It was way back in 1959 when Disney made their first sporting film loosely based on a real event, and that movie—“Third Man on the Mountain”—inspired the Matterhorn bobsleds at Disneyland.
No new attraction seems forthcoming as a result of their latest sports film, “Million Dollar Arm,”but the 2014 drama-with-humorous-moments about a sports agent offers the same broad appeal as that other famous agent movie, “Jerry Maguire.”
“Million Dollar Arm” is the eighth based-on-a-real-story sports film that Disney has made this decade, following in the footsteps (or hoof tracks) of “Secretariat” (2010), “Invincible” (2006), “Glory Road” (2006), “Miracle” (2004), “The Rookie” (2002), “Snow Dogs” (2002), and “Remember the Titans” (2000). And it’s a worthy successor to those films.
Jon Hamm is cast against type as sports agent J.B. Bernstein, who quit his job at a large agency to form a partnership with Ash Vasudevan (Aasif Mandvi). But they’re running out of time and the future of their struggling, fledgling business, as in “Jerry Maguire,” seems to rest with one player. In this case it’s an NFL star named Popo (Rey Maualuga) whom Bernstein is wooing, big-time.
But at the same time, to BUY time with an impatient investor named Chang (Tzi Ma), they come up with the gimmick of having a contest in India to find the two best, hardest throwing cricket players to bring to America and convert into baseball pitchers.
That really happened to Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel, who appeared on a 2008 reality TV show called “Million Dollar Arm” and became the first Indians to play baseball in America. Only Patel made it to the majors, and he only lasted a short while.
Here, the reality show concept is compressed so that it’s a road-show kind of tryout, with Bernstein and a crotchety old retired scout named Ray (Alan Arkin, who nails this performance as much as he did in “Argo”) on the radar guns. Helping them for free is India’s only cricket hater, a baseball enthusiast named Amit Rohan (Pitobash Tripathy), and a guide named Vivek (Darshan Jariwala). Helping the film is a lively Bollywood-style score and some on-location filming that captures the frenetic flavor of India.
As in “Jerry Maguire,” the focus is less on sports or even on the athletes. In terms of character arcs, the individual who travels the greatest distance is Bernstein. It’s his tale of ambition and redemption, his changing attitudes about India and his Indian “winners” that form the emotional core of the film, and Hamm does a nice job portraying an essentially nice guy who lost his way for a spell.
Even if you don’t know the outcome of the story, “Million Dollar Arm” is structured so that the narrative drama still outmuscles the gentle comedy that the screenplay musters. It’s drama first, comedy second. But there are plenty of funny moments, whether it’s the result of culture shock or character comedy, as we get from Ray—whose running gags include sleeping all the time (is he alive?) and never bothering to look at the pitchers because he can tell how fast they’re pitching just by the sound.
Best of all, Disney went PG with this title, so the whole family can watch. There’s only “mild language and some suggestive content,” but I’d be hard-pressed to tell you what that was. It seemed like all Disney to me. And pretty good Disney at that.
The filmmakers shot a lot of the footage using available light, and so there’s nothing about the video presentation that really offers the kind of “pop” you’d get if this were animation or a film largely shot on a sound stage. But the colors are natural, skin tones believably variant, and except for a few brief episodes of banding, the AVC/MPEG-4 transfer to a 50GB disc has no flaws to speak of. “Million Dollar Arm” is presented in 2.39:1 aspect ratio.
The audio is also solid, and just a bit more spectacular—at least when the Indian music kicks in. The featured audio is an English DTS-HD MA 5.1 that’s nicely channeled across the speakers. Dialogue is clear, and you don’t have to toggle back and forth too much when the music comes on. Subtitles are English 2.0 Descriptive Audio and French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1, with English SDH, Spanish and French subtitles.
The packaging touts “Million Dollar Extras,” but the longest feature is just a six-minute featurette on the two Indian actors training with former minor leaguer Mike Ribaudo and trainer Ahmed Ysug. Other than that, there’s a three-minute clip in which the real Indian players and sports agent talk about their experience together, a similar clip in which composer A.R. Rahman talks about the score, and another six minutes of deleted scenes and outtakes. That’s it.
I liked “Million Dollar Arm” as much as any Disney sports movie. It has a “Jerry Maguire” structure, a Bollywood vibe, a likable cast, laugh-out-loud moments, and a lead actor who shows us the vulnerable flip side of his “Mad Men” character.