In recent years — particularly in regard to the transformation of New York City's Times Square from a locus of iniquity into a tourist-friendly projection of consumerism's id — people tend to wield the word "Disneyfication" in a negative context. This is, at times, unfair to the Walt Disney Corporation, whose properties include some of the finest achievements in cinema. At its best, Disney represents a kind of sanctuary where innocent happiness prevails over all, a projection of the worlds created in their finest animated films.
The distinction of "animated films" is deliberate, as its track record with live action is shakier, and its appropriation — the literal process of Disneyfication — of true stories for "inspirational" fictional films is its shakiest sub-genre. In the quest for uplift, McFarland, USA stumbles rather badly in some places, squandering the considerable goodwill generated by an appealing cast, somehow ending up both grossly overlong and insufficiently substantial.
The true story from which McFarland, USA is drawn is one of the more impressive obscure sporting achievements in recent memory: Starting in 1987, McFarland High School's cross-country running team won nine out of 14 California state championships. This was in spite of McFarland being one of the poorest towns not only in the state, but also the nation, and cross-country running being a sport dominated by those who can afford the best equipment and conditioning. It's a great story, whose triumphant underdogs conquer not only sport, but also racism — the team members were all of non-white Hispanic descent — and classism, and who (mostly) lived happily ever after.
Where the movie makes its fatal error — though the blame for this error lies not with the filmmakers, but the film industry at large — is by telling this fascinating, rich story from the perspective of a white man who just happened to be there. Jim White (Kevin Costner) certainly deserves a degree of credit for coaching his runners to such success. But the runners were the ones who won those titles. And if there's one thing American cinema is not lacking, it's stories about the nobility and spiritual growth of white people, especially when it lights the way for non-white people. If the White Savior were the panacea movies would have audiences believe, no one on Earth would still need to be saved. The White Savior is a lie intended to make white people feel better about themselves, nothing more, and there needn't be another frame of film wasted on pretending this is a worthwhile narrative device.
However, if such a movie has to exist, it could be a lot worse than McFarland, USA is, in pure craft terms. Director Niki Caro (Whale Rider, North Country) does a creditable if merely serviceable job visually; as much as it may seem like simply pointing a camera at Costner, Maria Bello or Californian landscapes would be sufficient, there's more to it than that. And, in spite of the business the script forces the characters through, Caro gets solid performances out of the cast.
About that script business. There's the manner, recalling Costner's own Dances With Wolves, whereby he and his family experience initial revulsion toward their Hispanic neighbors — which is pungent and off-putting enough to nearly derail the whole movie before it even properly starts — only to fully adopt their customs and be fully forgiven for their initial transgressions. Even this is less awkward than the way the script attempts to portray the poverty in McFarland; the brutal toll of fruit/vegetable/nut picking is limited to a couple of members of the cross country team missing practice a couple times, and Coach White shown as not able to keep up with their pace when he joins them at work in an act of solidarity. Most offensively, poverty is portrayed as a frame of mind one can conquer simply by choice.
It's not as though the Ken Loach version of this film is anything that would realistically exist in this world. And, again, it's not as though this version is without its pleasures, especially the performances of the runners and their families. But those pleasures are sadly outweighed by the queasiness imposed by the need to make everything cute, unthreatening and neat. The real world, for better or worse, is not Disney.