When I was a kid I adored Angels in the Outfield. And it occurred to me that if I was going to keep asking if baseball movies hold up, I should really take one of my old favorites and also put it to the test. The movie has some bright spots, but I’m not at all sure I’d say it holds up.
So what’s good about it?
The cast of characters is pretty fun! The big draws to the film, in 1994, were Danny Glover and Christopher Lloyd. Lloyd was there mostly for his name, his part is actually quite small all things considered. Glover delivers a pretty darn good performance and we’ll come back to him. But there were a lot of other guys you’ve probably heard of in this movie. Neal McDonough plays a clownish pitcher. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays the lead role, as a child-actor. But even tiny roles that are barely even in the film went to guys you’d recognize, today; Matthew McConaughey plays an air-headed outfielder and Adrien Brody plays a light-hitting backup infielder with about a scene apiece. When the well goes that deep, you know you’re working with a talented cast.
Brenda Fricker and the aforementioned Glover steal the show, though. Both actors put a lot of heart into their performances which is often the most important thing in making a kids movie work. Fricker’s character, Maggie Nelson, runs the foster home with as much love and acceptance as you could possibly imagine. She stands up for her kids when it’s warranted, and helps them deal with tough losses, too. She doesn’t have much to do with the plot, but her character’s presence gives the film a nice warm feeling from the very start. Danny Glover, meanwhile, plays a bitter, angry manager who is so frustrated with his losing team that he starts a fight with his own pitcher at the start of the movie but who gradually gives up on his bitterness and learns to express feelings other than anger as the movie progresses. Glover’s performance is even more impressive when you consider that the movie doesn’t give much of a reason for this transformation beyond, “His team started winning so he got nicer.” That’s the kind of logic that...actually might work in real life but doesn’t sit so well in a movie. So it’s important that Glover’s charm prevents you paying too much attention to it.
Also, while there are plenty of physical humor and jokes that play to the younger crowd I almost choked while watching the movie again as an adult when publicity-guy/babysitter David Montagne (played by Taylor Negron with a VERY ‘90s hairstyle) accidentally sits on a some nachos immediately after Roger asks where they are and replies, “I’m saving them for later.” The jokes immediately turn childish again with Roger and JP crying, “NACHO BUTT!” as he walks away to get cleaned up but I thought that line, and particularly that delivery, were hilarious. It would have been even better if he hadn’t moved, but kids movies have gotta show the jokes for the kids, I guess.
So what’s the problem, then?
The biggest problem with this movie is that it doesn’t really understand baseball. Any adult who’s spent a fair amount of time watching the sport is going to notice a ton of problems immediately. This movie convinced a young Hokius to believe through several years of baseball fandom that a broken bat indicated a particularly well-struck ball. As you probably know, the opposite is usually true.
Knox also would have been immediately fired for starting a fight with his own pitcher if for no other reason than “losing the respect of the clubhouse” is the easiest way for a manager to be relieved of their duties. And if that wasn’t enough, decking one of the team announcers certainly would have been. Ironically, the thing that almost gets him fired late in the film - believing in Angels - is something that in reality I can’t imagine anyone questioning too much when it was about a winning manager in the big leagues. As Crash pointed out in Bull Durham, “If you win 20 in the show, you can let the fungus grow back and the press’ll think you’re colorful. Until you win 20 in the show, however, it means you are a slob.” The movie says that Knox was a respected manager for a decade in Cincinnati and show him leading an Angels team entirely lacking in talent to the brink of a division win with an incredibly hot second-half. Belief in angels at that point would just make him colorful.
The movie also doesn’t much respect well...any kind of consistency. The plot starts because a kid prays and asks for the Angels to win the pennant so his dad will take him back and they can be a family again. Roger seems a bit too old and a bit too intelligent - and is described by Maggie as too grounded to be given to flights of fancy - to think his dad meant the sarcastic remark about them being a family if the Angels won the pennant. And, in fact, Roger doesn’t act the least bit surprised later in the film when, before the Angels have even had a chance to try to win the pennant, his father officially gives up any claims to custody. He’s hurt and disappointed, but not surprised.
Also, pretty much everything Al says seems pretty shaky. He says that angels are a capricious bunch. This has got to be the only time anyone has ever thought to describe angels as capricious. That’s pretty much the opposite of how they’re described in either scripture or any other bit of pop culture. With the possible exception of Dogma, at least. He also comes to Roger while the Angels play the final game of the season and says that championships must be won on their own. But the prayer was for the Angels to win the pennant. If they’re not going to grant his prayer then why are they there at all? Especially since the final game we’re shown wasn’t even for the pennant; it was to determine the division winner. Also, we’re all aware at this point that every win matters, right? It’s not like the angels could have helped a baseball team win the first three games of the World Series and then stepped back and reasonably argued that they didn’t help them win the championship.
Finally, there’s simply no reason for Al to show up and tell Roger about Mel Clark’s impending demise at the end of the film. That seems to be the sort of information an angel shouldn’t ever pass on to a kid; but especially not one who had already shown an inability to keep his mouth shut. But even more bafflingly, it adds nothing to the narrative even if you ignore the in-universe logical mess. Mel Clark was already on his way out as a pitcher; the story already has plenty of drama in the form of whether a once-great pitcher in the twilight of his career can get one last out without any supernatural help and with an arm that was used-up before he threw more than 150 pitches in the game leading up to that point. Adding in, “Can he win one last game BEFORE HE DIES A HORRIBLE DEATH FROM LUNG CANCER?” just doesn’t move the needle enough to justify including it. Neither death nor loss are themes of this film. (The theme is belief, in case they didn’t hit you hard enough with that two-by-four.) I remember being confused by the inclusion of this story tidbit as a kid and it’s no less confusing, now.
Also, if Roger didn’t immediately tell Mel about the cancer after the game he should be tried for murder.
There is something in it just for Royals fans, though
Like most baseball movies this one features an announcer as a prominent character, Jay O. Sanders’ Ranch Wilder. Unlike most baseball movies Wilder is not wacky comic relief; he’s the closest thing to an antagonist this movie has. He and Knox have a beef that goes back to their playing days, he’s a jerk to everyone else on the broadcast team, and he’s flat-out gleeful in describing Angel failures while being angry and disbelieving at Angel victories.
I don’t know how much of this is intentional, but Sanders’ voice sounds a lot like Joe Buck’s voice, to my ear. And as the final game plays out he harps on Mel Clark’s alleged, obvious weariness in a way that’s eerily similar to how Buck harped on Madison Bumgarner’s greatness in Game Seven of the 2014 World Series. Many Royals fans have a problem with Joe Buck because of that, but if you, like me, hear Buck’s voice in Sanders’ delivery you are rewarded in the final moments of the game when Ranch Wilder gets his comeuppance for rooting against the team he broadcasts for. The moment the game ends he is fired by the team owner and condescended to with one of his own lines by his broadcast partner. I’m sure many Royals fans wish a similar scene would have played out during the 2014 World Series.