On its face, “A Smile as Big as the Moon” is one of those feel-good true stories perfectly suited to the “Hallmark Hall of Fame” umbrella, about how a teacher championed the first group of special-education kids allowed to attend NASA’s Space Camp in the late 1980s. What emerges, though, is an almost painfully earnest movie, weighted down by so many stirring speeches it begins to resemble “Meatballs.” There’s no dark side to this “Moon,” and without an element of dramatic conflict, it’s hard for it to get out of orbit.
John Corbett plays Mike Kersjes, the high-school football coach who doubles as a special-ed teacher. After an awkward trip to the planetarium, he seizes on the idea of taking his charges to Space Camp — a program for gifted students at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center — despite skepticism from those surrounding him, including school administrators and his wife (Moira Kelly).
It gives nothing away to say a benefactor comes up with the money, allowing the kids to go and participate. But once they do, the movie enters an extended anticlimax phase, the main issue being whether they’ll be able to overcome the challenges of performing at the camp, which yields no suspense at all.
Directed by James Sadwith from Tom Rickman’s adaptation of a book co-written by Kersjes, the movie essentially falls back on the assumption that watching these teens silence naysayers will do all of the heavy emotional lifting — and to an extent that’s true.
Still, the movie’s paced so sluggishly that staying alert until the kids take what amounts to the first of several victory laps is no small feat.
While the youngsters are fine, few of the adults register, with Cynthia Watros turning up late as the Space Camp director. Nor does it help that the movie keeps delivering rousing pep talks — from Corbett, and later Logan Huffman (“V”) as his prize student — that are so on the nose in reminding us of the premise: Dreams are there for the taking if you’ll just reach for them.
Despite its glittering legacy, Hallmark hasn’t exactly shot for the stars with many recent productions, with “Smile” marking the second misfire since moving to ABC.
Then again, as this movie makes clear, hope springs eternal. So as for Hallmark rising to the occasion on the next card-buying occasion, around Mother’s Day, well, let’s wish upon a star.