The Cult of the Sandlot

There are a few popular cultural opinions of my generation that I proudly stand against, high on my mighty, crooked tower of self-righteousness. One in particular speaks to my background in theater: while I think Meryl Streep is a very talented actress who deserves critical acclaim, I’m sick of people treating her like a sort of cinematic demigoddess, like she’s the greatest thing to ever happen to movies, ever.

Praising someone’s acting chops is fine, but when it gets to the Streep level – she’s nominated for some award every goddamn year, no matter the role or the movie – everyone ‘s just further inflating what’s probably the biggest ego on the West Coast. (I’ve never met Mrs. Streep; she may be a wonderful person. My point is this: worship doesn’t exactly breed humility.)

I also go against the cultural consensus on a particular sports movie: 1993’s beloved The Sandlot just isn’t very good, as this article reminded me earlier this week. It’s another film in a long line of early-to-mid ‘90s sports movies aimed at kids (Rookie of the Year, Mighty Ducks, The Big Green) that has amassed an inexplicable level of cult popularity since its release. ‘90s nostalgia is a thing; I get that. I’ll vehemently defend Hootie and Dave Matthews against the people who think it’s cool to rip into them. I have very fond memories of Space Jam coming out. Hell, I can almost forget about all the human-rights abuses in Somalia and Serbia and Rwanda, and just picture a pristine decade, during which my happy, successful, baby-boomer parents moved up in the world amid a prosperous peacetime economy. But every time I hear someone yell out “You’re killing me, Smalls!” or “You play ball like a girl!,” the toxic feelings simmer back up inside me.

The Sandlot is very much a cookie-cutter film for its genre. Just look at the composition of the team: the talented, physically fit, and well-meaning cool guy/hero; the loud, assertive fat kid; the token minority; the tech-savvy nerd (with glasses, of course); the weasel-like scrawny kid (don’t get me started on that damn pool scene); and the comfortably awkward protagonist to whom much of the audience can relate. Even James Earl Jones, the voice of both DARTH VADER and MUFASA, pops up in a role that falls on the borderline of the “Magic Negro”: the old and kind-hearted keeper of the monstrous, feared dog (and, coincidentally, the owner of another ball signed by Babe Ruth.)

Yet, The Sandlot is a cult classic, even though it bears little resemblance to other comedies in the cult cinema pantheon. Classics like This is Spinal Tap and The Princess Bride have found long-term success stems from their unorthodox elements. Spinal Tap was a mockumentary that both celebrated and poked fun at heavy metal and the wider music culture. It backed up its cultural critiques with extensive ad-libbed humor, and with original songs that straddled the line between comedic and legitimately enjoyable. The Princess Bride ribbed at fairy-tale and romance clichés with a remarkably witty script, an absolutely fantastic cast, and a quirky score – all while having a bit of heart.

What’s truly inventive about The Sandlot as a kids film or a sports film? Certainly not the character ensemble. The music? I’ll admit there are some excellent early ‘60s songs featured in the movie. But those simply establish a base level of nostalgia for the parents who brought their kids to the theater back when the film first came out. That quality makes it more like an Oscar-bait film than a work of genuine originality.

For those of you who were truly irked by the comments above, I’ll leave you with this story chronicling a happy ending for the lead actor! Hollywood really is a dream come true for the kids.

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