12 Mighty Orphans is adapted from the 2008 book 12 Mighty Orphans: The Inspiring Story of the Mighty Mites Who Ruled Texas Football, a hagiographic sports history book about Rusty Russell, a legendary head football coach who, for a time early in his career, helped build a team out of orphans at the Fort Worth Masonic Home. That team, the Mighty Mites, is the subject of some amount of sports legend due to its 81% winning record during the 16 years that Russell coached them, which seems pretty good for a ragtag group of orphans.
It’s a feel-good underdog story, and 12 Mighty Orphans is a feel-good underdog story sports movie — along with everything that description entails. If you’ve seen one before, you’ve certainly seen this one and done better than this. Although boasting a talented cast that makes the most of it, filmmaker Ty Roberts’ 12 Mighty Orphans doesn’t bring anything new to the underdog sports story and isn’t a particularly memorable entry into the genre.
Luke Wilson stars as Russell, doing his best aw-shucks, well-meaning character who spouts platitudes about how much he believes in the orphans he’s been hired to teach and help coach. We learn Russell himself was an orphan and thus felt driven to move his entire family into the dust-ravaged lands of 1927 Texas just to help bring a sense of family to his students. He meets Doc Hall (Martin Sheen), who runs the orphanage and spouts even more platitudes than Russell. In fact, Doc has so many platitudes that Sheen provides a voiceover for almost the entirety of the film. Voiceovers are difficult to integrate into storytelling without feeling redundant. This one certainly does, including such gems as “What the Mites won couldn’t be printed on papers … it was a belief in themselves.”
Well, clearly. That’s the story.
Roberts does a decent job of conveying the look and feel of 1927 Texas, with the social and aesthetic demands that such a setting requires. Sports stories set in the (now-distant) past benefit from avoiding contemporary social issues, fads and technologies. The original book worked to highlight a narrative from a storied football coach’s early career, in essence expanding a piece of mythology for a well-mythologized man. 12 Mighty Orphans plays the same game and inherently benefits from the untouchable nostalgia for times gone by. To some degree, the 1920s feel like a fairy tale. We’ve certainly been conditioned to look at certain parts of the past that way by the mountain of movies depicting it as such.
Although the voiceover is frustrating and the story isn’t anything new, 12 Mighty Orphans isn’t necessarily a bad effort by those involved. It’s a functionally entertaining work of historical sports fiction. It’s just not particularly memorable — the sort of movie a substitute teacher might put on in class for a few hours to pass the time without any worry about offending students. The only problem with that prescription is that there are so many other, better versions of this movie for that hypothetical teacher to slam into the classroom DVD player. It’s hard to say much more about 12 Mighty Orphans; it’s precisely what you expect.