Likable heroes in 'Mighty' Review: Messages about life, limitations and loyalty abound in a story that will entertain youngsters.

October 16, 1998|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

As a story of two adolescent misfits who learn about life through terminal illness, "The Mighty" bears an uncanny resemblence to another current film. Like "Simon Birch," it has a lot to say about overcoming limitations, not judging others by physical appearance and loyalty.

Both movies even feature a cameo star turn. Jim Carrey does the honors in "Simon Birch"; Sharon Stone glams down to play a single mother in "The Mighty."

Both movies also drip with their share of rank sentimentality. But unlike "Simon Birch," "The Mighty" keeps the Hallmark moments to a minimum, supplanting glowy nostalgia with far more arresting fantasy images. Even as it imparts its not-so-subtle messages, "The Mighty" should entertain youngsters with its re-telling of the King Arthur stories, related through the adventures of two unlikely friends and very likable heroes.

Elden Henson plays Max, a 13-year-old boy whose hulking frame and shy personality make him the butt of his classmates' cruel jokes. Max lives with his grandparents (the aptly named Grim and Gram, played by Harry Dean Stanton and Gena Rowlands), for reasons that eventually become clear: His mother is dead, and his father is in prison for killing her. Haunted by the fear of his father's return, Max cowers in his basement bedroom, barely making contact with the outside world.

That changes when Kevin (Kieran Culkin) moves in next door. The pint-sized Kevin makes up in smarts what he lacks in physical strength, and when he tutors Max in reading, he hits on a plan. Kevin's brain combined with Max's brawn would add up to one indomitable superhero, a guy who might overcome Max's limitations and Kevin's fatally degenerative illness.

Using the Knights of the Roundtable as his blueprint, Kevin enlists Max in a life of chivalry and stouthearted derring-do. The most thrilling moments of "The Mighty" take place with Kevin riding on Max's shoulders, the invincible duo taking on the scuz of South Cincinnati. In the movie's most exhilarating and inventive sequences, director Peter Chelsom places "real" knights and horses alongside the boys.

There are some great moments of adventure and comedy in "The Mighty," in which Culkin makes an auspicious debut as a mop-topped leading man. And if a sub-plot involving Max's father is contrived, cliched and probably too scary for kids under 10, it doesn't detract from the boys' friendship, which anchors the movie with authenticity and genuine warmth.

Stone, who plays Kevin's down-to-earth mother, gracefully cedes the screen to her younger co-stars, although she makes the most of a chance to ham it up in a witty performance-of-a-performance.

"The Mighty" makes no secret of the fact that it will end in tears, but it manages to have fun along the way. And that's not a bad life lesson for any age.

'The Mighty'

Starring Kieran Culkin, Elden Henson, Sharon Stone, Gena Rowlands, Harry Dean Stanton

Directed by Peter Chelsom

Released by Miramax Films

Rated PG-13 (elements of violence and peril)

Running time: 106 minutes

Sun score: ***

Pub Date: 10/16/98

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