Angels in the Outfield
Baseball may be a religious experience for some fans, but Angels in the Outfield mixes the sport and the spirits with such fervor that it feels more like a Sunday-morning revival meeting than a Saturday-afternoon children’s movie.
And a revival it is. Disney has resurrected the 1951 adult comedy of the same name and, well, Disneyized it. The basic story’s the same — the surly manager of a last-place baseball team gets some help from above when a young fan prays for a miracle — but the focus has shifted from the grown-up to the child. And what was once a little girl is now a boy. So much for enlightenment.
Although the filmmakers may believe, as it says in the Old Testament, that ”a little child shall lead them,” Angels just doesn’t work as a children’s movie. There’s one group — 6- to 8-year-olds — who may simply take the story at face value and crack up at the the team’s silly antics and the slapstick in the stands (lots of food-related fun-sitting on nachos, spilling soda, squirting mustard).
But the movie also deals with some subjects that may be disturbing to very young children, especially since the issues are raised merely as plot devices and are not sensitively explored. Eleven-year-old Roger (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a foster child whose mom is dead and whose motorcycle-riding dad comes into town to tell him they’ll be a family again — when the Angels win the pennant. Roger’s best friend, J.P. (Milton Davis Jr.), also a foster child, has lived traumatically in a car for much of his young life. Homelessness, abandonment, death. This is supposed to be a kids’ comedy?
The scenes on the field are, thankfully, a bit more lighthearted. Danny Glover is likable as the hot-tempered manager George Knox; Christopher Lloyd is his usual kooky self as boss angel Al; and — o, ye of little faith — Tony Danza is surprisingly effective as a has-been player trying to make a comeback. (Okay, so it’s not much of a stretch.)
In the original version, the angels were invisible and the umpire on high talked directly to the team’s manager. In this age of special effects, little is left to a child’s imagination. The winged angels — who can only be seen through most of the movie by Roger and the audience — are not only guys in sparkling pajamas who lift up the players to help them catch fly balls but also robed women who massage the batters’ necks to loosen them up.
The film preaches its messages in long, sermon-like speeches (”Where there is love, miraculous things happen”) that will have older kids rolling their eyes. They will also be turned off by Roger and J.P.’s holier-than-thou attitude — the pair keep reminding the adults not to lie or swear. But perhaps the most troubling thing about Angels is that none of the characters possess pure faith — they all have other motives: Knox wants to win the pennant; Roger wants a family. Even the angels act irresponsibly: Al burdens Roger with the knowledge that one of the players is going to be dead in six months. The movie, perhaps unintentionally, depicts faith as something born out of fear, not love.
At Angels‘ end, Al tells Roger, ”We’re always watching.” That’s more than audiences will say about this disappointing movie. C+