Josh Baskin (Tom Hanks) is an ordinary twelve-year-old kid who wishes he could grow up, be more independent, make progress in his life. Don't get him wrong, he likes hanging around with his best friend Billy (Jared Rushton), and they are as close as boys their age get, even talking on walkie talkies before bed since they live next door to one another, but then there's the fact that when he visits the fairground which is in town, he would love to get on the rollercoaster as he catches sight of the girl he admires from afar, and that would be the ideal thing to impress her. Alas, after telling his parents he'll meet them later, he is humiliated in front of the girl because he's too small to get on the ride. If only his dreams could come true somehow...
Funny you should mention that, Josh, as there's a sideshow exhibit which could help you, all you have to do is place a quarter in the slot and aim it at the mouth of the figure inside, and it will grant your wishes. Or at least that's what it says on the sign, and the boy walks away from it with a card telling him so, but is sceptical until he wakes up the next morning and has transformed into an actual movie star. Robert De Niro was the man so nearly playing the leading role in Big, which would have been a very different film, and might have set him on the path he took later in his career when his credibility among "serious" cineastes dipped, but watching this now it's unimaginable without Tom Hanks.
Hanks was nobody's idea of a method actor, he was well known at the time for his mostly lighthearted roles though he had dabbled in drama, yet Big was the first time he indicated a far wider range than anyone suspected. His character as the young Josh inhabiting the body of himself at age thirty was ostensibly a comedy one, and he achieved the laughs with ease, but there was also a more serious side to the performance, unlikely as it appeared at face value. It's the fact that Gary Ross and Anne Spielberg's script took what was a goofy premise and approached it so sincerely that lent the piece the depth it has, and why it struck a chord with audiences in the era where childhood was being sentimentalised on the silver screen like never before.
Often thanks to the efforts of Anne's brother Steven Spielberg, for whom Big was originally written - make no mistake, under Penny Marshall's gently persuasive direction this does get schmaltzy. When Josh is abruptly an adult, he immediately has problems - his poor mother (Mercedes Ruehl) doesn't recognise him and chases him out of the house, so now he has nowhere to stay, and no money to support himself - but thanks to the resourceful Billy, they find a way of getting his feet on solid ground and soon Josh is working for a toy company. On the computing staff initially, but once he proves himself with an understanding of what kids like to play, his boss (Robert Loggia, a marvelously sketched performance of firm but fair reason) is won over by playing a floor keyboard with him (a rightly well-loved scene) and soon the manchild is working on the toy concepts and making a large salary.
Which could make you see this as an infantile regression suggesting we all had to go and find our inner twelve-year-old to get to grips with existence, but then the story goes in an interesting direction. While it may seem as if everyone is descending to our hero's level, it's more like he is raised to theirs, so when co-worker Susan (Elizabeth Perkins, matching Hanks in an excellent performance that should have made her a real star) falls in love with him, sure, we can chortle that Josh has achieved the impossible and humanised a yuppie, but we can also be troubled by the resulting relationship we know he is not ready for. A few scenes after playing with silly string with Billy, now he's in Susan's boudoir in a sequence you cannot imagine making it into a family movie today (Billy's swearing neither), so what the conclusion actually is turns out to be that we should value our growing up, but regard it as a necessary part of becoming an adult somewhere down the line. And another conclusion is that Josh and Susan are going to need years of therapy - not to mention his mother. Music by Howard Shore.