The importance of being Big
What makes the film “Big” work better than many other films in the genre of magic realism?
It is the fact that Big deals with some of the most fundamental of human questions and the film becomes a very powerful social satire.
The film opens onto the tree-lined streets of suburban Cliffside Park, New Jersey and rapidly brings us to the film’s hero as a boy who is struggling to overcome the ice king in a 1980s computer game.
He is being forced to make a decision about how to melt the ice king before the ice king freezes him.
Hounded by his mother who claims he is late for school, the hero hesitates and is frozen for what is likely to be an eternity.
Although this seems somewhat trivial at the time, this scene becomes symbolic for several reasons.
The boy currently feels frozen at his current age and that he will never grow up.
Later, when through a wish, he becomes “big,” he feels frozen or trapped in that world, too, where he desperately searches to find a way back to his original life.
While it is easy to pigeon hole this film with a cliché “be careful what you wish for,”, in truth, the film deals with the concept that we are all stuck in a certain time frame, often bemoaning problems we have. Many kids want to hurry life up in order to get what they perceive as a better point in time as adults when they will have more power and more freedom. They little realize the baggage of responsibly that comes along with growing up.
In leaping ahead, the child misses a huge amount of experience that as an adult he or she will later regret losing. In some very important ways, we need to take each step in order to fully become what we later become.
Without these steps, we become somewhat hollow or incomplete.
While the film makes this obvious in the later scenes when our “big” hero returns to Cliffside Park and sees kids playing in the leaves, playing sports or posing for yearbook pictures, we also get numerous other visual subtexts of changing times as the seasons move from high summer to fall.
Again the computer game seen at several points in the film serves as an important metaphor throughout the film since those kind of games require each step to be done in the proper sequence in order to win.
The game concept becomes an even “bigger” metaphor when we expand our field of view to see that the whole film seems to be about the concept of play and the role play has in the development for rules of behavior and life.
Unable to meet the requirements of life because he is not tall enough to go on a ride or old enough to drive a car, the hero makes a wish to jump over those rules he can’t otherwise abide by.
In other words, he cheats.
The unplugged fortunetelling machine not only shows us something magical is going on, but taken in contest of the computer game, we see our hero operating beyond the rules of society and traditional game playing.
This causes him to become an outcast, a criminal, and unrecognized by his own family and if not for the bond he had formed with his best friend through a number of rituals, the hero would have been lost or locked up for being crazy. After being chased out of his own home by a mother who mistakes him for a thief or worse, the hero descends into the hell of 42nd Street crime is a sign of his new place in society. The fact that his best friend steals money to help the hero only adds to his perception. He must now find his way back into good graces.
The fact that he must play the fortune teller machine again in order to set things right continues the game/rule metaphor.
The fact that the machine has moved on is also symbolic of how fleeting opportunities in life are and how difficult it is to retrace steps back through time.
This metaphor of games continues as the hero and his boy buddy search all the game rooms in New York City in a pointless effort to recover the one that they need, suggesting that each game has its own set of rules and that the rules of one game cannot be adapted to fit another.
In the end, they are forced to deal with the bureaucracy of government, touching upon some of the satirical aspects of the film. They are required to wait weeks even months for a list of carnivals so as to find the location of the one with the machine they need.
This is a kind of penance, but also symbolic of the theme that you can’t hurry time, and must wait for things to occur, as frustrating as they might be.
Even more to the point, the hero gets a job as a computer operator in a boy company continues the theme as the boy – now a man—must learn the rules of life he has not learned because of his lack of experience.
Leave the satire to another essay, we find plenty of evidence to show the continued struggle to advance by following rules. The villains of the film get frustrated by the hero’s innocence belief in right and wrong. The woman seeks to sleep her way to the top while her ruthless companion cheats.
Both believe the worst of the hero when the hero catches the eye of the toy company’s owner and is promoted to vice president.
The hero’s rise, however, has roots in the piano playing scene in which he and the owner discover they once shared the ritual of piano lessons as kids, a discipline through which each has to learn the rules of performance.
Later, this idea of rules becomes very obvious when the hero and the village face off in a game of hand ball.
The villain, defeated in business intends to beat the hero at a game the hero does not know.
But when the hero begins to catch up and threatens to beat the village at his own game, the villain cheats, and when caught, turns to violence.
The hero, however, is changed and perhaps a little tainted by his contact with the adult world, matters we will go into more detail in an essay on the myth of Big.
The hero leaves only when urged by his friend and by his trip back to see all the things he has missed in life.
But the hero cannot go back to what he once was without sacrificing something, and in this case, a romantic relationship.
In keeping with the computer concept, the hero must unplug the fortune telling machine in order to make it work the way he needs.
The film which began in high summer ends in late fall with leaves blowing around the hero as he shrinks back to his original stature, wiser in the ways of the world, but also significantly changed. In some ways, he has lived up to William Blake’s concept of innocence tempered by experience.
Great sadness flavors great happiness in this ending, leaving a kind of void we know only time and appropriate experience can fill.