Animated 'Everyone's Hero': A Swing And a Whiff

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 15, 2006

The new animated film "Everyone's Hero" boasts a connection with the beloved Christopher Reeve -- he's listed as co-director, though he died almost two years ago -- which its producers seem to be milking to maximum commercial advantage. This is an unfortunate decision; the film is quite feeble, and it tarnishes the extraordinary life of a man who was graceful and heroic after he was paralyzed, when he had merely played graceful and heroic before.

"Everyone's Hero" certainly lacks heroism and grace or much of anything to recommend it. It uses the golden age of baseball as its background, but no one affiliated with it seems to know much about the sport. How could anyone believe there was night baseball in the '20s, or how could anyone think it was possible for a professional baseball team in a World Series to send a small child to bat in a crucial game? Ignorance like that simply destroys any possible hold the film might have on our imagination.

The movie follows the somewhat twisted vector of "Yankee Irving" (the voice of Jake T. Austin), a 10-year-old who happens to be the son of one of the groundskeepers at Yankee Stadium. You would think that such a distinction would make him a neighborhood celeb, but he's put upon by the other kids because it turns out he's a strikeout artist at the local sandlot. However, at his nadir, he happens to find -- are you sitting down? -- a talking baseball.

Does that not send chills up your spine? Wow, what a clever invention. And just to make it more fun, let's give Mr. Ball (Ed Helms) the conventional cabdriver's Brooklyn patois, so he sounds like a Dead End Kid in the '30s. But wait: Let's team the talking ball with a talking bat, no less than the Babe's own. Who is writing this stuff?

The gist of the plot is also inimical to baseball tradition: It has the owner of the Chicago Cubs assign a pitcher to sneak into the clubhouse and purloin the Sultan of Swat's lucky swatter -- that is, his bat, which for no reason except marketing decisions for audience demographics is portrayed as a queenly African American diva as read by Whoopi Goldberg in her most obnoxious high-grandee style.

Thus the story mechanism: pursuit and counter-pursuit. "Yankee," the kid, is blamed for the crime by highly dubious plot manipulations, and thus pursues "Lefty" (original name, no?) the pitcher, on the rail lines between New York and Chicago, and first one guy has the bat, then the other.

The movie is a feast of miscalculations. It turns out that neither a bat nor a ball makes for an enchanting child's companion, lacking, as they do, the ability to move or express emotion. Then there's the issue of jeopardy to the child: Though the boy is indeed plucky, the film continually contrives to place him in danger inappropriately intense for a 10-year-old. Some of the chase sequences involve leaping between moving trains (kids, don't try that at home!), dodging fast-approaching and quite lethal track bed impediments and so forth, while being chased by a clearly aberrant man working for another clearly aberrant man, both of whom resort to violence, kidnapping and incarceration to achieve their ends.

A slightly more disturbing sequence puts the beautiful child in a hobo camp for a night, and depends on a romantic view of life on the rails to work. Here's guessing a small boy who falls among hobos would find his companions a good deal less courtly than "Everyone's Hero" suggests.

Finally, an issue of race stains the conceit: At one point, "Yankee" hitches a ride from Ohio to Chicago with a team from the Negro Baseball Leagues. It's not merely that the fellows embrace and nurture him in the most enthusiastic way possible, it's that the film doesn't find it necessary to judge or even comment on the segregation that infected baseball (and America) at that time. In fact, the African Americans are played according to the traditions of Hollywood movies in the '30s, like a fleet of Willie Bests and Stepin Fetchits, eager to help the white heroes succeed. No sadness, no melancholy, no irony attaches to the situation: The spiritual black people adopt and improve the little white kid, then happily send him on his way and disappear from the movie, their task completed.

I should say that as a technical achievement, "Everyone's Hero" is quite advanced, bringing emotional subtleties, vivid eye dilations and expressions and complex movements to exceptional life. There's also a love of not baseball but railroading throughout the film, as the big old steam-driven, piston-clanking, fame-bursting machines are evoked in all their thunder and magnificence. Too bad all this technique is lavished on such a negligible product. "Everyone's Hero" is a wuss.

Everyone's Hero (90 minutes, at area theaters) is rated G but contains threatened violence toward a child.

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