Essays · Movies

The Influence of ‘Big’

‘Shazam!’ and ‘Little’ aren’t the first things spawned from the 1988 Tom Hanks comedy, and they’re likely not the last.
Tom Hanks Big
Twentieth Century Fox
By  · Published on April 10th, 2019

This article is part of our One Perfect Archive project, a series of deep dives that explore the filmmaking craft behind some of our favorite shots. In this entry, we explore the influence of Big on pop culture.

By the time Big arrived in theaters in June 1988, four other movies about kids becoming adults had already been released in the span of six months. They consisted of the body-swap features Vice Versa, 18 Again!, and Like Father Like Son, as well as the ABC TV movie 14 Going On 30, which more similarly involves a boy aging up courtesy of a wish come true. And I’m not even including the Italian aging-up comedy Da Grande, also out in late 1987.

Supposedly, stars Tom Hanks and Elizabeth Perkins became worried about the trend during production, though that’s unlikely since filming took place before all except Like Father Like Son were released. Still, these likeminded titles found varied reception, and so it’s a wonder that Big was such a huge hit, not only surpassing all of them at the box office to become the fourth-highest-grossing movie of its year but also earning an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay along with a nod for Hanks for Best Actor.

That script, by then-neighbors Anne Spielberg and Gary Ross, was begun in 1984 or 1985, meaning it wasn’t attempting to copy any of its comparable contemporaries. If anything, inspiration came more from the 1979 movie Being There. The project was good enough to initially attract Harrison Ford and Steven Spielberg as star and director, respectively; later, with Penny Marshall attached to direct, Robert De Niro was all but cast in the role of the 12-year-old trapped in a man’s body. Jeff Bridges, Dennis Quaid, John Travolta, and Robin Williams were also considered.

The success of Big has a lot to do with the creatives involved, the movie’s more earnest Capra-esque tone, a perfect storm of unique and ultimately iconic scenes that went above and beyond the usual kid-as-adult slapstick and misunderstandings humor, and of course Hanks’ ideal portrayal of this premise resulting in a character who is impossible to imagine performed by anyone else — though some of those actors who’d been considered would try their own similar projects later on.

With great success tends to come great influence, and Big has had quite a legacy in the real world as well as through all facets of pop culture. Here are some of what’s spawned from the movie, most of them fellow films but also a look at toys and TV shows:

The Big Piano (1988- )

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Twentieth Century Fox

The piano seen in Big existed in another form before its memorable appearance in the movie. Invented by Italian artist Remo Saraceni and initially called The Walking Piano, the original 6’6″ keyboard made its introduction at FAO Schwartz in 1982. But the one seen in Big was custom-built for the production because the scene required an even longer floor piano to allow both Hanks and Robert Loggia to play “Chopsticks” and “Heart and Soul” together. Of course, that new 16′ version was made for the public (at a cost of $15,000 each), renamed “The Big Piano” with a new prominent display at FAO Schwartz, and those plus the smaller versions (and copycats at other stores) became a hot item at Christmas and in the decades since.

A League of Their Own (1992)

A League Of Their Own

Big made a star director out of former actress Penny Marshall, marking her as the first woman filmmaker to have a movie gross more than $100 million. While she first followed it with the rather safe-sell drama Awakenings (starring Big rejects De Niro and Williams), which was another one of Steven Spielberg’s scraps, she used her leverage from the success of Big to convince Sony to make A League of Their Own. She had become interested in the story of the all-women baseball league after seeing the 1987 documentary of the same name but it wasn’t the kind of thing studios were making back then. She got the green light, brought back her Big star (Hanks needed this after a string of disappointments after Big), and it wound up being a phenomenon of its own.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.