When you think of children's ice hockey movies, The Mighty Ducks franchise probably comes instantly to mind. Likewise when I first saw the trailer for this movie, I can't help but to recall the Ducks, as well as the usual formula attached to team sports movie in general, where a motivational coach takes responsibility to turn a rag-tag team around and achieve glory. From Remember the Titans to We Are Marshalls to Gridiron Gang, you just can't put a stop to such constant cookie cutter production under different premises.
So to differentiate itself, and for my personal gauge, so long as the movie moves me at certain points despite cliches, then it works. Smiler does so on many counts, and is in fact a fine children's sports movie that is suitable for all ages, with the usual lessons to learn such as having no short cuts to success, persevering when the going gets tough, always believing in yourself and similar positive learnings to be gained from sitting through all 122 minutes of it. Like Swing Girls and Waterboys in its treatment and development of the narrative where the protagonists have to battle adversary, we follow the games of a junior high ice hockey team called Smilers, whom everyone including themselves, write their chances off even before the first puck gets hit, if at all.
It's mainly told in flashback mode, though the prologue and epilogue spoke volumes that warm the heart. In the main narrative thread there are more than 3 little subplots which involve relationships, and the main bulk of it would be that of tap-dancer Shuhei (Mirai Moriyama) and figure skating teacher Shizuka (Rosa Kato). A career ending injury brings Shuhei to Hokkaido to be with his lady love, but his wedding proposal got thwarted by her dad, who dangles the carrot that he'll only agree to giving her hand away in marriage, should he coach his school team to victory in the championships.
Armed with nothing but his child psychology background, Shuhei has an uphill task in getting his team together, a group of boys whose skills are like unpolished gems, and to motivate them using some pretty innovative conviction that they are the best out there. Co-written by director Takanori Jinnai, he gives us some likable characters to grow attached to, and while each of them might have been boxed by their individual and personal issues, I thought it more than compensated any shortcomings, as we really get to know these kids, rather than being faceless beings brought in to make up numbers.
Smiler had enough comedy to makes this one fluffy fairy tale of a movie, courtesy of some genuinely funny sight gags, and the antics of these children made it one heck of an endearing movie to sit through. The ice hockey games had glimpses of special effects, but never overriding the story, or trying to make this yet another Shaolin Soccer rehash or clone. As with most sports movies, a training montage becomes a staple ingredient, and Smiler does feature some very confident camerawork in capturing the game under high speed conditions.
But if there's an area I want to roll my eyes at, is with the treatment of teenage romance. Smiler had star player Masaya (Kenji Sakaguchi) fall for Reina (Anri Okamoto) a potential figure skating star and the drool-worthy good-looker on the ice skating rink that every boy in the Smiler team has the hots for. But romances these days have to have the inevitable cancerous disease rear its ugly head to disrupt all the good things, to elicit some sorrowful moments and to make the audience work their tear ducts. I guess any self-respecting romance have to kowtow to such story development that it gets really tired and predictable. But what I really enjoyed from this cliche, is how the team get together to rally around under the window of the patient, and encourage in fact, one another, to celebrate each of their victories as a reminder that impossible is nothing, so long as you set your mind to it. Those moments really moved me, even though they were basic tricks from the formula book.
The last children's sports movie I enjoyed was Slam! and I'll also add Smiler to my list of favourites from the genre too. If you're one who prefer to stick to formula, then you're likely to find Smiler right up your alley. Otherwise it still makes for a good motivational movie, for tykes and adults alike.