Movies That Everyone Should See: “Big”

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 :D ) 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”.

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46 thoughts on “Movies That Everyone Should See: “Big”

  1. I love BIG! Good review, it reminded me on why I love this movie so much. It is lighthearted and fun movie. It was cool to see Josh being scared at first living on his own then to see him unfazed eating oreos, while gun shots bang loudly outside his window. You know to this day, I still wonder about that video game he played earlier in the movie. How can you kill this wizard?http://www.destructoid.com/play-the-computer-game-seen-in-the-movie-big-152328.phtml

    • LOL! Wowwwww Jen. The depth of people’s geekery never ceases to amaze me. The fact that someone tried to MAKE that game is hysterical… :D

      I’m glad you approve, it’s always nice when people support the choice of the week. I definitely needed to go lighter this week after “The Shining” though ;)

  2. BIG : Always a classic. Great choice; great post.

    “This is a bug that moves….It’s got all kinds of possibilities.” – Mr. M (Loggia)

    • It’s alright Sam. There are these things. Called movies. Where ACTORS play out STORIES and then that gets recorded so other people can WATCH them. :D

      I’m sure you’ll see one one day!! LOL

  3. Another film in my collection. This one has deleted scene incorporated into the movie (Which was not necesary). When I first saw it, I thought that Tom Hanks had enough acting ability to eventually get an Oscar. I recommend this to everyone who has that inner child that enjoys the simple pleasures of life before things start getting complicated.

  4. Yeah, I can go for this as a MTESS. It’s definitely lighter, and it’s not a movie I think of when I think of great comedies… but it probably should be. Hanks is great in it, and if you squint hard enough you can almost imagine this same movie being made in the 40s with Jimmy Stewart and Frank Capra.

    • Hanks is totally this generations Jimmy Stewart.

      And I think it is a very good comedy, but thats not the sole reason it gets the selection. The iconic scene, the Academy nomination for Hanks, and the fact that it does speak to being a kid and/or growing up all added up to this kind of a formidable package for me.

      Thanks K2

  5. Saw this and loved it as a kid. I remember visiting FAO schwartz and being amazed to see that the piano was real. It’s been many years since I last saw it though, and I don’t think it would still have the same magical effect on me if I watched it now. I’ve sort of grown to not like Hanks so much.

    • Huh. Well, that’s too bad on the Hanks thing, although, you MIGHT see it and recall why you did like him at one point…

      I have to say it held up really well for me. Surprisingly so. I really enjoyed rewatching this.

  6. *nodding emphatically*

    Do they make fun films like this anymore? I mean, really fun, slightly serious, but overall, just fun? I can’t think of any off the top of my head sadly.

    I LOVE Big. If it’s on TV and I’ve got no plans, I have to sit and watch it. It’s one of those films. So much of it has to do with everything you said about Tom Hanks. Definitely one of my favourite all time films of his.

    The Zoltar machine gaves me the creeps when I was a kid… still gives me the shivers even now.

    Perfect choice for a film everyone should see.

  7. I <3 this movie!!!
    I almost think it should be a mandatory watch for many of the over-worked, stressed out, forgot what it is like to be human, "bosses" in today's world. :)

  8. This only supports my theory that the 80′s had some of the best comedies, because of how insane and surreal most of them were.

    I’ve always liked Hanks early work in comedies. It’s refreshing to go back and see him in those movies over his dramatic roles.

    • He was great at comedy too, yeah. I think he’s just an all around mega talent, you know?

      As to the 80s having some of the best comedies? Hell yeah! LOL. Of couse, I’m biased, that’s the decade my nostalgia is all wrapped up in, growing up then… :D

  9. I think much of what you brought up in the first few paragraphs of this insightful analysis describes my thoughts on this film. I think it’s too lighthearted to be considered one of the best films out there. To be honest, the film slips away from my memory pretty quickly, but the two times I watched this film, I remember really enjoying myself while doing so.

    As a major Tom Hanks fans, I probably should hold this film in higher regard as you make a strong case that this was a defining moment in his career.

    • It was definitely his breakthrough, although now I think it would probably get lost amongst all of his other great roles.

      I’m sure if pressed for a “What movie do you think of when you think Tom Hanks” you’re probably going to get “Gump” for the most part, for wahtever that’s worth.

      In all honesty, I expected more of that, LOL. Thats why I wrote that into it. :D

  10. I saw this film when it was first released to home video, and I haven’t seen it since. By all rights, it should be consigned to the foggier parts of my memory with a lot of other films I saw just one time as a kid. It’s not. My memory of this movie is clear as a bell.

    Looking back on it, I can see what’s relatable and relevant to an adult looking at the man with a kid’s heart. But I watched it as a kid, and it was relatable on a whole different level then. It was easy to see Josh’s reactions and say “Yes, exactly!” Like the whole building-transformer toy… “I don’t get it. What’s so fun about a building? Couldn’t it be a bug or something?” Big doesn’t just serve as a touchstone for adults who are afraid they’re losing their inner child, it also shows how out of touch adults get with children when that happens. It’s a rare film that really speaks to different age groups; it’s rarer still that it does so from a single issue that’s viewed in similar but different ways by the age groups.

    Since I haven’t seen it as an adult, I should probably do so just to see if there’s anything that has been lost in the fog. But I suspect it’s not just a movie that everybody should see, but a movie that everybody should (if possible) see twice — once as a kid, once as an adult.

    • Well, unfortunately some of us were already pretty grown up – or grown up enough – by the time we got to “Big”. Dont have a Zoltar machine – cant go back!

      Excellent points across the board, very well put. Its funny you brought up the toys, as a toy fan, I had a good laugh at those sucky toys they were bringing up too. I still dont know why we dont have choose your own adventure comic books yet, WTF!

      If you do circle back to it, I’m sure you’ll enjoy it still. I know I did. Definitely didnt seem to have lost a step at all.

      Nice one, CO.

    • Cool man, glad you approve.

      I was on the fence about this, kind of felt like I was taking a “gamble” when it came to whether people would approve or not… turns out it was more of a no brainer than I expected!!

  11. A few years back my wife and I took our 2 young children (6 and 4) to the Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia. It was a pleasant surprise to find the original floor piano from film there; and even more of a surprise that the kids could actually use it. To say the kids had a blast on it is an understatement. It had been awhile since I’d watched the movie, so I made the suggestion that when we got home we should watch it, and we did. My daughter was still too young to appreciate it, but my son seemed to enjoy it and thought it was really cool when he saw them piano scene and I told him he just used the very same piano.

    For me, it’s a movie that will never, ever get old. There’s a lot of times that I act just like Tom Hanks, the only difference being that I’m a 36 year old acting like a child. I like to think it helps keep me feeling young!

    Thanks for helping me relive a few great memories!

    • “Thanks for helping me relive a few great memories!”

      Hey man, that’s what this series of posts is all about! Here’s a great movie, here’s WHY it’s great, let’s all talk it out…

      So, yeah, thank you for sharing Joe. That’s awesome you got to share that with your fam, sounds like a cool day.

      And I know how you feel about acting like a kid and feeling young man. Better than an apple a day… You know? :D

      Thanks for joining in the fray!!

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