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Movie Review : 'Angels in the Outfield' a Disney-Fied Morality Play

July 15, 1994|PETER RAINER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The premise of "Angels in the Outfield" is that children--because they are children--tell the truth. Unlike their elders, kids walk among us as the pure-in-heart. When they tell you they see angels, you better believe it.

Motherless angel-gazer Roger (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a ward of the state. His father (Dermot Mulroney), leather-jacketed and grubby-looking, tells his boy at the start of the film that "we'll be a family again when the Angels win the pennant," and zooms off on his motorcycle. It's a kiss-off--the California Angels are in dead-last place.

But then Roger is visited by Al the Angel (Christopher Lloyd) in the ballpark during a typically bumbling Angels performance and, before long, the team is rising to first place under the stewardship of a bevy of grinning, winged guardians. But only Roger can see them.

J.P., Roger's best buddy, can't. (He's played by that little charmer Milton Davis Jr., who stared down Shaquille O'Neal in a Pepsi commercial.) But J.P. believes his friend--he, too, is orphaned. The film is about how the Angels gruff, obscenity-spewing manager, George Knox (Danny Glover), also comes to believe. He's purified by his bond with the boys.

The sap in this movie rises almost as high as the Angels. It's a special kind of kiddie sentimentality: fantastical and self-congratulatory. Children are allowed the ability to see the magical in the everyday and then work their wisdom on the unbelieving adults in their world. And they do it all in the name of love. Roger's special vision, after all, comes from his prayers for a family.

Baseball movies have been getting preachier and more peewee-like in recent years: consider "The Sandlot," "Rookie of the Year," and, just a few weeks ago, "Little Big League." "Angels in the Outfield," loosely remade from a 1951 MGM film where the angels were all off-screen, is the drippiest (and the goofiest) of the bunch. It's a Disney-fied morality play complete with corn and sniffles. Roger may be able to see angels, but he's not particularly wowed by his gift. He's too blandly virtuous to get really excited about anything.

The real kids in this film are the adults--the players, managers and sportscasters. They're the ones who show some temper, some spirit. Just about all the funny bits in the movie involve their antics on and off the field: The catcher (Tony Longo) gorges on junk food and looks and sounds like Curly from the Three Stooges; one of the pitchers (Neal McDonough) is a bundle of tics and feints; the team's PR director (Taylor Negron) is continually squirted with mustard and glopped with nacho cheese by the two tykes in his charge. (Of course, the goody-goodies Roger and J.P. don't do it on purpose.) Ranch Wilder (Jay O. Sanders), who was once George's nemesis on the playing field, is the big-jawed cartoon meanie who announces the Angels radio broadcasts. He breaks the potentially embarrassing story that George's winning streak is angel-inspired. (The press conference scene in which George and his teammates stand up for the right to believe in miracles isn't exactly up there with the Scopes trial from "Inherit the Wind," although it's played just about as straight.)

Director William Dear and screenwriters Dorothy Kingsley, George Wells and Holly Goldberg Sloan muster most of their energies for the funny, nutball jaunts on the playing field. As the kids' ward, Brenda Fricker, doing her best to squelch her Irish accent, is fine in a serious mode, and so is Tony Danza as an over-the-hill hurler. But, for the most part, "Angels in the Outfield" is tolerable when it's at its loopiest.

The quick, zoomy shots of the slapstick angels dipping their big bright golden wings are funny in an original way. These moments are probably what the adults in the audience will take away from the film. And it's probably what kids will take away from it too--along with the squirted mustard and the baseline tantrums. They'll blot out the soppy moralizing. After all, kids know they don't always tell the truth, even if Hollywood doesn't.

* MPAA rating: PG, for mild language. Times guidelines: It includes a father-son separation scene and some mild roughhousing on the playing field.

'Angels in the Outfield'

Danny Glover: George Knox

Brenda Fricker: Maggie Nelson

Joseph Gordon-Levitt: Roger

Milton Davis Jr.: J.P.

A Walt Disney Pictures presentation. Director William Dear. Producers Irby Smith, Joe Roth and Roger Birnbaum. Executive producer Gary Stutman. Screenplay by Dorothy Kingsley & George Wells, and Holly Goldberg Sloan. Cinematographer Matthew F. Leonetti. Editor Bruce Green. Costumes Rosanna Norton. Music Randy Edelman. Production design Dennis Washington. Set decorator John Anderson. Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes.

* In general release throughout Southern California.

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