After the poorly received Charlize Theron-starrer “North Country” and the even more poorly received/barely-distributed 2009 film “The Vintner’s Luck,” it looked like Niki Caro had used up all of the goodwill earned from her Oscar-nominated breakthrough film, “Whale Rider.” That’s saying something, too, as people loved “Whale Rider.” Miraculously, Caro has avoided director jail, and not only recently managed to line up a Maria Callas biopic, but now Disney wants her to helm the track and field drama “McFarland.”
The film is based on the true story of a coach in the small, predominantly Latino town of McFarland, California, during the 1980s, who turned a track team into champions. Coming from the studio that brought you “Invincible,” “The Rookie” and “Secretariat,” it’s safe to assume “McFarland” will stick to the Disney sports formula of beating the odds and somehow winning in the face of adversity.
Directing an inspirational mainstream film seems like a smart move for Caro. “Whale Rider” won the Sundance and Toronto Audience Awards, pulling in $20 million domestically. Caro’s “Whale Rider” follow-up, “North Country,” was a noble attempt to dramatize a landmark sexual harassment case. That film, despite its many flaws, showed a willingness to address important societal issues. It will be interesting to see how Caro deals with the ethnological aspects of “McFarland.” This being a Disney true story, it’s safe to assume the racial politics of the film will be less “Do the Right Thing” and more “Remember the Titans.”
Disney is looking for a star to attach to the project before they start shooting next year. With Denzel Washington, Kurt Russell and Mark Wahlberg all carrying Disney sports movies of the past, there are quite a few A- or B-listers who could step up to the starting block on this one. In The Hollywood Reporter’s write-up, the gender of the “McFarland” coach is unclear, and we’re crossing our fingers for a Disney sports drama female lead for once. Why does Carla Cugino have to go outside the studio system to play a basketball coach? And Diane Lane in “Secretariat” doesn’t count. She didn’t play a jockey, and there’s nothing athletic about owning a horse. —Ryan Sartor