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PopGap #35: The Mighty (1998)

PopGap #35: The Mighty (1998)

Directed by Peter Chelsom
Written by dorrk
13 January 2018

His heart just got too big for his body.

The Mighty may be perfectly adequate at what it wants to be — an "Afterschool Special" aimed at giving kids the feels with its broad mix of buddy-buddy outcast sentimentality and surprisingly dark drama — but the precious way director Peter Chelsom goes about it made me absolutely miserable. I'm 50% certain that this wasn't his fault as much as it was my own intolerance for ham-fisted and explicitly "meaningful" kids programming, especially when it lacks elegance in both its storytelling and filmmaking. Based on the young adult novel Freak the Mighty by Rodman Philbrick, The Mighty stars Elden Henson as Max, an adolescent boy whose considerable size and quiet manner makes him a prime target for bullies, compounding the childhood trauma resulting from his father's conviction for murder. When sickly bookworm Kevin (Kieran Culkin) moves in next door, both he and Max find in the other a fellow "freak" and much-needed friend. If this premise sounds like it has the potential to wallow in treacle and sap, that's before taking into account Chelsom's heavy-handed directorial touch, which exaggerates every high and low into a cartoon version of maudlin feel-goodism. Blessed with an all-star cast — a Culkin back when that meant something, Sharon Stone near the height of her popularity, Harry Dean Stanton, Gena Rowlands, Gillian Anderson circa prime X-Files, Meat Loaf, and James Gandolfini right before The Sopranos — Chelsom somehow brings them all down to the level of his mediocre TV movie sensibility. While a real story about kids facing severe difficulties might be authentically stirring, there isn't a natural or original moment in The Mighty. It starts with hackneyed golden hour shots of bridges, and climaxes with a hackneyed slow-motion bird's-eye shot of a character kneeling on the ground and howling toward the heavens in anguish. Chelsom's incorporation of fantasy elements — Max and Kevin imagine themselves as part of some medieval adventure story — is so clumsily "magical" and cheaply realized that each irregular instance of it is like a new unfortunate surprise. A more generous viewer could very easily take The Mighty as a sweetly inspirational story of friendship and self-esteem among kids with real problems; in my experience, it was a constant trial with few if any moments of relief.

The Mighty was brought to the Potluck Film Fest by Ty Tag. He's not the only one who likes it: Leonard Maltin’s also included The Mighty in his 2010 book listing the "151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen." Ty ranks it on his Flickchart at #144 / 2844 (95%), making it his favorite out of the 14 movies he's seen from Maltin's book. It ranked on my Flickchart at #3695 (9%), putting it at #34 out of the 37 movies I've seen from Leonard Maltin’s book.

PopGap #35: The Mighty (1998)

Trailer for The Mighty (1998)