Melodrama overwhelms sweetness

Movie: The Mighty

Our Rating: 2.50

On the surface, "The Mighty," to the credit of Miramax marketers, looks like a sleeper, a little movie that comes from nowhere to conquer our hearts and the box office.

Ably directed by British filmmaker Peter Chelsom ("Hear My Song"), the film has all the right ingredients: pure heroism, melodramatic anxiety and at least one actor cast against type.

But Chelsom's film, based on "Freak the Mighty," a popular young-adult novel by Rodman Philbrick, is nevertheless a rather ordinary effort, an overly sentimental story tricked up with fantasy sequences and made tolerable by performances that are sturdy, if less than inspiring.

Sharon Stone, the aforementioned thespian in a strange land, competently goes against her usual glam, portraying the working-class mother of Kevin, a growth-stunted child played by Kieran Culkin. The boy, who calls himself Freak, suffers from Morquio Syndrome -- the real-life condition that afflicts Ian Michael Smith, star of this past summer's "Simon Birch."

Culkin's portrayal is wildly uneven; one moment, the tiny Einstein in leg braces is total sarcasm, and the next he drips with bubbly optimism. Elden Henson as Max, a 13-year-old giant boy who twice failed seventh grade, turns in more even-keeled work. He's an introspective kid with a past marred by sadness who lives with his grandparents (Harry Dean Stanton and Gena Rowlands).

The two outcasts, as fate always has it in the movies, wind up as neighbors in an industrial town in Ohio. They become fast friends, and together, with Kevin seated on Max's shoulders, they become a two-headed beast, using might and smarts to fight for right. They charge around winning basketball games, defeating local hoods and rushing to the aid of those in need.

Along the way, the pals invoke the spiritual aid of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, who are rather jarringly brought to life during several key sequences. The mixture of medieval and modern -- so effective in Terry Gilliam's "The Fisher King" and "Time Bandits" -- never quite gels here.

Arthurian duty requires heroes to help damsels in distress, and that's the plot point that turns "The Mighty" into a movie of the week, complete with action scenes and earnest messages. Yet another premise with potential fails to live up to its promise.