Should I Watch..? 'Big'
What's it about?
Big is a comedy fantasy film released in 1988 and was directed by Penny Marshall. The film is about a young boy who uses a carnival machine to wish he was grown up, only to discover in the morning that his wish has come true. The film stars Tom Hanks, Elizabeth Perkins, John Heard and Robert Loggia and was written by Gary Ross and Anne Spielberg (Steven's sister). The film served as a launchpad for Hanks who ascended to the A-list after this film's release due to his universally praised performance, even securing a nomination for Best Actor at the Academy Awards. The film was hailed by critics and loved by audiences as well, going on to earn a healthy $151 million worldwide and remains popular to this day. The film often appears on lists of the best comedy or fantasy films and even had a Broadway musical adaptation originally released in 1996.
What's it about?
Josh Baskin is a frustrated twelve-year-old living in New Jersey with his parents and his infant sister. Feeling upset that his parents spend most of their attention on his newborn sister while he is overlooked by an older girl he has a crush on, the final straw comes when he visits a carnival and is told that he is too short to experience one of the rides. Wandering off, he encounters a strange fortune teller arcade machine and he decides to use it. He wishes to be big and the machine prints out a ticket stating that his wish has been granted. As Josh walks off, he notices that the machine wasn't plugged in.
Sure enough, when he wakes up in the morning, he has grown into a fully fledged adult man. Escaping from his distraught mother who refuses to believe Josh's story, he desperately runs back to the site of the carnival to use the machine again to reverse his predicament. Sadly, the carnival has moved on and the machine is no longer there. Eventually persuading his best friend Billy that he really is Josh, the two of them head off into New York to do some 'adulting' by renting their own flat and Josh attempting to get a job...
12-year-old Josh Baskin
Gary Ross & Anne Spielberg
Release Date (UK)
21st October, 1988
12A (2014 re-rating)
Comedy, Drama, Fantasy
Academy Award Nominations
Best Actor (Hanks), Best Original Screenplay
What's to like?
Being honest with you (as I always am), I actually hated this film for the longest time. When I first watched it when I was about the same age as young Josh, I hated the film's whimsy and romantic subplot because surely Josh would find girls as icky as I did back then. However, watching it again a few years ago when I had amassed a few more miles on the clock proved me wrong in every sense. Yes, the film is still full of whimsy but it wins you over thanks to the hard work put in by Hanks as the adult Josh. It's a remarkable performance that easily convinces you that he is still a young boy underneath with his mannerisms, facial movements and delivery of dialogue. I'm not Hanks' biggest fan but this performance underlines just how great an actor he is, whether it's comedy or the more serious stuff.
The movie's outstanding moment is when Hanks and Loggia play 'Heart & Soul' on the giant walking piano and it's impossible not to smile throughout. It's such a famous sequence that as soon as the scene begins, you're itching in anticipation and when it's over, you spend the film wishing that they would revisit it. Another aspect I failed to appreciate in my youth was the film's themes on the loss of childhood innocence and the differences between generations. The film has a smart and subtle narrative that allows Hanks the freedom to misbehave to comedic effect but also offer more dramatic moments. And while the romance between Josh and Susan might feel awkward on paper, Marshall does an excellent job of keeping the premise on track and keeping the audience on board.
- This was the first film directed by a woman to earn more than $100 million at the box office.
- The original Walking Piano was spotted by the filmmakers at FAO Schwarz Toy Store in New York. However, it was only 6 and a half feet in length which meant that it was unable to play all of the notes required to play 'Heart & Soul'. Marshall contacted the inventor of the Walking Piano - Remo Saraceni - for a bigger one to use in the scene so he created a 16-foot version which did appear on screen.
- The Zoltar machine was a prop built for the film but was based on actual fortune-telling machines used at the beginning of the 20th century, many of which featured female fortune tellers. The Zoltar name was trademarked and a number of machines were then made. They even made a cheaper version where an actual person could sit inside.
- Before shooting the piano sequence, Hanks and Loggia noticed two extras who were dressed as their characters - obviously back-ups in case the actors couldn't play the tune successfully. They then agreed to play the tune perfectly so that their doubles wouldn't be needed, which they then did.
What's not to like?
Speaking of the romantic subplot, it's hard to ignore the fact that it is pitched on a slightly dodgy wicket - the film puts so much effort into reminding us that Hanks is a twelve year old child that when the chemistry between him and Perkins heats up, it does leave an uncomfortable truth hanging in the air. It might be worth arguing that Hanks' performance is just so good that you can't help but think of him as a young boy. Nevertheless, it didn't sit that well with me. I will also say that part of my reasoning for disliking the film as I did was the frankly terrifying Zoltar machine. The glowing eyes, the strange voice, the fact that it wasn't plugged in... I found the whole experience distinctly chilling when I was younger. These days, of course, the machine has lost much of its chilling power but still...
Childhood prejudices aside, Big is a deceptively deep fantasy film which is deserving of its place in popular culture. It is both a childlike fantasy and a knowing acknowledgement that being a child is just as trying as being a grown up. It's easy to imagine someone like Robin Williams or Jim Carrey playing a similar role but Hanks brings both childish enthusiasm and adult sensitivity to the role, a trick that other lesser performers would miss. If nothing else, you will want a walking piano by the time the film is over!
Should I watch it?
Big remains a great watch for viewers for all ages by being a gentle comedy that might be excessively or even sickly sweet but still enjoyable. Hanks is a revelation, finally delivering a performance that would cement his place on the A-list for the rest of his career. But the film is also an improvement in every way on Penny Marshall's directorial debut Jumpin' Jack Flash - this film is well written, brilliantly performed and utterly beguiling. Just avoid it if you're particularly young...
Great For: family viewings, Eighties revival nights, Tom Hanks' career
Not So Great For: children with vivid imaginations, carnies, toy manufacturers
What else should I watch?
Big was part of a trend of age-change films in the latter part of the decade with films like 18 Again!, Vice Versa and Like Father Like Son. None of them really captured the same magic that Marshall did in this film, which also owes a debt of gratitude to the original Freaky Friday which saw a mother and daughter swap places via mysterious body-swap shenanigans. Wish fulfilment is a niche of fantasy films that can cover a wide range of topics and styles such as the magical Disney animation The Little Mermaid, the comic retelling of Faust by Dudley Moore and Peter Cook in Bedazzled, the Wes Craven-produced slasher Wishmaster and the timeless Christmas classic It's A Wonderful Life.
From his auspicious debut in the 1980 slasher flick He Knows You're Alone, Hanks has become one of the most revered and beloved stars Hollywood has ever seen. His career has rarely slowed down since he took over Tinseltown with critics lauding his appearances in films like Sleepless In Seattle, Forrest Gump and of course, voicing Woody the cowboy in the Toy Story series. Personally, I loved his appearance in the gangster graphic novel adaptation Road To Perdition while his performance as Walt Disney in Saving Mr Banks is also worth checking out. And to the surprise of no-one, his recent performance in A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood also generated numerous awards and nominations.
© 2020 Benjamin Cox