Children's movies do not age, but they do become dated. And 21 years is a long enough time to date just about any children's movie. This is especially true when, during those 21 years, we all found how something as innocent as tackle football can fuck up people's lives. It's hard to believe that as recently as 1994 a family audience could laugh at peanut butter and jelly head wounds and people being knocked back into the second grade by a brutal hit. And yet Little Giants did get us to laugh at these things, while also mocking the absurdity of youth sports and football itself. All these years later, it still works as a fun-enough—if also problematic—family film.
Little Giants is indeed a 106-minute commercial for the Football Industrial Complex, but it is charming enough to rise above the propaganda and become a decent kids' movie. Little Giants' beginnings stem from a 1992 McDonald's Super Bowl ad, which impressed Stephen Spielberg enough to back a loose film adaptation written by the ad's creators (James Ferguson and Robert Shallcross), and directed by Duwayne Dunham; a few touches in the ad are clearly repeated in the movie, like the two dads creating a human goal post. It's not unheard of to turn a Super Bowl ad into a movie; I know I am not alone in looking forward to It Me Papa John, in theaters this Christmas.
The incomparable Rick Moranis is Danny O'Shea, owner of the local gas station and single father to the toughest girl in town. Danny is the younger, more cerebral brother of local football hero Kevin O'Shea, played by Ed O'Neill, whose football heroism is reduced to vague tales of on-field glory, some token Heisman given to him instead of say Gary Beban, and his Chevy dealership, a little Brad Benson Hyundai of his own. Somebody surely has come up with the idea of remaking Little Giants with Eli and Peyton Manning, by this point; the O'Sheas are the roles the Mannings were born to play. (A series of direct-to-DVD sequels will star first the Hasselbecks, then the McCown's, then Michael and Marcus Vick, and finally Stephen and Daniel Baldwin.)
Little Giants begins poignantly at the exact moment when a normal group of kids separate and become rivals, and when a certain subset of 11-year-olds pull on little Dallas Cowboys uniforms and, as if by magic, become raving douchebags. It is a peewee version of the Stanford Prison Experiment. This moment in the film might have marked my actual break from front-running as a child, when I stopped rooting for the Cowboys and wound up a Philadelphia Eagles fan. Looking back, that might be even sadder.
Becky O'Shea is Obviously The Best Player Out There, which makes Uncle Kevin even more of a jerk for denying her a spot on his Little Cowboys. Kevin patronizes her the best he can—the brand of misogyny Ed O'Neill portrays here is gentle concern trolling, rather than the proto-Gamergate NO MA'AM of Al Bundy. As Becky's father, Moranis does what little he can to navigate this rough patch, which is honestly all we can ask of our parents during adolescence. Becky decides to form her own team with her friends who did not make the cut, while not initially mentioning to her dad that he'll be the one leading this cliche ragtag bunch of misfits.
Quite a few indignities fall upon local hero Kevin O'Shea in Little Giants, but they are largely self-inflicted. He tackles a couch cushion effigy of his niece, and winds up falling out a window, hitting his crotch on a tree branch, and falling into the family pool. Then Danny catches his older brother spying on him, and files a false Peeping Tom/exposure report to the State Police. Were this real life, Kevin O'Shea would have been immediately dismissed from coaching and put on a Megan's Law list. Because this is a movie, the gods make up for it by letting him poach the delightfully named Spike Hammersmith from the Lil' Gints. As soon as you hear Spike refer to Spike in the third person, you realize Spike's not going to jell with Spike's original team.
Meanwhile, Danny tries to woo Patty (Susanna Thompson) his childhood sweetheart, while Becky tries to persuade her son Junior (Devon Sawa) to join up as Little Big Blue's quarterback, and also possibly her boyfriend. After misreading the blitz known as puberty, Icebox assumes the way to Junior's heart is by becoming a cheerleader. This does not end well, and our female Lawrence Taylor decides to rejoin the team, and everyone on the team, from Little Mark Ingram Sr. to Little Bart Oates finds the inner strength to beat the height-proportionate Cowboys.
If inner strength alone can't beat a peewee football team, deus ex Madden works in a pinch. In a twist that reads more like native advertising, the Madden Cruiser gets lost in Urbania, (California Pretending To Be) Ohio, and John Madden himself, and Hall of Famers Bruce Smith, Emmitt Smith, and Tim Brown (and, sigh, Steve Emtman) teach the kids about hard work, intimidation, and not blowing out your knees on Astroturf. Prior to the start of the game, Moranis O'Shea and O'Neill O'Shea go full-Rollerball, and put their own businesses on the line just to raise the stakes a little higher.
"Whoever said you had to be good to play football?" is the rallying cry of both the Little Giants and half the teams of the real NFL. They go down by 21 early, but a passionate halftime speech, the return of Icebox, a few trick plays, and several overenthusiastic touchdown calls later, the G-Kids are back in it. There is just enough time on the clock to call a play dreamed up by the token nerd and John Madden. "The Annexation of Puerto Rico" is your basic fumblerooski, with some personnel-specific twists. It's Belichick-esque both in its ingenuity and lack of legality in today's NFL, and predictably works to clinch the game for the Little Giants.
What made Rick Moranis so special in the 1980's and 90's was his success at both subtle and over the top humor—his performance as "Merv Griffith" on SCTV comes to mind. Moranis actually appeared in a Canadian TV movie with a similar theme—1984's more dramatic Hockey Night, which substitutes a female goalie for Icebox. Ed O'Neill, in a performance that's miles better than it needed to be, brings subtlety and nuance to what would usually be a one-dimensional role; by the end you're almost rooting for him as well. Joe Bays does his job as the Cowboys' less-fleshed out assistant, which means you want to punch him in the face at the end. Harry Shearer is good as the game's announcer, but his plaid seersucker attire distracts from his performance. Some tasteful NFL-branded logo wear might have been a better choice.
But Little Giants wouldn't work as well as it does without its child ensemble, featuring no fewer than two Quentin Kellys from TV's "Grace Under Fire." Shawna Waldron, who played the legendary Icebox O'Shea, is also known for playing Michael Douglas' daughter in The American President, meaning she could tackle the works of Aaron Sorkin as well as she could tackle the best players in peewee football. Todd Bosley, as the diminutive Jake Berman, has the best moments among the kids, from the moment he's wrapped in foam to prevent injury, to his use of Alka-Seltzer as a PED. And Mike Zwiener, whose performance as the flatulent Rudy Zolteck is a millennial touchstone, seems to be doing well enough today as a FedEx freight supervisor in Illinois.
Little Giants has not aged well in many aspects, from its giddy promotion of pee-wee tackle football to its assertion that the Dallas Cowboys would forever be the most hated team in the NFL. Fundamentally, though, its heart is in the right place, and its main arguments—that girls can do anything they set their minds to and that it's better to have Rick Moranis as a father than Ed O'Neill—are hard to argue with. Little Giants is the best possible outcome for a Little NFC East team movie, less dickish than "Little Cowboys," less self-loathing than "Little Eagles", and much less problematic, if nothing else, than "Little Washington Football Team".