Wednesday, April 17, 2013

42 Barely Crosses Home Plate, but is a Must-see for Kids

There's no mistaking it. "42" is, for sure, a crowdpleaser. It has all the right elements: a sympathetic hero, love interest, forced to do the impossible, and ultimately succeeds. Of course, what separates "42" from other similarly-told stories is that this actually happened. When Jackie Robinson stepped onto Ebbets Field on opening day 1947, it changed America. Integration in baseball was forced upon everyone, it was a hard pill to swallow for some but they had to swallow it nonetheless. Jackie was the catalyst and remains one of the most important figures in sports history. "42" does a good job of telling the basic story and it is a must-see for the young ones who may not know much of the Robinson story. Still, it's tough to see Jackie Robinson be relegated to this archetypal, Disney-esque, extremely sanitized "hero" role here.

I am sure there are plenty people my age and older who know the Jackie Robinson story well, but in case you don't, I'll let you in a little bit on the story. Brooklyn Dodgers team executive Branch Rickey wants wins, he wants that World Series prize. He knows that in order for his team to reach the next level that he'll have to integrate his team. Black people playing in the MLB hasn't happened yet, but some players admit that it's more-or-less an inevitability. Rickey makes the inevitable happen. He signs Robinson to play for his minor league team, the Montreal Royals.  When Robinson breezes through the minor leagues his first year, he's called up to the Dodgers that next year, in 1947. Now Robinson, donning the 42 for the first time, will officially make history.

And the film tells that story fairly accurately, a big reason why I think the film is a must-see for kids. It could be really inspirational and it, of course, is already getting a big response from audiences garnering an A+ cinemascore this past weekend. But where I find fault with the film is how it manages to structure itself into the most typical of Disney sports movies (and this was made by Fox, mind you). For such a specific story, with such great, real life characters, only Chadwick Boseman manages to make his portrayal of Jackie Robinson more than just a cliche. His teammates are almost uniformly one-dimensional. Harrison Ford's Branch Rickey is an inspired performance, but also incredibly hammed up. I'm glad Ford tried to go all in and really give Rickey some life, but something faltered along the way whether it's the dialogue or just the fact that Ford's mannerisms get too much in the way of this real life portrayal. Ford is mostly fun to watch as Branch Rickey, but there are times when he comes off as a complete caricature.

The film also has some really forced, cringeworthy moments involving people in the stands or any of its attempts to showcase how Jackie Robinson touched the hearts of his fans. Robinson was considered the number two most popular figure in all of America in 1948 and it just seems like we're not being shown enough of the story. The story from both sides of the racial barrier. While it's important to show how Jackie Robinson touched African-American youth, it's just as important to show how he managed to get the majority on his side. Robinson definitely got his share of death threats, countless death threats. Threats to his son, to his wife. That's important to show too. But it would've been more inspiring to get a fuller picture. Because you don't become the most popular sports figure in all of America unless a great number of people are on your side, black or white. The story we ultimately get in "42" is so basic and trite that it takes away from how special Jackie Robinson's barrier-breaking story really is.

Overall "42" still works and is enjoyable on a basic level. I definitely recommend it as a family movie. But if you're a baseball fan, or if you really want to learn about the Jackie Robinson story, you're not going to get a very in depth look here. The story's structure has been way too generalized to make it feel special or separate from other baseball movies. Robinson deserves better than this. But we'll have to take the film for what it is, and it's not a bad film. It's just average. The fact that Jackie Robinson is such an important figure though is why this film should still be seen, especially for the kids.

Grade: C+

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