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Formulas become formulas because they work.

McFarland USA, Disney’s latest entry into their paint-by-numbers inspirational sports movie canon, opens in wide release this week. Sports movie stalwart Keven Costner takes the lead and Whale Rider director Niki Caro the helm in a charming little story that hits enough of the standard beats to just about hit its stride.

Jim White (Costner) is a recently fired football coach who winds up in the dirt poor town of McFarland, CA in a last ditch effort to salvage both his teaching and high school football career. After a run-in with the incumbent coach, White is ousted from his role with the football program and is stuck teaching PE in order to get his sports fix.

While teaching the class, White notices the extraordinary speed and endurance of several of his students. After observing them in their everyday lives, White discovers that long hours working as fruit pickers has trained these boys to handle the rigors of cross-country.

Despite meeting with some initial resistance from his prospective team members, White is able to fill his cross country team and take the boys to compete in cross-country meets against bigger, richer and more experienced schools.

Because this film follows the Disney Sports formula pretty closely, it’s a pretty easy guess as to what happens from there. The boys face adversity, the best of them has parents who don’t want him to compete, and lessons are learned along the way. You’ve seen it before, you’ll see it again, and it will continue to just about work in every iteration.

Also, like all films following this formula, McFarland, USA, must make a divergence from the typical beats. In this case, a non-sensical crime story near the climax of the film basically derails the film and sends it into unnecessary territory that does little to enhance the film and serves as essentially just a distraction to the inspiring main story.

And that story is actually quite solid. Costner is in his element as a run-down yet determined coach who appears earnest in his efforts to improve the lives of his students. The kids are good and manage to create actual characters rather than just little running Disney puppets like so many of its youthful sports movie characters.

There is, however, still everything outside the story to worry about. Jim White’s home life is essentially neglected and the wonderful Maria Bello is absolutely wasted as a wife character who may as well be a hat rack. In fact, it seems like the parts of the film that aren’t directly related to the main story are actually fighting against it. “Hey, you know that movie your’e enjoying? Well here’s something to take you away from it for awhile and stretch it into an unnecessary two-plus hours.”

So McFarland, USA is really nothing more than a case study in formula. Proof that a time-tested recipe for Disney sports success can still work when it’s left unencumbered. It’s only when McFarland, USA attempts to do something different that it fails. That’s not to say divergence isn’t necessary to keep this sub-genre fresh, it just must be done with the utmost care in order not to disrupt a machine that’s running with an efficient hum.

If ain’t broke…well, you know the rest.