As a child, did you ever wish you were older? Of course you did. All kids do. Don't lie to me. That's one of the reasons Big was so popular, because it brought a common childhood fantasy to life. But there is a dark side, and it is this: Big was released 25 years ago, on June 3, 1988. If you remember seeing it in a theater or shortly thereafter on videotape or cable, I have bad news. You're Old™. And unlike Josh Baskin, you can't become young again just by wishing for it in front of a magical, possibly satanic carnival game, though I suppose it couldn't hurt to try.
As you know from your U.S. history classes, 1987-88 was the era of the body-swap comedy, in the tradition of Freaky Friday. Like Father Like Son, with Dudley Moore and Kirk Cameron, was released in October 1987, followed by Vice Versa (Judge Reinhold and Fred Savage) on March 11, 1988, and 18 Again! (George Burns and Charlie Schlatter) on April 8. That's three movies with almost identical premises of fathers (or grandfathers) and sons switching bodies, all released within a space of six months. It was weird and no one could explain it. A lot of people thought maybe it was a sign of the apocalypse.
Less than two months later, there was Big. It wasn't a body-swap comedy -- the boy magically gets older, no swapping involved, which is ENTIRELY DIFFERENT -- but it got lumped in with them anyway. Not that the association hurt it any. None of the other three were very successful, but Big was big, grossing $115 million (about $222 million at today's ticket prices) and landing the number-four spot on the top films of 1988. Tom Hanks earned his first Oscar nomination, and the screenplay by Gary Ross and Anne Spielberg (Steven's sister) got a nod, too.
(Coincidentally, there was an Italian film with a similar premise, Da grande, released in its native land six months before Big came out. Some people who have not thought very hard about it -- including these people and a Wikipedia editor -- have said Da grande inspired Big, but that's obviously impossible given the time frame. Don't even come at me with faulty assumptions, Internet!)
Big was the culmination of Tom Hanks' rise to stardom, which had occupied most of the 1980s. Bosom Buddies had run from 1980-'82, followed by a few episodes of Family Ties, and then, in 1984, Splash and Bachelor Party. Hanks was suddenly everywhere: The Man with One Red Shoe and Volunteers in 1985; The Money Pit, Nothing in Common and Every Time We Say Goodbye in 1986; Dragnet in 1987. He was fairly young (he turned 30 in 1986), handsome but ordinary, and endlessly affable. He hosted Saturday Night Live for the first time in December 1985, and then twice in 1988: once before Big, and once after. Big was the highest grossing film of his career, a title it held until Sleepless in Seattle, seven movies later.
Rewatching the film as an adult, I'm a little surprised that the screenplay was considered excellent at the time. Hanks' performance is terrific, really capturing the spirit of a 13-year-old boy, but even if we accept the premise of a kid magically turning into an adult, there are weird flaws in the story.
How does adult Josh get a legitimate job in Manhattan without any ID? His panicked mother gets a phone call from him (he sings "The Way We Were" to her), but she doesn't have the police trace the number? What about when this crazy man claiming to be her son showed up at her house the very day her son went missing? Wouldn't the cops be looking for this weirdo, probably with the assistance of a sketch artist? How does "missing 13-year-old Josh Baskin" in North Jersey not make the news across the river in New York? When he finds the machine and makes his wish to be a kid again, what makes him think it will work at all, let alone happen right away (rather than overnight, like it did before)?
I think it's strange that Josh and his friend assume the Zoltar machine is responsible for what happened, and pin ALL their hopes on tracking it down and reversing it -- to the exclusion of all other possible remedies -- but I can see how it makes sense in kid logic.
The most serious mistake the film makes, in my estimation, is having Josh's adult girlfriend, Susan (Elizabeth Perkins), finally believe him when he says he's a kid trapped in a grown-up body. I just don't buy that she'd buy it, ever, and certainly not as whole-heartedly as she does. It adds an unnecessarily awkward spin to the film -- she is in love with someone she now realizes is only 13 -- when it would have been fine to have him simply disappear from her life when he changed back. Maybe he comes to visit her later, as a 13 year old, to prove he was telling the truth before. The current ending is mawkish. I thought so in 1988, when I was about Josh's age, and I think so now.
Also: it's too bad the Internet wasn't around in 1988, because the outraged reactions to Elizabeth Perkins having sex with a 13 year old would have been AMAZING.
When Big was released, on June 3, 1988:
- It made $8.2 million, which today would result in many people being fired but which in those days was a perfectly good opening weekend. (It ended up being the 14th best opening of 1988.) But it wasn't enough for first place. That went to Crocodile Dundee II, which had opened the week before to $24 million (best of 1988) and would remain at the top of the box office for another week after this. The Crocodile Dundee character was HUGE in those days.
- Opening the same day as Big was the Chevy Chase caper Funny Farm, which took fourth place. Also in the top 10: Rambo III, Willow, Colors, Beetlejuice, Friday the 13th Part VII, and Moonstruck and Good Morning, Vietnam, both of which had opened way back at Christmas '87.
- The Soviet Union had just two weeks earlier begun to withdraw its army from Afghanistan, where they'd been a-quarrelin' since 1980. You invade Afghanistan and only fight for eight years? Child's play!
- Actors Nicholas Braun, Sara Paxton, Haley Joel Osment, Nikki Reed and singer Adele were all less than two months old. Michael Cera had four days left to enjoy his mother's womb before he was to be expelled into Canada. And hey! Mae Whitman, who played his girlfriend (her?) on Arrested Development, was born two days after him! Neat!
- On TV, you'd have seen some Claymation California Raisins singing "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" a lot, an ad campaign that actually put Otis Redding's 1968 hit back on the Billboard charts again. Also on TV, China Beach and Just the Ten of Us had just premiered, while Magnum, P.I., Hotel, The Facts of Life, Cagney and Lacey and St. Elsewhere (snow globe!) had recently aired their final episodes.
- The most popular shows on TV were NBC's Thursday night juggernaut -- The Cosby Show, A Different World, Cheers -- followed by Golden Girls, Growing Pains and Who's the Boss?.
- George Michael's "One More Try" was the number-one song on the Billboard charts (a position it held for three weeks). It was preceded by "Anything for You" by Gloria Estefan, and followed by Rick Astley's "Together Forever." Astley's previous hit, "Never Gonna Give You Up," which you have probably been tricked into hearing a number of times, was number one back in March. Also on the charts at this time: "Get Outta My Dreams, Get into My Car" (Billy Ocean), "Man in the Mirror" (Michael Jackson), "Wishing Well" (Terence Trent D'Arby), "Need You Tonight" (INXS), "Could've Been" (Tiffany).