There’s a bit of magic sprinkled into director Jay Karas’ “The Main Event.” Trouble is, adults in the audience will have to go looking for it. This kid-centric wish-fulfillment fantasy from WWE Studios centers around a bullied runt who enters a professional wrestling contest after finding a super-powered and super-stinky mask. The film represents all the tenets of the corporation’s brand and suitably cloaks them in a celebratory, family-friendly guise. Only the execution of the catchy high concept, along the lines of “Like Mike” and “Rookie of the Year,” is a mixed bag. It’s nowhere near the quality of last year’s word-of-mouth sensation from the same studio, “Fighting With My Family,” but dispenses heartening commentary to its target market about the power of dreaming big and harnessing your own authentic strengths.
Eleven-year-old Leo Thompson (Seth Carr) dreams of becoming a WWE superstar with massive crowds cheering as he perfectly performs signature moves on his opponents in the ring. His walls are plastered with posters of inspirational wrestling powerhouses, and his shelves are cluttered with WWE paraphernalia (as if their consumer products department was the film’s uncredited art director). His wrestling renown only comes alive in his imagination, funneling out onto the pages of his sketchbook. In reality, his small stature, predilection for pratfalls and severe lack of confidence have hindered his career goals. He’s also routinely the target of bullying at school by a trio of mean classmates. While he lives in a supportive, loving home with his burgeoning social media influencer grandma Denise (Tichina Arnold), he and his car mechanic father Steve (Adam Pally) are like housemates, struggling to connect since Leo’s mom abandoned them.
Leo’s lackluster life changes drastically after he wanders into an estate sale and uncovers a hidden box containing a smelly old luchador-style wrestling mask. This mask isn’t a powerless, confidence-bolstering placebo like Dumbo’s magic feather. What Leo has in his possession is a mystical totem that transforms him from total geek to totally unique. Despite not altering his physical appearance, donning the disguise gives him super-strength, a deeper voice and successful swagger. His new abilities and alter ego, Kid Chaos, come in handy when the WWE announces their NXT competition to find a new wrestling champion. Not only could winning this tournament springboard him into superstardom, but it would give his family greater financial stability — something he’s overheard his father and grandma worrying about.
Carr’s astute, natural ability to embody the universalities of an everyday kid thrown into extraordinary circumstances is noteworthy. His empathetic likability bolsters the picture with charm and a fun spirit. Mike “The Miz” Mizanin’s inclusion as the NXT tournament host is an inspired casting choice, nodding to his own humble origins of jump-starting his wrestling career on the 10th season of MTV’s “The Real World.” Also, despite the corporate-mandated cameos tipping the scales into fan service (Kofi Kingston and Sheamus make appearances), there’s a loving, genuinely touching tribute to Rowdy Roddy Piper tucked into the film.
To keep this feature from looking flat, Karas, cinematographer Karsten Gopinath, production designer Eric Fraser and costume designer Kara Saun give it an aesthetic charge with a color story. Royal blue dominates the saturated colors populating Leo’s world, on the walls and within the wardrobe. Montages, of which there are a few, are cogently cut by editor Dan Schalk at a snappy rhythm. Karas demonstrates a strong sense of showcasing action sequences in a way that keeps kids interested, particularly when Leo gets to show off the mask’s powers. The spectacle is cohesively constructed, whether Leo is testing the mask’s limits as a kid might do (à la “Shazam,” which shares similar sentiments about the hero being pure of heart), or fighting foes in the ring.
That said, there are a lot of lags in the narrative where it would benefit from a quicker pace and tighter edit. Story beats are repeated frequently. We get at least two of every tonal note when dealing with the family unit fallout. Steve and Denise discuss twice how to handle the topic of his estranged mother. Awkward conversations spotlighting the growing dissonance between father and son happen often, and when the inevitable payoff hits, only one of those moments feels genuinely earned. Kids will understand these heartfelt sequences from moment one. For a film that makes a statement about adults underestimating children’s capacity to handle life’s complexities, it’s ironic that these filmmakers don’t instill the same amount of trust in their young audience.
Though there are comedic moments directed solely at youngsters that err on the sophomoric side (like the elongated fart delivered against Leo by an aggressive, corpulent, sweaty oaf), an overall comedy punch-up is desperately needed to make more of the movie come alive. The filmmakers fail to play up the inherent, absurd hijinks of a small child fooling allegedly intelligent adults and his shockingly clueless peers. Sitcom-style shenanigans would be welcomed in this milieu, but are waved away. It could use more gags than one disinterested adult asking Leo about his background and a tired short joke about Kevin Hart.
Even though the feature reflects WWE’s core values built on family, teamwork and inspirational aspirations, and contains healthy messages about proving one’s mettle using wit and wisdom, “The Main Event” sags far too frequently.