Every so often, there are children’s stories that transcend their genre, that break free and soar above the mundane territory of small words and short sentences and paper characters. Earlier this fall, “Simon Birch” snuck into theaters with its ambitious portrayal of the relationship of a pipsqueak of a kid with a whopper of a mind and his outsider-but-otherwise-normal best friend.
Now comes “The Mighty,” a tale of a pipsqueak of a kid with a whopper of a mind and his outsider-but-otherwise-normal best friend. The difference between the two is this: “Simon Birch” tugs at your heartstrings without offering much more than a simple story of love and trust that is outweighed by its melodramatically lofty goals and periodic heavy-handedness. “The Mighty” breaks your heart without ever trying to – it is beautifully understated and never takes anything for granted, and it is because of this that you shouldn’t let one of the better films of the season slip through your fingers. It may be more of a fanciful and imaginative children’s film than anything else, but it still has much to offer viewers of an older variety.
The film opens with a montage of shots of modes of transportation: bridges, trains, boats, all with an industrial tinge, down to a power plant. The transport implication is evident throughout the film, with Freak’s all-too-brief stay in Cincinnati and even the “quests” that Freak and Max engage in as one combined being, proud and determined as a gallant knight. Things in “The Mighty,” from one’s self-conception to personal obstacles, are of a transitory nature; “The Mighty” itself is anything but.
Kevin Dillon (Kieran Culkin), better known as Freak, is a bright young boy who scuttles around like a spider on crutches, spine curved beyond recognition and large eyes peeking out from his glasses-rimmed pale face. He suffers from Morquio’s syndrome, which makes his bones stop growing while his organs continue to get bigger, and eventually, as is poignantly said, his heart will just get too big for his body. What his bones lack in cell growth, his mind makes up for – he subscribes to the theory that “you can think your way out of anything, even pain.” He’s the kind of kid who on the Fourth of July shouts out to the heavens the names of the chemical compounds of fireworks and who knows his own physical limitations but refuses to kowtow to his twisted, rebellious body.
Freak moves in next door to classmate Max Kane (Elden Henson), a hulking adolescent gentle giant in the midst of his third stint as a seventh grader who tells us in just one of many (but never overbearing) voiceovers, “when you’re in the seventh grade and you look like Godzilla, you’re gonna get the looks and you’re gonna get the whispers.” He feels that people look at him as if he was on last night’s episode of “America’s Most Wanted.” Self-aware but unable to help himself, Max is the subject of his classmates’ ridicule and even physical violence, something that Freak finds hard to comprehend because, as he succinctly puts it, Max is “built like the Terminator.”
First enmity, then bonding ensues, all without the sickly sweet strings of melodrama and heartwarming Kodak moments. Freak tutors the remedial reading-bound Max, teaching him about the great King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table and giving him advice that turns out to be the basis for the entire film: “Every word is part of a picture; every sentence is a picture. All you do is let your imagination connect them together.” Max hoists Freak on his shoulders and gives him an outlook on life like nothing he had ever dreamed. At the beginning of the film, Freak chides Max for not having enough of an imagination to envision the words on the written page coming to life. By the film’s end he has imparted his limitless knowledge to Max; he takes Freak’s words as gospel, even thinking that because Freak said so, a laundry facility is going to build Freak a new “biogenetically improved” body – it’s not so much that Max is stupid, but that he trusts his friend so completely that even the fantastic seems possible, and that even when Freak is gone, Max can still conjure him through words and imagination.
There are, of course, various other subplots: Max’s father is in prison for a heinous crime that has forced Max to bear the stigma of “Killer Kane” all through his childhood along with his own repressed memories. Young hoodlums are taught a lesson by the brain/brawn supercombo. A lady’s wallet is stolen and recovered by the chivalrous twosome. Improbable scenes like a midnight toboggan run are successfully navigated within the realistic-yet-imagination-driven world of the film. None are so important as the bond between the two misfits.
Gillian Anderson has a small but important role as a campy, drunken white trash glam girl out of Max’s past with a penchant for heavy makeup – for those “X-Files” fans who didn’t think their beloved Scully could ever become another character, think again. Even this X-Phile was pleasantly surprised. Harry Dean Stanton and the peerless Gena Rowlands clock in as Max’s primary caregiving grandparents and display touching concern for their young charge who looks more and more every day like their black sheep son-in-law. Sharon Stone has no trouble playing the non-sexpot mom and conveys a love for both boys that is it wholly believable.
The film is based on the Rodman Philbrick’s children’s novel, “Freak the Mighty,” but it shows no sign of immature language or catering to children. Director Peter Chelsom deftly crafts the tale of the two boys with a hand that implies knowledge of the cruelty of adolescence, the hardships of life and the power of friendship. His handling of the performances by Culkin and Henson is exceptional, never striking a false note. Culkin is especially impressive as the crippled Freak, handling both the physical demands of his role and line delivery without faltering (or falling prey to the woodenness characteristic of some of his older brother Macauley’s roles). His talent shines equally in scenes of serious import and charismatic camera-mugging.
“The Mighty” is at once a sad and victorious film, celebrating life in the face of harsh circumstance. It is a fable taken from a children’s book, but that doesn’t make it inaccessible to adults. Its final act is hugely unfair, robbing us of a character we have come to know and love. But in his absence, another flowers. A mechanical bird that Freak builds early in the film, once caught in a tree and rendered flightless, is rescued by a newly empowered Max and given to fly once again.
The movie’s triumph is the relationship between these two outsiders, set apart from their peers by cruel tricks of nature and circumstances beyond their control. They bear the weight of their fathers’ sins, their mothers’ love, and their own hopes and dreams. They collaborate against their enemies and unite as one huge being, Freak the Mighty, a giant body without a brain and a giant brain without a body, standing tall in the saddle as King Arthur once did at Camelot. And as Arthur’s spirit lives on to this day in legend and lore, so will Freak’s spirit live on in the great gift he gives to Max: the power of words.