Big (1988) is a film about being big (as in, a grown-up). Very confusing stuff when you’re a kid. As we first watched Big in the early 1990s when we were kids.
Watching it now, aged 38 and all that, and it really does remind you of what it was like being a naive nipper fresh to the world.
That’s the film’s triumph, delivered with great panache by some actor called Tom Hanks who fell into total obscurity.
Memories of Adolescence & Maturity in Big
Directed by Penny Marshall (1943-2018), who also directed 1990’s Awakenings, the plot follows the life of 12 year old Josh Baskin (Tom Hanks).
Josh is your standard kid in late ’80s America. He goes to school. He eats his lunch. He goes to the lavatory. On Wednesdays he goes shopping and has buttered scones for tea. He’s a lumberjack and he’s okay, he sleeps all night…
Oh, sorry, we got distracted by Monty Python there.
Anyway, one day Josh goes to a carnival but gets rejected from a ride for being a shortass kid. That embarrasses him in front of a girl he likes.
In a fit of existential despair, he uses a fortune-telling machine called Zoltar. He makes a wish that he can be “big”—a grown up. It dispenses a card out saying “Your wish is granted”, with Josh then checking the back of the machine and finding it isn’t plugged in. Holy cow!
He goes home a bit miffed and heads off the bed. The next day he wakes up and he’s a fully grown human male. Like… WTF, bro! What happened, bruh!?
Freaking out, he rushes off to try and find the Zoltar machine. But he finds the carnival has since legged it out of town.
This means he has to return home and try and explain things to his mother (Mercedes Ruehl). Brilliant scene with a great shoe wiping touch to proceedings.
His mother freaks the hell out and calls the cops, leaving Josh to leg it one to see his best mate Billy (Jared Rushton). Eventually, he convinces his mate he’s really Josh. And not some psycho bloke.
Billy helps him try to track down the Zoltar machine again, but has to wait at least six weeks for the update. With nothing left to do, he moves into a low budget hotel in New York and gets a job as a data admin for MacMillan Toy Company.
With his childlike enthusiasm, Josh soon impresses Mr. MacMillan (the big boss, played by Robert Loggia) and the pair bond over a duet on a Walking Piano in a local shop.
If only more bosses would do this!
This all means he gets some cash and can move into a nice flat in New York, get a load of toys, and get a bunk bed all to himself (“I call top bunk!”—bunk beds were very exciting when you were a kid).
And moving renditions of Beethoven aside, Josh soon works his way to ever higher ranks in the MacMillan business.
All down to his weird knack for understanding 12 years old boy’s love of toys.
Hint—it’s because he really is a 12 year old boy. Kind of cheating, we guess, but then he did have six weeks to burn. Better than petty crime, eh?
His colleague, and resident hot stuff, Susan Lawrence (Elizabeth Perkins) also takes an interest in the new guy causing such a stir.
Susan is able to corner Josh and they end up going on a “date”, hitting it off, and she heads off back to Josh’s fancy apartment for a sleepover type deal.
Of course, Susan believes the date has gone super well and everything is about to result in canoodling and/or hanky panky (or whatever it is adults do).
It’s scenes of innocence like that, with Susan baffled by Josh’s lack of rambunctiousness as she takes the bottom bunk for the night, that really make the heart of the film.
If that happened, you’d presume the guy was autistic or gay. It’s a sweet scene, though, highlighting how naïve and carefree you are as a kid.
And it leads on to the conclusion of Big.
Josh finally locates the Zoltar machine and legs it out of MacMillan. He finds the machine and makes a wish to be a kid again.
Meanwhile, Susan chases after him. She catches up with Josh and calls him out for being an unprofessional dickhead. Whereupon Josh confesses he’s just a kid.
Susan isn’t sure she believes him, but drives him home anyway for the final scene of revelation.
Never you mind, lady, with ’80s hair and looks like that you’d be able to bag Tom Hanks in real life, you jammy dodger.
And, thusly, ends Big. An excellent film from 1988.
It’s one of those high-concept majiggers that, if you were around at the time, really stuck with you. And it’s all sold by Tom Hank’s brilliant performance. He really nails it, catching that youthful energy, excitement about the world, and innocence.
The rest of the cast is great, too, but it’s just a sweet-natured film. The themes are simple but effective—contemplations on that shift from childhood innocence into the big old world.
There’s a scene that’s always stuck with us since we were kids, where one of Josh’s colleagues bitches about how much he’s being taxed from his meagre wage.
As a kid it doesn’t mean much to you.
30 years later and you can comprehend what your parents, and their colleagues, were dealing with back then. But they didn’t even have Netflix or YouTube to take the edge off things.
And it makes you remember (maybe even yearn a little) for those carefree days when you didn’t have to give a toss about anything. Why? As you were a kid.
But you’re now big, too. Congratulations. Have a cup of tea and some Jaffa Cakes to celebrate the achievement. And maybe watch this film again.
The Production of Big
Big was a hit at the cinema and another film that set Hanks on his way towards superstardom. Although he’d yet to truly dabble in more serious roles by that point, being more of a comedian.
The budget of $18 million led to a $151.7 million return.
Better yet, the film was Oscar nominated. Hanks got a nod for Best Actor, along with Best Original Screenplay for Gary Ross and Anne Spielberg (yes, the sister of Steven).
Critics loved the film as well, so this was a big old success story everyone can happily get behind. Not much to hate here!
Steven Spielberg was supposed to direct the film and wanted Harrison Ford in the lead role. Tom Hanks was the first choice, but he initially declined the part. Then Spielberg decided to drop out of the project after the birth of his son.
That must have put Ford off, so he left to pursue other projects.
There was much confusion over the lead. Also considered for it were Albert Brooks, Andy Garcia, John Travolta, Sean Penn, Robin Williams, Bill Murray, Gary Busey, Kevin Costner, Steve Guttenberg, Warren Beatty, Dennis Quaid, and Matthew Modine (of Full Metal Jacket fame).
Eventually… Robert De Niro got the role! However, he then dropped out to work on a different film as his asking salary was too much for the studio.
After he quit, his status made Big a hot property project to be on. And Tom Hanks swooped back in to steal the show.
Contemporary reviews show a lot of praise for Hanks, with The New York Times writing:
“[Big] features believable young teenage mannerisms from the two real boys in its cast and this only makes Mr. Hanks’s funny, flawless impression that much more adorable.”
Hanks made Big his own. And you can’t imagine anyone else in Big except him. 32 at the time, this got him his first Oscar nod.
To help him out in the role, director Penny Marshall had the young Josh actor perform in some scenes before him. This was David Moscow, who was 13 at the time. Moscow would do a scene and then Hanks would replicate the mannerisms.
David Moscow is now 48. Bloody passage of time, eh?!
But what Big does teach anyone who watches it is the importance of staying young at heart. At least in some capacity. How we doing there? Well, we run a site called Professional Moron. Definite 10/10.