Tom Hanks was already a well-liked star in 1988, but it wasn’t clear yet what type of star he was going to be. After moving from sitcoms to features in 1984 with the back-to-back comedy hits Splash and Bachelor Party, Hanks knocked around a bit, taking on leads in less successful comedies like The Money Pit while trying on the occasional dramatic role in films like Nothing In Common. But the question remained: Was he to be the lead in one romantic comedy after another? A boyish wiseacre of the Michael Keaton variety? And why didn’t any film fully capture the charm evident in Hanks’ talk-show appearances?
Big went a long way toward answering those questions, thanks to a performance that suggested Hanks could do pretty much anything he wanted. Every once in a while, actors get moments that show their untapped depths. For Hanks, that moment arrives about 20 minutes into Big, in which he plays Josh Baskin, a 12-year-old kid whose wish to be bigger has led to him waking up in the body of the 30-year-old Hanks. Hanks is fun in his first scenes, convincing as a kid befuddled by his body hitting the fast-forward button overnight. But it’s when he breaks down in tears after being left alone in a flophouse near a pre-Giuliani Times Square that Big transforms from just another high-concept comedy—one of a flood of Freaky Friday-inspired late-’80s body-switching movies—into a rich film about growing up. Without any words, Hanks captures Josh’s realization that he’s gotten what wished for, only to realize how protected he’d been from the world he’d rushed to join.
He ends up navigating that world pretty well anyway. After taking an entry-level job at a toy company, Josh wins over Mr. Macmillan (Robert Loggia, in a disarmingly warm performance), the company’s owner, with his unbridled enthusiasm for childish things. He also captures the attention of Susan (Elizabeth Perkins), a young executive who only thinks she’s a hard-charging, take-no-prisoners yuppie like her scummy boyfriend (John Heard). First confused, then delighted by Josh’s fondness for trampolines, pinball machines, and bunk beds, Susan starts a sweet relationship with the overgrown kid. But like all other aspects of Josh’s adventures in premature adulthood, it eventually hits a wall. Josh figures out how to live in the adult world, but that doesn’t mean he belongs there.
Hanks’ performance captures both Josh’s initial excitement and his creeping disillusionment as the responsibilities of adult life start to weigh on him. His work is in lock-step with the rest of a film that’s more wistful than wondrous. Big bursts to life in moments like Josh and MacMillan’s famous duet on top of FAO Schwartz’s oversized keyboard, but doesn’t harbor any illusions about wide-eyed wonder being a sustainable state. Where other films cheapen childhood by idealizing it and define adulthood as a state of lost innocence, writers Gary Ross and Anne Spielberg get the balance right.
Josh inspires others with his exuberance, but the exuberance fades once he realizes what he’s lost, and what lies ahead if he sticks around. Conversely, late in Big, when Josh asks Susan to join him by wishing her way back into childhood with him, she declines, saying, “I’ve been there before. It’s hard enough the first time.” (Perkins is especially winning in what could have been a standard girlfriend role.) Big opens with a string of scenes that capture the everyday frustrations of being a kid, then brings Josh to a place where he wants those frustrations back. He doesn’t retreat from the hardships of the adult world so much as decide to ease his way back into them. The only way to grow up is the hard way, even if most people, like Susan, lose too much along the way.
Working with a talented crew that includes cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld (just a few years away from becoming a director) and composer Howard Shore, director Penny Marshall mostly lets her actors carry the film. She never rushes the pace or puts too much emphasis on the mechanics of plot. Big moves along easily: There’s no arbitrary deadline for Josh to return home, and the boardroom politics serve the characters rather than the other way around. It’s a funny, bittersweet film that opens as a cautionary tale about growing up too fast, but deepens into a movie about the unplumbable gulf between childhood and adulthood, and what it feels like to stand on either side, wishing for a way over.
Apart from packaging that plays a tinny rendition of “Heart And Soul,” most of the features here come ported over from the 2007 DVD edition. That includes an extended cut of the film, including scenes with Frances Fisher as the mother of Josh’s neighbor, and an audio commentary—billed as an “audio documentary”—that consists heavily of notes Ross and Spielberg recorded when conceiving the film. Otherwise, there are a few solid, though overlapping, making-of features that include this bit of trivia: The film came this close to getting made with Robert De Niro in the lead role. Take a moment to consider the alternate universe that casting choice might have opened up.