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Too ‘Little,’ too late

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It’s always fun when a filmmaker gives you a different take on a standard cinematic trope. There’s a reason that certain types of stories continually pop up on the big screen – they work.

That being said, I wasn’t necessarily expecting two different riffs on the classic Tom Hanks vehicle “Big” to come into wide release in back-to-back weeks, but here we are. We got the “‘Big’ but with superheroes” take with “Shazam!” last week, and this week, we get the “‘Big’ but in reverse” take with “Little.”

Yeah – “Little” takes a grown person and turns her into a 13-year-old again. That’s pretty much it. And it ALMOST lands. There are stretches where the film really cooks, but there are others where things don’t click the way they need to. It has some funny moments, but it gets bogged down by the multiple messages it seems to want to convey. It’s a pleasant enough time at the movies, but it just misses being something much better.

Jordan Sanders (Regina Hall, “The Hate U Give”) is a self-made businesswoman living in Atlanta. A childhood humiliation left her driven to succeed at all costs, which has led to her becoming a domineering and demanding boss. Bearing the brunt of Jordan’s constant and unreasonable desires is her assistant April (Issa Rae, TV’s “Insecure”); April’s own ambitions have taken a back seat to Jordan’s ever-changing needs and whims.

Jordan’s company is in a bit of trouble, however – her biggest client, a feckless millionaire named Connor (Mikey Day, TV’s “SNL”), is looking to leave her. She has just 48 hours to come up with an idea that will keep him in the fold.

But when she crosses paths with a little girl wielding a magic wand, everything changes. Jordan wakes up as the 13-year-old girl (Marsai Martin, TV’s “Black-ish”) she used to be. She has to return to middle school, where the pattern of humiliation begins all over again, though she does make friends with a group of fellow misfits. She also has to cede control to April in hopes that they can still find an idea that satisfies Connor. She ALSO has to figure out what to do about adult Jordan’s boytoy Trevor (Luke James, TV’s “Star”), who is showing signs of getting attached.

Oh, and she has to figure out how to get grown-up again.

There’s definitely fun to be had with “Little,” even if a lot of the stuff we get feels a little like boxes being checked off. The reversal of the standard helps – we’ve seen plenty of kid-becomes-adult movies, but adult-to-kid happens much more rarely. That shift in perspective allows even the more formulaic bits to feel somewhat fresher.

Director Tina Gordon – who also co-wrote the screenplay with Tracy Oliver – has some good ideas, but it seems as though the full execution of those ideas proved tricky. There are some storytelling beats that work wonderfully, but others that feel clunky and ill-fitting. There’s a general unevenness to it all that undermines the more effective parts of the film.

That said, there are definitely laughs. A lot of those laughs come courtesy of Marsai Martin as Young Jordan. She’s an absolute riot in the role, capturing Hall’s swagger and mannerisms in a remarkable way. Any success this film was ever going to have was going to be rooted in how well this role works. And it works, thanks to Martin. In addition, she reportedly came up with the idea for the film and is credited as an executive producer – the youngest in Hollywood history.

Issa Rae is an incredible talent, albeit an underrated one. She’s great as Alice, grounding the absurdity of the presence with charm and wit. Hall isn’t in the film much, but she hits the ground running and establishes the baseline on which Martin riffs; she does good work in limited minutes. Day is … fine. He’s not bad, but there are a million guys who could have handled the role. Tone Bell does good work as one of Jordan’s employees, while Justin Hartley is outstanding as Young Jordan’s new teacher. Rachel Dratch has a solid scene as a Child Services agent. Oh, and the rest of the kids are pretty good too.

But even with all of that, “Little” simply doesn’t get it done. Despite some quality performances and an interesting premise, the overall experience leaves something to be desired. There are a few big laughs scattered throughout, but it’s lacking in tonal coherence. The back half of the film gets bogged down in its messaging at the expense of the comedy; if you want your story to have a moral, that’s fine, but you shouldn’t have to sacrifice storytelling to get there. The film tries to recapture the momentum of its strong start, but never manages to rally.

All in all? Too little, too late.

[2.5 out of 5]

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