Wednesday, October 14, 1998

The Mighty

Posted By on Wed, Oct 14, 1998 at 12:00 AM

First there's the legend: King Arthur, Camelot, the Knights of the Round Table. Then, the reality: raw cityscapes, hard edges, crammed designs.

Then, there's Max (Elden Henson), the 13-year-old in size 14 shoes, who lives in the basement of his grandparents' house. There's nothing magical about the place. Grim and Gram (Harry Dean Stanton and Gena Rowlands) have learned to live outside illusion, in a perpetual state of fear, as Max's father (James Gandolfini) is soon to be released from prison. He killed his wife and Max saw. Max was there. He doesn't remember it, though. He's slow in wit and short on courage. He's massive and gentle: an obedient giant. And then, one day, there's Freak.

Freak (Kieran Culkin) has a fascination for words. He's tiny, smart, unnerving -- an old soul trapped inside the failing body of a boy. With a hunched back and leg braces, there's little he can do outside the fantastic world of his imagination. But in there, he's the absolute Master of the Game. He can rescue damsels in distress; he can build unlikely flying machines; he can reach beyond the clouds and catch, in the palm of his hand, rich, palpable, twitching words from other stories.

"A knight proves his worth through his deeds," says Freak. And so they meet: Freak, the Mighty, who needs a pair of legs, and Max, the Giant, who needs a brain. Together they are untouchable.

One false move and Peter Chelsom's film would have slipped down the dangerous path of Simon Birch. But there is no falsity in The Mighty, no sentimental blackmail, no stereotype. A cross between a revisionist Land of Oz and a modern Camelot, The Mighty bows before the power of imagination, its formidable world populated with characters to match: Grim, straight out of the American Gothic tradition; Freak's mother (Sharon Stone), "the Fair Gwen of Air"; Loretta (Gillian Anderson), a figure reminiscent of Miss Havisham.

There are great expectations in The Mighty and they are all fulfilled at the end, as the camera withdraws, quietly, from the site of this excellent adventure.

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