Around 1987-1988, theaters were flooded with so-called “body-swap” movies. Based on the old Freaky Friday formula, but without that movie’s oddball water skiing stunts, these movies dealt with kids being transformed into adults, and adults being transformed into kids. There was 18 Again! with George Burns, Vice Versa with Judge Reinhold and Fred Savage, and Like Father, Like Son with Dudley Moore and Kirk Cameron. After these came and went, the fad appeared over, except for one similar film that had yet to debut, Big.
Big earned critical raves and huge box office, thanks in part to a star-making turn by Tom Hanks (The Green Mile), in his first of many Oscar-nominated roles. Another key to its success was some confident direction by Penny Marshall (A League of Their Own), with this being the first female-directed film to make more than $100 million. Now, Big has grown up onto DVD, with a new extended cut that adds 20 minutes of new material.
Meet Josh Baskin (David Moscow). He’s 13 years old, and he’s frustrated. He can’t drive, his parents embarrass him in public, the girl he likes is infatuated with an older hunk, and he’s still not tall enough to go on a carnival roller coaster. He finds Zoltar, an antique fortune-telling machine, in a dark corner of the carnival. Josh tells the machine “I wish I were big,” and it gives him a card that reads, “Your wish is granted.” The next morning, Josh wakes up in his bedroom as a full-grown man in his thirties (Hanks). After terrifying his mom (Mercedes Ruehl, The Fisher King), Josh finds himself alone. He turns to his slightly more knowledgeable best friend Billy (Jared Rushton, Overboard) to help him with getting a hotel room and an entry-level job at a toy company in the city. While Billy searches for another Zoltar machine, Josh quickly climbs the corporate ladder, first by charming the company president (Robert Loggia, Lost Highway), and then via an unexpected romance with Susan (Elizabeth Perkins, Weeds), a company executive. When an opportunity arises to become a kid again, will Josh take it, or will he stay in his new life?
Sure, we’ve all heard the lame-o clichés about age, such as “You’re only as young as you feel,” or “wise beyond your years.” In the media, these lines are usually abutted with footage of 90-year-olds running marathons or 6-year-olds winning chess tournaments. But you’ll find no better example of “age is only a number” than Big.
Part of the reason why the film works as well as it does is because no matter what situation he finds himself in, Josh never tries to act like “an adult.” Whether he’s at a toy store, in a board room meeting, or in the back of a limousine, he’s just being himself. As a kid, Josh is figuring out how the world works. Transformed into an adult, this is what Josh still does, only on a larger scale. Not knowing how the corporate world works, Josh just stumbles through it blindly. Although he does miss where he came from, he’s also quick to enjoy the perks of being an adult. As he moves up in the company, he gets a loft apartment which he fills with toys and games, and no parents to tell him to clean it up. He gorges himself on junk food, he plays laser tag with other kids in a toy store, and he has no problem wearing an unbelievably tacky tuxedo to a highbrow party. The “real” adults just accept him, and often welcome him, as an eccentric.
But then, how adult are these adults? At first, they are all business. Life inside the toy company is deadly serious, with an endless stream of meetings about financial reports and marketing studies, with the toys themselves seen only rarely. In one scene, two executives stand behind a glass window, watching a group of children play with the toys. They have a detached, unemotional response to seeing the kids in action. This is in direct contrast to Josh’s actions when he joins the company, which is to be upfront about why the toys do and don’t work, because he’s someone who actually plays with them. The contradiction that drives many scenes in the film is how Josh’s youth gives him an advantage when dealing with others, often making him seem like the most mature person in the room.
As the film progresses, though, the adults of Josh’s world show their kid-like selves. Josh’s rival both for both work and for Susan’s affections is Paul (John Heard, Awakenings), who just keeps getting more and more immature as the movie goes on. He challenges Josh to racquetball just to show that there’s something he’s better at, and the match quickly descends into a game of “keep away.” At heart, Paul is just a bratty kid crying in the playground because another kid has a bigger ice cream cone than his. The only difference is that Paul’s doing his college-educated crying in an expensive suit.
It’s within Susan, though, that Josh stirs the most change. When we first meet her, she’s cold and uptight, thinking only of business. She doesn’t joke around with her coworkers, and her relationship with Paul is more matter-of-fact than it is romantic or touching. Josh catches her attention not only because he’s the boss’s new favorite, but because he’s like no one else in her world. Visiting his home for the first time, she asks if he has any wine, but all he wants to do is jump on a trampoline. He helps her find her own youthful side, and she loosens up considerably after being with him. Late in the film, during a dramatic moment, she breaks down to Josh and tells him that she’s just an insecure 13-year-old on the inside too. He doesn’t quite understand what this means, just as she doesn’t fully understand what he’s trying to tell her in that scene, but it shows that even the adults in the film are still figuring how the world works.
Of course, most of the above is just subtext. On the surface, Big is a goofy comedy with a lot of big, slapstick laughs. Hanks does his share of pratfalls, such as when he tries to fit into a pair of kids’ jeans. He also gets plenty of humorous moments when hanging out with Billy, as the two of them pal around like two kids do. Hanks gets to pour on the dramatics in some scenes, including those first few nights of his newfound adulthood, when he finds himself alone and confused, as well as the more serious scenes between him and Susan. Overall, he loses himself in the role, and Big continues to be one of his best performances. The other actors spend most of their time reacting to Hanks, but they each perform nicely, especially Loggia as the kid-at-heart boss.
This DVD features an extended version of the film, with 20 minutes of brand new footage reedited back into it. What’s that? You’re saying, “How dare they forever tarnish my hazy yet treasured memories of this movie by altering it so that it’s slightly different from the one I saw back in 1988!” Well, don’t worry. The theatrical version is also on this disc in all its nostalgic glory. This is the way special editions should be done, offering viewers a choice of versions to watch in a single package.
The widescreen picture is fairly soft, but that could be the filmmakers’ choice, to give the movie a gentle, fantasy feel. Either way, the colors don’t jump off the screen the way they do on other discs. The sound is a disappointment. There are no specific flaws, but I don’t see why this couldn’t have been re-mastered into a 5.1 track. Sure, there aren’t a lot of big sound effects, but there is a nice score by Howard Shore (The Lord of the Rings), and the movie’s most famous scene involves a gigantic piano duet. The audio deserves better than this mostly flat 2.0 track.
The first disc in this two-disc set features a fascinating commentary with the writers, Gary Ross and Anne Spielberg. This alternates between their current thoughts on the movie, as well as audio recordings of their first brainstorming session about it, which Spielberg had the foresight to record at the time. It’s amazing how much of their initial musings from that first conversation survived all the way into the final film.
The second disc contains a number of featurettes, in which Marshall, the writers, producers and actors all reminisce about the movie. Hanks isn’t here, but the others have a generous amount of praise for him. The “Work of Play” featurette interviews actual toy company executives about what it’s really like to work in the business. They come across as a little more like Josh than Paul. The “Carnival Party” featurette is a promotional piece from 1988 showing Hanks being interviewed at the premiere. An episode of AMC’s Backstory about Big is included as well. The deleted scenes are the same ones that have been added to the extended edition on Disc One, making them redundant here, except for offering a definitive list of what is and isn’t new. The original trailers and some TV spots are also included. Overall, it’s a solid package of bonus materials, offering a comprehensive look at the film’s history.
Age is only a number. Childishness and maturity are merely states of mind. Not only do you get this message with Big, but you get a lot of laughs as well.