By Glenn Kenny
Updated April 08, 1994 at 04:00 AM EDT

On the face of it, a movie recounting the exploits of a bobsled team from the conspicuously snow-light isle of Jamaica sounds like a left-field undertaking. But Cool Runnings owes its status as one of last year’s biggest hits less to the novelty of its premise than to its canny application of a time-tested Disney formula.

Honk if this sounds familiar: Frustrated athletes team up with once-great, now dissolute coach, and subsequently prove to doubters that they’ve got the right stuff; coach regains self-respect; athletes get their moment in the sun; everyone goes away happy.

Now, make the bobsledders prepubescent hockey players and you’ve got Disney’s Mighty Ducks; make them convent dwellers and you’ve got the studio’s Sister Act. Saving Cool Runnings‘ creators from the charge that they’re exploiting racial or geographic differences for laughs is the fact that there really was a Jamaican bobsled team at the 1988 Olympics. But that’s about the only connection Cool Runnings has to reality — when you think about it, the sole difference between Jamaicans on a bobsled and nuns singing Motown is that some screenwriter had to think up the latter.

In the late ’60s and early ’70s, Disney employed similar stranger-in-a-strange-land strategies. Like Cool Runnings, the studio’s 1973 hit The World’s Greatest Athlete plays a seemingly improbable race card: A black college track coach (John Amos) travels to Africa and finds his own Tarzan, Nanu (the blond, buff Jan-Michael Vincent), who’s graced with amazing physical skills. (Special-effects-enhanced javelin tosses and the like give the film most of its juice.) The coach’s job is to socialize Namu, curbing, for example, the foreigner’s predilection for keeping jungle animals as pets.

The task of the coach (John Candy) in Cool Runnings is more realistic — he has to teach his athletes, whose only experience with ice has been in cubes, the intracacies of racing down a frozen surface at dangerously high speeds. After being tripped up during Olympic sprinting tryouts, Derice Bannock (Leon) conceives his bobsled team as a last-ditch effort to get to the Games, recruiting as teammates just the right ”types” to provide some dramatic tension: dreadlocked goofball Sanka (Doug E. Doug), spoiled rich kid Junior (Rawle D. Lewis), and surly bald guy Yul Brenner (Malik Yoba).

Once all the elements are in place, you merely sit back and wait for the inevitable Triumph of the Human…blah blah blah. But Cool Runnings is far more enjoyable than the kiddie-oriented World’s Greatest Athlete, mainly because it has been fashioned with crowd-pleasing savvy rather than patronizing silliness. Candy’s part is more drama-heavy than much of his previous film work, but because of the outlandish incongruity of their new snowy environs, his costars get away with playing their characters as broadly as they were written.

The humor is gentle, but often barely sidesteps the condescending ”aren’t these black people adorable” attitude that harpooned Disney’s subsequent variation on this recipe, this winter’s deplorable The Air Up There (in a sense, a race-reversed World’s Greatest Athlete. Which proves, among other things, that even when you’re working with tested ingredients, slamming the oven door too hard is sure to flatten your soufflé. Cool Runnings: B- The World’s Greatest Athlete: C-