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The Two Movies Of "Angels In The Outfield"

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Think Hollywood's trend of stealing old stuff is new? No.

This is a test. If you have Hope In Your Heart, you won't see any wires.
This is a test. If you have Hope In Your Heart, you won't see any wires.
Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images

You learned in school that Shakespeare wrote comedies and tragedies. Despite efforts by your teachers to make Shakespeare funny, you figured out how the difference was "happy ending" and "sad ending." AKA, underdog wins, or hero is brought down by hubris.

It's the same with sports movies. Most either feature underdogs winning, or heroes falling from grace. These are just basic formulas for drama; it's the innovation, imagination, details that separate "formula" from "fun."

The 1994 Disney "Angels In The Outfield" -- even though I knew it was a cynical marketing ploy (we'll get to this later), and even though I found the movie an incoherent mess -- struck me as unusual for a sports film. There were rather oddball elements which didn't fit the underdog/fallen hero templates. So I loathed the reason why it was made, but I respected some of the original script ideas that didn't quite come together.

Oops.

There's a 1951 "Angels In The Outfield," and everything -- every last thing -- that's tolerable in the 1994 version is complete theft. You could say in one sense the 1994 version was ahead of its time; like the modern wave of remakes and sequels, it strip-mined the original for ideas, added almost nothing new, and couldn't even repeat what made the source enjoyable.

Let's Party Like It's 1951

This "Angels" has probably one performer you might recognize, if you saw the original (better) versions of "The Manchurian Candidate" or "Psycho." Janet Leigh plays Girl Reporter writing on her first baseball game (her usual column at the paper is "Household Hints.") As a prank, other reporters suggest she go meet the woeful Pirates' irascible manager, Jerky McJerk (alright, "Guffy McGovern," but I'm not far off.)

McJerk is a vicious abusive monster. He belittles his players. He punches sportswriters. He cusses constantly. Now you can't cuss in a 1951 movie, so (quite cleverly) the film uses scrambled-up backwards recordings of McJerk (Paul Douglas) yelling to indicate when he's being shocking.

Soon after, Leigh tracks McJerk down at his favorite restaurant. She presents him with a list of stats (which she got help compiling from the paper's biggest nerd.) Since all the Pirates are performing at career lows, maybe McJerk is stressing them out? Maybe he should dial it back some? (It's a pretty funny scene. The nerd watches, and preemptively orders Leigh a stiff drink for when she returns, appalled.)

There are shades here of the question constantly asked about abusive leadership, recently in the music-school-monster-teacher film "Whiplash"; how effective is fear as a motivational tool?

That's when "Angels" shifts gears into "good, less compelling." It kinda becomes "A Christmas Carol" -- Heaven intervenes to redeem a mean old man. McJerk gets told by a voiceover angel that he should stop being so nasty. If he does, the angel might help him win a few games. Maybe give his players a hunch or two about positioning. McJerk is dubious, but gives it a try, and sure enough, the Pirates start playing better.

In the movie's only major failing, here's an idea I would have run further with. The angel told McJerk he can argue, only he shouldn't cuss, as cussing can be hurtful. Instead, the angel suggested reading great English literature to express his emotions, writers like Robert Burns or Shakespeare. (Note to Heaven: Shakespeare used cuss words.) McJerk tries bawling out an ump using Shakespeare, and it's fabulous. The movie never lets him try using famous derogatory passages from other classics. I wanted those scenes!

Still, things are going fine, McJerk/Scrooge is being nicer, the Pirates are winning.

Enter The Orphan Kid.

Kids at a Catholic orphanage go see a game, and one swears she sees angels behind every Pirates player. Her kindly-but-firm Mother Superior attributes this to heat stroke and gets the kid into shade. Janet Leigh hears this, publishes the story, and all fuckbasket Heck breaks loose.

I won't sum up any more of the plot from here on -- it plays out like "Silas Marner" meets "Miracle on 34th Street," it all ends well, and it features Keenan Wynn doing a really stellar turn as one mean-ass sportswriter with a grudge for McJerk. (Understandably so; McJerk got him fired as team announcer and hit him.) You can see where the plot's going to end up fairly quickly from this point in the film, yet when the obstacles occur, they have weight. You feel for the characters.

So when the climactic pennant game (it's always a pennant game) spends a good ten minutes on baseball plays, it works. Not because of who wins/loses -- because of how actions on the field affect characters you've become invested in.

(For TT fans: We eventually find out that McJerk played in Minneapolis while loving a girl in Saint Paul. It broke his heart, and he became mean ever since. Shakespeare's "Millers & Saints." Did I mention Paul Douglas is terrific in his Scrooge role here?)

Let's Party Like It's 1994

By pure dumbshit accident, Disney had a low-budget hit with 1992's "The Mighty Ducks," a "Bad News Bears" hockey ripoff set (where else) in Minnesota. (An evil criminal defender learns how criminal law is Bad, and coaching is Good, because all Coaches Are Good and our justice system is fairer if criminals get no adequate defense. Meanwhile a ragtag bunch of misfit kids learn to blah blah WIN)

After this movie became successful, Disney quickly got an expansion hockey franchise, named it "Mighty Ducks," had its logo match the movie team's, and presto, sold lots of swag. If there's one rule in Hollywood, it's that you will always get in less trouble for failing if you copy a successful idea rather than press for an original one.

So, naturally, Disney tried making their luck happen twice. They made moves to buy the Angels and commissioned "Angels In The Outfield," hiring high-talent, low-cost supporting actors. (You'd think if Danny Glover, Christopher Lloyd, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Matthew friggin' McConaughey were all in the same movie, it'd be good, right? Nope.)

It's the original movie minus any feeling. More-or-less the plot is Orphan Kid (Gordon-Levitt) watches Angels games from a tree perch (there are shots of old Angels Stadium in different scenes; no hole for a tree perch there, it's just a big colosseum wall.) His deadbeat dad (this is the new movie's only invention) jokes that, sure, he'll come back to be a father, if the Angels win the pennant. Orphan Kid, not realizing his dad is sarcastic, prays super-hard for the Angels.

Sure enough, actual angels (horrific, cheap-effect, giant flying happy gargoyles) swoop in and make impossible play after play happen which, if it happened more than once, would cause armies of physicists to swarm Anaheim, studying this bizarre space-time-gravitational anomaly. Only Orphan Kid can see and talk to the angels. (In the original, only Manager McJerk can hear them, only Orphan Kid see them, so each sympathizes with the other because both are considered crazy.)

Bizarrely, no physicists arrive. Although we do meet, soon enough, the grumpy manager (no backstory; he just "doesn't like kids," so you know in one minute how that's gonna end) and the mean announcer (no backstory, pure snark towards the Angels, teams always keep these guys on payroll.)

There's no real tension at all. Uh, orphan kid, grumpy manager hates kids, mean people need comeuppance. Oh, yeah -- and how faith is denigrated.

Recall from our 1951 Party above that the manager actually hears angels. His sanity is questioned. In this version, the manager is questioned for believing a kid who says angels are on the team's side. Basically, for thinking the kid's a good luck charm.

Who cares? Managers all the time say a recently dead player was "looking out for us" or believe that having a kid with cancer in the dugout gives the team mystical mojo. Nobody cared about that in 1951, nobody in 1994, nobody today. A manager who says he gets game advice from a voice in his head, that would be considered a little strange. (Less strange now. Much more strange in 1951.)

All the actors in 1994 "Angels" give it a good try. Glover and Lloyd reprise some charming tics from their characters in other movies (Lloyd's a celestial mad professor, Glover's a baseball "I'm getting too old for this.") Brenda Fricker is tough & kindly as the orphan's mom, just like her tough/kindly mom in "My Left Foot." McConaughey already seems spaced out in his own galaxy. Gordon-Levitt's pretty unpretentious for a child actor.

And, in a real surprise, Tony Danza is quite touching as a pitcher past his prime. (When Gordon-Levitt made his directorial debut, he gave Danza a small role to shine in.)

Then again, in the 1951 version, one of the best parts is a pitcher past his prime. And, another gripe -- in that movie, the pitcher has a history with Manager McJerk. In 1994, it's just "oh, old people. So sad."

Let's Party Like It's 2015

I wanted to give 1994 "Angels" props. But, now I've seen 1951, the 1994 ripoff is utter garbage.

Are both movies pure propaganda for faith? Yep. But in 1951, the message didn't really concern "faith" per se so much as how Being Mean was corrosive. It's even got a tolerance message about different faiths -- there's a scene where manager McJerk is under investigation, and three witnesses support him; a Protestant, a Catholic, and a rabbi. (No joke -- although for decades that was a standard joke setup.)

Considering how prejudice towards Jews was still widespread at that time, presenting a rabbi as equal with Christian priests is impressive. Even if one finds the film's overt religiosity offensive, which I don't, in the way I don't find "A Christmas Carol" or "It's A Wonderful Life" offensive in the slightest (I'm sort of a church-optional person.)

Actually, the sexism in 1951 troubled me more. Even that was tempered by Leigh's terrific performance (she may be ignorant of baseball, but she's no fool, and she is pretty amusingly appalled by what a Man Cave the manager lives in.)

The remake's message about "faith" is reduced down to some cheap selling point for religious audiences; well, if you evoke the slightest religious conviction, They'll Mock Ya. It's "family-friendly" in the worst pandering way. And its baseball scenes are tedious; you know how they'll end, so you don't care.

The only creative thing in it -- Orphan Kid's deadbeat dad -- is good, as are early establishing shots of broke Anaheim neighborhoods. Compare this protagonist, who merely wants a stable family life, to the heroes of every Disney Channel product today. If I knew a kid who adored 1994's "Angels," I'd totally dig that kid, if not the filmmakers.

Bottom line, the 1951 "Angels" took old formulas about underdogs and fallen egotists, added a strange supernatural twist, and made it unpredictable. The 1994 remake was pure marketing ploy. That Disney's 1994 version failed majestically is almost enough to make me think, maybe we do have angels watching out for us.

WORK HARDER YOU DAMN ANGELS! NO MORE REMAKES!