m at the US box office that same weekend.

To this date, the film is a delightfully entertaining family adventure, but also a winning testament to just what can be done with primarily practical effects work. Star Wars alumni Joe Johnston – who would follow the film up with The Rocketeer – directed this one, and his focus, for all the wizardry of the film, is on human beings.

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Step forward then Wayne Szalinksi. This was Moranis’ second outright leading man role in a big movie – the first effectively being Little Shop Of Horrors – and he proves an inspired choice. There’s an immense likeability about his nutty professor act here, with a strongly judged performance meaning in spite of him basically putting the lives of his kids – as well of those of his neighbours’ kids – in huge danger, you never really focus on that. Instead, you find yourself rooting for him.

Unlike his role in Parenthood, Honey I Shrunk The Kids sees Moranis putting across a performance of childlike innocence. Furthermore, he’s also got the job of leading the cast. He does this wonderfully, and with a tip of that hat to Bob Hoskins in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, not once does he let the technicals going on around him dilute his performance. You have to believe in Moranis for this film to work, and you truly do.

It’s a pity that the sequels never reached the same heights. Honey I Blew Up The Kid swapped Joe Johnston for Grease helmer Randal Kleiser behind the camera, but the balance was all off this time. Human beings were relegated down the list of the film’s priorities. And that meant the third movie, Honey We Shrunk Ourselves, would have to resign itself to a straight-to-video premiere. That such a smart and exciting original should fall so hard remains a real disappointment.

Back to brighter moments, though. The final film of the top 20 trio is Ghostbusters II, which finally gets a Blu-ray release later this year. It was an immense gamble by the late Dawn Steel, heading up Columbia Pictures at the time, to reunite the Ghostbusters. The film wasn’t cheap to make, and nor did it get the instant degree of love that the original secured. But there’s still a lot to like about Ghostbusters II.

For Moranis, he reprised the beefed up role of Louis Tully for this one. And by the end, he got to become a Ghostbuster himself. He got the suit, he got the proton stream, and he got to be a hero. There’s still not enough of him in the film, in truth, and we don’t get anything quite as joyous as the Gatekeeper and Keymaster meeting from the first movie. It’s also, arguably, the least interesting Moranis performance of the three we’ve discussed here. But we’d still argue that Ghostbusters II is a lot of fun. It had been on release in the US for eight weeks by August 4th, and was still hanging in the chart at number 14.

Rick Moranis effectively retired from movies back in 2006 – his last credit to date is voicing Brother Bear 2 – although in recent times there have been murmurings about a return. He’s put a CD out, given one or two interviews, and there have been movie suggestions, not least Ghostbusters 3. It would be fair to say that his personal life has not been the easiest, and that was mainly responsible for him taking a step out of the limelight.

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It would be remiss to forget though just what a big box office deal Rick Moranis was though. We certainly couldn’t find another star who had repeated what he achieved on the weekend of August 4th-6th 1989. He might not have made as many films as some of his peers. But he certainly knew how to make an impression in those that he did.

See also: The top 10 films of Rick Moranis.

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