mcfarland-usa-posterWhen you think of what makes a classic Disney movie, you probably picture a story where underdogs rise above their situation, characters are transformed into better people and dreams come true. You can apply these three hallmarks to almost any Disney classic, but you can also apply them to their latest film, McFarland, USA.

Like most Disney sports films over the past fifteen years, this one is based on a true story. McFarland, USA tells the story of Jim White (Kevin Costner), a high school football coach who relocates his family to a small Hispanic town and discovers that the teenagers who work in the fields have incredible running speeds. Convincing their parents to let them join the cross-country team is a tough battle, but getting them to the state championship in a sport dominated by preppy rich kids will be even harder.

By now the Disney sports film formula should start to feel tiring, but the setting of McFarland USA makes it feel fresh and new. The White family are… well… white, and the rest of the town is almost 100% Mexican. The initial culture clash when they arrive is interesting and seeing their fear of the unknown break away as they assimilate into the community’s culture is inspiring. I found it really touching to see how the whole town is there for each other and the recurring theme of what it means to be a family. There are some racial undertones in the film and it’s probably coincidental, but a story like this couldn’t come at a more appropriate time.

This film is more intense than your typical Disney drama. There are some truly heartbreaking moments that become hard to watch. Violence is kept to a minimum, with just a few moments of blood or fighting, but the scenes are still dramatically intense. There was also a scene where a character contemplates suicide and it is executed so well by Carlos Pratts that his character becomes almost more important than Kevin Costner’s. It carries a PG rating for these reasons and is clearly aimed at an older audience than most Disney films. However, there are also some genuinely funny moments that break up the tension when needed.

If there’s one flaw with McFarland, USA it’s pacing. The story often speeds up and slows down, almost mirroring the pace of a cross-country race. The plot never feels tiring, but there is a minor diversion from the main plot towards the end that feels slightly out of place.

Compared to last year’s Disney sports film Million Dollar Arm, McFarland, USA is more serious. But as a result, the emotional impact of the film is far greater. It’s hard not to leave the theater feeling inspired by the way these characters changed each others lives and by the payoff of all their hard work. On the surface, it looks like yet another formulaic Disney sports film, but it is so much more than that.

I give McFarland, USA 4.5 out of 5 stars.