Young fans of “Growing Pains” won’t remember the 1970 Disney feature that inspired this adaptation. Their parents will fondly recall this particular kind of Disney magic, even if they don’t remember the movie. After sitting down together and watching Kirk Cameron in the title role (Kurt Russell’s a generation ago), they may decide the magic has faded, but at least they’ll have shared a wholesome experience.
# The utterly silly yarn has been updated for the ’90s, of course, and it’s a good fit. Dexter Riley (Cameron), a charming but lackadaisical student at Medfield College, becomes an instant genius when the entire Internet database is downloaded into his brain. He’s a walking encyclopedia who can scan the bar-codes on snack packages and write a book on Gettysburg in 20 minutes.
Dean Valentine (Larry Miller) exploits our Converse-shod hero by making him captain of Medfield’s team in the “College Knowledge Bowl.” Defending champions are cross-town rival Hale University, led by jealous 12-year-old genius Norwood Gill (Mathew McCurley). Hale’s Dean Carlson, portrayed by Disney veteran Dean Jones, tries to woo Dexter into transferring.
As Dexter becomes an international celebrity, he’s seen as a conceited traitor by his girlfriend and buddies. Meanwhile, government agents think he’s a computer hacker called the Viper, whose pranks include sending the entire Sixth Fleet to Daytona Beach during spring break.
The role is tailor-made for Cameron but it also comes close to exhausting his range. All the energy comes from the hilarious Miller as Dean Valentine; he’s the one who appears to have been zapped. Other perfs are workmanlike.
The story has been altered significantly, and it lacks the zaniness of the original. One problem is there’s no credible comic villain. Gone is the gangster portrayed by Cesar Romero. Jones’ role is thin, and McCurley can only give Norwood the old college try.
Part of the blame for the unevenness of the comic performances has to be placed on director Peyton Reed, who hangs too many actors — and moments — out to dry. None of the secondary plot threads are sustained, and the middle drags.
The script, credited to Ryan Rowe and original writer Joseph L. McEveety, is so-so. The technology is incorporated well, but many lines fall flat. It’s hard to see how family entertainment like this could hold its own on the tube if it weren’t for the admirable “Disney Family Films” series.
Traditional values are wholeheartedly affirmed, though the script conveniently forgets that Dexter’s fortuitous accident occurs while he’s in the act of plagiarism.
Tech credits are above average. Editing is crisp, and special effects — for instance, the moment Dexter gets zapped — are right on the money.
“The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes” might cause a nostalgic twinge in older viewers and a few smirks in younger ones, who’ll quickly go back to playing their computer games. Enough teens and pre-teens will want to sigh over Cameron, so ratings will be decent.