Once upon a time, which we’ll call the Eighties and early Nineties, the Disney Channel made truly standout television films. It lost its touch during its transition to basic cable in the late Nineties and has never gotten back to its standard for quality programming. There have been bigger hits since (e.g. High School Musical, Zenon) but nothing with the resonance of films like Perfect Harmony or A Friendship in Vienna, which deal with racial prejudice and religious intolerance, respectively.
But at risk of becoming too sentimental about my childhood, there’s still room enough to appreciate Disney movies with broad family appeal that don’t descend into the goofy fare the channel does so well now. Miracle in Lane 2, about a boy with spina bifida who tries soapbox racing, injects life lessons by way of some understated moments, and some not so understated. The result is not particularly taxing, but it is warm enough to make you cheer for the hero all the way to the finish line.
It helps if you remember star Frankie Muniz as the cute kid from Malcolm in the Middle. He brings the same cheeky persona to his character Justin Yoder, the real life inspiration behind this story. Justin’s playful streak makes him fun to watch, especially as he daydreams away. His biggest wish is to win a trophy, any trophy, to even things out a bit with his super athletic brother Seth (Patrick Levis). In between these failed attempts, he imagines that he’s talking to God, who comes in the form of famous race car driver Bobby Wade (Tuc Watkins) or being put on trial by his family. Justin is convinced that God made a mistake by giving him “legs like linguini” and knows that he is defined by his wheelchair. Luckily he has a mother (Molly Hagan) who won’t take “no” when it comes to her younger son and she backs him up in his every pursuit, including his decision to try out for the baseball team.
The potential for sentimentality is great, and, as this is a Disney movie, you can be sure there’s a lot of it. However, the movie most often opts for humor when the chance arises, and that gives it a bouncier, decidedly Disney edge. Justin’s mother is stereotypically strong and protective, and indeed she is compared to a grizzly bear. But usually she is played as the chipper, omnipresent super mom who cheers with all her heart and lungs but who really doesn’t know a damn thing about sports (this is supposed to be funny).
Yet for all its humor, the movie pulls back with just enough moments of emotional realism. These aren’t too heavy handed, which makes them all the more effective. Interestingly and probably more true to life, Justin is never the one to question his mortality; he simply accepts it and gets on with things. It’s everyone else who seems to have a difficult time. Seth, for example, gets some lumpy characterization as guy who loves his little brother but is also increasingly annoyed by the amount of time his parents spend on Justin. When he’s reached the end of his fuse, he reveals himself to be more than just a jealous brother. Likewise, grouchy neighbor Vic’s (Roger Aaron Brown) best scenes occur when Justin accidentally stumbles upon his past, which he would rather keep buried.
The actual soapbox races turn out to be more interesting in real life than they are portrayed on television. If you didn’t know this was based on a true story, you might think Disney just wanted to create another unconventional setting for its characters (other movies have featured kid surfers, kid bowlers, kid dancer, kid inline skaters…). The races are a bonus if you like that sort of thing, but there’s still a mildly satisfying family movie night in it if you’re not.
Prod: Greg Beeman, Christopher Morgan
Dir: Greg Beeman
Writer: Joel Kauffmann, Donald C. Yost
Cast: Frankie Muniz, Rick Rossovich, Molly Hagan, Patrick Levis, Roger Aaron Brown
Time: 120 min
Country: United States
Network: The Disney Channel