July 31, 2010

A passionate defense of Little Big League.

You always hear movie critics complaining about summer blockbusters, the emphasis on return on investment over competent filmmaking, and the fact that cinema as art has gone downhill since the high tide of the 1970's. (Read Peter Biskind's excellent Easy Riders, Raging Bulls if you want to know more.)

But I'm here to lament a different thing: the disappearance of the children's sports movie.

When I was a kid, there were a plethora of fantastic sports movies for kids. Rookie of the Year, Angels in the Outfield, Little Giants, D2: The Mighty Ducks, The Sandlot -- those days are gone. Every kids movie nowadays is animated or involves some kind of CGI talking dog. No one wants to take a simple sports story, fill it with a few jokes that adults might appreciate too, populate the cast with outstanding character actors and make a movie. And that's a damn shame.

But of all these young people sports movies of the past, Little Big League was king. The plot revolves around Billy Heywood (played by Luke Edwards and also known, in his more serious moments, as Bill), the grandson of the owner of the Minnesota Twins. Billy's a baseball nut, so of course his grandfather sees fit to leave him the team when he dies. Equally as improbable is Billy's decision to manage the floundering team, re-infect its players with child-like wonder and lead the Twins to a winner-take-all showdown with Randy Johnson, Ken Griffey Jr. and the Seattle Mariners. (Both played by themselves; Junior in particular has a great exchange with star first baseman Lou Collins, played by Timothy Busfield, that I'll discuss later.)

First off, the casting. John Ashton, who you'd recognize from Beverly Hills Cop or Midnight Run, is perfect as Mac, Billy's bench coach and baseball mentor. The always-exquisite Dennis Farina plays the screaming, over-the-top manager pushed out the door by new owner Billy (literally the same exact role he'd go onto play in Eddie), and Scott Patterson, the requisite "player disgusted to play for a kid who eventually realizes the error of his ways," is a veteran of Seinfeld, several Saw movies and this extremely weird slideshow. And he's a Philadelphia native!

For a kid's movie, it's remarkably funny. Jonathan Silverman, the definition of "early '90's comedic star that immediately fell from grace," knocks it out of the park in scenes like this one. There's a subplot about Billy ordering porn and his mom finding out, which is both tastefully done and slightly risque for a movie aimed at kiddies. Hell, the movie even makes Chris Berman look funny. I can't find a link to that scene, unfortunately, so here he is yelling like an asshole instead.

The baseball montages are also among the best I've seen in a sports movie. They're so good that I just spent 20 minutes Googling "Little Big League baseball montage" in the hope of finding a clip, but alas, none seem to exist. The filmmakers (yes, the people behind Little Big League are indeed filmmakers) use "Stuff You Gotta Watch" by The Band and "Runaround Sue" by Dion as the perfect background tunes for these montages, and the acrobatic plays within seem straight from a MLB highlight reel. Not to gush endlessly, but it's the kind of touch we tend to take for granted. Little Big League, however, does it right.

The decision to use real baseball players and personalities (10-year MLB veteran Kevin Elster plays Twins shortstop Pat Corning; Patterson and the guy who played "Blackout" Gatling have major league experience; the "Touch 'em all, Mickey Scales!" broadcaster is John Gordon, the real voice of the Twins; and Paul O'Neill, Pudge Rodriguez and Raffy Palmeiro all make cameos) also adds an authentic feel to the movie. As absurd as the concept may be, Luke Edwards finds himself embroiled in enough adult scenarios (releasing an aged fan favorite, going mad with power after months of publicity and praise) that we can't help but invest ourselves in his life. And anyway, there's Carlos Baerga! This movie is so realistic!

But, as weird as it sounds, it all comes back to Timothy Busfield. Lou Collins is one of the great sports movie characters of all time. There's the amazing aforementioned scene where Griffey brags about his plans to steal second, third and home and Lou responds, "Gotta do what you gotta do, Junior." There's the scene when Billy insists Lou move a few inches to his right, then a few more, then a few more, and then Lou immediately snags a liner right into his glove. These scenes are all made considerably better by the fact that Busfield played semi-pro baseball; he looks like a real player out there.

Most people probably don't enjoy this movie on the level that I do, and that's understandable. I just greatly respect the care that went into casting this movie, the believability of the actors, the simple yet endearing story, the clever script and the adult themes that lift it above general Disney fare; no one seems to put all these things together anymore. Movies for kids nowadays are thrown-together animated ordeals with big-name voice actors and flashy visuals, or something else equally dumbed-down and mass-marketed. The truth is, there may never be another Little Big League, and that should upset even the most optimistic among us.

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