As a child, there was a handful of films that were consistently played and replayed by friends, television and any sort of daycare, some predating our lives, some current, some only a few years behind, but always with the same sort of feel to them–generally speaking, the same feel that has stuck with me to this day as my preferred one, at least in its barest form. Big was definitely one of those films, becoming rather iconic in the minds of most people around my age, especially for scenes like the now famous (enough to be one of the central images on the rear cover of the DVD) floor-keyboard one.
Josh Baskin (David Moscow) is a 12 year old American kid, nothing above or beyond the average (especially as films of the era go), beginning the film with a slow puzzling over a floppy game (and I mean 5.25″ not 3.5″–the floppy disk that was actually floppy) that bears a strong resemblance to text adventures of the time (though with a lovely 8-bit rendering of the “ice wizard” and his cave). As one would almost be guaranteed by any movie aimed at what would later be termed “tweens,” there is the rapid introduction of a girl who holds the as yet unfocused eyes of Mr. Baskin (as in, he’s not 100% sure what to do with a girlfriend yet, were he to have one), one Cynthia Benson (Kimberlee M. Davis), whose availability is explored by Josh’s best friend Billy (Jared Rushton–who was later in another film that I’ve seen a billion times simply because it was there: Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, though we always referred to it without the pause of a comma) in a scene that bears some familiarity to those who’ve gone through such things. When the inevitable crush of the guy who can drive (alas! curse these restrictive laws!) and beats Josh to the punch occurs, the extra slap is a carnival ride he’s too short to get on. In a frustrated funk, he wanders to the rather evil looking Zoltar machine which “grants wishes,” and after using the “violence method” to get it running, wishes he were “big.” As those of us who watched this and many others learned, you’ve got to be a little more specific than that–and so Josh wakes up the next morning and staring out of the mirror is no longer a 12 year old but the man whose face was about to become world famous–Tom Hanks. Now Josh is left to discover much of what the adult world is actually like, from solitude to jobs to love, crossing paths with toy mogul “Big Mac” MacMillan (Robert Loggia), the benevolent head of MacMillan toys, his 80s-business-weasel executive Paul (John Heard), inevitable love interest Susan (Elizabeth Perkins), all the while still working with the help of Billy to find out how to return to his 12 year old form, so that his mother (Mercedes Ruehl) will hug him instead of screaming and calling the police when he walks in his front door.
I’ve spent the last few years discussing film more in the company of those who like films that require subtitles and directors like Kurosawa, Fuller, Truffaut, Bertolucci, even Scorsese to approach a middle ground, and so I’ve listened to a lot of verbal assault on directors like Steven Spielberg as well as, yes, Penny Marshall. However, because I grew up on such schmaltz, I have absolutely no problem with it. I don’t relegate it to “it’s okay for me to watch because I’m nostalgic”–though I do recognize that that’s certainly a factor in my appreciation–and instead take it for what it is and what it aims to be. Thankfully, I feel it has given me a somewhat more well-rounded approach to film that I deny things out of hand neither for subtitles nor their absence, taking a film that does not emphasize or even embrace reality for its intentions rather than its failure to do something it never wanted to do. This doesn’t make a film automatically acceptable, of course, but it does mean it has more options to appeal to me. Big has only lost the magic of being a perfectly appropriate fantasy for me as a viewer–a fantasy in the sense of wished-for alternate reality, that is. A movie like Blank Check that followed later managed to entertain me pretty well at the time of its release, but would probably not hold the same interest now (though I imagine I would still be entertained enough). But beyond that fact, being that I’m simply not an 8-12 year old anymore, nothing has been lost. Anne Spielberg (oh, right, Steven is sort of relevant since his sister wrote this!) put together a script that worked on a gimmick but managed to go beyond the gimmick and pull a little truth from it, but without clobbering us over the head (think hit over the head with a “Nerf” bat, perhaps), and Penny Marshall does her thing to create a film that is simply cohesive from end to end, with all the leaks pretty effectively stopped up and all that cohesion easily maintaining audience interest.
Hanks’ performance, coupled with Marshall’s direction and Spielberg’s script managed to be readily accessible to my younger mind, with a job, apartment and taste that felt utterly familiar. When people who are now my age look at it now, they often say things like Hanks acts younger than 12 or 13, or that this or that idea (such as the proposal he and Susan come up with for MacMillan Toys) does not “work,” or is not “real.” This is pretty absurd, and the kind of nitpicking that simply doesn’t matter. If it doesn’t gel for you, that’s a different issue, of course, but trying to examine how faithfully it represents the 12 year old experience to someone long past it is missing the point entirely, missing the point of being a kid, at that. By and large, most kids are analyzing things like this to see if they wish that was them on the screen doing those things–by most accounts of the young, it succeeds pretty thoroughly at that, and retroactive analysis of specific details simply doesn’t matter. If it connects for someone of the age it’s referring to, then it has succeeded at drawing that connection. The elaborated youth of Hanks’ performance is not over-the-top, but it’s exaggerated enough to prove to the viewer that he is younger than he looks. Overlaying the modern sensibility of full-fledged “realism” to that kind of performance would require him to stay young for a lot longer before anything interesting enough to show would actually happen. This exaggeration is especially important to younger people who are trying to identify with a character who is supposed to be their age but doesn’t look it. I may be stretching my credibility with that claim, but since it seems to make perfect sense to kids and less to adults, I think it works–and so does the film, very well in fact, as it manages to both bring kids into a fantasy many of them have and many can easily accept in a film and then subverts it just slightly with a plot that can ring somewhat with adults and poke the necessary holes in that fantasy for the kids who are in for it.