Judge Erich Asperschlager once invented a time machine that could only send him back one minute in the past. Besides saving burnt toast, it was pretty much useless.
"Chester getting in trouble? That's never happened before! Robot Men suing old ladies? That's a world gone mad! Mad I tell you!"
I remember when my family first got cable in the mid-'80s. I'm not sure we had any channels other than Nickelodeon. All I know is I spent a lot more time watching Danger Mouse than I probably should have. A few years later, our basic package expanded to include The Disney Channel. I spent a good portion of my youth absorbing all it had to offer: classic cartoons and films, original programming (like the Saved By The Bell precursor Good Morning, Miss Bliss), and made-for-the-channel TV movies like 1987's Not Quite Human. Those movies were a big deal, and Disney pushed them hard with non-stop commercials and behind-the-scenes "sneak peeks." More often than not, the sensory assault sucked me in. I mean, can you think of a better way to spend Saturday night than watching Alan Thicke build a teenage robot?
I haven't watched the Disney Channel in a long, long time. I don't even think they show any old movies or classic cartoons anymore. But the original movie tradition continues, with stories about musical high schools and teen witches, aimed at today's tech-savvy tween market. There's not much chance Minutemen—the latest made-for-TV Disney flick to hit DVD—will bring me back to the Mouse, but that doesn't mean the 9-year-old who couldn't wait to see The Richest Cat in the World wouldn't have liked it.
Facts of the Case
On their first day at Summerton High School, Virgil (Jason Dolley, from the Disney Channel's own Corey in the House) and his best friend Derek (Steven R. McQueen, Everwood) see the football team picking on kid genius Charlie (Luke Benward, How to Eat Fried Worms). Derek sits back and watches, but Virgil stands up for Charlie—and ends up sharing his humiliating fate. Fast forward three years and Virgil is still hanging with Charlie and his nerdy friends, wishing he could trade places with the popular Derek, including getting a shot with his beautiful girlfriend, Stephanie (Chelsea Staub, Bratz).
Everything changes when Charlie invents a time machine, which he and Virgil build with the help of mechanically inclined loner, Zeke (Nicholas Braun, Sky High). They decide to use the invention to help their unpopular classmates. Disguised as the "Minutemen," they go back in time and prevent all manner of bullying and public humiliation. Despite their newfound popularity, things begin to unravel for the makeshift superheroes. With the vice principal and FBI closing in, Charlie discovers their time travel might not be as harmless as they thought.
While I can't guarantee that anyone over the age of 12 is going to dig this movie, Minutemen is a lot better than I thought it was going to be. It mixes the sci-fi, superhero, and teen genres in a way that is surprisingly fun and engaging.
Since this is the internet, I'm going to assume at least some of you were nerds in high school. I sure as heck was (yes…"was"…that's it). Who hasn't dropped a full lunch tray in the cafeteria? Or had their shorts split in the middle of gym class? Or run into the girl of their dreams…literally? How many of us wouldn't have given anything to roll back the clock on grade school embarrassments? Granted, the shame of high school humiliation is about the only thing in Minutemen that's even vaguely realistic, but that undercurrent of truth gives the ridiculous plot just enough weight to sell the story.
The script may be full of unfortunate teen movie dialogue, but the central cast delivers it well. The problem with most kid movies is that the stars are kids. Thankfully, Disney has assembled a surprisingly decent group of tween bait for Minutemen. Jason Dolley, especially, plays his leading role with the perfect light charm. Though he and Luke Benward are supposed to be kings among dorks, they've got enough latent coolness stored in their shaggy haircuts to set young hearts a-racing. Their friendship plays as funny and genuine, and they share some touching moments near the end. Blonde cutie Chelsea Staub, dream boat Steven R. McQueen, and high-energy Kara Crane (as Jeanette, Charlie's not-so-secret admirer) lead a solid supporting cast nearly devoid of adults. Either Summerton High is one of those newfangled hippie schools that doesn't believe in teachers, or Virgil and the crew are the Peanuts kids all grown up. Either way, the only grown-ups in sight are authority figures, antagonists, or bumbling idiots. ER's J.P. Manoux plays the Minutemen's main adversary, the unsympathetic Vice Principal Tolkan who, by the look of his glasses and lanky frame, could probably have benefited from their intervention when he was in high school. (Here's a bit of trivia: the character is named in honor of James Tolkan, a.k.a. Back to the Future's Mr. Strickland—one of several nods to the landmark time travel flick.)
Visually, Minutemen's above average made-for-TV special effects survive the transfer to DVD in all their full frame glory. As an added bonus for young viewers who caught the movie on TV, there's a 5.1 surround audio mix that shares the big moments and teen pop soundtrack with the back speakers just enough to be worthwhile.
The DVD comes with two extras: the music video for Corbin Bleu's "Run it Back Again" (yeah, I've never heard of him before, either) and a ten minute behind-the-scenes featurette with the cast and TV director Lev L. Spiro goofing around, explaining how the special effects were done, and talking about what they'd do with a real time machine (spoiler alert: most of them would go to a Beatles concert). Chances are, if your kids saw this movie on TV, they've seen this stuff already. The disc's main new content comes in the form of a brief new scene tacked on at the end of the film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I know I said this movie was "surprisingly fun and engaging," but I should emphasize that "surprisingly" is the key word. I expect kids movies to fall somewhere on a scale ranging from "terrible" to "tolerable." Just because Minutemen is tolerable by adult standards doesn't mean you should rush out and pick it up. The story is still predictable, the jokes aren't terribly funny, and many of the characterizations verge on caricature (Urkel-esque supernerd Chester) or just plain annoying (Virgil's too-mature-for-her-age little sister, Amy). And as much as my unconditional love for time travel movies gives this one an edge over most kids fare, it suffers from the same head-scratching plot holes and paradox issues as the rest of the genre. Unlike more grown-up films that tackle the subject, Minutemen doesn't even try to hide the inconsistencies.
Speaking of head-scratchers, this disc includes something called Disney's FastPlay, which allows for "easy start-up without using a remote control." I can only imagine the roomful of suits who came up with this brilliant idea. Do they really think today's text-messaging youth don't know how to work a DVD player?
Minutemen is a fun, lighthearted take on science fiction that probably won't change anyone's mind about the relative quality of modern day Disney Channel "Original Movies," but shouldn't, at least, send adults screaming from the room. Considering what passes for pre-teen entertainment these days, parents might want to give this DVD a shot.
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