If you start researching it you’ll find there are a good few films that employ the ‘body swap’ plot device, but a few are better remembered than the rest. The 1976 Barbara Harris / Jodie Foster vehicle Freaky Friday - where a mother and daughter experience what it is like to be each other for a day - was successful; both actresses were nominated for a Golden Globe and it took nearly $26 million at the box office. In 1997 the ludicrous but eminently watchable Face/Off provided John Travolta and Nicholas Cage the chance to send each other up as they pranced about in their sworn enemies’ physical frames. Somewhere in between, in 1988, came two films that featured similar themes.
Now, Judge Reinhold and Fred Savage were good in Vice Versa, I don’t mind saying. They managed to convey the whole ‘we’ve swapped personalities and so now you’re a child in a man’s body, and well, ‘vice versa’, so we have to somehow muddle through until we work out how to swap back’ kerfuffle amusingly, and the end result is fun. But Judge and Fred’s efforts were easily eclipsed by Tom Hanks' convincing portrayal of a 12 year old boy who wakes up one morning to find his juvenile brain is now firmly enveloped in the body of a grown man.
I loved Big when I first saw it in the cinema, and I still love it now. Feel good it certainly is, and Hanks acting at being a boy pretending to be a man is joyous. However, from its premise alone you have to realise that suspending disbelief is pretty important when watching this film...
Josh Baskin (David Moscow) is a pretty normal twelve year old boy who lives in New Jersey in the United States with his parents and baby sister. After going to the fair one evening and happening on an older girl who he’d quite like to impress, he’s embarrassed when he’s told he is too short to get on one of the rides with her. Desolately wandering off he finds a machine with the name ‘Zoltar Speaks’ emblazoned across it and the lifeless head and torso of a mystical figure inside it. He puts 25 cents in and nothing happens. He thumps it a few times, shouting ‘Work!’ angrily at it and we see the disturbing dummy’s eyes suddenly blaze red, and its mouth begin to creak open and shut. Following the instructions on the now lit-up signs inside the booth Josh angles a chute towards the mouth and then makes his wish…’I wish I was BIG.’ Pressing a button for his coin to be released it rolls down the chute and drops inside the gaping cavern. A card is ejected from a slot which tells Josh ‘Your wish is granted,’ but as he’s about to walk away Josh sees that the booth’s plug is not connected to an electrical supply. Ooh-er, what happened there then?
Josh goes home, and goes to bed. He’s still twelve. When he wakes up the next morning, however, things have changed and we are immediately alerted to this fact when the pair of feet we see leap from his bed on to the rug don’t look like the typical feet of an adolescent boy; they belong to somebody much, much bigger. Josh goes into the bathroom, sees his new face and body in the mirror and, as you would expect, gets a bit of a surprise – although we see a small smirk cross his face when he’s checking out another part of his anatomy that has also – er – grown in proportion with his new size. Finding his old clothes now no longer fit him (although strangely his kid’s pair of underpants has managed to expand with him…) he’s forced to raid his dad’s wardrobe before sneaking out the house so his mum doesn’t see him like this. He heads for the fairground, but guess what? It’s completely disappeared; the only clue that any of it was there at all is the litter on the ground.
Not knowing what else to do, he goes home to get his mum’s help, but understandably she freaks out at this hulking brute in her living room, claiming that he’s her son. Josh flees as she starts to dial the police, and heads to school to find his best friend, Billy (Jared Rushton). Billy also needs some persuading that this man standing in front of him is who he says he is, but after hearing Josh chant his way through a rap that only the two of them know, Billy believes him and agrees to help.
Together they go to New York City, find Josh a (nasty but cheap) hotel room and Billy goes home, with the aim of returning the next day and tracking down the Zoltar Speaks machine. The sounds of the city at night are pretty terrifying for a child on his own, and you really feel for Josh; alone and scared in an unfamiliar place, not to mention body. I’m pretty sure I cried along with his tears when I saw the film originally – hell, I nearly did again when I re-watched it for this article. Hanks captures Josh’s vulnerability perfectly.
Billy is as good as his word and returns the following morning, and the boys spend a fruitless few hours trudging round arcades, trying to find the machine that started all this with no luck. They end up asking Consumer Affairs for a list of all the fairs and carnivals in the region, but they discover it could take six weeks or so for the information to come back. With children’s logic they decide that Josh has to stay in NYC and get a job whilst they wait, and they find an advertisement for a computer operator (Josh is a bit of a coding geek it transpires) at a toy company. Ker-ching!
Despite having no idea how to conduct himself in an interview, he gets the job (remember that suspending disbelief thing we talked about earlier?) and we also get a first glimpse of Susan (Elizabeth Perkins), and more alarmingly, her 80’s power shoulder pads. Wow, I’d forgotten how big those things could be.
Whilst finding his feet amongst his new work colleagues Josh has a chance meeting with the CEO, and the most famous scene of the film is played out in the toy store, on a giant floor keyboard which you could only gaze at in awe, knowing that there was no way Father Christmas would be leaving that under your tree that year. The big boss is impressed with Josh’s enthusiastic approach and knowledge of popular toys and promotes him to the amazingly cool position (for a twelve year old at least, although to be honest I think it might just be my perfect job too) of toy tester. Billy can’t get over Josh’s luck; he’s being paid to test out all the new toys and simply give his opinion on them! And, with his enlarged pay cheque, he can now afford to move to a huge apartment and fill it full of his own toys, including a pinball machine, a trampoline and, most excitingly, an adult-sized blow-up dinosaur. Who wouldn’t want one of those?
Josh’s insights into the kind of toys that the company should be selling soon bring him to the attention of the highest ranking executives; favourably in the case of Susan, not so much in the case of her prat of a boyfriend Paul (John Heard). Josh starts spending more time with Susan and his innate sense of fun brings out her ability to let go and enjoy herself. Being a twelve year old boy her romantic intentions towards him don’t even make it on to Josh’s radar at first but their friendship soon develops into something more, and it’s testament to Hank’s ability to play cute that you don’t stop and go ‘eeeeuuww,’ which is really what should be going through your mind if you think about it.
So, it all goes well for a while. However, after being blown out by Josh for Susan on several occasions Billy starts to realise with annoyance that his friend is being sucked into his high-flying role and losing sight of his childhood, and frustration boils over into a high-volume argument.
The CEO then asks Josh to develop a new set of toys for the company but he soon finds trying to fulfil the business-side of the process daunting, even with Susan’s help. He starts trying to back away from it all, desperately wanting to return to his old life and not have to deal with an adult world anymore, and even confesses to Susan that he is only really a child, but she presumes he’s trying to get out of committing to her and also gets cross with him. Later she goes through his wallet when he’s not around and finds the Zoltar Speaks card; put that with all the other evidence of Josh’s immaturity, and her brain must start to slowly fizz at this point.
Eventually Josh can’t take the pressure anymore. When he finds out from Billy where the Zoltar Speaks machine has ended up he takes off during an important meeting to find it and reverse his wish. Susan follows him and realises he was telling her the truth about who he really is. While she is tearful that their relationship has to end, she declines Josh’s suggestion that she also makes a wish to turn herself into a young girl again…
The couple say a sad goodbye, and Josh walks away. Susan glances down for a second, and when her gaze returns to him Josh is suddenly a child again; albeit a child in an oversize suit. He returns to his relieved family, and the final scene is of Josh and Billy – the same size once again.
Given huge critical acclaim on its release, the charm of Big lies in the ability of Hanks to convey the absolute twelve-ness of Josh, despite him being packaged in a grown-up’s body. From the moment you first see him you totally believe that Hanks is really a child thanks to his spot-on facial expressions (look closely and every now and again you’ll catch a real Father Dougal wide-eyed stare) and awkward, gangly body movements. The relationship between Josh and Billy feels the same no matter whether it’s Hanks or Moscow playing their half of the duo; something that credits all three actors involved. There are plenty of occasions where the script could have gone over the top and created farce-like situations (and think what might have happened if Jim Carrey had been cast in the main role), but it always resists, even leaving Hanks underplaying it beautifully on occasions.