THE SANDLOT (20th Anniversary Edition) – Blu-ray review

Oil up the gloves and break out the baseball caps. Baseball season is just three days away. And those three days seem meant for baseball movies to fuel fans’ optimism about teams that realistically (what’s that?) haven’t got a chance.

There are no shortage of baseball films to choose from, but for something light and magical and an endorsement of the game as it’s meant to be—FUN— it’s hard to beat “The Sandlot,” a 1993 coming-of-age family comedy.

Fox just released it in a 20th Anniversary Blu-ray this week, but as far as I can tell it’s darned close to the initial Blu-ray release, with no “extra bases” bonus features to tempt fans to upgrade. But if you don’t already have this title in your collection, it’s a nice one to add.

“The Sandlot” always struck me as a more kid-friendly version of “Stand by Me.” It’s a frame story narrated by an adult who recalls one extraordinary childhood summer and a very special best friend. However, instead of a quest to find a dead body, it’s a signed Babe Ruth baseball the kids are after, and what stands in their way isn’t a bunch of older hoodlums with switchblades, but an enormous animal they call “The Beast.”

More than coming of age, “The Sandlot” is about baseball . . . or the love of baseball. So what better timing than to release a 20th Anniversary Blu-ray the Tuesday before the 2013 season openers?

The year is 1962. Scotty Smalls (Tom Guiry) has just moved to a small neighborhood outside L.A. with his mother (Karen Allen) and new stepfather (Denis Leary). Isolated and friendless, he finds his whole summer changing after a boy who lives across the street takes him under his wing.

Benny Rodriguez (Mike Vitar) is the best player among a ragtag group of kids who do nothing each summer except play baseball . . . and take an occasional swim in the public pool. The other guys ridicule the diminutive Smalls for his lack of athleticism, but with Benny’s support he gains acceptance. And what begins as an idyllic summer ends up a legendary one after a prized ball gets whacked over the fence where a frightening junkyard dog lives.

Some of the attempts to fetch that ball grow tedious, but for the most part “The Sandlot” is crisply paced and supported by a cast of characters that are fun to watch. The narrator and the friend he looks up to are both likable and throwbacks to the ‘50s, they’re so wholesome and just plain nice. But the kid who reminds us we’re in the ‘90s is Hamilton “Ham” Porter, a portly redhead (Patrick Renna) who’s sarcastic and mouthy and masterful at put-downs—so of course he’s the team’s catcher, who takes delight in distracting batters with his banter. And Michael “Squints” Palledorous, who seems to be the only one coming of age this summer of baseball as he pulls a stunt at the local pool just to get the attention of an attractive lifeguard much older than he is.

Leary and Allen have parts that are really just two-dimensional, but James Earl Jones as a former major league player who had to quit because a high and inside fastball blinded him is such a delight that you wish Pennsylvania-born director David M. Evans had given him more screen time.

Is “The Sandlot” a perfect film? Of course not. A scene with the ghost of Babe Ruth and the ending are a little cheesy, and some of the attempts to fetch the ball seem to go on a little long. But the situations the boys find themselves in and the snappy dialogue make it easy to spend time with this group. “The Sandlot” may be a film about youngsters, but its appeal is much broader.

I can’t say if the transfer is identical to the 2011 Blu-ray release, but I can tell you that the specs are the same:  AVC/MPEG-4 transfer, 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and 25GB single-sided disc. And the transfer is a good one. I saw no compression issues, and only the slightest bit of applied DNR to the edges of figures in certain scenes. Close-ups reveal a nice amount of detail, and while there’s a thin layer of filmic grain throughout, you are always mindful that you’re watching in HD. Colors are bright and rich-looking, and black levels seem solid. A few scenes seem underlit, but that’s my only complaint, and it’s a minor one. You hardly even notice.

Fox went with the industry standard DTS-HD MA 5.1 on this title, and I have to say that I was surprised by the distribution of special effects. Sometimes you could swear you were there, while other times the rear speakers didn’t seem nearly invested enough in the sonic action. Then again, I’m comparing it to current releases that seem aimed at filling the room with sound. If you compare this to comedies and dramas from the ‘90s it fares pretty well. As with the first HD release, additional audio options are English, Spanish, and French Dolby Digital 2.0, with subtitles in English SDH and Spanish.

Other than a pack of trading cards of the kids, these too are the same as on the 2011 release. All you get is a six-minute behind-the-scenes featurette that seems intended as a promo, the trailer, and a couple of TV spots that run under four minutes. A swing and a miss. Then again, it’s nice to get a DVD and Blu-ray in the same package.

Bottom line:
“The Sandlot” is just a fun film that holds plenty of appeal for the whole family because it has a wholesome Norman Rockwell vibe and, as with any good sports film, you don’t have to love the game to love the film.