Monday, April 30, 2007

Keep swinging: Everyone's Hero and the last lesson of Christopher Reeve

Family movie night this week was the negligible Happily N'Ever After, a good premise done in by a script that seemed to have been written with the idea in mind that nothing was to go onto the screen that would tax the modest talents of the computer animators. The result is kind of a Greek tragedy of a cartoon with all the important action taking place offstage while the characters declaim about their troubles and woes.

Last week the family feature was the only slightly better animated Everyone's Hero, a tall tell set in the year when the New York Yankees and the Chicago Cubs faced off for the second time straight in the World Series and the Cubbies came close to defeating the Yankees in six games, because the Cubs crazed owner, who is not Philip Wrigley, has Babe Ruth's magic bat, Darlin' stolen from his locker in Yankee Stadium.

The Cubs and the Yanks played each other in the 1932 Series, the Yankees wining it in four straight. In 1933 the New York Giants beat the Washington Nationals Senators Nationals Senators (Either one. See comments), 4-1. In '34 the Cardinals beat the Tigers, 4-3.

The Cubs were back in the Series in '35 and they lost, Detroit.

The next and only other time the Cubs and the Yankees met in the World Series was 1938 and the Cubs lost again, of course. But not because Babe Ruth swung a magic bat or any bat. Ruth was gone from the Yankees by then.

You could look it up.

In other words, Everyone's Hero is set in a year that never was, call it 1932B, a magical year in which baseballs could talk like Rob Reiner trying to sound like Billy Crystal in Monsters Inc and bats talked like Whoopi Goldberg sounding like Scarlet O'Hara one moment and like Aretha Franklin the next, the World Series was played over the course of two and a half weeks, without any rainouts, Lou Gehrig, Bill Dickey, Tony Lazzeri, Irish Bob Muesel, and Earle Combs, all of Murderers Row except for Babe Ruth, forgot how to hit at the same time and the Babe was carrying the team on his back, Ruth transformed into an elegant, articulate sophisticate, a little rough around the edges, but modest and self-effacing, and---SPOILER ALERT---a ten year old boy could be inserted into the World Series line-up at the last minute and hit a game-winning inside the park home run.

The younger critics in the Mannion family room bought the idea of anthropomorphic sporting equipment the idea that the rules of the game would be automatically suspended just so the hero of the movie could save the day in dramatic fashion.

They also thought it was just plain dumb that the story took all that trouble to get the Babe his magic bat back and then didn't have him swing it.

You got that right. SPOILER ALERT IS STILL IN EFFECT. The movie does not show Babe Ruth hitting a home run.

There's a difference between implausible and stupid and Everyone's Hero defines it in its final ten minutes.

Up until that point it's a likable enough evening's diversion. Not terrible, but nothing to write home about and not worth a blog post half as long as this one already is and the only reason I'm still going on at this point---you knew I would have an excuse, didn't you?---is the moral of Everyone's Hero.

I've said it before here and I'll say it again. I don't like morals in kids' movies. Mainly for two reasons.

One, it's usually the same moral no matter what the movie. Be True to Yourself. Variations of this are Follow Your Heart and Follow Your Dreams. There is nothing inherently wrong with doing any of these things, provided you know who you are and you are a decent person worth being true to and you can tell the difference between what your heart is telling you to do and what your vanity, ego, id, and appetites are telling you to do, and you're not insane or deluded and your dreams are things you have the ability to realize. Not knowledge most children possess, but never mind. As the guiding principle for character development, though, Be True to Yourself seems to me a recipee for raising a generation of egomaniacal monsters.

So I wish moviemakers would come up with some additional morals to tack on to their movies.

But it's that idea of morals being tacked on that makes me dislike them so much. Because that's what morals usually are. Tacked on.

Morals may or may not grow intrinsically from a story's theme. But when they appear, not always at the end, often they're repeated again and again throughout the movie, the filmmakers beating their young audience over the head with them, they appear in CAPITAL LETTERS, as the narrator or a character stops the action dead to lecture the audience, pretty much saying, "Now, children, what important idea have we learned here today?"




Or, in the case of Everyone's Hero:


If a moral grows out of the story then it's unnecessary to have anybody say it. Kids are pretty swift on the uptake. They get the point.

The little kid hero of Everyone's Hero who rescues Ruth's stolen bat and sets out to return it to him, a ten year old boy named Yankee Irving, has a big heart and big dreams, he is a devoted and knowledgeable baseball fan---he's a Jewish kid from a city that has three Major League teams, but he also follows the Negro Leagues closely enough to know all the players---and he loves the New York Yankees. But he's short, uncoordinated, impatient, and not good at following instructions, all of which combined make him the worst ballplayer in his neighborhood. He's the kind of player whose best chance of getting on base is by never swinging and hoping for a walk. Naturally, he's always the last kid picked. Naturally, this breaks his heart. Naturally, by the end of the movie he's going to be the one to come through for everybody in the clutch.

He's able to save the day because he never gives up. He keeps swinging. Throw him off a moving train to Chicago and he bounces to his feet and starts walking.

Literally, Yankee's never thrown off a train, although he comes close to falling off one several times. He is put off the train to Chicago, because he doesn't have a ticket. But the train stops and the conductor shoos him off at a station in rural Pennsylvania, and after a moment of despair, Yankee plucks up his courage and starts walking.

Figuratively, though, Yankee is thrown off a lot of moving trains. He has a lot of adventures on the way to Chicago that almost take the heart out of him. But he keeps on going. He stays in the box and keeps swinging. As a lesson for kids, this isn't a bad one. Don't give up. Keep looking for a way to succeed. If this plan doesn't work, come up with another one. Go back to the drawing board and try, try again.

And I've said this before and I'll say it again, I don't mind lessons in kids' movies. Lessons are different from morals. A lesson is a practical piece of wisdom a story teaches just by telling itself. Kids watching Everyone's Hero don't need to have it explained to them that when you've got a problem to solve the only way to solve it is to solve it---to keep at it, keep swinging. They'll get it.

But the filmmakers didn't trust their audience. Every step of the way somebody stops the story dead to tell Yankee, KEEP SWINGING, KID! and by the time the movie's reached its implausible and stupid climax, the lesson has turned into a moral that is very close to becoming another version of FOLLOW YOUR DREAMS.

The utter stupidity of the ending undercuts the good of the lesson, to boot, by suggesting that as long as you keep swinging at some point the rules of the universe will magically rewrite themselves in your favor and you will get your heart's desire just by virtue of having wanted it.

At any rate, not being a kid, just a dumb grown-up and therefore not swift on the uptake, by the time Yankee reached Wrigley Field and was poised to save the day, I had grown cynical about the lesson cum moral and was busy thinking up lots of examples of when Keep Swinging is in fact bad advice---I'd even muttered out loud, although, I hope, only loud enough for the blonde to hear, That's one lesson I wish George Bush hadn't learned; we'd be out of Iraq by now. She told me to shut my trap. Then the final credits rolled and I saw something that did make me shut my trap.

Produced and directed by Christopher Reeve.

Everyone's Hero was the project Reeve was working on when he died.

Judging from the documentary tribute that's a special feature on the DVD, he was only there for the earliest planning stages. He worked on the storyboarding, but he never saw even the first stages of animation.

I don't know how close to final the draft of the script he was working from was. I'd like to think that he wouldn't have allowed the stupid ending. I'm not sure, but I had a sense, listening to them talk, that the filmmakers who finished Everyone's Hero for him wanted the movie to be a kind of monument to Reeve and they might have gone overboard on the idea of showing how a hero who everyone thought couldn't accomplish what he wanted to coming through in the end. It's an article of faith among everybody who knew him that if he had lived Reeve would have done what was thought to be impossible. He'd have been the first quadrapalegic to get out of a wheelchair and walk again. It may have been that his friends thought they needed to show that happening metaphorically in his last movie.

I don't know.

All I do know is that if there was anyone who had earned the right to teach children that the most important thing is to stay in there, to try and continue trying, to never give up, to keep swinging, it was Christopher Reeve.

When he died, Reeve was still in the batter's box, still swinging.

Extra innings:

Keep swinging isn't the only good lesson of Everyone's Hero. As he makes his way to Chicago, Yankee is helped along by a bunch of characters who are, like Yankee himself, people not held in very high regard by the most everybody else. They not only help get him to Chicago, they teach him how to be a better baseball player. He learns about strategy from a trio of hobos. He learns how to throw from a little girl. And he learns how to hit and how to play with confidence from some men who will never get to play ball in the Major Leagues even though they are every bit as good as the players on the Cubs and the Yankees because they are black.

Not bad lessons for kids: No one can do it all on their own. All of us need help. Everyone we meet has something worth sharing, something to teach. Everyone counts.


In the movie the Cubs' owner is obsessed with Babe Ruth as the source of all his unhappiness. In real life, Ruth didn't win the '32 Series single-handedly for the Yankees and in fact he wasn't all that great a factor in the Cubs' defeat. He had a good series, but he hit only two home runs, both of them in the same game. If Chicago fans had a reason to fear and loathe Ruth it was because of what he did to the Cubs in the 1918 World a pitcher...for the Boston Red Sox.

You could look it up.

Robin Williams does the voice of the Cubs' crazy, Irish-brogued, Ruth-hating owner. William H. Macy does the voice of the cheating Cubs pitcher who steals Ruth's bat. Robert Wagner does the voice of the New York Yankees' general manager. And Mandy Patinkin does the voice of Yankee's father. All of them were good friends of Christopher Reeve.

In the documentary, Patinkin tells about how when they were very young actors and he and Reeve were doing a play together in New York after rehearsals they used to ride home together on the subway. The first of Reeve's Superman movies had recently opened so Reeve was suddenly a big star, but, says Patinkin, nobody ever recognized him on the train because of his modesty. Patinkin's point was that Reeve never called attention to himself in a movie star way. He was just another working stiff taking the subway home.

I find it a little hard to believe that try as hard as they might have to blend in these two very handsome and very large young men could have sat there completely unnoticed on the subway night after night. But then New Yorkers practice at being bored by the incredible.

What I really like about the story is just the picture of two friends at the beginning of what will turn out for both of them to be wonderful careers riding home together. I think that's how all of us should be remembered, as we were when we were young and at our best and our lives were full of hope and promise.

Reeve's widow Dana Reeve was one of the co-producers of Everyone's Hero and she did the voice for Yankee's mother---she and another actress. Dana Reeve died before she could finish her voice work for the movie. She was sick while she was working on it. She was still in the box, then, too, still swinging, at the end.

And here's the post I wrote when Christopher Reeve died, Powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men.

Cross-posted at newcritics.


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