One reason that sports stories lend themselves so nicely to the movies is because winning and losing is so clear cut: You're up to bat, you strike out or hit a home run. You fumble the football, or you make the touchdown. The sports movies that transcend the genre are always about something else, something bigger than the game; the game becomes the metaphor for the rest of the story. This September has brought two very different sports films that do just that.

Everyone's Hero

Everyone's HeroThis is a film whose pedigree almost dares you not to like it. Executive-produced and originally directed by Christopher Reeve before his death, and with the mom voiced by Dana Reeve before she passed away, it's an animated film about a little boy who must return Babe Ruth's lucky bat to the famed ballplayer in time to turn around the World Series.

If you can get past the fact that two of the main characters are a talking baseball and a talking bat--and the fact it's about a 10-year-old boy traveling across county by himself, pursued by a crazed major league pitcher--the good news is that this is a sweet and entertaining movie. Bottom line: Your kids will really enjoy it.

The story boasts the current crop of kids' story characters: the bullies and cringers who oust and shun the main character, the Mighty Loner Girl who helps him, the well-meaning but sidelined parents who show up at the end in time to witness the miraculous triumph. But the story also boasts some unexpected characters, especially players in the Negro League who teach the kid what he needs to know about batting, and, without directly addressing it, about the racism they face. The film's Big Message, which is broadcast and repeated throughout the movie, is that, even when you strike out in life, you can turn things around if you keep swinging.

The animation is a cross between realism and high stylization, which kept catching me off guard at strange moments. The backgrounds are attention-grabbing in their scope and beauty, yet there's this talking baseball. The film is set in the 1930s (although characters frequently use current colloquialisms), and kids might find the culture and clothing interesting. I know it's crazy to say, especially in a movie that features a talking baseball, but for me, what happens at the end crosses the line between unlikely and illegal in baseball. Okay, I know, it's a fantasy, and one you'll likely get a kick out of it, so I guess this goes under the category of nitpicking.

So go, see the movie, and keep swinging.


InvincibleThis is a major studio film that feels like a little-movie-that-could--which is good, because that echoes the story it tells. It's based on the true story of Vince Papale (Mark Wahlberg), a down-on-his-luck Philadelphia bartender who attends an open try-out for the Philadelphia Eagles, and makes the team.

There are several things I especially enjoyed about this film. One is that it's a family film that plays very well for adults without needing to be vulgar to make either South Philly or football fans seem realistic. Second, like "Akeelah and the Bee," it's as much about the redemption of the secondary characters as it is about the redemption of Vince himself. This keeps the story moving between scenes of Vince's rude awakening to what life is like for an "old man" of 30 in the NFL, and scenes of his survival and eventual triumph on the field.

Like "Everyone's Hero," "Invincible" is a period piece, set in the 1970s, and it does very well in evoking the era while making the difficulties and emotions universal. In this case, the lives of the "haves" (the coach with his lovely house and cultured wife) and the "have nots" (the hardscrabble working class guys of South Philly) are bridged and united by the tough, oft-injured, but never-say-die guys on the NFL field. Near the end of the film when Vince's father explains to him that one particular Eagles touchdown they'd discussed often as Vince was growing up "got me through 15 years of working at the factory," you understand in a new way what vicarious success can mean to folks.

The real-life Vince Papale does for South Philly what the fictional "Akeelah" does for South Central--let others know they're not destined to be losers. It's a message all of us can stand to hear again and again. You don't need kids along to see this one--but if you've got them, by all means, bring them along. "Invincible" is a touchdown in itself.

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