Sports rejects will rejoice in 'Little Giants'

October 14, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

You couldn't find a surprise with an electron microscope in "Little Giants," which opens today, but the movie is at least amiable.

You saw it first as "The Bad News Bears" and you saw it last as "The Mighty Ducks II." It's not any different this time, either: Team of losers and rejects coached by a fallen man somehow gets its stuff together and faces its natural opponents -- that is, slick, snooty, well-coached, implacably superior antagonists -- and kicks their rear ends.

Of course "Bad News Bears" not only did it first, it did it best; it was cynical, unsentimental, bracing, funny and, apostasy of apostasies, it even had them lose the big game -- a radical departure that has since never been repeated. But of all the clones, "Little Giants" is the least hateable.

The sport is football, Pop Warner variety; the setting a small Ohio burg where former All-American Kevin O'Shea (Ed O'Neill, made up to resemble Mike Ditka) is the big noise in town, his legendary gridiron feats the core of his success as a Chevy dealer and coach of the local Pop Warner team. He's one of those notoriously disciplined, rigid, unforgiving men who equate football with war and has nothing but contempt for weaklings, whiners and losers, particularly those he cuts in tryouts with a hypocritical gush of fake sympathy.

His opposite number is the chronic last-kid-chosen, first-kid-cut kind of guy who happens to be his own brother Danny, played by the extremely likable Rick Moranis. Anybody who's ever been cut from a team and still feels the hurt (1960, baseball, ouch!) can get with the nifty wrinkle in the premise. When Danny's talented but wrong-gendered daughter is cut from his brother's team, she asks Danny to put together a team for the rejects. Then it turns out that, by Pop Warner rules, the town can only field one team. So the two have to play a Big Game to see which one survives.

Thus, Danny assembles a motley crew of the lame, the halt and the football-disabled. In pick-up equipment these scrubs play at football and eventually gull themselves into believing themselves capable of whacking heads with the big boys. Frankly, this could work in baseball, where skill doesn't necessarily come concealed in bulk; it could work in basketball, where a couple of good jumpshooters can change a crew of losers into a crew of winners in a second. But not football: It has to do too much with strength, and big kids will beat small kids any day of the week.

But then, "Little Giants" is hardly a documentary.

It moseys about pleasantly, but its best value isn't justice but love. It turns out that the brothers O'Shea genuinely care for one another; there's not a feeling of real hostility between them, and the movie ultimately counsels sportsmanship. Some of the gambits feels forced, as when John Madden and a group of pros drop by to exhort the troops into self-belief. A "mean" player switches teams late in the going to provide a handy-dandy villain. And on and on the cliches mount.

But the movie builds nicely to its big game, which at least turns on a classic football ruse, that bit of deceit called the fumbleroosky, last used in a real game by Amos Alonzo Stagg years before the invention of the forward pass. "Little Giants" isn't good, but it's cute, which is almost something.

"Little Giants"

Starring Rick Moranis and Ed O'Neill

Directed by Duwayne Dunham

Released by Warner Bros.

Rated PG

** 1/2

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