Who is Everyone’s Hero?
Perhaps it is Babe Ruth (voiced by Brian Dennehy), the Sultan of Swat and idol of millions, none more devoted than ten-year-old Yankee Irving (Jake T. Austin), whose father (Mandy Patinkin) is a janitor at Yankee Stadium during the Great Depression.
Or it might be little Yankee Irving himself, despite his starting out the film as the goat of a local sandlot ball game, striking out rather than taking the walk. (Yankee’s so short he has no strike zone, so he could have walked if he weren’t so determined to swing every time.) Despite this setback, by the climax, with its wildly unrestrained indulgence of the film’s feel-good, wish-fulfillment gospel of self-esteem, Yankee has a chance to make up for that failure and become Everyone’s Hero to a rather over-the-top degree.
I suspect, though, that the filmmakers may have been thinking of someone else: the late Christopher Reeve, credited with directing the film, which he was developing with family and colleagues when he unexpectedly died in 2004. Reeve, of course, played the ultimate hero in Superman and Superman II, and after his tragic 1995 riding accident showed enormous resolve battling against his disability and continuing to work, though his legacy was tarnished by determined advocacy of fetal stem cell research.
Everyone’s Hero isn’t just Reeve’s last film, it’s also a tribute to the late filmmaker from the colleagues and family who finished the film in his name. As a memorial, Everyone’s Hero is a little, well, forgettable — old-fashioned, sweet, but ultimately disposable family fare with echoes of better films from Toy Story to The Iron Giant.
Like The Iron Giant, Everyone’s Hero has a period setting, in this case the Great Depression, and a young, big-eared protagonist who strives to keep an inanimate friend from the clutches of a long-faced adult villain on a secret mission to get the object in question. (Even the eccentric name “Yankee Irving” seems similar in spirit to The Iron Giant’s Hogarth Hughes.)
The villain in this case is Chicago Cubs pitcher Lefty Maginnis (William H. Macy), sent by his ruthless team owner (an uncredited Robin Williams) to steal Babe Ruth’s lucky bat, nicknamed Darlin’, thus enabling the Cubs to defeat the Yankees in the World Series. Say what? Even complacent Yankee fans will be nonplused at the thought of picking on the Cubbies, of all teams, as the nefarious heavies. At least if it were the Bosox, you would know where the filmmakers were coming from, whether or not you approved.
Stranger, though, is the arbitrariness of the movie’s fantasy element, in which young Yankee finds himself communicating with an irascible baseball (Rob Reiner) as well as Ruth’s bat Darlin’ (Whoopi Goldberg), both of which talk in voices that only Yankee can hear, and for that matter have faces that only he can see. Also, no one else seems to notice them moving around by themselves, although in one scene a stunned, bleary-eyed Lefty Maginnis gets a cross-eyed glimpse of the bat and ball making a hasty getaway.
In Toy Story, toys could talk, but they did so (with rare and understandable exceptions) only when no one was looking. Here, there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason as to why all of a sudden these two particular objects (and only these two) are freely communicating to Yankee (and only to Yankee). In some fantasies there are things that are perceptible only to children, not to grown-ups, but that’s not the case here: They’re just an ordinary ball and bat to other kids, including a couple of young bullies and a spunky black girl named Marti (Raven-Symone) who helps Yankee fend off said bullies — and who turns out to be the daughter of a Negro League pitcher (Forrest Whittaker).
Be that as it may, when Darlin’ is stolen from the Yankees locker room, only Yankee Irving, visiting his father at the stadium at the time of the theft, has a clue who did it. At stake is not only the World Series, but his father’s employment, which was terminated as a result of the theft. So, with the reluctant aid of his baseball friend, nicknamed Screwie, Yankee sets off to intercept Maginnis en route to Chicago, retrieve the bat, and return it to its rightful owner.
Visually, the CGI animation is fine though not outstanding, with a pleasant soft-focus pastel palette and watercolor-like backgrounds. As you’d expect, the battle for the bat involves a fair bit of slapstick, the best of which is a film highlight set on a pair of moving trains, with Maginnis at one point atop a train dodging oncoming obstacles with split-second timing.
Yankee’s parents are warmly and sympathetically portrayed, as are Marti’s parents. A couple of scenes take a stab at social conscience, as Yankee falls in with a trio of hobos and catches a ride with a Negro League team; the film doesn't explore or explain the status of either, a choice that could arguably be construed either as a lost opportunity or as refreshingly non-preachy.
Though fitfully entertaining, the road trip eventually wears a little thin, as does the bickering schtick Screwie and Darlin’. Neither ball nor bat has much in the way of characterization or story arc; unlike Toy Story, Everyone’s Hero isn’t particularly insightful regarding what motivates inanimate objects. They don’t particularly matter as characters; Everyone’s Hero is really about Yankee learning to believe in himself and just keep swinging, no matter what anyone else says.
It’s a respectable theme, competently delivered, though it goes off the rails in the climactic scene at Wrigley Field. (Spoiler alert.) In the last game of the Series, with the Yankees down in the ninth and two outs, Yankee manages to get through to Ruth and return his bat to him, right on schedule. But then the Bambino, who backs up Yankee’s story about Maginnis stealing the bat with unexplained confidence, takes a look at the kid standing there on the field, and on a whim decides to put the fate of the Series in Yankee’s hands, giving him the last at-bat.
Even in a kiddie fantasy, this seems a misstep; even young kids will sense that fans walking into the middle of games and being allowed to play isn’t how you play the game. Like most sports-themed films, Everyone’s Hero pays lip service to the idea that winning isn’t everything, then goes ahead and lets the hero win the game anyway. Very few films of this sort can find a way to actually celebrate something other than winning; this year’s Cars, from Pixar, is a rare exception.
That Yankee defeats Maginnis, returns Babe’s bat, and saves his dad’s job should have been enough. “Just keep swinging” is a fine message, but you know, so is being realistic about your limitations. Even if you get to the plate, sometimes it makes sense to bunt or take the walk rather than swing for the bleachers every time. And there’s a place for looking up to those — like Babe Ruth — who can do things that you can’t.
You know — having heroes.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.