Marsai Martin in Little (Photo: Universal)

★½ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Tina Gordon Chism
STARS Regina Hall, Issa Rae

There’s a humorous moment when the protagonist hears a tinkling sound from below and looks down, only to see a giant piano keyboard on the floor underneath their feet. It’s a clever homage to that classic scene from 1988’s Big, the Penny Marshall hit in which a little boy finds himself trapped in Tom Hanks’ adult body thanks to some vaguely supernatural shenanigans. It’s a scene that’s right at home in the new film Little … only this scene actually isn’t in Little. Instead, it’s in Shazam!, another current film about mismatched bodies. Were that there were any moments of comparable wit and inventiveness in Little, a bland comedy whose moniker reflects its overarching puniness.

The manner in which folks switch bodies (Freaky Friday) or ages (13 Going on 30) or even gender (the recent What Men Want) is never the point in these types of films, but Little is particularly lazy in setting up its curse. Nevertheless, this is in line with the rest of the film, which is a surprisingly drab affair that never allows for more than an occasional fleeting smile (actual belly laughs are sadly MIA).

Regina Hall, coming off a 2018 which saw her delivering an award-winning turn in Support the Girls and co-starring in the 10 Best-worthy The Hate U Give, is here in manic-Monday mode, cast as a woman who was bullied as a child and has grown up to now be the bully to everyone else. Her Jordan Sanders is a fire-breathing tyrant, a CEO with OCD (a deadly combo) who enjoys barking at those around her, particularly her mild-mannered assistant April (Issa Rae). But an encounter with a little girl with a toy wand results in a curse that finds Jordan waking up the next day back in the body of her younger, school-age self (played by 14-year-old Black-ish co-star Marsai Martin, who also serves as an executive producer — the youngest in history — on this film). With the reluctant aid of April, Jordan must find a way to reverse the curse — first, though, her diminutive body means that she has to return to the classroom and again risk being bullied.

For those expecting to see a movie starring top-billed Regina Hall, the problem is that, by the very nature of the story, she’s only around at the beginning and at the end. To compensate with another grown-up, writer-director Tina Gordon Chism and co-scripter Tracy Oliver (working from an idea conceived by Martin when she was 10 years old) beef up the size of Rae’s role to the extent that April actually becomes the primary player. But who cares about her comparatively drab character when all the potentially interesting material involves Jordan in all her incarnations? The lack of a center affects all areas of the film, with half-baked romantic travails for both Jordan and April and lapses in logic when it comes to believable character transformations (a “Three Months Later” placard toward the end of the film skips over crucial scenes that would allow us to witness all the explanations and understand all the changes).

If Little at least delivered on its comedic material or provided some sort of emotional resonance, much could be forgiven. But the laughs are largely lame and the pathos utterly nonexistent. Whereas Hanks’ Josh Baskin in Big sobbed deeply at the absolutely frightening prospect of being the wrong age in the wrong body, Little settles for the pint-sized version of Jordan making sexual passes at her hunky teacher (Justin Hartley). Even the anti-bullying angle fails to gain any traction — then again, that could simply be because viewers themselves will feel battered and beaten after sitting through the forceful blows delivered by this rampaging mediocrity.

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