Among the Disney Channel graduates looking to cut their nouveau-Mousketeer cords is the corkscrew-curled Corbin Bleu, who could have picked a more nimble vehicle than “Free Style” to take him off the “High School Musical” circuit. Sputteringly generic sports movie/poor-boy-makes-good fable employs every treadless cliche on the track while failing to take advantage of either Bleu’s considerable charm or the motocross milieu in which the film is set. Turnout by the Disney-infatuated should mean a decent opening B.O. for the Oct. 9 Stateside release, followed by a rapid running out of gas. Pic has already opened in Mexico and other territories.
Helmer William Dear has had good fortune with kid-friendly fare (“Angels in the Outfield,” “Wild America,” “Harry and the Hendersons”), but “Free Style” is hampered by a hackneyed script by Joshua Leibner and Jeffrey Nicholson.
Cale Bryant (Bleu) is, naturally, the hard-working son of a single mom (Penelope Ann Miller). He delivers pizza and works at an electronics store in their Pacific Northwest town but wants to break into professional motocross (mud tracks, big jumps, hard landings). What he lacks in financial resources, he makes up for in guts, if not a particularly cutthroat competitive instinct: When his pal Justin (Jesse Moss) goes down during a race — thanks to unscrupulous rich kid Derek Black (Matt Bellefleur) — Cale heads back against the tide of riders to “save” his friend, a move that’s not only unnecessary but stupid.
Still, he’s the best the movie’s got to offer. Derek is the central-casting personification of entitlement, and Cale’s girlfriend, Crystal (Tegan Moss), is trouble, too, if something of a snobbish caricature: Her crimped curls, fur-collared vinyl jacket and cheap jeans are meant to mark her as untrustworthy, which she proves to be. This frees Cale up to meet-and-greet with Alex (Sandra Echeverria), the really beautiful girl with the watchful father (Gustavo Febres) and the right ethnic makeup for a movie with a pronounced racial agenda: Crystal is blonde and evil, Derek is blond and evil, and Cale’s mom is blonde and dopey.
It would have been nice if the racial complexity of the Bryant household had been left unremarked upon (“Are we white or black?” chirps Cale’s sister Bailey, played by Madison Pettis). On the other hand, casting an actress as white as Miller to play Bleu’s mother simply begs for comment. Usually, in a movie like this, it at least feels plausible that the parents and children might be related. With these kids, it feels as if they might have been abducted.
The bad-Crystal/good-Alex romantic hubbub occupies half the film, while the other half is concerned with getting Cale back on a bike — any bike, even the one he finds on the side of the road and rebuilds into motocross material. Unfortunately, his overworked mother falls asleep at the wheel of her car and Cale has to sell his rebuilt bike to cover the medical bills. No, Cale doesn’t rescue any babies by leaping from ice floe to ice floe across a freezing river, but his Job-like suffering does lead up to a climactic race and a preposterous ending.
Given that his talents include dancing (notably, in all three installments of “High School Musical”), Bleu is a bit lead-footed in “Free Style.” Miller plays her character as a kind of delicate wreck, and Echeverria is a find. Febres is terrifically memorable in a small but essential role, and Scott Paley, who plays one of Cale’s friends, pops out of the supporting cast. The rest are spinning their wheels.
Production values are adequate, although some of the pointlessly handheld shooting is simply distracting. And compared with something like “Supercross: The Movie,” the race sequences are anemic. No editor was credited on the print reviewed.