Someone at Disney must have accidentally slipped the marketing plans into the production notes for "Goal! The Dream Begins." The press kit reads like an advertising pitch hitting all the right points: the appeal across multiple demographics, a story that transcends the sport, unknown actors that make up strong ensembles like those in the "Harry Potter" and "Lord of the Rings" films.
But while keeping their eye on the big picture (i.e. the box office), the filmmakers forgot that this film is about soccer. How is this possible when the whole story and almost every scene revolves around the sport? In a word, what the film lacks is love. "Goal!" is so caught up in its formulaic "underprivileged, hard-working boy makes good" story and the trappings of the globally popular sport, it forgot to actually introduce the nitty gritty details of what makes soccer so compelling.
The low-scoring sport relies on the ball-handling intricacies -- passing, dribbling, feinting, juggling, etc. -- to create drama in between each goal, where the journey across the pitch can be more beautiful than the act of scoring. And yet, "Goal!" somehow misses out on this built-in drama. The soccer scenes seem to be filler for the story, and the final, triumphant game is so predictable and devoid of tension, it's anticlimactic.
In Kuno Becker, the filmmakers found an attractive lead who looks like Orlando Bloom and Jay Hernandez's love child. He plays Santiago Munez, a young man living in East LA who was smuggled across the Mexican border when he was a child. Scottish bloke Glen Foy (Stephen Dillane) helps him pursue his dream of playing soccer full time despite his father's (Tony Plana) practical objections.
Santiago's struggles to play for Newcastle United in England follows the sports cliche handbook precisely, down to running alone on the beach to dealing with a nasty teammate who comes around eventually. Since "Goal!" is the first in a trilogy, it does introduce an interesting angle with Santiago's building celebrity, foreshadowed by teammate Gavin Harris' (Alessandro Nivola) imprudent partying. This is just one of the many side stories that are crammed into what amounts to be an epic journey.
With the truly great sports films -- like "Hoosiers," "Friday Night Lights," and "Miracle" -- the story and sports action enhance one another. This film could have taken pointers from "The Greatest Game Ever Played," another recent Disney film that also features Dillane and a poor protagonist making a name for himself via sports. Director Bill Paxton, through nifty cinematic devices, fetishizes golf -- not usually the most cinematic sport -- and brings the audience deep into the mechanics of the game without sacrificing a touching story.
There's definite potential here for the follow-up films since Santiago will hopefully settle into playing regularly with a team instead of having to prove himself. Becker embodies the youthfully earnest yet cheeky upstart well, and he has an understated charisma that's not just about his pretty face. The supporting cast is flawless, and hopefully the filmmakers will give Dillane more to do than just look either sage, enigmatic or beneficent.