Tag Archives: C-

MVP: MOST VALUABLE PRIMATE

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The folks who brought you the “Air Bud” movies about a basketball- (and, in the sequel, football-) playing pooch offer a radical revision of their formula by bringing us a hockey-playing chimpanzee in “MVP: Most Valuable Primate.” Like its two doggie predecessors (and there’s yet a third “Air Bud” on the way), this kiddie flick is relentlessly nice and soft-grained, and it boasts a whole array of uplifting messages, rather like one of Disney’s sappier live-action films from the fifties or sixties. But while it may well amuse very young children (up to the age of six or eight, say) with its collection of monkey antics, older kids will find it hopelessly slow and hokey, and even the most tolerant parents will probably be squirming in their seats long before it ambles to a close.

The admittedly juvenile premise of “MWP” is that a brainy chimp from a California research institute makes his way, after the death of his kindly old mentor (tastefully depicted, of course), to a small, snowy town in Canada, where recent U.S. transplant Steven Westover (Kevin Zegers) and his deaf sister Tara (Jamie Renee Smith) are having difficulty adjusting to the new environment. Tara, an intelligent and resourceful gal, is finding it hard to make friends, while Steven, a standout hockey player back in the States, is forced to join a local team composed of lazy has-beens who care little about playing their best. Into their lives pops chimp Jack, who soon shows his skating dexterity and becomes the sparkplug in the rejuvenation of Steven’s team (and the means by which Tara finds friendship). But the wicked dean of the school where Jack once resided (Oliver Muirhead, doing a very bad impersonation of Jeffrey Jones’ principal from “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”) is tracking the monkey down to reclaim and sell him. Can his evil plan be foiled? Can Jack make it back to his mommy at a wildlife refuge? Can Steven’s team win the big game? Can Tara find happiness?

Can you doubt the answers to any of these questions? The problem with “MVP,” except for the very youngest viewers, will be that it offers absolutely nothing new, proceeding along a resolutely predictable course and repeating the same sort of monkeyshines that cute chimps have provided in countless earlier flicks. Some of the “problems” resolved over the span of the plot are almost absurdly simple-minded: a hapless goalie is turned into a star by the simple expedient of getting him some glasses, for example. Indeed, the only remotely surprising thing about the picture is that it presents all the adult characters as half-wits; and given that the picture is a Canadian production, it’s particularly odd that it perpetuates the dumbest stereotypes about our neighbors to the north–eh?

Still, the chimps will likely be cute enough to keep the tykes amused (Jack is actually played by three animals), and it’s nice that the sequences involving Jack are done fairly straight, without the use of animatronics or computer imaging. (A few skating scenes are obviously speeded-up, but that’s a minor matter.) This might well be the result of the picture’s very modest budget, but it’s still a charmingly old-fashioned touch. Zegers, who also starred in the “Air Bud” films, remains a likable guy, though he’s sometimes stiff, and Smith has an ingratiating smile. Nostalgia buffs may be interested in the presence of Dave Thomas, of SCTV fame, who plays the announcer providing supposedly funny commentary on the hockey games; he hasn’t aged gracefully, it must be said, and he’s certainly no Fred Willard (see “Best in Show”) on the laugh-meter.

So “MVP” is certainly well-intentioned and harmless; but it’s also stodgy and overly familiar. In the current cultural climate it would surely be more at home on the small screen or in the video store than in theatres. And that’s where it will very soon wind up.

THE BASKET

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Clearly well-intentioned but wildly overplotted and, curiously
enough, emotionally underdeveloped, “The Basket”–a regional
film made by a production company called North by Northwest
based in Washington state–plays like a concatenation of
episodes of “Little House and the Prairie.” The script,
attributed to four writers who must have each brought a full
quota of ideas to the party, centers on the difficult
assimilation of two German orphans into the rural society of
Washington state in 1917, while the war was still raging and
one local youth has returned minus a leg. But in addition to
this basic theme of anti-German hostility and the attempts of
the two kids to find acceptance, the picture also deals with
economic problems among the farmers, illness in the community,
issues of familial guilt, and local rivalries; the glue that’s
meant to bind all of this together is the introduction of the
newfangled game of basketball among the younsters by the new
schoolteacher, an easterner played by the Voice of Oscar
himself, Peter Coyote. In an extremely labored and overused
analogy, the sport is compared to a German opera called “The
Basket” which the teacher uses as a teaching tool; and just
as a magic basket saves all in the music drama, so the game
brings harmony and cooperation to an area where strife and
economic distress had threatened. In sum, the “basket”
teaches, in a quite heavy-handed way, that yes, we can all
just get along.

You have to congratulate the makers of “The Basket” on the
technical proficiency of their work. The picture looks nice,
with attractive cinematography and decent production design–
something not always easy in a low-budget period piece. And
the cast, both the locals and imported talent like Coyote and
Karen Allen, do a workmanlike job (even if the German accents
of Robert Karl Burke and Amber Willenborg seem forced and the
appearance of Joey Travolta in a cameo near the close is
grating).

But in all honesty the film attempts to get across so many
moral lessons that its lack of subtlety becomes almost
hectoring as it ambles its way to a pat, predictable conclusion
(there’s a final twist, but it’s not much of a surprise). The
didacticism of the piece might make for well-meaning family
entertainment, but in the final analysis the result seems more
appropriate for cable TV (the PAX channel, let’s say) than
the bigscreen. In a theatre auditorium, “The Basket” comes
off like medicine–it might do some viewers a bit of good,
but it really doesn’t taste all that great.

Still, if you’re searching for a movie to take the kids to that
won’t do them any harm, although even they might groan at some
of the dramatic contrivances and rustic humor, “The Basket”
might suffice for your purposes. Its static style and funereal
pacing might even put the tykes into a blissful sleep (and you,
too).