The Mighty (1998)

2 Jul


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Of the live-action family films to come out of the ‘90s, “The Mighty” is usually one that would be considered “underrated.” And it didn’t help that it was released the same year as the successful (though shameless) tearjerker “Simon Birch,” of which it shares similar traits. Don’t get me wrong—I like “Simon Birch,” but there are certain things that I notice suffer by comparison to “The Mighty.” Most importantly, while “Simon Birch” relied on manipulative ploys in order for the audience to feel something about its story, “The Mighty” offers more depth and intelligence to its story of young outcasts who become better than their labels whenever they’re together. This is how it creates an emotional impact for audiences; it doesn’t try so hard. It has a theme, sticks with it, and tells it in a sincere way while also being entertaining.

Based on the book “Freak the Mighty” by Rodman Philbrick, “The Mighty” tells the story of a friendship between two junior-high outsiders with certain weaknesses that define them to their peers. They are Max Kane (Elden Henson) and Kevin Dillon (Kieran Culkin). Max is big for his age, is dyslexic, and is repeating the seventh grade…again. His students refer to him as “The Missing Link,” and on top of that, he’s constantly given weird looks because his jailed father (James Gandolfini) is a known murderer who may have murdered Max’s mother. But Max wouldn’t hurt a fly—in fact, he never retaliates nor does he even stand up for himself at all. That lack of anger makes him the target of teasing and taunting by a group of bullies known as the Doghouse Boys, whose anthem towards him is “Killer Kane, Killer Kane, had a son who’s got no brain!”

Kevin has Morquio’s syndrome, which is said to cause bones to stop growing even though his organs continue to expand, meaning his days are probably limited by the time his organs become too big for him. As a result, he has a dwarfish figure and is crippled. But nevertheless, Kevin is a boy genius. When Max first sees him soon after he moves in next door to his grandparents’ house, he’s making an ornothopter—a bird-like model that can fly with the wind. He’s also a bit of a wise-guy persona, as he uses humor as a defense mechanism. When Max is blamed for a cruel joke toward him by one of the Doghouse Boys, Kevin asks him why he lets them “make a chump outta you.”

Max and Kevin become friends, after Kevin tutors Max in reading. Their book is “King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table,” which Kevin often refers to constantly. Kevin brings Max into his world of imagination, which sees the real world as a parallel to that which he reads about (only in this case, they’re knights, the dragons are just bullies, damsels in distress aren’t as thankful as they might expect, and so forth). Also, Max often lets Kevin ride on his shoulders so they become one—“You need a brain and I need legs,” Kevin states. This comes in handy when Max saves Kevin from a run-in with the Doghouse Boys, and when they play basketball this way (Kevin is able to dunk the ball into the hoop).

There are more characters involved in “The Mighty,” each of which has their individually effective moments. There are Max’s grandparents, Grim (Harry Dean Stanton) and Gram (Gena Rowlands) as he calls them, who worry for their grandson ever since the death of his mother and the imprisonment of his father. When Max is brought home by the police after saving Kevin from the bullies, their first thought is to assume the worst, that Max has become like his father. (That’s Grim’s first thought aloud, to which Gram immediately responds by telling him to be quiet.) There’s a particularly effective moment in which Max breaks down to Gram after finding out that his father has broken parole, and also that he’s becoming more like him because of the anxiety and anger he feels toward him. Gram must comfort him and reassure him that he isn’t like his father at all. Also among the supporting characters is Kevin’s single mother (Sharon Stone), whose husband apparently left her when he discovered that Kevin was disabled (Kevin tells Max, “He heard the words “birth defect” and left”). Kevin’s mother has made it a point to keep Kevin out of “special schools” that “suit his needs,” and she’s very grateful to Max for being his friend. There’s one scene in which she states how she feels about Kevin playing basketball with Max, after the principal won’t allow it—“Kevin lives in this world of books and ideas…but Kevin would trade it all for a chance to be normal. Max Kane has given him that chance.”

When you really think about it, knowing that he will never be normal represents Kevin’s central inner opponent that he must conquer as a “Knight.” And if that’s the case, and this reality is a parallel to Kevin’s imaginary world, then that means that Max’s opponent is the horrible memory of seeing his father kill his mother. This goes well with a quote that is often used in this movie, “A Knight proves his worthiness through his deeds.” Each one of us has our own demons to battle in life, and it’s how we react to certain situations regarding it that make us who we are. “The Mighty” is a film that mixes imagination with reality (sometimes, the visuals of a fantasy world intersect with the real world, but it’s not overdone), and not once does it ever try to tell us that we should forget about reality; it teaches us to face it as we live our lives, and sometimes fantasy can be an escape-aspect of helping us through our difficulties in life.

And I admire that this story centers around kids, because we all have been through times at the same age as Kevin and Max when we felt like we were outcasts. That sense is seen and felt throughout the film, and is constantly used to turn pain into warmth with this friendship.

Great acting is a crucial element to the success of “The Mighty.” Elden Henson is perfect as the hulking but vulnerable Max; not only does he look right for the part, but also he feels right for the part. He never strikes a false note with this performance. Equally impressive is Kieran Culkin as Kevin, who knows his character inside and out. Gena Rowlands and Harry Dean Stanton do respectable work as Max’s grandparents. There’s also Gillian Anderson, whom I realized I forgot to mention plays a dishonorable, drunken “damsel” that the boys encounter and help retrieve her purse. No presence of Scully to be found here; she’s nearly unrecognizable and not particularly appealing. And there’s also Sharon Stone as Kevin’s mother. This is probably the best work I’ve ever seen from the actress, playing an ordinary single mother who is emotionally vulnerable and attempts to cover it with genuine gratefulness. She’s convincing and very real.

If there’s one thing about “The Mighty” that doesn’t really work, it’s the climax near the end of the film. Max’s father comes and takes him away, and Max is too crippled with anxiety and fear to do anything about it, until a certain part of that night snaps him out of it and causes him to finally let out his anger left onto him by his father. But meanwhile, Kevin figures out where he is, and using his mechanic skills he picked up from reading, he builds a sled that helps take him to where he accurately thinks Max is being held. I know this is supposed to show how further their “Knights of the Round Table” knowledge is being put to the test, but in a film that separates fantasy from reality as often as it keeps it in the same frame, this is pretty improbable. But it’s not so distracting that it harms the rest of the film. Actually, in its own way, it kind of works a bit (even more so than the “daring rescue” in “Simon Birch”).

Despite its occasional emotional, dramatic moments (the heaviest of which comes late in the film), “The Mighty” is not a downer. It has its entertainment values, but more importantly, it knows how to tell its story and theme in such a way that it brings an optimistic view on things in the end. How? Rent the film and see for yourself. You won’t regret it.

One Response to “The Mighty (1998)”


  1. My Next Top 150 Favorite Movies | Smith's Verdict - June 28, 2018

    […] We’re making our way to the beginning of the countdown for the Top 200, with “The Mighty.” I grew up watching both this film and a film similar to it that came out the same year; that film was “Simon Birch.” But whereas “Simon Birch” got worse with time due to its cloying, manipulative artificiality, “The Mighty” got better and better with time due to its ability to evoke emotion by giving us real characters in a realistic setting. I like these characters (young boys played by Elden Henson and Kieran Culkin) because I feel like I was these characters one way or another, and I think a lot of other people who see this film feel the same way. They’re outcasts who don’t feel special and find ways to prove themselves worthy. This is a film that I treasure so much that it totally makes me forget that this is the same director of the “Hannah Montana” movie. “Freak the Mighty!” Review: […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: