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Quirky Charm Rescues 'Mighty'

Movie review: Offbeat character moments and a sense of boyish wonder elevate sentimental story of two teen outcasts.

October 09, 1998|KENNETH TURAN | TIMES FILM CRITIC

"The Mighty" is based on a book called "Freak the Mighty," and that small but telling change is as good an indication as any of how the forces of conventionality have hamstrung what is in many ways a quirky and imaginative piece of work.

Directed by Peter Chelsom, whose previous credits are "Hear My Song" and the fiercely eccentric "Funny Bones," "The Mighty" seems at war with itself. Adapted from Rodman Philbrick's award-winning young adult novel about the unlikely alliance of two miserable 14-year-olds, the film is itself an unlikely alliance of earnest, well-meaning sentimentality and genuinely magical and moving filmmaking.

"The Mighty's" script (by Charles Leavitt, who wrote Michael Cimino's thankfully little-seen "Sunchaser") creates a literary overlay for the project, breaking the action into chapters and making extensive use of voice-over by Maxwell Kane, a very unhappy narrator.

Max (Elden Henson) has reasons to be woebegone. His mother is dead, his father, "Killer" Kane, is in prison, and he lives in Cincinnati in the basement room ("the down under") of the house belonging to the overmatched grandparents he puckishly calls Gram (Gena Rowlands) and Grim (Harry Dean Stanton).

Wait, there's more. Max is large for his age (though nowhere near as gargantuan as the voice-over insists) and his passive nature has made him an easy target for the group of local toughs called the Doghouse boys. Plus he's failed seventh grade two years running, with a third failure a distinct possibility. No wonder he says, "I never had a brain until Freak came along and lent me his."

Freak, known to his mother (Sharon Stone) as Kevin Dillon (Kieran Culkin), is the kid who moves in next door. Not your ordinary neighbor, but a brainy type who is hunched over and fitted with large leg braces and crutches because of a degenerative disease called Morquio's syndrome.

Kevin and Max do not take to each other at once, but when Kevin is assigned to be the large boy's remedial reading tutor, he naturally starts Max on his own favorite book, a collection of stories of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table that emphasizes the notion that "a knight proves his worthiness through his deeds."

A chance encounter with the Doghouse boys leads to the defining moment in the friendship, when Max suddenly hoists Kevin up on his shoulders. The team that results, which the pair name Freak the Mighty, is a natural fit. As glib Kevin puts it, "You need a brain and I need legs and the Wizard of Oz doesn't live in Cincinnati."

Joined this way, Freak the Mighty dedicates itself to fulfilling Kevin's fantasy of being a Knight of the Round Table. To his dreamer's eyes, "there are fair maidens to rescue and dragons to slay," even if the maidens turn out to be shopworn items like Loretta Lee ("The X-Files' " Gillian Anderson) with disturbing links to dark episodes in Max's past.

The appeal of this scenario to every picked-on kid who had visions of being powerful is as strong here as it presumably was in the book, and there are moments when it comes off beautifully. Actors Henson and Culkin (one of Macaulay's younger siblings) work extremely well together and help make what is essentially a literary conceit believable on film.

Also appealing is the deft way Chelsom repeatedly intercuts snippets of the knights of the boys' imaginations with their more mundane adventures in Cincinnati. This is a director who understands the sense of wonder, as well as one who genuinely cherishes each and every offbeat character moment he can manage to shoehorn into the production.

Everything about "The Mighty," however, is not pleasantly wacky. Though Stone (whose production company served as co-executive producer) does a solid job as Kevin's mother, her character would be richer if it had been allowed a quirk or two. And good as Culkin is, the film's determination to turn Kevin into a miniature wiseguy with a nonstop flow of snappy patter is as wearing here as a similar scenario was in "Simon Birch."

So, regrettably, this film tends to aim too patly at the heart and get too pleased with itself in the process. The best thing about "The Mighty," however, is that it is its own best antidote. If you stick with it long enough, you will gain sympathy for its quixotic attempt to do things differently and wonder exactly what director Chelsom might be up to next.

* MPAA rating: PG-13 for elements of violence and peril. Times guidelines: The violence is not meant to be terribly frightening.

'The Mighty'

Sharon Stone: Gwen Dillon

Gena Rowlands: Gram

Harry Dean Stanton: Grim

Gillian Anderson: Loretta Lee

James Gandolfini: Kenny Kane

Kieran Culkin: Kevin Dillon

Elden Henson: Maxwell Kane

A Scholastic Productions Simon Fields production, released by Miramax Films. Director Peter Chelsom. Producers Jane Startz, Simon Fields. Executive producers Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, Julie Goldstein. Screenplay Charles Leavitt, based on the novel "Freak the Mighty" by Rodman Philbrick. Cinematographer John De Borman. Editor Martin Walsh. Costumes Marie Sylvie Deveau. Music Trevor Jones. Production design Caroline Hanania. Art director Dennis Davenport. Set decorator Cal Loucks. Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes.

* In general release in Southern California.

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