Watching "Emmanuel's Gift," I'm reminded again why "Murderball" works so well. Both films, you see, are portraits of disabled athletes that overcome great odds. When "Murderball" was released, it was met with a heavy sigh of relief that the filmmakers avoided the very sappy inspirational cheese that its theme suggested; it offered instead a blunt honesty that resulted in a touching, funny, vibrant work. Now comes "Emmanuel's Gift," which crams into its 80 minute running time as much of that sappy inspirational cheese as possible, capped with an unending supply of emotional manipulation - watch out for that feel-good New Age soundtrack and the Oprah narration!
Yes, it's narrated by Oprah Winfrey, which should clue you in as to what you're about to get here: the whole thing plays out like a heart-tugging segment from her talk show. Also note that its producer/directors, sisters Lisa Lax and Nancy Stern, come from a television background - Lax spent years as head of the "Olympic Profile Unit" at NBC, while Stern worked on such fell-good properties as the "Cosby Show" reunion special. Teaming up for their feature film debut, the duo delivers what is essentially a too-long overcoming-the-odds clip that helps fill up a hole or two in the Olympics TV schedule. Back to you, Bob Costas.
This is disappointing, as the story itself is quite worthy of telling. The film details the history of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah, born with a deformed right leg. In Ghana, as in much of Africa, the disabled are seen as second class citizens at best; many parents kill their crippled children, or leave them in the woods to die. Yeboah was fortunate enough that, although his father abandoned the family, his mother fought hard to raise him to be strong and proud. As an adult, he bicycled across Ghana to show his countrymen that a disability does not equal a death sentence. After competing around the world in various other competitions, Yeboah became a national hero of sorts, even becoming the first handicapped person to be invited to meet with the nation's king. His story ends with him currently working hard for legal reform in his home country.
There's so much that could be done here. In fact, all a filmmaker needs to do is tell Yeboah's tale simply and completely, as the marvels of the story will come naturally. But Lax and Stern spend most of their time turning their project into a corporate inspirational poster in movie form - one half expects a random shot of a windsurfer or rock climber while Oprah informs us of the definition of "perseverance" or "teamwork." Indeed, the film opens with this sentiment: "To set a goal is an honorable and noble thing. To complete a goal is even more noble." I think we'll hang that one in the vice president's office.
If you think that's bad, just wait until one interviewee glowingly talks about how Yeboah's bike mission was "almost like Forest Gump." You're kidding me, right? He has to be kidding me.
Of course, I really, really wanted to like this movie, and I kinda felt bad when I didn't. This is a story that demands to be liked. But Stern and Lax force it on us in all the wrong ways. They beg, scratch, and plead to be liked. They even drag their film on for a good ten to fifteen minutes longer than it needs to be, as they pad every single scene with comments about how inspiring and wonderful Yeboah is. What the filmmakers don't get is that we all know he's an inspiration. We don't need to be told over and over and over again. It's almost as they set out to say, "hey, you're going to respect this man whether you want to or not! Listen to this sappy music! And hey, man, it's Oprah! Can't disrespect Oprah!"
It's clumsy and forceful and even a little obnoxious. Of course I respect Yeboah - his is a journey well worth discovering - but I cannot respect the movie itself.
The anamorphic widescreen presentation leaves a lot to be desired, but considering the whole thing was caught on digital video, I can't quite complain. It's fairly grainy, but this seems to be intentional. The image is mostly free of artifacting and edge enhancement, so while it's grainy, it's good-grainy. If you catch my drift.
The disc offers two soundtracks: 2.0 stereo and 5.1 surround. You might be asking yourself why a documentary needs a 5.1 surround mix, and the answer is, well, it doesn't. And yet it's here, and admittedly, it's pretty darn good. It mainly exists to showcase Jeff Beal's music score, which fills up the rear speakers quite nicely. The 2.0 track isn't as lush, naturally, but it's solid enough to get the job done.
Subtitles are offered in English and Spanish. The disc defaults to a third track, which acts as the film's subtitles for when English is not being spoken (and replaces any burned-in titles the theatrical print would have used).
Sadly - yet tellingly - the disc includes more about the filmmakers in the bonus features than it does the subject of the film. Getting top billing is a one-page text screen offering a quick history on the production company. Next is a four-page text bit about "Emmanuel's U.S. Grade School Educational Tour," although more time is spent on offering up embarrassing typos than on explaining what's being done on this tour.
In fact, that text bit should've just served as an intro page to the next feature, a 97-second "Educational Tour Photo Montage," which plays a slideshow of pics taken at Yeboah's visit to a grade school in Chicago (while Beal's score plays in the background). Presented in 1.33:1 full frame video, this montage again tells us nothing about the tour, other than kids sure like to smile.
Two interview clips come next. Stern spends a full 43 seconds (33 if you take out the text intro) talking about how Yeboah's "can't say no" attitude inspired her to have a can-do spirit on the set. Lax, meanwhile, gets far more screen time - six whole minutes! - talking about how wonderful it was to make the movie with her sister, and how great Yeboah is. (She also wastes plenty of time recounting information the movie already told us.) Instead of showing us clips from the "ESPY" awards that featured Yeboah, we only get Lax talking about it. Weak.
A text page about (and weblink to) the Challenged Athletes Foundation gets crammed at the bottom, instead of getting top notice, a fact that best describes the disc's priorities.
A full screen theatrical trailer is also included, as are previews for "My Date With Drew," "The Mayor of Sunset Strip," and, in a huh? moment, "The Prince & Me 2."
"Emmanuel's Gift" is a lost opportunity for all involved. Instead of presenting a poignant story of a man who changed a nation, it merely offers up clunky schmaltz in an increasingly obnoxious package. I'll say Rent It just on the strength of the core story, but remember to keep a heavy thumb on the fast-forward button. And be warned: a shtick-crazed Robin Williams pops up in one scene. Yikes!