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‘Champions’ and ‘Chang Can Dunk’ score a few points with feel-good basketball movies


Review by Brian Lowry, CNN

Released just in time for the NCAA tournament, the weekend brings a pair of feel-good basketball movies, “Champions” and “Chang Can Dunk.” Each scores a few points, without proving distinctive enough to win any trophies.

“Champions” is billed as a “laugh-out-loud” comedy, which it’s mostly not. Rather, this vehicle for Woody Harrelson marking the first solo directing effort from Bobby Farrelly joins “The Bad News Bears” genre, adding to a long list of cranky coaches taught lessons by their players.

In this case, Harrelson plays Marcus, a minor-league basketball coach in Iowa whose temper gets him fired and whose decision to numb himself after that leads to a drunk-driving conviction.

Delaying Marcus’ dreams of making it back to the NBA, the judge orders him to perform 90 days of community service by coaching a Special Olympics team consisting of intellectually disabled individuals, in the process gradually making him a somewhat better man, or at least a less self-absorbed one.

There’s a bit more to it than that, including a relationship with one of the players’ sisters, Alex (“It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s” Kaitlin Olson), but really, not a whole lot. The team, known as the Friends, is playing for a chance to attend a regional tournament in Canada, but the challenges of coaching these unique players and learning to care beyond a “court ordered” capacity is about all that “Champions” has on its mind.

For Harrelson, it’s a sort-of return to the court after “White Men Can’t Jump” 30 years ago (with a remake of that, incidentally, is due in May). As for Farrelly, given the madcap comedies upon which he cut his teeth with his brother Peter — “There’s Something About Mary” and the Harrelson-starring “Kingpin” among them — anyone hoping for belly laughs should temper expectations accordingly.

Adapted from a 2018 Spanish film, “Champions” derives a natural, easy-going charm from the cast, including Kevin Iannucci as Alex’s brother and Joshua Felder as a potential star who needs to be won over. That said, the low-key narrative has “streaming” written all over it, with Cheech Marin and Ernie Hudson also suiting up without receiving any meaningful minutes.

“Champions” has its heart in the right place, trying to teach the audience, through Marcus, to see his players and the actors portraying them without condescension. It’s possible to admire the message, though, without thinking much of a movie that, Marcus’ aspirations notwithstanding, belongs in the minor leagues.

Speaking of streaming, “Chang Can Dunk” aims a little higher than a lot of similar Disney+ fare, presenting a coming-of-age tale with an underlying sweetness to it. But it’s more a layup than a slam dunk qualitatively, rattling around a bit before finally paying off.

“Chang” marks the feature debut for writer-director Jingyi Shao, and there’s a roughness to the middle section that perhaps reflects that. The central premise is a nice wrinkle on various sports cliches (“White Men Can’t Jump” among them), and the appealing fresh-faced cast helps lift the movie above its simple formula.

Chang (Bloom Li) is about to start a new school year, pledging that the world is about to meet the 2.0 version of himself. Obsessed with basketball and the late Kobe Bryant, he’s got some game but is still more band geek than athlete, while proving unable to share his ambitions with his hard-working mom (Mardy Ma), who urges him to “Find something and stick to it.”

Smitten by a new girl in school, Kristy (Zoe Renee), Chang finds his purpose by impulsively betting the school basketball star (Chase Liefeld) that he’ll be able to throw down a dunk at an upcoming game a mere 11 weeks away.

At just 5’8″, Chang has his work cut out for him, seeking help from a basketball coach, DeAndre (Dexter Darden), who’s working retail and posting videos clinging to his sports-related past. The training sequences provide a healthy dose of comedy, while Chang’s relationship with Kristy becomes a familiar backbone to the action.

So far, so pretty good, as Chang seeks to reinvent himself without losing the nice kid underneath. Perhaps inevitably, the movie drags a bit, including a strained synergistic detour with Disney-owned ESPN as Chang’s story goes viral.

Quibbles aside, it’s nice to see Disney+ try something beyond just extensions and remakes of existing franchises, taking a shot on fresh talent and faces — a subtle expansion on its streaming menu.

“Chang Can Dunk” isn’t an all-star, but viewed that way it’s a nice wrinkle on an old story — the sort of calculated leap that, unlike Chang’s gamble, feels like a pretty good bet.

“Champions” premieres March 10 in US theaters. It’s rated PG-13.

“Chang Can Dunk” premieres March 10 on Disney+.

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