What was Tracey Reynolds thinking?
There are children's movies that entertain adults as much as kids, through camoflagued adult humor or inherent warmth so genuine it charms adults in spite of themselves. Like Mike attempts the latter but doesn't quite succeed. There is warmth, and some of the forced humor works. Yet the charm and winning portrayal by Lil Bow Wow cannot support the weight of predictability, unrealism, and faux sentimentality. Although Like Mike is not a candidate for "best kid's movie that adults like also," it is family-oriented and pleasing enough, which is sufficient grounds to recommend it to parents.
Facts of the Case
Calvin (Lil Bow Wow) is an upbeat orphan who dreams of NBA greatness. He pals around with Murph (Jonathan Lipnicki) and Reg, but cannot overcome the orphanage bully, Ox. Calvin can't make a three pointer, much less dunk seeing that he's about 4' 4."
Until one fateful day, when a pair of magic sneakers with the initials M.J. gets dropped off at the orphanage. Calvin puts them on and finds that he has inherited mad skillz with the rock. He is jamming the hoop, dunking and sinking three pointers like nobody's business. Through another fateful coincidence, Calvin gets to show off his newfound prowess by smoking Tracey Reynolds (Morris Chestnut) during halftime at a Knights game. The Knights sign Calvin in a ploy to boost attendance, but he rides the pine. Until yet another amazing coincidence occurs, and Calvin finds himself actually playing in the game.
Needless to say, the M J. powered half pint leads the Knights to victory, earning a place in the starting lineup. Calvin has made it to the NBA, but life isn't perfect: his roommate Tracey resents him, his foes at the orphanage remain, and he still has no family. Will Calvin ever find true happiness?
I selected the quote for The Charge carefully, because it represents everything that is wrong with this movie. Calvin and Murph are selling candy for the orphanage in the parking lot of the Staples Center while the Knights game is on. They spend more time watching the game on the 9,000 foot screen than selling candy, which gives them a perfect view of every flub made by the Knights. One such gaffe occurs when Tracey Reynolds attempts an ill-advised three pointer. After he misses, Calvin and Murph simultaneously moan "What was Tracey Reynolds thinking?," grab each other by the arms, and touch their foreheads together.
A better question is "What was John Schultz thinking?" This scene is a perfect example of the forced sentimentality and poser cuteness that permeates Like Mike. Do kids really butt foreheads like that? And are Murph and Calvin really in such synch with each other that they spoke these particular words simultaneously? I could buy a shared "awww…" or even a standalone forehead communion. As filmed, the scene is cloying and unrealistic, and reveals desperate, manipulative cutsieness. I'm being harsh with this scene, but it is a symbol for the attitude taken by the whole film. If you want to see an equally unrealistic cutesy schtick that works, watch Lindsay Lohan give herself five in The Parent Trap.
The disingenuous sentimentality has an accomplice in the predictability of the plot. Comedic moments were telegraphed so far in advance that they rarely worked. Out of the 100 minutes, about a half hour was up in the air. The rest shook out exactly as you would expect.
Perhaps Like Mike was so predictable because it "pays homage" to such a vast array of well-loved films. Just off the top of my head, we have the lightning hitting the cable from Back to the Future, kids on bikes outrunning bad men in cars a la E.T., the whole cast of Annie, and a fairly direct "interpretation" of The Red Shoes. The back cover even shows Eugene Levy doing his best Home Alone impersonation.
The acting is subpar. The worst offenders, not surprisingly, are the NBA players. But I was surprised at how vapid I found Jonathan Lipnicki. The irony is that Jonathan nearly stole the show in an edgier sports drama, Jerry Maguire. His touseled-hair-glasses-mumbling routine didn't work here, perhaps because he's pushing thirteen?
The commentary track is comatose. It basically consists of Jonathan spacily talking about how "this scene…was…yeah…pretty cool," Lil Bow Wow spreading misinformation, and Schultz correcting Bow's factual errors. The only moment of real interest was when Bow went to take a leak after downing a Big Gulp.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
So what does work? Lil Bow Wow shines. This guy is the real deal, and it was a joy to watch him work. He shoots hoops, chews scenery, and hams it up with aplomb. He manages to draw a connection from Morris Chestnut and almost manages to distract us from Lipnicki's poorly directed personae. Morris was believable as a basketball star with a chip on his shoulder. Eugene Levy is always solid, and was responsible for one of the funniest barbs I've witnessed in awhile. Too bad it was on the behind the scenes featurette.
The mechanics of the film are stellar. The transfer is outstanding: fine grain, no noteworthy artifacts, dizzying colors, complete lack of edge enhancement, and crisp definition. I would go so far as to call it reference quality, as far as PG films with no explosions are concerned. The editing is great, and the special effects are nearly seamless. There are lots of dramatic angle shots, including overhead shots, that make the movie fun to watch. In this sense, the direction is great.
The extras package is thorough, although the commentary track will only satisfy die-hard Bow fans. The featurettes have decent tidbits mixed in with the back patting, and the music video was a nice touch (though edgier than the movie).
The audio is decent. The surrounds are put to good use, particularly during the thunderstorm and in crowd scenes. But the dialogue was muddled at times, and lacked dynamic range. The soundtrack isn't crisp, but it does serve the action onscreen.
I can hear it now, the plaintive cry to "lighten up, it's just a fun kid's movie." Before the indignation gets rolling, I'd like the record to show that I enjoy kid's movies more than any adult without kids has a right to. I have seen The Parent Trap more times than Terminator 2. I laughed through Stuart Little (another successful performance by Lipnicki), and I used to watch Teletubbies for fun. Folks, I'm here to review movies, and this one is unoriginal. Can you plop your kids in front of it without worry? Sure, and you might even enjoy parts of it yourself. And that's the bottom line for a kid's movie.
Director John Schultz and writers Michael Elliot and Jordan Moffet are sentenced to 300 hours of remedial creative writing. They are furthermore banned from watching other movies so they can find their own inner child. Fox is commended for their continued solid contributions to the DVD community (nice job providing widescreen and full screen versions on the same disc). Lil Bow Wow is cleared of all charges. Mr. Lipnicki is urged by the court to abandon his routine before he gets pigeonholed by Hollywood. Court is adjourned!
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Director John Schultz and Actors Lil Bow Wow and Jonathan Lipnicki
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