It’s particularly ironic and bewildering that Woody Harrelson’s new underdog sports comedy bears the same title as a 1993 film. Bobby Farrelly’s Champions shares much more in common with Stephen Herek’s family hockey comedy (titled The Mighty Ducks in most other territories), they films are near carbon copies of one another. If even to deter punters from immediately recognizing the similarities, Universal might have been better advised to have given the 2023 release a different title.
Still, the same audience likely won’t be too surprised nor fussed to find that this remake of the Spanish film Campeones shares the same template as the Emilio Estevez starring film (which went on to spawn multiple sequels and a spin-off TV series), after all, the formula isn’t just expected it’s reliable.
The term ‘comfort food’ gets unfairly banded about too often in response to some types of films, yet Champions is exactly that : A predictable but amusing, occasionally rousing crowd-pleaser that works its audience as effortless as any of the films in the same subgenre – among them The Bad News Bears, Little Giants, Cool Runnings, Major League, The Replacements, Slap Shot and Eddie the Eagle. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?
When Marcus (Woody Harrelson, back in basketball territory following 1992’s White Men Can’t Jump), an unhappy, has-been, womanizing basketball coach gets busted for drink driving (just as Estevez’s character did in his Champions) he’s despondently sentenced to doing 90 days’ community service coaching a team with learning disabilities. But with the assistance of Alex (Kaitlin Olson), the sister of Johnny (Kevin Iannucci) who is one of the players with Down’s Syndrome, Marcus discovers a team with not only great potential but the effortless ability to make him want to be a better man.
One might be surprised Bobby Farrelly, one half of the filmmaker brothers that gave us such classic comedies as Dumb & Dumber, There’s Something About Mary, and Kingpin (his first film with Champions’ Harrelson), was even capable of making a simple heartwarming and especially sensitive film– what with the way he and sibling Peter held no prisoners in their earlier, non-PC films, particularly when you recall he also directed the 2005 bad taste clunker The Ringer, also featuring a disability theme. Yet the filmmaker remains considerably restrained here, not even throwing in anything likely to offend helping keep the film wholesome and commendable. Here, Farrelly simply intent on relaying some important messages while showcasing the talents of some new young talent.
The versatile Harrelson is typically amusing and extremely watchable in the lead, with Olson (“It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”) makes for a proper, equally entertaining sparring partner turned love interest. It’s good too to see Ernie Hudson and Cheech Marin in smaller roles, too. Yet it’s the core cast – Madison Tevlin, Joshua Felder, Kevin Iannucci, Ashton Gunning, Matthew Von Der Ahe, Tom Sinclair, James Day Keith, Casey Metcalfe, and Bradley Edens— that steal the show, effortlessly reminding us of their humanity while convincingly assisting Harrelson’s coach on his path to redemption. These fresh screen faces ooze charisma and have wonderful comic timing.