“Little Giants” happily arrives just as football season goes into high gear to cheer audiences of all ages. This comedy about a small Ohio town getting a chance to field a Pop Warner junior team is genuinely funny, more so than you might expect, because it is also smarter than many of its ilk. Clearly a great deal of care and thought has gone into making special a picture that could so easily have been routine family fare.
Not surprisingly, the mayor of idyllic Urbania, Ohio, chooses the local football hero, Kevin O’Shea (Ed O’Neill), to coach the team. A car dealer with “Heisman” on his license plate, Kevin has his name emblazoned on the town water tower, the “Welcome to Urbania” billboard and even has a hamburger named after him at the Coffee Cup Cafe (where a hearty group of older men hang out and become the film’s kibitzers). A big, loud husky guy, he has a gentle, nebbishy younger brother Danny (Rick Moranis), who has a teen-age daughter, Becky (Shawna Waldron), who takes after her uncle to the extent that she’s the town’s best football player. Danny, a gas station proprietor and single father, has lived his entire life in Kevin’s formidable shadow.
Push comes to shove at last when Kevin, in a burst of male chauvinism, rejects Becky for his team--along with a bunch of boys whose liabilities are lots more obvious. That does it for Danny, who assembles the misfits, with Becky as the team star, to compete with Kevin’s lineup for the chance to represent Urbania. Based on his own negative childhood experience, Danny believes all kids should get a chance to play football. Of course, the film is about winning, the healthiness of honest competition, but it’s above all about getting a chance to play in the first place.
The film’s shrewd script is a collaboration between first-timers James Ferguson and Robert Shallcross, Chicago ad execs whose Super Bowl commercial centering on Pop Warner football prompted a call from Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment, and Tommy Swerdlow and Michael Goldberg, who did such a good job with last year’s “Cool Runnings.” There’s equally knowing direction from Duwayne Dunham, who made a nifty feature debut himself last year with Disney’s “Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey.”
Since the filmmakers realize full well they’re spinning a classic underdog tale whose outcome is not exactly impossible to predict, they concentrate on characterization as well as humor. In this light, Moranis’ Danny is pivotal, the little guy who in sticking to his guns effects changes not only within himself but also his overbearing brother and his daughter, a budding beauty experiencing the onset of puberty.
Wisely, Kevin is not presented as an all-out heavy, just as someone reflexively used to getting his way but who’s also capable of humor and reflection. O’Neill, a star of TV’s “Married . . . With Children,” overdue for a big-screen breakthrough, is an actor of wit and nuance as well as imposing physical presence.
A well-made film actually shot largely up the coast in Arroyo Grande (by “Schindler’s List’s” Oscar-winning Janusz Kaminski), “Little Giants” reveals its subtlety and awareness in an opening sequence introducing Kevin and Danny as youngsters. All the children on view are white, but when the picture moves to the present we discover a modest rainbow coalition among the aspiring pee-wee leaguers.
* MPAA rating: PG, for rude language and pranks. Times guidelines: The language is mild and the whole family can enjoy the film.
Rick Moranis: Danny O’Shea
Ed O’Neill: Kevin O’Shea
Shawna Waldron: Becky O’Shea
John Madden: As himself
A Warner Bros. presentation of an Amblin Entertainment production. Director Duwayne Dunham. Producer Arne L. Schmidt. Executive producers Walter F. Parkes, Gerald R. Molen. Screenplay by James Ferguson & Robert Shallcross and Tommy Swerdlow & Michael Goldberg from a story by Ferguson and Shallcross. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski. Editor Donn Cambern. Costumes April Ferry. Music John Debney. Production designer Bill Kenney. Art director William Ladd Skinner. Set decorator Rick T. Gentz. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.