Strongly reminiscent of Disney-produced live-action features from the 1970s, “Down and Derby” is a modestly amusing family-friendly comedy about a miniature car race that brings out the worst in overzealous fathers who compete with each other through their children. Lacking marquee names and high concept hooks, pic likely will reach target aud as cable and homevid fare after pro forma theatrical run.
Pic revolves around preparation and participation by fictional rivals in real-life Pinewood Derby, an annual competition intended for children ages 7 to 10, and trademarked by the Boy Scouts of America. (BSA approval of “Down and Derby” script is duly noted in closing credits.) The regulation five-ounce, seven-inch-long cars launched downhill along steep racetracks are supposed to be built by youngsters. But writer-director Eric Hendershot indicates here that dads often provide a lot more than advice and support during manufacture of the tiny vehicles.
Phil Davis (Greg Germann of TV’s “Ally McBeal”) proves to be even more obsessive than his long-time buddies, Big Jimmy (Perry Anzilotti) and Blaine (Ross Brockley), when it comes to building a better car for upcoming Pinewood Derby. Neglecting his work as an ad agency exec and greatly upsetting his disapproving wife (Lauren Holly), Phil more or less tells his young son (Adam Hicks) to take a hike while he devotes inordinate time and expense to designing, constructing and test-racing a worthy entry. Big Jimmy and Blaine do pretty much the same thing for their own sons.
Phil’s eager to exploit the Derby competition to finally defeat neighbor Ace Montana (Marc Raymond), a smooth operator who has been beating Phil in various competitions since grade school. (Not surprisingly, Ace is aiding his son in Derby preparations.)
Hendershot does an efficient job of enhancing his formulaic plot with daubs of eccentric character detail and genuinely perceptive satire. Funniest running gags involve overcompensating efforts of diminutive Big Jimmy to live up to his nickname. Appreciably less uproarious is a fleeting subplot about a visiting Japanese businessman (Pat Morita) who accepts a Derby car as a TV commercial prop.
Typical for this type of family-skewing comedy, performances vacillate between engagingly broad and annoyingly overstated. Reasonably slick production values may look even more impressive on home screens.