As a candy-coated, cartoonishly rendered revenge fantasy for anyone with unpleasant memories of being bullied during grade school or junior high, “Max Keeble’s Big Move” is surprisingly amusing. It’s only when the filmmakers cop out in the final scenes — when they try to preempt any criticism from disapproving grownups with a last-minute warning: “Don’t try this at home, kids!” — that the Disney-distributed comedy invites laughter of the derisive sort. The letdown occurs too late to do much serious damage, however. Given relative lack of similar product geared toward preteens and adolescents, pic is poised to post decent theatrical numbers and slightly better ancillary biz.
As the title character, Alex D. Linz (“Home Alone 3”) makes an engaging impression from the get-go. He does double duty as wisecracking narrator and action hero in an amusing fantasy intro. (Here and elsewhere, lenser Arthur Albert performs far beyond the call of duty by supplying witty, artfully stylized visuals.) But just as he’s ready to kiss the young beauty next door (Brooke Anne Smith), Max awakens to the everyday world.
It’s the first day of junior high, and Max is eager to dispel his image as an easily intimidated dweeb. He hopes to remain on good terms with his only two buddies from grade school: Megan (Zena Grey), a perky band geek who has a not-so-secret crush on Max, and Robe (Josh Peck), a pudgy oddball who wears a bathrobe everywhere he goes. But Max also wants to reinvent himself.
Unfortunately, Max quickly is forced back into a familiar routine of humiliation, thanks to bullies Troy McGinty (Noel Fisher), a dimwitted brute who daily delights in singling out a new victim among his classmates, and Dobbs (Orlando Brown), who claims he’s collecting investments while snatching lunch money from other kids.
Max also must cope with a malicious ice-cream vendor (Jamie Kennedy), who repeatedly tries to drive his truck over Max’s bike — preferably while Max is riding it — as well as with Mr. Jindraike (Larry Miller), the school’s fatuously autocratic principal, who’s secretly tapping into the school supplies budget and redirecting the money toward construction of a grandiose football stadium.
Despite these unpleasantries, Max is deeply unhappy when his ad exec flunky father (Robert Carradine) announces he’s been transferred to Chicago. But when dad adds that they’ll be moving to the Windy City at the end of the week, Max’s mood brightens. Why not spend his remaining days doing the worst to the people who have made his life so miserable?
There is a gleefully clever edge to the plot mechanics as Max plans and executes his campaign of vengeance. Working from a script credited to Jonathan Bernstein, Mark Blackwell and James Greer, director Tim Hill (“Muppets From Space”) sustains a brisk pace and a mischievous tone, even when Max uses a rather brutal form of psychological warfare while reducing the sadistic Troy to a teary and trembling nervous wreck.
Unfortunately, pic detours into preachiness near the end. Just when practically all of his classmates, even Megan and Robe, are ready to brutalize Troy and Dobbs, Max steps up to stop the madness. “We are no better than the bullies,” says our newly enlightened hero, “if we do what the bullies do.” So, of course, the crowd calms down. (But not, it should be noted, before the bullies are tossed into a Dumpster.)
The ever-reliable Miller steals every scene that isn’t bolted to the floor with a carefully calibrated mix of preening egotism, sneering superciliousness and a hilarious penchant for malapropisms. Other supporting players are uniformly well cast, with Amy Hill working wonders with a virtually dialogue-free role as Jindraike’s unflappable secretary.
In terms of tech values, pic is a slick, satisfying package. Of the many pop tunes chosen for the soundtrack, Britney Spears’ “Baby, One More Time” is especially effective as underscoring for Max’s romantic fantasies about the girl next door.