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Weekly Alibi If Summer is Over , Why Are The Knights Getting Shorter?

By Devin D. O'Leary

OCTOBER 26, 1998:  When it comes to literary adaptations, the young adult market isn't the first place to which Hollywood generally turns. Nonetheless, the new Miramax film The Mighty is based on Rodman Philbrick's 1993 pre-teen classic, Freak The Mighty. As far as source materials are concerned, Philbrick's award-winning novel doesn't quite rank up there with the works of Shakespeare. Still, the book did contain enough interesting characters, compelling drama and weepy sentiment to guarantee the inevitable attentions of Tinseltown.

The story takes place in low-rent, working-class Cincinnati (Hollywood, of course, finds so much more nobility in the working classes). Kieran Culkin (an eerie doppelganger of his older brother Macaulay, but with acting ability) is Kevin Dillon, a sickly genius in leg braces who moves to town with his single mother (a de-glammed Sharon Stone). The Dillons find themselves living next door to Maxwell Kane (Eldon Henson) and his grandparents (Gena Rowlands, Harry Dean Stanton). Max is the exact opposite of Kevin--a slow-witted hulk in size 14 shoes. Like Kevin, though, Max finds himself the object of much ridicule at school. Before long, the two 13-year-olds have joined forces and are feeding off each other's strengths and weaknesses. With tiny, loudmouthed Kevin perched atop stony Max's broad shoulders, they become one united being of brains and brawn.

The inspiration for their amalgamation is a book on King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Encouraged by these deeds of mythical heroism, Kevin and Max dub themselves "Freak the Mighty" and set out on the ultimate quest: to right wrongs, slay dragons and rescue damsels in distress.

British director Peter Chisolm (Hear My Song, Funny Bones) directs The Mighty with a light dusting of fantasy. Kevin and Max see their daily deeds (returning a lost wallet, for example) in terms of a colorful, epic adventure. Images of glittering knights on horseback frequently hover around the boys like watchful spirits. The film's coarse production design (it was shot mostly in a grubby section of Toronto) never lets us forget the gravity and reality of the boy's situation, however. Max is still haunted by the specter of his father who is doing time in jail for murder. Kevin labors under the weight of multiple birth defects that ensure a meteoric life on Earth. The result is a kind of schizophrenic film--half airy kiddy fantasy, half gritty kitchen-sink drama.

The acting is quite good, although some actors (like Rowlands and Stanton) are given only caricatures to work with. Culkin keeps his young genius character from becoming too precocious, while Henson projects just the right amount of wounded sensitivity to make Max work. Stone wrings a lot of drama from her earnest mother part, but spends much of her time trying a little too hard to impress the Academy voters. Her chest-thumping anger and explosive tears are a bit over-the-top for what is essentially a kid's movie.

Everyone tries very hard to push this into Stand By Me territory. Hard as it tries, though, The Mighty remains firmly locked into young adult issues of friendship and popularity and self-esteem. Mature viewers may identify with certain nostalgic aspects of the film, but most will find themselves alienated by its more juvenile elements. A gang of mid-school bullies with leather jackets and switchblades and an administration that allows Kevin to play sports (atop Max) after a rousing speech by his mother are among the film's "quainter" notions. Though young children and adults may find themselves drawn into the world of The Mighty, it is the narrow 10- to 15-year-old market that will respond most to the film. By Hollywood standards, that's a mighty small audience.

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