They say there’s nothing new under the sun. And when that sun shines over Hollywood, the axiom is doubly true. This Friday, April 17, High School Musical hottie Zac Efron will star in 17 Again, a comedy about a middle-aged man who magically finds himself in the body of a teenage boy. If the plot (and even the title) sound familiar, it’s because Hollywood has tried this so many times, it’s developed into its own genre. The “body swap” comedy reached its height in the ’80s thanks to the runaway popularity of Big starring Tom Hanks. Now, the genre seems to be on the rise again. Earlier this year, that trend barometer Ashton Kutcher announced he would star in Traded, a body swap comedy about a superstar NFL quarterback who mysteriously trades bodies with a 12-year-old middle school geek. So how about a little perspective on this born-again genre?
Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941)
The Plot: This Oscar-winning fantasy arguably started Hollywood’s whole interest in body swapping. The story, about a boxer who dies 50 years too early and is reincarnated into the body of a wealthy businessman, proved so popular it was remade as 1978’s Heaven Can Wait with Warren Beatty and 2001’s Down to Earth with Chris Rock.
The Process: A brand-new angel from a highly bureaucratic Heaven screws up and punches our hero’s ticket prematurely. Since his old body has been cremated, the Heavenly Powers have no choice but to find him a substitute.
Freaky Friday (1976)
The Plot: A thirtysomething mother (Barbara Harris) and her tween daughter (Jodie Foster) swap bodies after each complains that the other has the easier life. This one also inspired remakes in 1995 and 2003.
The Process: Not actually explained. It happens on Friday the 13th, and apparently such things are possible on that fateful day. The 2003 version with Lindsay Lohan and Jamie Lee Curtis employed a magical fortune cookie. No, really.
Like Father Like Son (1987)
The Plot: Uptight dad (Dudley Moore) and easygoing son (Kirk Cameron) swap bodies, live each other’s lives for a while and learn a valuable lesson.
The Process: One of them drinks an experimental “brain-exchanging” formula, naturally.
The Plot: Twelve-year-old Josh Baskin (David Moscow) wants desperately to be treated like an adult. One day, he wakes up in the body of a 30-year-old (Tom Hanks).
The Process: Josh makes a wish at an antique fortune-telling machine in a carnival. It comes true. Not bad for a quarter.
18 Again! (1988)
The Plot: Borrowing the plot from Big but jamming it into reverse, 18 Again! finds 81-year-old businessman Jack Watson (George Burns) turning 18.
The Process: Jack makes a wish to be young again and blows out the candles on his birthday cake. It works. For once. Technically, Jack switches bodies with his teenage grandson (Charlie Schlatter); but the grandson (now trapped in granddad's funky bod) spends almost the entire movie in a coma, saving the elderly Mr. Burns the trouble of getting out of bed after the opening scenes.
Vice Versa (1988)
The Plot: The third great body swap comedy of 1988 was this film in which a divorced dad (Judge Reinhold) and his young son (a pre-“Wonder Years” Fred Savage) trade corporal forms.
The Process: A mysterious Tibetan skull, picked up on a business trip, affects the transformation. While touching the skull, father and son make a wish and—yup, it comes true.
Dream a Little Dream (1989)
The Plot: High schooler Bobby (Corey Feldman) has a crush on the girlfriend of the school’s resident bully. A fateful encounter with an elderly neighbor (Jason Robards) has Bobby switching bodies. Also, the girl on whom Bobby has a crush switches bodies with the neighbor’s wife. Sort of. Also, the neighbor can only talk to Bobby through his dreams. Honestly, it’s very confusing. Plus, Corey Haim is in it.
The Process: Hard to say, really. Robards’ character talks a lot about transcendental meditation and psychic transference. Also, Bobby bumps his head in a bike accident, so that could have something to do with it, too.
Prelude to a Kiss (1992)
The Plot: There’s really no way to get around the creepy elements of this romantic fairy tale: The whirlwind romance and marriage of a cute young couple (Alec Baldwin, Meg Ryan) comes to a screeching halt on the honeymoon, when it becomes apparent that the bride’s body has been hijacked by an old man.
The Process: The old man kisses the bride at the wedding ceremony, which effects the transfer. Not sure how it works, exactly, but it does.
The Hot Chick (2002)
The Plot: Of course, if you like creepy in your body swap comedies, you can’t get better than sleazy con man Rob Schneider switching bodies with a popular teen cheerleader (Anna Faris).
The Process: Our sexy but mean-spirited teen steals a pair of ancient Abyssinian earrings at the mall and finds herself on the receiving end of a mystical whammy.
13 Going on 30 (2004)
The Plot: This mildly successful romantic comedy is basically Big with a different gender. In it, a 13-year-old girl wakes up as her 30-year-old self (played by Jennifer Garner)—complete with dream apartment, awesome job and hunky boyfriend.
The Process: Our leading lady is given a packet of magical wishing dust on her birthday. Like everything mystical in this genre, it works exactly as advertised.
17 Again (2009)
The Plot: A guy (Matthew Perry) whose life didn’t turn out quite the way he wanted wishes he could go back to high school and do it all over again. ... Guess what? He’s suddenly replaced by Zac Efron.
The Process: He falls off a bridge into a magical pool of water.