Wishing makes it so

Comic charm in unintended consequences

Published: Oct 15 2014, 01:01:am

Friday, June 3, 1988.
BIG. Written by Gary Ross and Anne Spielberg. Music by Howard Shore. Directed by Penny Marshall. Running time: 104 minutes. Mature entertainment with the B.C. Classifier's warning: occasional very coarse language and swearing.
JOSHUA BASKIN (DAVID Moscow) is an ordinary kid. A normal, unassuming suburban 12-year-old, he's a schoolboy with the usual interests and embarrassments, achievements and frustrations.
    Life's complicated by the fact that he's beginning to notice girls. Along with every other boy in his George Washington Junior High class, he's dazzled by the beautiful, self-assured Cynthia Benson (Kimberlee M. Davis).
     Alas, biology conspires against Josh. Though friendly enough, Cynthia is taller than our hero, and their dimorphic differences are causing him acute pain.
    Later, standing before Zoltar, the automaton in a travelling carnival's wish machine, Josh speaks his desperate dream. "I wish I was Big."
    Tom Hanks is an extraordinary actor. From his first starring role (in the 1984 romantic fantasy Splash) he's displayed an understated dynamism, a talent he used to good effect in Volunteers (1985), Nothing in Common (1986) and Dragnet (1987).
    Even in dogs like 1985's The Man with One Red Shoe and The Money Pit (1986), Hanks retains a professional presence. In a finely tuned vehicle like director Penny Marshall's understated wish-fulfillment comedy, he scores, well, big time.
    Hanks enters the picture when Zoltar grants Josh's wish. The next morning, Josh (now played by Hanks) awakes, all grown up.
    Being big turns out to be a big problem. Mentally, he's still just an ordinary 12-year old. He has no idea how to explain himself to his understandably hysterical mother (Mercedes Ruehl).    
    His best friend Billy Kopeche (Jared Rushton) has a somewhat cooler head. Together, they decide that Josh should hide out in New York while searching for the itinerant Zoltar machine.
    Yes, Big is working yet another variation on the old body-switch plot, an idea used with varying degrees of success in such recent [1988] films as Vice Versa and 18 Again.
    On this round, though, the screenplay is credited to newcomers Gary Ross and Anne Spielberg, who just happens to be the sister of you-know-who. And, yes, there is something apt and effectively Spielberg-like about Josh and his situation.
    Alone and afraid, Josh seeks work to tide him over during his search. As luck would have it, he lands a job with the MacMillan Toys corporation.
    Luck then brings him to the attention of the company's owner, "Mac" MacMillan (Robert Loggia). An encounter in a toy store propels Josh into the executive suite as vice-president in charge of product development.
    His meteoric rise attracts the attention of fellow executive Susan Lawrence (Elizabeth Perkins), a woman beguiled by his uncomplicated innocence. Less beguiled is ambitious Paul Davenport (John Heard), an office rival whose envy of Josh adds a touch of menace to the mix.
    Making it all work is the wonderful-to-watch Hanks. A skillful, likeable player, he makes us believe that he is a kid trapped in an unfamiliar body.
    He brings Josh alive using a combination of subtle facial expressions and natural body English. Not only does he understand the alien mental processes of subteens, but projects them unerringly throughout the film.
    The result is a first-class film comedy, a fantasy that combines situation and performance to generate some touchingly emotional moments amidst the fun.
    That said, a brief word off warning to parents. Susan, an experienced urban woman, doesn't know that Josh is "just a kid." The relationship that develops between them is tender, funny and ultimately physical.
    Though it's handled with great care and charm by director Marshall — the sex is implied, not shown — the whole idea might be troublesome for some filmgoers. Indeed, if Ontario's censors follow the same logic they used in the recent Tin Drum case, Big will be banned in Toronto.
    In B.C., thank goodness, Big is quite properly rated Mature. Which is something that Josh will become in the course of his magical adventure.

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1988. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: For a long time Ontario's Board of Censors (now known as the Film Review Board) was the source of much amusement to British Columbians. In the afterword to my review of 1978's In Praise of Older Women, I recall how Ontario reacted to a Canadian-made feature with rather more nudity than board members deemed proper. The Tin Drum case noted above occurred in 1980, when the Ontario board viewed director Volker Schlondorff's Academy Award-winning adaptation of Gunter Grass's 1959 novel, The Tin Drum. A dark, satirical fantasy on the rise of Nazism, its central character is a boy — played by 11-year-old David Bennett —who decides to stop growing physically while still a child. Mentally, though, he is an adult, and has an adult physical relationship with a woman. Ontario's censors fixed their attention on the film's sex scene, declared it to be "child pornography" and banned the picture. Much ridicule ensued. Eight years later, Big was approved without comment.
    David Moscow made his feature film debut in BIg playing the 12-year-old Josh Baskin. Four years later, he co-starred opposite Christian Bale in the original screen musical Newsies. Though not among Hollywood's A-list actors today, he works regularly in television and features. He will celebrate his 40th birthday on November 14 (2014). Playing "big" Josh earned Tom Hanks the first of his best actor Oscar nominations. The picture was a major money maker, earning director Penny Marshall the distinction of being the first woman to direct a feature that grossed over $100 million in the U.S. market. Four years later (1992), she repeated the feat with her home-run baseball hit, A League of Their Own.