Frequently, I wonder what I would do if someone pushed me into a chair and ordered me to write a Disney movie. Is there some plot, I wonder, that I’ve fully internalized, and just waits to be tapped like a spring? Indeed—when that fateful day comes, I am certain that I will write a baseball movie.
If you grew up watching Disney films in America, then you too must sense the primal appeal of the baseball movie. We all know these movies, their taglines and possibly their soundtracks. No point then in recounting that classic plot of cast-down Man redeemed through Sport; these films are Hollywood’s equivalent of a motivational speaker. If movies could be scaled in terms of Magical Moments per frame (MM/f), baseball films would surely top the chart, for the sport, like no other, has long been infused with the kind of mytho-poetic connotations that make English professors go weak at the knees.
So when a bright, shining new baseball movie hits the screen, why aren’t we all drawn toward the theater on merry waves of nostalgia? Take Disney’s new (but old-sounding) The Rookie. A true story, it stars Dennis Quaid as Jim Morris, a teacher and former pitcher. Long sidelined by an injury, he promises the struggling high school team he coaches that if they win their championship, he will make a final bid at the pros. Why, when I read the synopsis, did I groan aloud?
Could it be because baseball movies are generally preposterous, melodramatic, rife with the sort of cheap film-school tricks that momentarily make us worry our star might not make this pitch? Shucks, the absurdity is part of the fun. I’m no melting puddle, and I’m still a sucker for The Natural. Robert Redford smashes home runs that defy physics and logic, and he hits the last one—the one that shatters the floodlights—while poisoned, and shot and bleeding through his uniform.
The problem, I think, lies in these movies’ powerful temptation to self-mythologize. It’s one thing to occasionally saturate your field of dreams in rosy gold light, but quite another to have your hero constantly turn his eyes heavenward and flash a grin, even when he’s alone. Forget manipulation; these films, quite effortlessly, can make an audience feel violated.
The Rookie doesn’t quite avoid such genre pretensions; this is the film’s weakness. The prologue sequence, for example, involves blowing sand, sepia tones, saints and a baseball flying into the sunset. You may want to leave, but please, don’t.
Once The Rookie gets over itself and starts to tell its story rather than be in awe of it, it’s really quite wonderful. There are basically two plots: the high school team’s quest for the pennant and Morris’ journey to overcome his doubts and achieve the glory of which he is capable. That’s not one but two inspiring stories, meaning the potential for cliché is dangerously high.
Instead, we find a movie that handles its stuff-of-legend material with modesty, even restraint. This should make Disney doubly proud, for its story is not only classic but also authentic. In a recent roundtable interview, Jim Morris himself spoke to the film’s accuracy. “By and large, the movie’s dead on. It’s my life, so I guess I’m the biggest skeptic, [and] I think it’s fantastic. I called my mom after [seeing the final cut] and told her, you’re gonna cry through this whole movie.”
Not to suggest that this is, horrors, a tearjerker. Rather, the film balances its overtly emotional content with light-hearted montages of baseball practice, gentle moments in diners and bars and funny scenes with kids (and such cute kids they are…). It thus achieves a kind of natural, comforting rhythm, bespeaking the thoughtful collaboration behind it.
Special plaudits must go to Quaid, whose titular performance lends the film much of its quiet power. In an interview, Quaid noted that his Little League experience as a boy in Texas helped draw him to the role; and in any baseball movie, the lead actors’ comfort with the game goes a long way toward helping the audience buy into their characters’ fantasies. Quaid reportedly worked hard to capture Morris’ particular mound-tics and it shows; he looks like he could be a ballplayer, even an exceptionally talented one.
When the film moves off the diamond, Quaid is similarly assured. Despite his commanding leading-man presence— watch for his quick-flash smile, his upper lip a straight line across his face—the performance is humble, graceful; he never overwhelms the excellent supporting cast (Rachel Griffith as wife Lorri Morris, Brian Cox as Jim’s estranged father).
There haven’t been many movies like The Rookie recently. In today’s hyper-niche-driven movie market, it is risky for a movie to put its faith in broad audience appeal. Rated G, this movie works beautifully for children, for their parents and for anyone else up for a gentle night of cinema. But if the film is aimed at no group in particular, there’s the chance that it might miss them all.
Will such be the fate of The Rookie? Oh, say it ain’t so. For this is a rare breed of Disney movie: One that respects itself and its audience. Coming from a genre so prone to sentimentality, The Rookie is a class act, and should have no trouble satisfying even the worst of cynics.
Directed By John Lee Hancock
Starring Dennis Quaid, Jay Hernandez
Walt Disney Pictures