Sometimes I think Hollywood is directly screwing with me, personally. Recently I compiled a list of the comedies from the 1980s that couldn’t be made today. Big was one of the 10, and the feature itself was inspired by a commemorative piece for its 25th anniversary from a year earlier. At that time I’d written, “We can’t be sure that this movie won’t be remade anytime soon, but we can be sure it won’t mean as much after the careers of Adam Sandler, Chris Farley, Will Ferrell and others of their ilk.” Well, now suddenly there are plans to remake Big, albeit as a TV sitcom on Fox rather than a movie.
My point about the premise of Big’s lack of relevance today still stands, especially in the wake of A.O. Scott’s much-discussed New York Times Magazine article on “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture.” The people developing the Big show seem to be aware of the issue they face, however, with the pitch communicated via Deadline being that it will “explore what it means to be an adult, what it means to be a kid, and how in today’s world those two things are more confused than ever.” The problem then, I think, is that the source of comedy – seeing a grown man act like a 12 year old – is gone, and this is sounds more like a drama with social commentary regarding the modern prevalence of grown men who at like 12 year olds.
Either way, is it going to have much to offer that we don’t already know or have already seen? In the past quarter century, since the release of Big, the rise of the man-child has been noticeable in both pop culture, including movies starring the comedic actors named above, and actual society. Because this potential remake will be on TV, I’ve selected a handful of series that have come along since the late 1980s plus one longtime variety show with recently pertinent sketches as evidence that there’s not really a place for Big on the small screen.
Jerry Seinfeld filled an entire decade with his show about nothing, which was also a show about a Peter Pan and his Lost Boys and Girl. They were all immature at times in their own right, but at the show’s center is a guy who has little to no responsibility, goes through girlfriends like he’s in middle school and loves Superman and cereal. He is typically more mature than his friends George and Kramer, the latter being described once (via the iconic painting) as “a man-child crying out for love,” but he’s just the functional version of a little boy trapped in a man’s body, comparable to Josh in Big as the movie goes on.
Get a Life (1990–1992)
On the other side of the coin is the nonfunctional man-child, the early prototype for ridiculous cases of arrested development we soon saw in movies like Billy Madison, Tommy Boy and Step Brothers. Chris Elliott plays a 30-year-old paperboy who lives above his parents’ garage, something that was part of the joke at the time but which now sounds fairly normal in the era where people like him have even been given the label adultolescent. Of course, this was supposed to be a highly exaggerated comedy with downright surreal elements.
Don’t call Richard Castle immature. He’s fun. And he’s wealthy enough that he can afford the top of the line laser tag system to play with his daughter, who tends to act more grown up than him. Maybe it’s the laser tag specifically that reminds me of the toy store scene in Big, but also in general Castle represents what I had written on the movie last year: “Certain responsibilities prohibit us from acting on living like a man-child, but what 32-year-old man with enough money and no concern about getting married and having a family wouldn’t like a trampoline, arcade game and soda machine in a giant loft apartment?” He has a kid, and his toys also involve grown-up types, including the game of helping out with police investigations, but otherwise he fits that modern model.
Young Justice (2010-)
Most relevant man-child characters are actual men who just act like children. But this animated series has something closer to what we find in Big: a little boy inside the body of an adult man. Captain Marvel, a superhero created 75 years ago, is a recurring supporting character on the teen-based-super-team show, and of course he’s the alter-ego of a 12-year-old kid (just like Josh in Big) who transforms by shouting “Shazam!” His role here is funny, because he’s a member of the Justice League assigned to be a “den mother” to the young heroes, and technically he’s younger than all of them. So, sometimes he comes across as a childlike adult.
About a Boy (2014-)
Back to the non-magical man-children, this adaptation of Nick Hornby’s novel, which was previously made into a feature film, centers around another guy who is well-off enough not to have normal adult responsibilities. The title, of course, is meant to partly refer to Will, a wealthy songwriter who sits around living off royalties. He’s not terribly childlike – he’s hardly the only adult male who plays video games and guitar and enjoys partying and isn’t into commitment, etc. – but when he befriends a new neighbor kid he comes off as being like Big’s Josh, a child trapped inside a man’s body playing with the best friend he had before the transformation who also lives next door.
Saturday Night Live (1975-)
Throughout its 40 years, Saturday Night Live has featured plenty of sketches involving immature men and women. It also notably started the careers of many of the actors associated with man-child roles (including Sandler, Farley and Ferrell). A recurring character from last season, however, seems most relevant to this conversation. Beck Bennett plays an office boss who unfortunately has little control over his infantile arms and legs. Even though this is more of a situation where an adult man is trapped inside the enlarged body of an baby, it plays like the last remaining material that can be comedically mined from the concept of a man-child (or child-man). If we’re to have a remake of Big in today’s world, the lead character should start out really young so that there’s actually a contrast between how the man does act and how he’s expected to act.