When young Black-ish star Marsai Martin saw the movie Big, she fell in love with it, and mentioned to her producer that she’d like to star in a remake, with a few modifications.
That pitch is now a movie, Little — one that shows Martin to be not only a crafty actress, but a young woman with shrewd career instincts that point to a long and fruitful run in Hollywood.
In her version of Big, for instance, the premise of a teen in a grown-up’s body is reversed, giving Martin a chance to occupy the centerpiece role — in the case a mercilessly competitive businesswoman hit with a magic spell that has her in the body of a middle school girl.
When we first meet Jordan Sanders (Regina Hall), she’s the tyrannical owner of a software business. A frequent target is her assistant April (Issa Rae). One of April’s transgressions: violating Jordan’s “no-carbs” policy. When Jordan sees a little girl selling doughnuts in the parking lot, she treats her rudely, and the girl, an amateur magician, waves her magic wand in anger. The next day, Jordan wakes up back in adolescence.
While Big carried a sometimes wistful tone, Little plays this body-switch as broad comedy and benefits from the timing and chemistry of Hall and Rae in these early scenes — Hall as the status-obsessed temperamental corporate diva, Rae doing some deft, under-her-breath counterpunching as the put-upon April.
Rachel Dratch has a funny scene as the child protective services worker who wants to know why little Jordan is living alone in a penthouse apartment, and why she is not enrolled anywhere as a student. Soon Jordan is back in her old middle school, where humiliating events more than two decades ago left a mean-girls mark and transformed her into the sometimes ruthless woman she would become.
In school, Jordan finds that things have not improved — and interactions with the dominant tween bee leave her right back where she started. April, meanwhile, is running the business, which may go bankrupt unless she can retain a big client.
Director Tina Gordon Chism keeps these plates spinning, and characterizations (Hall and Martin match up nicely) are more precisely aligned than the recent body-switcher Shazam! It all makes for an efficient and effective first half, but Little bogs down when Jordan reaches middle school.
A subplot that has her bonding with a group of nerds slows things considerably (there’s a shopping spree scene that doesn’t seem to belong), and concludes with a sequence that indicates that in addition to Big, someone was also a fan of Napoleon Dynamite.
Also, the idea that “little” Jordan’s response to attractive older men is guided by her inner adult yields some creepy-funny laughs that many will find mostly creepy.
Little. Directed by Tina Gordon Chism. With Regina Hall, Issa Rae, Marsai Martin, Rachel Dratch, and Tone Bell. Distributed by Universal Pictures.
Running time: 1 hour, 19 mins.
Parents’ guide: PG-13 (suggestive content)