I was in the middle of trying to think of some lighter fare for this week’s MTESS, when I came across “Big” on the Digital Cable Guide. It was a stroke of luck.
“Big” is a lighthearted comedy about a boy who magically gets turned into a grown-up. It’s very lighthearted – easily digestible, if you will. Yet, just below the surface is a movie that effortlessly reminds us about the difficulties of the maturation process, the benefits and drawbacks of “maturity” and ruminates about exactly what “growing up” should mean.
It’s a movie that for some will be all too easy to dismiss… but I think that would be unfortunate. This is a joyful, fun movie with a lot to say.
Young Josh Baskin is at a difficult age. 13.
It’s a transitional age… going from being a child to being a teen. While everyone tends to romanticize their childhoods, it can actually be a time full of angst and frustrations at points. There’s a number of changes going on in a young persons life at that stage, and they’re probably ill-equipped to understand them.
Taken to the carnival by his parents, Josh is caught in a humiliating situation. When he finally musters the courage to approach the pretty girl he has a crush on, she notices that he’s here with his parents. Then she proceeds to introduce him to her older, bigger boyfriend. And finally, in the ultimate stroke of ignominy, he is told he is not tall enough to ride the ride that they have been waiting in line for.
So it’s no surprise that he’s feeling vulnerable about his age and his size when he stumbles upon the Zoltar machine. Off in a darkened area of the carnival, is an antique looking coin operated machine. Behind a wood framed glass encasement sits a mechanized fortune-teller with a crystal ball. An aimable armature will roll your coin down a chute and at Zoltar’s mouth. Should you time the release of your coin correctly, and it lands while Zoltar’s mouth is open, your wish will be granted.
Josh hits it.
Of course, his wish was to be big.
And so the high concept of “Big” gets underway. Josh wakes up the next morning, a grown man in underoos. His mother chases him out of the house, thinking he’s a burglar or kidnapper… not recognizing him (obviously). He’s able to enlist the help of his best friend and neighbor, Billy, and together they head off into New York City to find somewhere for the grown up Josh to stay temporarily. At least until they can figure out how to reverse what happened to him.
And in his first overnight stay at the seedy New York hotel they’ve chosen, the subtle musings of “Big” begin to take shape. Josh is frightened. Very frightened. There’s gunshots, loud voices, he’s alone… He’s a boy, regardless of the size of his body. He’s still just a boy. Later in the movie though, Josh is shown in the same hotel room, totally accustomed to his surroundings and comfortable. You could look at it as the bravery of growing up… or being jaded.
But the scene serves to remind us how scary the world can be to a child. How the years of learning, toughening, and strengthening serve to build the adult character. Without that, things seem ten times more frightening to a child. Not that any rational human being would be content in the hellhole Josh stays in, but Hanks does a great job wordlessly reminding us how frightening things can seem when you’re young.
It’s also here that we get our glimpse of the kind of extraordinary performance of Tom Hanks is about to give us.
Hanks is thoroughly convincing in “Big”. And by that, I don’t mean that he plays a man acting like a boy, but a boy trapped inside the body of a man. You… believe it. (Well, as much as such a thing can be believed ) At times he juggles naiveté, anxiety, unbridled enthusiasm, immaturity, curiosity, an entire range of emotional responses that would be completely credible if this fantastical situation were actually occurring. Reportedly he spent weeks with David Moscow (the actor who plays young Josh), playing with him and studying him, as if he were prepping to do a biopic of a thirteen year old.
Hanks lets his inner child shine through in a way that is hard to imagine another actor doing. He puts on a signature performance, one that would help define his career, one that would open bigger doors for him going forward, beyond comedic roles.
It would also earn him the first Academy Award nomination of his illustrious career.
But the movie may actually be best remembered for its iconic scene – the dance on the oversized piano keyboard on the floor of FAO Schwarz.
The entire plotline of grown Josh landing a job as a computer programmer and then earning promotion to senior executive level is more than a little thin. But it can be forgiven. It’s very enjoyable to watch, and it basically needs to happen in order for the movie to express its points about responsibility / the modern work environment, etc.
Loggia and Hanks put on a remarkable dance routine. It’s so impressive and enjoyable that I completely forgive it for being mildly unrealistic (I don’t care how many years of piano lessons you took, you’re not just walking up to the piano and DANCING out a tune, are you?). Hanks and Loggia have such a good time hopping out “Heart and Soul” and “Chopsticks” that it plainly shows through. It’s an infectious scene, it’s impossible to watch without smiling. It’s no wonder it earned a place in the pop culture consciousness.
I can see how someone could land a promotion after that. LOL
Young Josh also falls in love.
Well, he doesn’t quite know what to call it, but a romance develops between Josh and his co-worker, played by Elizabeth Perkins. She falls for him in spite of his strange taste in clothes, his odd mannerisms, his obviously immature behaviour… because the joy and optimism he carries with him are so attractive. In a world full of grown-ups, the person with a child’s heart stands out to her.
The “Ok, but I get to be on top” line gets all the pop credit recollection, but to me the greatest moment in the romance is when Perkins asks him to define what they’re doing. What “this” is. It’s an uncomfortable conversation that I know many men can relate to. LOL. She eventually simplifies it for him, asking him how he feels about her. Josh… unprepared and ill-equipped to answer, resorts to letting his feelings show through. He begins playfully hitting her with his comics and pushing her and the two begin to wrestle. It’s a cool moment. To me it illustrates how often adults are far too willing to let words substitute for feelings and actions. If he had known the proper responses there, he probably would have followed the correct answer path to the end of the conversation. And perhaps it ends happily, romantically. But it certainly wouldn’t end with the giddy, playful expression that it did when Josh had to SHOW his feelings as opposed to TELLING them.
Towards the end of the film, we see Josh… growing up. He’s too focused on his work for Billy. He dresses appropriately and acts responsibly. The child within him… the boy… is fading. That goofy man-child that we saw nibbling the ear of baby corn is slipping away. We’ve seen how wonderful and unique a person it makes him to have the heart of a kid that it’s hard not to feel a bit sad about watching it disappearing.
But that’s what growing up is… the slow and steady loss of our inner child.
And so Josh makes the decision to confront Zoltar again, and return home. Not out of any longing to be young again, necessarily, but because he misses his family and friends. Because age 13 is where he should be. Because that’s who he is.
Hanks did not win the award for best actor for this movie (rightfully – Dustin Hoffman, Rain Man), but he would certainly go on to remedy that over the course of his career. The movie itself has earned its fair share of esteem, it clocks in at AFI’s 100 Years…100 Laughs – #42 and AFI’s 10 Top 10, as the #10 Fantasy Film.
But to me, it’s just a great example of a well made, fun movie… that could, if one were looking for that sort of thing… provoke thought. There’s a lot of meaning within. About being a kid, being an adult, and the passage we take in between.
It’s definitely a “Movie That Everyone Should See”.