The reason Disney is such an effective brand, despite rocky box-office returns, is the studio's consistency. They know how to identify what works for them, and then reformulate it into a series of films that roll out like well-oiled machines. Disney previously took cinematic action heroes Bruce Willis and Vin Diesel and transformed them into family-friendly comedians (in The Kid and The Pacifier). Now they're doing the same for Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson.
At its core, The Game Plan is a hybrid of two Disney staples: the uplifting sports movie and the selfish-man-saved-by-a-wise-child morality tale. What makes all this calculation go down easy are the genuinely winning performances of Johnson as football quarterback Joe "The King" Kingman, who discovers he has an 8-year-old daughter just as his team heads to the playoffs, and Madison Pettis, whose smart, confident Peyton is more on the ball than her playboy dad. The Rock has great comic chops, utilizing those outsized facial expressions he perfected as a professional wrestler, throwing himself into physical comedy without regard for his dignity. Director Andy Fickman (She's the Man) seems to relish the scenes that bring the "freakishly large man" down to little girl size, and Johnson is always game. Not only does the former defensive tackle hit the football field again, he dabbles in ballet, sings an Elvis Presley tune, and thoroughly proves W.C. Fields wrong by successfully sharing the screen with a kid and an animal. (The King has a bulldog.)
While fashioning a custom-made vehicle for Johnson, screenwriters Nichole Millard and Kathryn Price wisely chose to make Peyton more than a cookie-cutter moppet. This well-rounded ballerina has an astute intelligence, but also a vulnerability that leads her to question her convictions. A regular on the Disney Channel, Pettis pulls it off with seeming ease. Precocious, but never cloying, she drives the film forward with her steadfast optimism.
Even at nearly two hours, the film zips right along, meshing the characters' passions (football and ballet) as they become increasingly dependent on each other (aided by Kyra Sedgwick's chilly sports agent and Roselyn Sanchez's fiery dance teacher).
Derivative as it is (moments recall everything from Kramer vs. Kramer to the iconic Coke commercial with "Mean" Joe Green), The Game Plan works as both a father-and-child reunion, and a reminder that comedy can be pretty.
Opens Friday, Oct. 5, at the Maple Art Theatre, 4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111.
Serena Donadoni writes about film and culture for Metro Times. Send comments to email@example.com.