Big as myth
One of the things that makes “Big” stand up better than many other films in magic realism is its solid foundation in myth.
Although you find the pattern well established in most films of this genre including Liar Liar, Hook, and all of the current Indiana Jones films, Big tends to have just the right blend of myth and reality, and combines several important mythological themes.
The most obvious of these is the “there and back” theme, which has the hero going off into the magical realm to seek out some answer he cannot find in the world in which he lives.
More subtle but just as important, Big is also a tale in which the hero meets and deduces the virgin goddess, although with several twists.
An underlying and much less obvious, is the mythological search for father – which comes about when the boy meets the owner of the toy company about one third into the film.
Most importantly, the film is a true grail myth, in that it is about dying and being reborn.
In Big, the hero symbolically died in order to get what he wants as his grieved mother believes him dead or worse, only to rejoice later at his return.
Big also presents us with the fall from innocence theme, but echoes William Blake’s belief that he must return to innocence again tempered by experience.
Joseph Campbell, one of the masters of mythology study, divided tales into two categories: myth and fable.
In both the hero is usually a person of great gifts, honored or hated by society or represents some personal or world need.
In a tales, the hero’s need is more or less trivial, and his victory is something of a person triumph over evil as he develops powers required to overcome some dark force to help himself, his tribe or village. This is often a physical victory full of dash and daring. All three of the Indiana Jones films fit into this category, as do all six of the Star Wars movies (despite their claim otherwise).
In Myth, the world lacks something and the hero’s role is to seek out a victory over evil or other powers in order to bring back to his people something needed. This is a moral victory, not physical and sometimes requires some great sacrifice by the hero to accomplish it.
While “Big” starts out as something trivial, a boy’s need to grow up in order to get accepted socially, it quickly evolves into an amazing commentary about contemporary life.
Although the boy’s motivation early in the film centers on being big enough to get the care, the scope of the film expands into a sustained social satire, elevating it to myth by the film’s end.
While Liar Liar starts out with the same basic structure, it fails to make this leap into myth, paying too little attention to the larger social issues of justice and way too late in the film.
Part of the difference between Big and Liar Liar has to do with the nature of the conflict. Despite Liar Liar being decorated with the restoration of fatherhood as a theme, the film really centers upon winning and losing a court case, a more or less physical victory rather than the deeply moral or spiritual victory we get in Big, where the hero’s victories and losses add up to something bigger than what he appears to win. He gets a job, the girl and other superficial signs of success, but they are not enough and he must lose them all to gain a real moral victory.
Big is a film about right of passage – in this it is similar to movies like Hook and the third Indiana Jones movie – what it means to grow up.
In each film, the hero must attain adult hood by leaving his usual world and travel to some supernatural real where he or she encounters wondrous beings, fights supernatural creatures, wins a decisive victory, then returns home a changed and more significant person. In Hook, Liar Liar and the third Indiana Jones movies, these victories are very personal, the heroes of each return home with issues of fatherhood resolved – the likely theme, too, of the upcoming Indiana Jones movie.
But at the end of Big, we get the feeling that something fundamental in the universe has changed from the time the boy left and his return, something that will ripple through reality in a way we might not have expected when the hero first made his wish to be big.
The film, however, gives a strange twist to the concept of supernatural. For instance, the nexus from which the boy launches himself into the other world is a fair ground over looking the Hudson River and the George Washington Bridge, not an Egyptian burial site or Vienna library as in two of the Indiana Jones movies.
Heroes of myths and fables often are called off into the underworld, or as in the case of Back to the Future, he gets dumped into the mess by accident or chance. In Big, however, the hero inflicts the situation on himself, wishing for something he later regrets he wished for and spend a majority of the film trying to undo.
In each case, the passage is often guarded by some dark force – such as the snakes and rats in the Indiana films, or an irritated farmer shooting at the hero he thinks is an invader from space. In Big, the underworld to which the boy wanders is no other than the violent ghetto of 42nd Street in New York, where violence surrounds the hotel room in which he has taken refuge.
This is part of the real pleasure of Big in the fact that our hero does not wander off into some never never land, but instead into the everyday world out of which we get the social commentary and satire Although he runs into archetypical figures, they are people we would meet in daily business circles. The hero’s virgin mother or fairy goddess is exactly opposite that neither a virgin at the start nor a goddess, though her contact with the hero elevates her into both. The office shark who has made a career of sleeping her way up the corporate ladder is suddenly purified by the hero and helps him, gaining heroic status of her own.
The villain is a classic mythological villain, a one time potential hero like the villains in Hook or Star Wars, but diverted from the true path by greed and flaw of character.
And here we get the most ironic part of the film. The hero seeks to become big to cure an insatiable desire for power, to be big enough to go on an adult ride at the carnival, to drive a car or to win a girl’s heart. In granting his wish, supernatural forces brought him into a world where everyone seeks power, whether by gunpoint in the ghetto or in the boardroom where wanna-be-heros jockey for position of greater and greater authority.
The film’s village is someone that wants to get ahead at any cost, and seems to reflect modern concept of business in which instead of making products that kids want to play with or ordinary people need, they impose their own products on the kids and people
The point of this hero’s journal is a lesson on how to grow up and not become tainted by the dark side of the force.
The hero’s impact onto the world in which he is injected is obvious, but as in the New Hope series of Star Wars, the hero edges closer and closer to edge of darkness, and in fact, already begins to change when he boyhood buddy from the original world comes back to rescue him.
As in some myths, the hero of big is reluctant to leave. He has already undertaken the sacred marriage and sex has begun to change him into an adult for ever.
The hero, of course, thought by being big he would find happiness only to eventually realize all those aspects of happiness he missed by becoming big too quickly.
The use of mythological structure in Big prevents the film from becoming cute and allows us to feel the impact of self sacrifice highlighting the symbolic death and rebirth as the boy who became man must die again to become boy once more.
Few contemporary films so embrace mythology as well as Big does although many try, and it is for this reason that Big remains one of my favorite films.