The twilight of the 80s saw a raft of "body swap" movies--what temperature of the times that trend takes exactly is open to your own reading. There was the Two Coreys vehicle Dream a Little Dream, the Kirk Cameron/Dudley Moore dud Like Father Like Son, the similar son/father switcheroo Vice Versa starring everyone's favourites, Judge Reinhold and Fred Savage, and, finally, George Burn's final film, 18 Again! Big, the story of twelve year old pipsqueak Josh Baskin being granted his wish to be "big" by an unplugged carnival game, is the odd log out in this raft. These others slabs of dead wood mostly concern the personality of a rebellious soul being exchanged for the soul of some stuffed shirt and in the end both souls realize the value of one another's lifestyle. Big also stands out because, twenty-five years later, it's still watchable. It's good.
You can only get so far on a tank of nostalgia. No one's calling Big great cinema here, but for what it is, and for where it's situated, it's a rare corker. It stands out and stands up because it takes its absurd premise seriously. All body swap movies have that scene where the passenger sees themselves in the mirror and doesn't recognize the vessel. But beyond that initial forehead slap, the emotional effects of "the swap" become moot. However, Big spends some real time with the fear and loneliness attending Josh's transformation. Yes, there's silly string and inflatable dinosaurs and floor pianos to remind you that Josh is a child in a man's body, but there's also Josh scared for his life in a New York flophouse, terrified of the situation he's found himself in. And there's Mrs. Baskin believing that her son has been kidnapped by Tom Hanks, fearful that Tom Hanks is harming him. Even beyond the situational fear, there's the undercurrent of adult dread, of being ill-equipped--at whatever age, however big--for the real world. When Josh breaks it to Susan (Elizabeth Perkins) that he's really twelve, she parries with: "You think there isn't a frightened kid inside of me, too?"
Of course, Big isn't really and won't be remembered for the current of fear of the adult world that runs through it. Hanks and Robert Loggia performing "Heart and Soul" on the giant floor piano in F.A.O. Schwartz. If we're not willing to call Big classic cinema, I think we can at least agree that that scene is classic. Hanks' floppiness and Loggia's initial debonairness that gives way to childish abandon alone elevates Big from the body swap dross it came up with. Director Penny Marshall, while not an auteur by any stretch of the imagination, but she's adept at making otherwise run-of-the-mill popular movies feel classic. It's that touch of class, I think, mixed with how serious it takes its absurdity, is why we still watch Big and probably wouldn't buy Dream a Little Dream for $2 from a box in a gas station.
And if we want to get really specific about it, I think the source of Big's indefatigable charm can be found with Josh belly down on his flophouse bed, watching TV and tonguing the filling out of Oreos. Hanks performs this bit of business where he's mindlessly flopping his foot behind him, brushing his toes against the wall. Eating the whites out of the Oreos is fish in a barrel when it comes to showing there's a kid in Tom Hank's body, but there's something so special and specific about Hanks' idle foot business that captures childhood and childishness perfectly. When it's at its best, Big doesn't just succeed at reminding you of your own childhood, but of childhood itself.