Last of the Monster Kids

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Sunday, December 2, 2018

Christmas 2018: December 2nd

Full-Court Miracle (2003)

Last year, while reviewing the absolutely dreadful “Eight Crazy Nights,” I bemoaned the lack of movies about Hanukkah. At the time, I said that Adam Sandler's animated poop joke and amiable blaxploitation parody “The Hebrew Hammer” were the only movies made about the Jewish Feast of Lights. Except I was wrong. There is another Hanukkah movie, Wikipedia informs me. “Full-Court Miracle” was a Disney Channel Original Movie that aired in 2003, not too long after I aged out of the network. When I saw the title, I assumed it was a generic feel-good kid's sports movie, even being loosely based on a true story. Apparently, the movie is about explicitly Jewish characters and set around Hanukkah. My Jewish side was not going to let the first night of the festival pass by without taking this one in.

Set at the sort of fictional Philadelphia Hebrew Academy, the film follows freshman Alex Schlotsky. While his Orthodox parents want him to become a doctor, Alex is obsessed with basketball. This is bad news, as the Academy's basketball team – the Lions – are awful. While out practicing with his friends, Alex spies Lamont Carr shooting hoops. Carr is a former college athlete in Philly with hopes of getting an NBA contract. Alex convinces Lamont to couch their team, who quickly decide he must be the ghost of Judah Maccabee. As Hanukkah, and a big basketball tournament approaches, Lamont trains the boys, bonding with them. Of course, there are challenges facing Alex and his friends.

Basketball may have jack-shit to do with Hanukkah but “Full-Court Miracle” is a surprisingly Jewish movie. It's set at a Hebrew school. The young protagonists are rarely seen without their kippahs. Before becoming a coach, Lamont is invited to a traditional kosher meal. Like many stories involving the Jewish faith, the film is about the conflict between traditional values and the desire to integrate into the secular world. While relatively incidental to the plot, the movie goes to lengths to incorporate Hanukkah into the story. A teacher explains the story of the Miracle of Lights. Aside from Lamont being compared to Judah, Alex often imagines his friends as the Maccabees and the other team as Antiochus' men. The climatic baseball game involves a rather ham-fisted reference to the lamp oil lasting during the re-dedication of the temple. Yes, a menorah is lit and the blessing is sung. There's even, I swear to G-d here, a rap version of “The Dreidel Song” in the last half-hour.

Incorporating Jewish culture into so much of the film definitely gives “Full-Court Miracle” some novelty factor. However, this is still absolutely a cheesy inspirational sports movie made for children's television. The direction, from “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III's” Stuart Gillard, is heavily flat and colorless. There's definitely an over-reliance on montages, slow-mo, and other tacky visual tricks. The music is extremely chintzy. The humor in the film leans on the formulaic and dumb, especially when the fuddy-duddy assistant principal is on-screen and being humiliated.  The “inspiring” element of the story are equally predictable. Lamont is disadvantage, living in his van, but saved by a troop of Caucasian people. A plucky coach gets a group of misfits to shape up. There's struggles against authority and an emphasis on Alex doing well in school. In the end, underdogs are victorious, families are reunited,  and dreams are fulfilled.

The movie wins some points with a fairly likable cast as well. Alex D. Linz was a child star of some renown at the time, starring in kiddie fare like “Home Alone 3” or “Max Keeble's Big Move.” He makes for a perfectly serviceable protagonist, even if Alex Schlotsky is absolutely your typical kid's movie hero. Busy character actor Richard T. Jones plays Lamont. While some of the “street” lingo the script gives him is cringe-inducing, Jones still brings a degree of dignity to the part. R.H. Thomson is likable in the wise mentor role of the Academy's rabbi, one of the few authority figures who believe in the kids. Linda Kash and Jason Blicker are funny as Alex's parents. Blicker is especially notable, as he's introduced stir-frying while wearing a kosher-themed apron.

In many ways, “Full-Court Miracle” is exactly what I was expecting. The script is rift with cliches. The production values are cheap. I probably could've done without the white savior subplot. Yet seeing Jewish culture represented even in a somewhat lame format like this is kind of heartwarming. Truly, don't Jewish children deserve their own mediocre sports movie? It's better than “Eight Crazy Nights” anyhow, though far below “The Hebrew Hammer.” Until Eben McGarr's long-anticipated “Hanukkah” comes out, this oddball trio of films will have to represent the Jewish winter festivals. [6/10]

Bubbe's Boarding House: Chanukah at Bubbe's

If my gentile friends didn't know there was a Jewish equivalent to “Sesame Street,” I didn't know myself until recently stumbling upon this old Splinter article. “Bubbe's Boarding House” was a kiddie puppet show created in the eighties by David Silverman, who would go on to produce “The Simpsons.” The series was meant to educate Jewish children about traditions and holidays. Two specials were released on VHS, one for Passover and one for Chanukah. There's little information on the series floating around, not even an IMDb entry, but some industrial outlaw uploaded both specials to Youtube.

If the title didn't make it apparent, “Bubbe's Boarding House” revolves around a Jewish grandmother who runs a boarding house populated with puppet animals. As the holidays roll around, her grandkids – Zachary, Muffin, and their friend Chester – come to visit. The kids make latkes and play driedel while Bubbe explains the origins of Hanukkah. A conflict emerges when an asshole tenant named Anton insists everyone starts doing things his way.

“Chanukah at Bubbe's” is obviously meant for an extremely young audience. Little kids would be more likely to overlook this special's shortcomings. Such as the slightly creepy puppets or the Casio keyboard instrumentation that accompany the songs. Education is the main goal here, as the meanings behind all the Hanukkah traditions are explained. However, I still found some things to enjoy here. The songs are actually pretty catchy. There's some funny jokes, such as a rhino mistaking the grandchildren for Girl Scouts. Or King Antiochus being re-imagined as an especially pushy salesman. In order to make the holiday's historical basis more palatable for the little ones, the battle for religious freedom is spun into a more general lesson about individuality. It's pretty cute, all things considered. Maybe if I ever have kids, I'll show this to them in an attempt to educate them about their heritage. [7/10]

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