Even Homer nods, but the Disney folk have been dozing off more and more often of late. Fast upon the release of that horror of a family film, “Bubble Boy,” they’ve brought us a kiddie flick that’s not quite as awful, but is quite bad enough. “I know it’s hard on you,” the precocious hero’s mother tells her boy at one point in “Max Keeble’s Big Move.” She goes on: “It’s hard on all of us.” The line’s delivered early in the picture, but it’s a sentiment with which the audience can already eagerly agree. And they’ll be equally quick to assent to two of young Max’s observations. “This bites,” he says to his mother. And later he whines: “I’ve got to get out of here!”
The plot of “Max Keeble” is as simple as anything made for the Disney Channel, Nickelodeon or the Fox Family Network. The title kid endures a horrible first day at junior high; he’s literally trashed by the school bully, robbed by the campus cheat, and singled out by the officious, cruel principal for humiliation and opprobrium. He’s also physically targeted by a wild-eyed ice- cream vendor and made disconsolate by the news that the nearby animal shelter where he’s done volunteer work is closing down (predictably, the villain is none other than the principal, who’s diverting school funds to build a new football stadium). When his clueless parents announce that they’re abruptly moving to Chicago, Max formulates an elaborate scheme to take vengeance on all his tormentors before disappearing. His various shenanigans come off well, but predictably after he goes through with his plan the move is suddenly canceled, leaving him facing retaliation from those he’s succeeded in assaulting. Needless to say, he’s spunky enough to defeat his foes– with a little help from his friends, of course, both human and non; but the business requires lots more ingenuity, luck, courage and camaraderie.
It should be clear from this that the picture is like a pint-sized version of an old John Hughes movie–Ferris Bueller’s elementary school days, you might say. You’re supposed to find the little protagonist a charmingly feisty sort, and his adventures are chock full of slapstick designed to make you roar, with a soft core of squishy sentiment that’s meant to instruct its young target audience, too (a rather jarring subplot, for instance, involves being loyal to your real friends, however peculiar they might be, instead of defecting to the “popular” crowd). Unhappily, almost nothing goes right in the execution. Alex D. Linz, who plays Max, smirks his way through the proceedings, making himself virtually insufferable in the process, and his schemes are either sadly familiar, gross (e.g., a disgusting food fight in the school cafeteria), or so strange (the one directed against the bully involves a huge, plush, bagpipe-playing frog) as to be genuinely creepy. Then there’s Larry Miller, whose Principal Jindraike is obviously intended to be the equivalent of Jeffrey Jones’ smarmy authority figure in “Bueller.” Miller’s playing, as usual, is coarse and exaggerated, but he’s forced by the exigencies of the script to humiliate himself in ways that no actor, even he, should have to endure. One might recall that in “The Nutty Professor 2: The Klumps,” Miller was an abrasive college dean who, among other things, was raped by a giant hamster. Here he’s not only attacked by a lovesick squirrel but trampled by a farting chimpanzee. Just think of putting those accomplishments on your resume–or having them inscribed on your tombstone.
The rest of the cast is strictly of amateur night quality. The younger players engage in puerile facial contortions that wouldn’t pass muster on most Saturday morning live-action TV shows. (This includes Josh Peck as Max’s rotund buddy who for some reason goes about in a bathrobe, as well as Zena Grey as the girl pal who’s clearly smitten with our hero, though he’s not aware of it, and Noel Fisher as the school bully; we pass over in generous silence Justin Berfield, the second brother in “Malcolm in the Middle,” who segues to the big screen as a kind of kid chorus to the action, a caption writer for the school paper.) But the older performers are worse: they either sleepwalk through the proceedings (e.g., Robert Carradine and Nora Dunn as Max’s parents; Amy Hill, who’s a tepid stand-in for Edie McClurg as Jindraike’s secretary; and Clifton Davis as the school superintendent) or–more frequently–follow Miller’s lead in mugging and prancing about as though they were starring in something called “Ernest Goes to Junior High” (with all due apologies to the late Jim Varney). Jamie Kennedy, as the ice-cream vendor, is probably the worst offender in the latter group. One cast member falls into a separate category: Orlando Brown plays Dobbs, the upperclassman entrepreneur who torments Keeble and his friends. Brown’s supposed to be a junior-high kid, but he looks to be about thirty, and so it’s difficult to say whether he should be judged as a youngster or an adult.
Of course the actors are but pawns in the hands (obviously uncoordinated in this case) of no fewer than three hack writers and one inept director, Tim Hill. That “Max Keeble” has a poor screenplay is perfectly obvious, but had it been brought to life with a lighter touch than Hill provides, it would be a much less painful experience. (Certainly someone should have questioned the idea of having the school band march to the tune of “We’re Not Gonna Take It Anymore” in the denouement.) Even technically the film looks like a poverty-row production; on the small screen its technical flaws might be somewhat concealed, but in a theatre they’re cruelly obvious.
Despite the usually dependable Disney label, “Max Keeble’s Big Move” isn’t one that mom and dad should drop their pre-teens off to see on a Saturday afternoon. To the contrary, it’s one of those movies that the family should take pains to avoid together. It’s appropriate that one of the knickknacks Principal Jindraike keeps on the credenza behind his desk is one of those styrofoam sports hands bearing the legend “We’re Number One.” If it’s intended to serve as a message to the audience, however, one must ruefully observe that in the case of this dreadful movie, the wrong digit is extended.