When a movie goes straight to DVD, with little to no marketing, there's usually a good reason. Most unheralded direct-to-DVD releases are films dumped off by production companies hoping to recoup some small percentage of an investment lost on a troubled project.
So the chances of finding an undiscovered gem among this group are slim. But two intriguing family films now in the new release section of your local video store prove to be the exception. While neither is without fault, both Disney's Where the Red Fern Grows and Mickey, John Grisham's first foray into screenwriting, are worth checking out.
Where the Red Fern Grows (rated PG for thematic elements) is a new screen adaptation of Wilson Rawls's much-loved novel. It stars relative newcomer Joseph Ashton as Billy Coleman, a young Oklahoma boy who forms a special relationship with his coon-hunting redbone hounds Old Dan and Little Ann. Mr. Ashton, who does quite well himself, is surrounded by a venerable supporting cast that includes Dabney Coleman as Billy's grandfather, Ned Beatty as the sheriff, and singer Dave Matthews, making his acting debut, as Billy's father.
As parents may vaguely remember, and many children already know, Fern is an often sad story that deals with some very mature themes. Key plot developments involve the accidental death of a boy Billy's own age and, ultimately, the death of his beloved dogs. Billy tries to understand these events in the context of God's providence, so the film may spark some good discussion with kids ready to tackle these issues-but parents may want to be careful with younger children.
Despite the film's financial difficulties, Fern boasts strong production values, with attractive location filming, an effective soundtrack featuring Alison Krauss and Fernando Ortega among others, and some refreshingly understated acting. Although Fern never appeared in theaters, with Disney's muscle behind the home release the film gets proper DVD treatment, offering both wide and full-screen format and a Dolby Digital soundtrack.
Mickey (rated PG for thematic elements) is a slightly odder duck. Author John Grisham, himself a Little League dad, wrote this story directly for the screen as a tribute to a sport that inspires as much intensity among parents as it does their ball-playing kids. He conceived the project with director and fellow Charlottesville, Va., resident Hugh Wilson (First Wives Club). The two then independently financed and produced the film and, when all else failed, independently distributed it as well.
It's not surprising that no one in Hollywood took the bait on this project. The production values are stronger than the poorly conceived DVD packaging suggests, but the story itself is an odd mix of inspirational baseball drama and Mr. Grisham's familiar exploration of moral gray areas and seedy backroom dealings.
The film begins as Mickey (Shawn Salinas) pitches his last Little League game. Coached by his father (Harry Connick Jr.), Mickey has enjoyed a notable Little League career, but will soon be 13 and moving on to a new league. But here's the twist: Soon after that game, Mickey and his dad pack up and flee from their Washington, D.C., home because Mickey's father is wanted for tax evasion and bankruptcy fraud by the IRS.
The two begin a new life with new names in Las Vegas-and they're faced with a peculiar temptation. Mickey's new, falsified birth certificate shows him to be 12, giving him another year in Little League. Mickey naturally makes the best team in Vegas-and takes the team on an unfortunate run to the Little League World Series.
Mickey and his dad are risking almost certain exposure, but quickly get caught up in the ease of their deceit and the thrill of winning. Despite some exciting baseball action, Mickey has more in common with Eight Men Out, John Sayles's sad film about the scandal that rocked the 1919 World Series, than the more inspirational fare one might expect to find here.
Mickey is definitely a flawed film, uncomfortably straddling the line between multiple genres. (It contains a completely unnecessary scene of some of the boys on the team watching hotel porn.) But it's also an intelligently written story that isn't afraid to end on a sad note (despite the tacked-on, happier final scene)-and is also a film likely to encourage some useful family conversation about cheating and getting caught.