Dir. Penny Marshall
Written by: Gary Ross, Anne Spielberg
Starring: Tom Hanks, Elizabeth Perkins, Robert Loggia, John Heard, Jared Rushton
No pun intended, but this is a big one for me. Big is the first live-action film that I can remember ever seeing as a child. I had definitely seen cartoons up to this point, and I had probably seen some other live-action movies, but I first saw Big when I was probably six or seven years old, and it’s definitely the first live-action movie to have made an impression on my memory. If my memory serves me correctly, my parents had recorded Big on VHS at some point and it was this copy that first introduced me to the movie. I also think that my mother had reservations about letting me watch the movie due to its abbreviated sex scene, but I was ultimately allowed to see the film, and it totally enthralled me. I understood the difference between movies and reality at that point, of course. My favorite film up to that point was a cartoon called Fluppy Dogs, in which a boy adopts a magical dog who can make his master’s bed fly when he gets scratched behind the ears. I watched the movie every day for an entire year, but solely because I thought it was cute and entertaining. I understood that it was divorced from any semblance of reality. Big was the first film that I saw that showed me how movies can bridge the gap between fantasy and reality, and open up the imagination to the possibilities of magic and wonder existing in the real world.
Big is probably the perfect movie to introduce children to the magic of movies because its plot about wish fulfillment and childhood magic is so relatable to children. What child hasn’t, like Josh Baskin (David Moscow/Hanks), wished to be bigger? The movie takes that premise and explores its ramifications as 13-year-old Josh makes a wish on a carnival machine that he could be bigger, and then actually wakes up the next morning in the body of a 30-year-old man. With the help of his best friend, Billy (Rushton), Josh heads to New York City in search of the magical machine that turned him into an adult, hoping that it can also reverse the process. While in New York, Josh takes a job at a toy company, and is quickly promoted due to his unique insight into toys and games. He experiences life as an adult, meets a woman whom he falls in love with, and, ultimately, must make the decision to remain an adult or make another wish and become a child, returning to his life with his family in New Jersey. It’s an urban fairy tale that’s perfect for children and adults, alike.
I watched Big a ton when I was a kid. Until I was about 10 years old, there were several movies that I watched over and over again on rotation and Big was among them, along with The Flight of the Navigator, Newsies, and Hook. I stopped watching those other movies as I got a little older, but Big continued to be a movie that I would always stop to watch if I came across it while I was scrolling through channels. Even more than its wish fulfillment fantasies, I started to become really interested in the movie’s New York City setting. When I was an early teen, I was very taken with the idea of moving to New York and leaving the sleepy, small town that I grew up in behind me. I can certainly chalk a lot of that urge up to simply getting the itchy feet that become so common to those who grow up in a small town and strive to see the bigger world, but I think that watching Big as much as I did probably fed into some of those desires as well. I can remember thinking that the loft apartment (really a warehouse) that Josh moves into after he becomes a VP at the toy company was the coolest place I’d ever seen someone live. An apartment like that couldn’t exist in my town, it was reserved for denizens of the big city. I was equally as enamored, however, with the flophouse hotel that Josh lives in when he first moves to the city. It seemed dangerous and edgy in a way that my habitations certainly were not. In fact, when I finally got to travel to New York City, I was a bit disappointed that many of its pointy edges that I had seen in movies had been smoothed over.
The other big draw for the film, of course, is Tom Hanks’s performance as Josh Baskin. Hanks is probably the most universally well-liked actor ever. He quickly became a mega-star, and by the 1990s, his presence in a film was a signature of a certain type of prestige and quality. Early in his career, however, Hanks was known mostly for his work in comedies, not big budget Oscar hopefuls. After transitioning from television and a co-starring role on Bosom Buddies, Hanks became a household name with 1984’s Splash and starred in other popular comedies throughout the mid-80s. Big is the culmination of this run, with Hanks providing both laughs and an emotional depth to his character. He slips seamlessly into the character of a 13-year-old boy, and watching Hanks react to the adult world with the enthusiasm, and also confusion, of a child is great. The party scene towards the end of the film always stuck out as one of the funniest in the movie. Josh shows up to the office holiday party dressed in a ridiculous white sequined tuxedo, which is funny in its own right, but his nibbling of baby corn on the cob and riotous reaction to trying caviar are the moments that I always lose it in the scene. It’s ridiculous, laugh out loud funny, and endearing all at the same time, and all because of Hanks’s wide-eyed, innocent portrayal of Josh. It’s also impossible to picture any other actor nailing the “chopsticks” scene at F.A.O. Schwarz the way that Hanks does. He and Robert Loggia jumping from note to note on the life-size keyboard while a crowd gathers around to watch has become an iconic scene in all of cinema.
As the film goes on, Hanks adjusts the way he portrays Josh as the character becomes more and more adjusted to his adult life. Early on, Hanks plays Josh as a naïve kid, scared, and often alone in the world. However, as he gains the acceptance of his peers and begins to spend more time with Susan (Perkins) and his other coworkers, and less time with Billy, Josh starts to act more and more like an adult himself. Hanks loses the pensive line delivery, modifies his body language, and becomes more assertive in general. The changes are subtle, but they come to a head when Billy confronts Josh late in the film after having found the Zoltar machine. After Josh is dismissive of Billy, telling him that he has work to do and he’s too busy to spend time with a child, Billy yells at him, “I’m your best friend!” and the illusion of Josh as an adult is shattered. He soon after makes the decision to go to the machine and wish to return himself to his natural state.
The Zoltar machine has been stashed on a forgotten pier, left there after a carnival has obviously closed up for the season. When Josh arrives on the pier, his transformation back into a child begins even before he approaches the machine and makes a wish. Josh runs to the boardwalk, looking for the machine, and when he sees it, his posture changes. Hanks starts to crumble in on himself, folding his hands in front of him and shifting his weight from one foot to the other, when he sees the machine. The camera zooms in on his pensive face as he weighs the decision that he’s about to make. Taking tiny steps, Josh approaches the Zoltar machine and pulls out a quarter. He unplugs the machine to recreate the exact scenario from the beginning of the film, slapping and kicking the machine until it magically comes to life. Susan arrives on the boardwalk just as Josh makes his wish and drops the quarter into Zoltar’s gaping mouth. Although she can’t comprehend his decision, and doesn’t want to believe his story about the Zoltar machine, Josh shows an emotional purity and depth of understanding that belie his years when he tells Susan that he has “a million reasons to go home, and only one reason to stay.” She’s fallen for him because he is so unlike the professional men that she usually dates, but the innocence that sets him apart is precisely the reason that they can’t be together. Susan gives Josh a ride home and, in a great sequence, watches as he transforms from a man to a boy over the span of one shot/reverse-shot. Josh turns to wave, giving Susan one last glimpse over his shoulder. She looks down to hide a tear, and when she raises her head, she’s astounded to see the child Josh Baskin walking away from her in an over-sized suit. Josh gives her a sheepish smile, which she returns, and then runs into the house to greet his worried mother, leaving his adult-sized shoes on the sidewalk as the film ends.
The ending of Big ranks up there with the ending of The Third Man and Casablanca as one of my favorites in all of film. In general, the movie is a favorite. I’ve seen it, literally, dozens of times but I still get caught up in the magic of it. Some movies I like to watch over and over again because I feel that there are nuances that I will discover with each renewed viewing. Some movies I like to watch over and over again because I know that they won’t offer me any surprises. Big is one of the latter. It’s a movie that feels like a well-worn baseball glove; it fits just right and it’s full of familiar seams and cracks. I often wonder how movies from my childhood will hold up, not just for my own personal viewing, but for new audiences estranged from the subject matter by time and distance. I really hope that there are new audiences discovering Big now, nearly 30 years after its release. As I said before, it’s a perfect fairy tale for the young and the young at heart. The universality of its themes and the performance of a young Tom Hanks coming into his full powers as a dramatic actor should keep Big fresh for the young viewers of today.