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As kids, we have fantastic dreams of who we will be and where we will go when we grow up. Life changes all of that of course, but for some of us, dreams do come true. For the appropriately named Scotty Smalls (Tom Guiry), in the summer after fifth grade, he just wants to make some friends. See, he just moved into town with his mom and her new husband, Bill (Denis Leary). Bill is an avid baseball fan and decorates the den with his trophies and paraphernalia, including his pride and joy, a ball signed by none other than Babe Ruth! Are you thinking that this will be important later in the story? If you are, then you understand basic movie plot devices. Congratulations. Your prize is in the mail. Let’s move on. Baseball is all Scotty can think about, and Bill has promised to teach him to play, but you know how stepfathers in movies are. He says he will, but he’s too busy, and when he finally is pushed into throwing a few, he’s not patient and expects miracles, repeatedly offering the rather ambiguous tip, “Keep your eye on the ball.” For his efforts, this is just about what happens. He takes a pitch straight to the face and earns a nasty shiner. Bummed, he retreats to the front step with the tore up plastic glove his grandmother gave him, a disillusioned step-dad, less baseball skills than before, and still no friends. Gonna be a great summer.
Enter “Benny the Jet” Rodriguez (Mike Vitar). Take a guess at what he’s good at? Wait, did you just say math? Have you even been paying attention? Start again, and this time watch for keywords such as “base” and “ball.” It’s baseball! Benny is good at baseball. And he’s also a heck of a nice kid. So he takes Scotty to the local . . . wait for it . . . Sandlot, and introduces him to the fellas. There’s eight of ’em and with Scotty, they have enough for a team. So does he make a good impression? Well, first, he doesn’t know who the Great Bambino is. That’s a strike against (notice the baseball reference?). He quickly covers by saying he thought they said the Great Bambi. Nicely done. But second, out on the field, where it counts, Scotty is nothing but terrible. It seems hopeless. The boys all think he should go, but Benny persists. He sees something in him and with a little direction and some sound advice, Scotty makes his first catch. And his first throw. It’s icing from there. The friends have many fun adventures, including a prank at the swimming pool that involves getting a kiss from pretty life guard Wendy Peffercorn (Marley Shelton). It’s the best summer ever. Roll the credits!
No, wait. There’s more. It seems the Sandlot where the boys play has a grumpy neighbor in the form of an enormous, snarling, mucus-spewing Mastiff. The dog is a behemoth that rattles the fences, clouds the air, and growls if the boys are too near. Dubbed “The Beast,” the monster is the bane of the home run. Once a ball goes over the fence, it’s goodbye forever. That’s all well and good except one day, Benny hits their last ball so hard, the cover peels right off! Game over. Whatever will they do? You already know, right? Remember Scotty’s stepfather? And the Babe Ruth ball in the den? BINGO! Yet poor Scotty has no idea who Babe Ruth is. For all he knows, “Ruth” is a girl. So he snatches that ball off the pedestal and brings it to the Sandlot. Game on! And what happens next? You guessed it. Home Run! Scotty of all people hits it right over the fence and into the waiting jaws of The Beast. Now he’s in the biggest pickle of his life.
Written and directed by David Mickey Evans, the films takes place in the summer of 1962 but could be anytime or anyplace. The film’s biggest success is its sense of nostalgia, and viewers lose themselves in the memories of their own childhood, even if it isn’t about baseball. The boys are all well cast, especially Benny and Scotty, which says a lot as we are not often fond of kids as actors. Surprisingly sentimental, and not the rowdy, silly kid’s movie it might suggest, The Sandlot is a wonderful tale of growth, friendship, and following dreams.
The Babe Ruth ball sits helpless on the other side of the fence, guarded by the ferocious Beast. Scotty is panicked and once the boys realize just how valuable the ball is, they decide they’ve got to outwit the dog and get that ball back. Through a series of escalating Rube Goldberg like contraptions that grow to involve winches, pulleys, vacuums and levers, all attempts fail and the ball seems eternally out of reach. Then, the Sultan of Swat himself comes to Benny in a dream and tells him to just hop the fence and get that ball. But what about the beast? Benny asks. “There’s heroes and there’s legends,” Ruth replies, rather ambiguously. “Heroes get remembered but legends never die.” I have no idea what that means or if there really is any difference between the two. Is remembered better or never dying? It’s not exactly, “Use the force, Luke,” or “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.” But whatever he meant, it’s enough to motivate Benny. The next day, he laces up his new PF Flyers, jumps the fence and challenges the monster.
Films often use metaphors to illustrate their message. Sometimes an entire film is the metaphor, such as the under appreciated but brilliant Joe versus the Volcano. Others are subtle and take repeated views to understand, like Inception or Paprika, and even then remain largely up to the individual to take away what they wish. The Sandlot doesn’t mask its meaning in convoluted or circuitous paths. It’s not subtle or hidden or meant to be better interpreted from multiple views. There is no mystery or transcendental journey for the viewer to trav . . . oh for goodness sake! It’s the dog. The dog is the metaphor. Benny is the hero (or legend?) of the movie despite the tale being spun from Scotty’s point of view. Scotty is the chorus, the narrator, the reporter. He’s on the inside, has the know, gives us the scoop. And though it’s surely painted with some heavily stylized strokes, it’s this truth we must accept. It’s Benny who we’re truly following. He has the real arch. Of the boys, he’s the one they all know has the most potential to be “great” at something in life (a rather depressing message to send, in truth). But Benny is stuck on first base, so to speak. He hangs out with kids who have far lesser talents and thus seems far greater in comparison. He pushes himself but only in the confines of the secluded, mostly deserted sandlot. And always there is “The Beast” keeping him from breaking free, using his potential, and showing the world the real legend (hero?) he is destined to be. Woof.
Until the dog is actually seen face-to-face with Benny, it is glimpsed only in blurry flashbacks and in quick snippets from holes in the fence. While in these flashbacks and snippets, The Beast is clearly a manufactured creation, a massive grotesque puppet with horrifyingly exaggerated features, but that is just perfect. These are 12-year-old boys telling the story and it is their imagination that fuels the vision of the specter on the other side of the wall. When little Michael “Squints” Palledorous, sitting in the tree house overlooking the monster’s domain, tells the collected boys the history and origin of the great creature, he does so with wild embellishments because a story like this must be. Sure, we smile and roll our eyes because we’ve grown up (mostly), and can easily recall doing the same with the “beasts” in our own lives that kept us from scaling the fences of our early lives, whatever they might be. When Benny decides that confronting the monster is better than avoiding it, there is a change right away in how we see both him and the dog. First, Benny is filmed in hero perspective, with him in tight close-up and the boys put to the background. Slow motion is used to accentuate his movements. Second, the once mighty, gargantuan, mutant ogre is revealed in it’s true form: a real dog. Yes, it’s still a large rather slobbery dog, but not the foe it has been built up to be. Already, Benny is gaining control. The moment is especially good because the fantasy is finally lifted. Scotty can not see what is happening. This is significant because the action is not happening from his perspective. Until this point, we’ve almost always been over Scotty’s shoulder, (the only other time is when “Squints” sees Wendy Peffercorn on the street) listening to his tale, watching what he sees. Not anymore. When Benny jumps the fence, the camera follows, and we leave Scotty behind. The story officially becomes about Benny, which, we suddenly realize, always has been. Let’s watch:
A legend is born, a hero rises. Benny beats the dog. But of course it takes much more than a stare-down. What follows this scene is the great chase where the dog breaks from its chain and jumps the wall itself, trying to run down Benny as he leads him throughout the village, over picnic tables, through movie theaters, down alleyways and more. When it’s over, Benny wears the beast down, running him in a circle back to the fence where, loosened by the catapulting Benny, it topples over and pins the dog. But don’t worry, things work out. The dog, defeated, even gives Scotty a slobbery kiss and then digs up all the balls it’s horded over the past few summers. And who exactly is the dog’s owner? Well, a blind Darth Vader, er, James Earl Jones, who, by absolutely no surprise, once played for the Yankees and has a team ball signed by the entire team, including The Great Bambino. Tie the bow, this is a wrap!
Benny earns his nickname and The Jet goes on to have a career in the majors because of course he does. And Scotty? He’s there too, as a sport’s reporter up in the stadium press box looking down on the players, continuing to tell the world about the adventures of his best friend. Over his shoulder is a framed image of him and the boys from the sandlot days, a reminder of where it all began. It’s the same picture we saw at the beginning of the film and back then we didn’t know who they were or why they were together. When we return to it, we feel like a part of it, like one of the boys, sharing the memories.
Director: David M. Evans
Writers: David M. Evans, Robert Gunter
Stars: Tom Guiry, Mike Vitar, Patrick Renna, Marley Shelton, Denis Leary, Karen Allen, James Earl Jones