Thoughts on Angels in the Outfield: Remake (1994) & Original (1951)

Angels in the Outfield is one of the best guilty pleasures from my childhood, so I would like to say a few words about it. It’s corny, the plot has a lot of stupid moments and everything wraps up just a bit too cleanly in the end. But it’s also a touching story about a man who’s lost sight of what’s important in life, learning to love again because of a child–and I appreciate wholesome stories like that. I have fond memories seeing it with my friend Mars as well as my family growing up. Though I don’t really like sports, even I have to admit there’s something magical about seeing a baseball game in person, and somehow Angels perfectly captures that sense of wonder. Perhaps most importantly, it still manages to put me in a good mood whenever I watch it again as an adult. In fact, while the distinct “vintage-’90s live-action, low-budget Disney fodder” brand of slapstick humor has aged like milk, other scenes are much funnier to me now–like the one posted directly below where Danny Glover chews out the team.

You probably didn’t know it, but the 1994 Disney movie many of us grew up watching is actually the remake of a 1951 original. I only just caught that particular film by chance on TCM one evening when I was in high school, and I’m glad I did. The ’94 adaptation is still a well-done remake with a purpose for existing though, because it takes a completely different perspective on the story and feels like a wholly new experience as a result. Most remakes just redo the plot of the original basically as they already were, with maybe some new scenes and (of course) new actors, which in my opinion is totally pointless. If you’re going to do a shot-for-shot remake of a classic with the only difference being color photography (Psycho 1998) or 3D CGI (The Lion King 2019) you’re just throwing together a multi-million dollar curio that people see once, but is ultimately destined to fade into obscurity. Similarly, when you remake a beloved classic that’s already perfect, you’re setting yourself up for failure because you have nothing to improve upon. Angels in the Outfield doesn’t have that issue because, while a good movie, the original is not exactly a flawless masterpiece without room for improvement. I say if Hollywood insists on relying on remakes and reboots for everything nowadays, at least use the opportunity to reinvent the works of yesteryear which had a good premise but flawed execution.

I absolutely love Danny Glover!

Differences in Setup

For those who aren’t aware or need a refresher, here’s the basic premise of both films, with the names of the different characters for reference as we go forward. A losing baseball team (the Pittsburgh Pirates in the original, the Anaheim Angels in the remake) managed by an infamous grouch (“Guffy” McGovern in the original, George Knox in the remake) has their fortune turned around through the intervention of angels sent by the prayers of a small orphaned child (Bridget in the original, Roger in the remake). The child is the only one who can see the angels in both stories, but in the original only, McGovern can talk to them sometimes. The manager has an ongoing rivalry with a radio host who calls the games (Fred Bayles in the original, Ranch Wilder in the remake) and in the original only, has a love interest named Jennifer. Finally, in both versions, there’s an aging pitcher on the team (Saul Hellman in the original, Mel Clark in the remake) whose glory days are long behind him. In the original only, McGovern and Hellman have a long-storied past together in baseball and while they used to be friends, something happened and now there’s a lot of built-up animosity between them in the present.

Where the 1994 Disney version is told from the POV of the kid who sees the angels, the original focuses on the manager’s perspective. Unlike the remake’s Knox, McGovern frequently speaks with the head angel, and is explicitly told that he must reform his behavior in order to keep receiving their help. The remake has a head angel too, named “Al,” but he only talks to Roger and mostly exists as an exposition dump as well as a source of slapstick humor. In the original, the audience is not made aware of the fact that the angels were summoned by a child’s prayer until 30 minutes into a 90 minute film. McGovern seeks the kid out after hearing about her in the news, and he knows she’s telling the truth because it lines up with the experiences he’s already had. The remake’s Roger makes himself known to Knox early on, and goes to almost every game of the season from the beginning of the film. McGovern is sweet and protective of Bridget from the beginning, where Knox mostly sees Roger as a nuisance at first and only gradually warms up to him over time.

Overall, I prefer the original’s decision to make the manager the protagonist with an arc as opposed to the kid. It’s a redemption story of an Ebenezer Scrooge type character rather than a boy keeping faith despite the unfortunate circumstances of his upbringing. McGovern goes through a lot more growth than George Knox since he has to in order for the angels to keep coming. I enjoyed the scenes where he’s shown reading Shakespeare and tolerating a sabotaged meal at a restaurant for the sake of being a better man, for example. There’s a tragedy in the fact that Fred Bayles and Saul Hellman either openly antagonize McGovern over past slights or want nothing to do with him, respectively, despite his efforts to mend things. It just goes to show that sometimes if you go around being a jerk for too long, the damage is done even if you do eventually change your attitude. The original is much more adult-oriented in its storytelling and acknowledges the moral gray of a person like McGovern. The remake’s interpersonal conflicts have to be watered down because they’re seen through the eyes of a kid and it’s a Disney movie. Roger by himself is a very stagnant protagonist whose brief loss of faith in the angels is resolved almost immediately. His story is definitely weaker than McGovern’s, but I guess Disney thought they needed to have a kid be the focus in order for young viewers to stay engaged.

If there’s one advantage the remake has over the original, it’s in the excision of the love interest subplot. While I did not actively dislike that component of the ’51 movie, I do think it takes focus away from the manager learning to love the kid whose prayers saved their team. That’s the key relationship in the film and it needs as much time as possible to thrive. While Janet Leigh is good in the role, and realistically her star power probably ensured the film even got off the ground at all, I see her character as a remnant of the ’50s preference for nuclear families. (God forbid a man adopt a child without a mother–that’d be blasphemous!) I notice that in both films, the main character is given someone to talk to outside of the team or the angels. In the remake, that resulted in a new companion for Roger named JP, who’s a fellow orphan in the same foster home. I feel as though that narrative device made more sense in the 1994 version than in 1951, because Roger really needed someone “on his level” to confide in, who doesn’t treat him like he’s just a kid. This helps Roger become a more well-rounded and likable character than Bridget, who’s too one-dimensionally saccharine to feel like a living breathing person, in my opinion.

In the original, we the audience never see the angels and it’s implied they help the team in believable ways. In the remake, the angels fly around the field like jet planes and help the players perform impossible feats. It looks ridiculous and is further proof that sometimes less is more.

Differences in Climax

Fred Bayles is a lot more believable as a rival, since he’s been punched out by McGovern several times, lost a job calling the Pirates’ games because of him and thus has every reason to hate the guy. The remake’s Ranch Wilder is too over the top to be taken seriously and seems to hate Knox because of some long-passed and never explained sports rivalry when they were players years ago. Fred Bayles is a normal guy who’s been pushed into hatefulness as the result of mistreatment. Where he stops being sympathetic is the moment he starts using Jennifer and especially Bridget as props by which to get back at McGovern. I don’t think it’s possible to view the scene where he attempts to sabotage McGovern’s birthday (spent with the two of them, of course) and not want to punch him yourself, for example. He represents the ugly path we all could go down if we let past slights define us, and is more like McGovern than he realizes. Ranch Wilder is a bizarre mustache-twirling villain with no personality other than “evil.” He’s your typical hammy one-dimensional antagonist that seemed to be all the rage in live action kids fodder from the ’90s. Worse, most of his egregious acts come at the expense of his co-host, whom he never allows to speak on-air, rather than Knox or Roger. He’s not a man with a twisted mission for revenge, he’s just an all-around douche for no particular reason.

In each film, the sportscaster instigates a hearing against the manager, but the circumstances are fairly different. In the remake, Ranch Wilder finds out about the kid who sees angels and makes it into a scandal, which leads the owner to consider dropping Knox. This conflict is resolved after some corny speeches about God/beliefs and the players standing up in solidarity for their leader. It’s…fine. Just typical schmaltzy Disney made for TV/video fare. I never understood why the owner wouldn’t just accept the story as free, harmless publicity anyway. And I always thought this plot point was a needless left turn meant to pad the runtime and add some “drama” to the second act. The original’s hearing makes a lot more sense, since McGovern has been seen talking to himself (really the head angel) so his sanity is more understandably in question. Fred Bayles plays an active role in the inquisition, even dragging Bridget into it. He reveals McGovern’s attempt to adopt her (ruining the poor guy’s chance to tell Bridget in his own way) and questions her integrity by accusing McGovern of corralling her testimony. This leads McGovern to lose his cool and hit his rival in the face–in front of Bridget and the angels whom he’s tried so hard to be worthy of. Unlike the remake, this version of the investigation is suitably dramatic and feels like the logical culmination to the feud between these two stubborn men.

The angels do not help the team win the final game of the season in either version. The 1994 script explains it away with a ridiculous rule that “championships have to be won of their own” despite the fact that without the angels’ interference, the team wouldn’t have gotten to play in it at all. Even as a kid, I always knew that line was stupid and only existed to artificially add some tension to the climax. The 1951 story is far more narratively satisfying: the angels’ inability to help stems from McGovern’s actions in the prior investigation. As the head angel puts it: “when you shattered [Fred’s] bridgework, you shattered our deal.” [Slightly paraphrased.] It feels like the natural conclusion to a complicated man’s ebb and flow between redemption and relapse. If I have any complaints at all, it’s that McGovern’s outburst did not have any effect in ultimately adopting Bridget, or at least losing her sympathies to some extent. Perhaps that would have been too depressing, but it certainly would have been realistic, and I think we needed at least one scene of her reaction to witnessing her hero’s ugly side.

This then leads to the pitcher’s last hurrah. The ’94 adaptation largely sidelines Mel Clark in comparison to the analogous character, Saul Hellman. Clark exists but only ever as one of the team, and he has no special relationship with Knox. It is Roger who is informed by the angels that Mel’s time has come and this will be his final season…despite the fact that Roger has little reason to care about Clark personally. Knox decides to have him pitch the game for no particular reason, and Roger pretends to see an angel in order to boost Clark’s confidence. It’s still a dramatically satisfying conclusion, if incredibly hokey and contrived. With the ’51 film, McGovern has known for some time, courtesy of the angels, that Hellman was not long for the world. This helps foster the man’s growth, because he realizes that he’s missed out on a lot of great years with his one time friend and now there’s no way to get them back. For his part, Hellman somewhat warms up to McGovern again behind the scenes: he chews out a player who mocks McGovern’s supposed ability to talk to angels and keeps the team in line. I always thought that was touching, how despite never fully mending their friendship, both guys still had each others’ backs in the end.

McGovern ultimately decides of his own volition to have Hellman pitch the championship game anyway, knowing full-well the angels aren’t coming and it’s a risky play. He does it because he wants to give his old friend one final time to shine. He decides to put respect and compassion for one’s fellow man ahead of winning, and in doing so he earns his redemption. There may not be that sweeping moment of all the fans waving their arms in the “angel signal” to spur the pitcher on with dramatic music playing, but I think it’s more beautiful to see the manager withstand all the jeers from the skeptical crowd in order to do what’s right. It’s because of this scene if no other that I’ve ultimately come to prefer the 1951 original over the Disney remake, though I’m glad we have both versions of the story to enjoy.

2 Comments

  1. Another wonderful job of media analysis. I have seen the original film of this story but not the remake. I liked the original for the same reasons you mention. Sounds like as is not unusual for Disney they took a good story and messed it up. I liked the original but especially after reading your review have no desire to ever see the remake. Thanks for watching it so I don’t need too!

    Like

  2. Thank you for a well-balanced view of both versions. It’s easy to summarily run down (or, indeed, welcome) a remake just because it’s a remake. You weigh up the pros and cons with great sensitivity.

    Like

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