Cool Runnings is an anomaly: Released by Disney in 1993, it stands out among the studio’s other sports movies, largely because it’s yet to be properly imitated. The Mouse House had scored a hit the year before with The Mighty Ducks, its first athletic-themed movie in almost a decade. That film rarely strays from classic triumph-over-adversity archetypes, centering as it does on a disgraced coach (Emilio Estevez) who attempts to reclaim his lost, peewee hockey glory by teaching a group of lovable misfits the game’s intricacies. (Conveniently, their miraculous luck never seems to run out.) Ducks was successful enough to spawn two sequels, each offering only the slightest variation on its stock formula, and the 1994 remake of Angels In The Outfield, an underdog fable in which adolescent Joseph Gordon-Levitt calls on God to help the struggling California Angels win the pennant.
While both Ducks and Angels focused on kids overcoming obstacles with the guiding hand of mysticism or Emilio Estevez, the film released between them projected a decidedly wearier outlook on the world. Cool Runnings employs failure not as a plot device, but as an ethos. The main character is Derice Bannock (Leon), a sprinter whose dreams of Olympic gold are shattered during the qualifying race when another competitor, Junior Bevil (Rawle D. Lewis), falls off the starting block, tripping Bannock and a third runner, the inexplicably named Yul Brenner (Malik Yoba). That’s right: Cool Runnings literally opens with the protagonist falling on his face. And the moment is played completely straight, not for laughs.
Most Disney sports stories drive home the importance of victory above all else. In the case of Ducks and Angels, early scenes of defeat are leavened by slapstick comedy, and the inevitable ascent to the championship game achieves tension only through the fact that the kids should be losing. Achievement, these films tell us, cannot be measured in growth or personal success, but through medals or placement on a pedestal. Cool Runnings subverts this lesson, along with audience expectations. Shaken by his failure, but largely undeterred, Bannock looks for a different path to the Olympics. What he discovers is that if Jamaica assembles a team of four, the country can participate in the bobsled event at the Winter Games. With the help of his best friend Sanka Coffie (Doug E. Doug), Bannock holds a public tryout; joining his unlikely roster are Bevil, the man who disqualified him from his preferred competition, and Brenner, who is less than enthused by the prospect of getting on a bobsled—or sharing a team with Bevil—but allows his desire to escape the island trump his trepidation. With a makeshift team assembled, Bannock and Coffie make a plea to the one Jamaican who possesses a working knowledge of bobsledding, John Candy’s Irv Blitzer. It’s a fairly paint-by-numbers plot up to this point, borrowing a bit from the established success of The Mighty Ducks. After a while, though, it begins to resemble Rocky more than the rest of Disney’s slate.
Unlike its more kid-centric counterparts, Cool Runnings reached out to children not through characters they could initially relate to, but through the emotions being expressed. Brenner, the film’s stoic straight man, is the first to confront the film’s sobering life lessons when he learns that the dream home he’s long pined for is, in fact, Buckingham Palace. It’s a foregone conclusion that what he’s aspired to for the bulk of his adult life is forever out of reach. Though there’s a tenderness to Brenner being consoled by Bevil, his loathed teammate, it hardly undercuts the uncomfortable message being delivered to kids: Your dreams are going to die the harshest deaths possible, so be ready.
Consider, also, the moment where Blitzer storms into an Olympic Committee board meeting to plea for the reinstatement of his team, which has been disqualified because of his mistake. A fine, heartfelt showcase for Candy’s gifts as a dramatic actor, the scene—like many others in the movie—ends without resolution. As is necessary for the plot to progress, the Jamaicans are eventually reinstated, and they joyously celebrate the news. But Cool Runnings dares to delay that victory; the film is most meaningful when its characters are dwelling on their own shortcomings, as Blitzer does during his appeal.
Everything leads to the film’s climax, in which (spoilers, but c’mon, the movie’s 20 years old) the team makes it to the final heat but crashes coming out of a turn and loses the race. Since the basic premise of Cool Runnings was taken from actual events in the 1988 Olympic games, the film wisely uses this footage as opposed to re-creating it. Seeing the real Jamaican bobsled team wipe out is perhaps more harrowing than any close-up re-creation might have been. The sight of the four men crawling out, acknowledging their defeat, and carrying the malfunctioning sled across the finish line plays like a final nod to the film’s sobering goals. The team and its coach fail in a manner that is destructively glorious, and because of this, Cool Runnings remains a sports film about internal triumph in the face of personal and professional failure. Such wisdom is rarely imparted in adult sports films, let alone those intended for adolescent consumption. In fact, two weeks after its release came Rudy, a movie that remains popular to this day, perhaps for its ability to emotionally manipulate its audience instead of striving for resonance.
Tragedy is hardwired into the DNA of Cool Runnings. Candy, whose career was in something of a tailspin, died during the production of his next movie, Wagons East!, which means that Cool Runnings is the last of his own films he lived to see. It’s also come to light that one of the screenwriters, Tommy Swerdlow, was abusing heroin throughout the movie’s conception and production. (He’s even suggested that his initial work on the film would have made it even more adult.) Perhaps this element of darkness has helped Cool Runnings overcome the limitations of the genre, destroying some of its inherent sentimentality. It certainly didn’t hurt the film’s commercial appeal: Despite its deviation from the crowd-pleasing formula, Cool Runnings was the most successful of Disney’s ’90s sports movies, raking in $154 million at the box-office and recouping its budget 11 times over. Though its profits likely influenced Disney’s future endeavors, like the more adult-oriented Endurance and Remember The Titans, the film didn’t spawn a sequel or spinoff. But it didn’t need to because the original works as a striking stand-alone offering—the rare Disney underdog story to celebrate noble failure. Though it certainly has faults, which only the extremely nostalgic could ignore, the film bests its contemporaries through its ability to unite childlike comedy and adult concerns without ever obscuring one with the other.