March to Disney: Genius (1999)

Introduction

Last year to coincide with a trip to Walt Disney World in March, I decided to have a month-long focus on Disney fare. Their vaults are vast and varied enough such that this is a theme that could recur annually. Below you will find links to the inaugural posts written for the theme.

Genius (1999)

For this year’s March to Disney I most definitely wanted to cover a few Disney Channel Original Movies (DCOMs). I have at a few points in the past (most recently Teen Beach Movie). While they can be painful, as a lot of Disney Channel fodder can unfortunately be; on rare occasions they are quite good, not just among their own subset, but in general also. This particular title comes from the very earliest vintages of the DCOMs. In these days, late in the last millennium, these titles stood alone more and didn’t necessarily springboard performers into A-List Disney status, or weren’t always star vehicles. It sounds idealistic to state that “In this era the play was the thing,” but in many cases this is the truth.

Genius is a tale of a twelve-year-old wunderkind (Trevor Morgan) who is socially maladjusted, on his way to college and has his pick of the litter. He goes with an underdog choice in part because he gets to work with his idol. While the school fills his academic requirements the fact that he has to teach remedial classes for his scholarship underscores his misfit status, and leads to the alter ego plot that takes up a bulk of the tale. This is teased through most of the trailers. Now that plot line is old hat, and there are other tropes like a getting-to-know-you montage, mirror smooth-talk practice and more, abound that one has seen quite a few times before, but many of them are executed quite well and the mixture of them is what makes the film stand out.

It would be tiresome to list them all but there are most definitely moments where you will willingly have to suspend disbelief. However, if you do that there are rewards in store. And for some of the scientific and other fudging that’s done, the ice hockey elements are, for the most part, well-executed and not over-exaggerated.

Most of why this film does work has to do with the central performances, namely Trevor Morgan as Charlie Boyle. Morgan, in what was his first leading role, even at this young age, shows an innate ability to listen and react naturally such that his line readings don’t sound like readings at all but rather just talking. This influences everything from his timing to his physicality and makes all of it play more true. Playing his goal, his impetus for his dual personality, is Emmy Rossum who you may know from many films and most notably Showtime’s Shameless; she has her moments (especially her story about her mother’s figure skating which is better than 99.9% of what you usually get in these films). Playing his idol, in a rare onscreen appearance, is Charles Fleischer perhaps best known as being the voice of Roger Rabbit.

The prior mention of hockey, my favorite sport on the face of the earth, isn’t just a nod to the fact that they included it; it also plays a vital function in illustrating the progression of the protagonist. The film starts with his being a benchwarming cheerleader. In Charlie’s cooler persona he is allowed to play and shows sympathy to one who is in the same position he was once in. Lastly, a game of pick-up hockey is also used as the denouement when all’s well that ends well. This is not to mention the fact that there are the organized games played in a rink built above his lab that also play a vital role in the narrative. The sport here is most definitely a metaphor for acceptance and a narrative device, you rarely see something so deftly folded in to a DCOM.

There is bit of self-awareness to the silliness abound in the film, such as an actual ‘wah-wah’ chord in the score at a well-chosen moment. The effects work in these days were in shorter supply and more attentively done. A skeleton dancing in this looks better than most of what airs today, and reads as a nod to Harryhausen in its approach. While there are some aforementioned aspects that need to be overlooked there is a built-in symmetry that does aid this script. The jock/brain conflict drives a lot of this film and is given many chances to boil over. There are several great pieces of dialogue like Krickstein’s advice about experiments, smart barbs like “japesome wag,” use of phrases like “The Eureka Syndrome,” and the like. While the film does cram a lot of necessary plot elements into the third act it all works in the end and is one of the best, more under-appreciated DCOMs.

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