A few years ago, while making my way through a show on Amazon Prime, I kept coming across a commercial for “My Spy.” The film follows Dave Bautista (“Guardians of the Galaxy”) as a CIA operative who has a run-in with a nine-year-old that, following some light blackmail, leads to him taking her in as a pseudo-spy. As the ad played on a loop, I was struck with a feeling that can only be put into words with a Taylor Swift lyric: “I think I’ve seen this film before.”
At the time, I was thinking of “The Pacifier,” a similar family comedy film starring Vin Diesel (“F9: The Fast Saga”) as a hard-as-rocks Navy SEAL tasked with caring for five children in the suburbs — a film that I hadn’t seen at the time, but had watched the trailer for it plenty of times. But as I’ve thought about it more, I’ve realized that there are more examples of this kind of movie, where an objectively large man, played by an action star and/or former WWE fighter, finds himself having to take care of children. In all, I’ve found five films that fit into this admittedly niche mold: “The Pacifier” (2005), “The Game Plan” (2007), “The Tooth Fairy” (2010), “Playing With Fire” (2019) and “My Spy” (2020). I call this phenomenon “Big Men, Small Children.”
There are plenty of films about men taking care of children, often unexpectedly, and forming a bond with them — but most of those are dramas, based around emotional turbulence and the slow growth of trust. These five films, however, are explicitly comedies, playing with the trope of unconventional father figures and turning it into the butt of the joke. I find myself trying to imagine who the creators of these films thought would find them funny. “Men can’t take care of children!” they say, slapping their knees and shoveling popcorn into their mouths. “Especially if they are overly masculine and probably bald!”
It’s baffling to see this same premise used over and over, and it’s more baffling to wonder why they keep getting made when none of them have been commercially successful. Despite some mild returns at the box office, all five were unpopular among critics — their Rotten Tomatoes scores all sit below 50. And yet they keep coming, films that focus on the idea of what is essentially babysitting as the basis of comedy. But I found myself curious about whether these films, similar as their premises sounded, were actually cut from the same cloth. So I watched these five critically panned and objectively bad comedies — for science.
As I suspected, these five movies have shockingly similar plot points, although the details change. The beginning of the film shows the Big Man thriving in his traditionally masculine job: I mentioned Diesel’s Navy SEAL in “The Pacifier” and Bautista’s CIA agent in “My Spy,” but there’s also a star NFL(ish) quarterback played by Dwayne Johnson (“Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle”) in “The Game Plan,” another character by Johnson in “The Tooth Fairy,” this one being a minor league hockey player known for knocking people’s teeth out. Lastly, John Cena’s (“Trainwreck”) character in “Playing With Fire,” who is a smokejumper. The three government-based ones are emotionless in a “focus on the job” kind of way; Johnson’s characters are more sarcastic, more emotionally guarded in “best defense is a good offense” kind of way (maybe that’s an athlete thing). All of them don’t like hugs.
The child, or children, come in and disrupt the Big Man’s closed-off, well-defined, often bachelor-focused lifestyle, and the Big Man chafes at his sudden loss of freedom and control. Taking care of these kids is framed as a gargantuan task: In “The Pacifier,” having this hardened Navy SEAL take care of five kids is described as his “toughest mission yet.” Part of the toughness, it seems, is that the Big Man’s carefully curated, deeply masculine space is methodically emasculated by the kids. Both “Playing with Fire” and “The Game Plan,” for example, feature entire rooms getting filled up with bubbles. The same two films each feature a scene where the Big Man’s dog — typically a large, ferocious breed — loses any intimidation the moment it comes in contact with the child. In “The Game Plan,” Peyton (Madison Pettis, “He’s All That”), the daughter Joe (Johnson) didn’t know he had, outfits his bulldog in a pink tutu, tiara and painted nails. In “Playing with Fire,” the youngest kid renames Masher, the giant Mastiff, as “Sparkle Pony.” The films emphasize the juxtaposition with an almost nauseating overtness. “It’s funny because tutus and sparkles are girly!” the metaphorical audience yells at the screen, guffawing.
The Big Man begins to accept that the children are now part of his reality. He dips his toe into fitting into their life, usually starting off by standing up to their bullies — the manliest way to care for children. But then he stretches outside of his comfort zone; he does things that are objectively not manly, but it’s okay, because he’s doing it for the kids. The Big Men sing lullabies and tell weirdly militaristic bedtime stories and change diapers as if they were carefully dismantling a bomb. (And that’s just “The Pacifier.”) He does ballet; he goes ice skating; he embraces his wings; he wears a My Little Pony crop top. Slowly but surely (but also quickly because the movie is only 90 minutes), he softens and grows more sensitive and understanding. He tells the kids, or his love interest, or both, an emotional backstory that explains why he is so hardened — why he is so big and bad with children.
Soon, though, a fight or a misunderstanding sets him back. A rift grows between the Big Man and his Small Children — an emotional disaster leads the Big Man to decide that the problem was not life, or luck, but the fact that they let their guard down. (“It’s so sad and emotional because he doesn’t know how to let himself love,” the intended audience sighs. “It was one bad game,” I say. “Get a grip.”) But a dramatic climax — a moment where the children are in grave danger or when the Big Man has to play The Game to End All Games — leads to some perspective. There’s an official reconciliation with the children, as well as with the love interest (who was kind of in the background the whole time). The Big Men figuratively (and often literally) adopt the children as their own, and they all become an unconventional, unexpected, happy family.
It’s a set formula that hits all of the notes that films want to hit: love, psychological and verbal conflict, the numerous ways that family can be found. But at the same time, these films seem to be mocking the very relationships they’re trying to uplift. It may take days, or weeks, or months (the timeline is never clear), but it always feels like the reality of their bigness and manliness is something the Big Man has to overcome in order to become a good parent.
There are some beautiful parts hidden in these films as soon as the comedic façade retreats and the main character takes a break from spouting cliché lines. A moment in “The Game Plan” when Peyton, with a tiny finger, gently wipes pasta sauce off her father’s giant cheek. In “My Spy,” Chloe Coleman (“Big Little Lies”) puts up an impressively emotional performance as Sophie, screaming for Bautista’s character with fear and trust in her voice. “Playing With Fire” includes the four smokejumpers throwing a party for three kids, who are orphaned and running away from foster care, as the culmination of the discovery of an unexpected home. These moments are beautiful, powerful — or at least, they could be, if the film didn’t immediately cheapen it with a quick gag.
I will add that “The Tooth Fairy” is probably the biggest outlier for this formula, since it’s less about the appearance of unexpected children and more about learning to appreciate and communicate with the children already in the Big Man’s life. The film wants to focus far more on The Rock wearing tights and fairy wings than on the main character’s love for his girlfriend’s kids. These films are about the slow and occasionally difficult progression of a man trying to connect with children who have just come into his life and attempting to overcome the toxicity of his own masculinity to become a good father figure — why does that have to be funny?
Although the tropes remain the same, Big Men Small Children movies have evolved over time. In “Playing With Fire,” the second most recent film, Dr. Amy Hicks (Judy Greer, “Halloween Kills”) gets mad when Cena’s character asks if she can babysit the kids instead, blatantly asking if it’s because she’s a woman. Perhaps the most meta commentary is in “My Spy,” the most recent of these films, when Bautista’s character looks at Coleman’s and says, “And this ain’t going to end up like some movie, with you and me sitting in little chairs, having a tea party with dolls.” It’s an acknowledgement, a small one, of the forms that have come before. But it’s fascinating to consider how they’re choosing to subvert the very trope (an incredibly niche one at that) that they have plopped themselves into. There’s a self-awareness here, but it’s almost like a strange compromise: We’ll add a joke that previous versions of this were flawed, just to make fun of them, they say. But we’re still making this movie.
However, despite the evolution, part of the question remains: Who exactly are these films targeted at? Most of these are categorized as “family comedies,” meaning that they’re supposed to be aimed at kids; all have PG ratings, except “My Spy,” which is inexplicably rated PG-13. Common Sense Media has tended to dislike these films, calling them “crass” and “uninspired,” among other things. But, more importantly, why would a kid — not entirely unaware of gender norms but not completely entrenched in them either — find the Big Man/Small Child dynamic so funny?
I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be movies about men growing to love and care for the children in their lives. Truthfully, more films about men who subvert publicly-perceived gender roles and let their guard down would be beneficial to reducing toxic masculinity in society and the film world. Many of these movies already exist. But these films shouldn’t be comedies, or at least not in the way that Big Men Small Children movies want to treat them. Parenthood can be pretty funny, depending on how you look at it; the comedic aspects, however, shouldn’t only be based around the fact that these parents are slightly unconventional.
So where do we go from here? In a perfect world, we would let this trope die. Unfortunately, I am convinced that these movies, even if they evolve, will stick around. There will always be that inherent impulse to laugh at a grown man in a tutu or to assume that a man with arm muscles the size of a child’s head would be bad at taking care of one. There are a lot of former wrestlers-turned-movie-stars looking for jobs; I guess that this market will stay open for them.
Senior Arts Editor Kari Anderson can be reached at email@example.com.