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UPSETTING DAY

Upsetting Day: The Minis

In cinema, there is a thin line between “inspirational tale” and “grotesque mockery of everything we hold sacred” and if you don’t know what I mean, go back and watch American Beauty. In 1999, millions of upper-class white dudes gazed tearfully at Kevin Spacey and whispered, “When I look at that man, I see myself.” Though I guess they weren’t wrong.

What I’m trying to say is that maybe we shouldn’t be relying on Hollywood to teach us inspirational lessons at all. Your favorite powerful movie monologue was probably written by someone who had to stop half way through to google, “troubleshooting adult pet tiger after cocaine injected into penis.” But, uplifting stories sell tickets, so every filmmaker is required to have in their mind some vague shape of what a meaningful story looks like. After that, they’re kind of relying on the actors’ charisma and a stirring score to hide the fact that their movie has no idea what it’s saying.

In a blockbuster, the result is usually merely vapid (“Your heart is free,” says Braveheart’s dad, “have the courage to follow it“) but sometimes you end up with a straight-to-video underdog sports movie about NBA great and legendary weirdo Dennis Rodman training a team of basketball dwarfs. This is not a photoshop:

I mean, it is, but it’s for a real movie. The Minis, which was at some point re-released as Little Hoop Dreams, is a 2007 film in which Rodman, who in real life became extremely wealthy due to a combination of remarkable rebounding ability and marketable personality disorders, plays himself. He is recruited to help the aforementioned men with dwarfism win a basketball tournament and by all rights this should have been the last underdog sports movie ever made before the genre was banned via some kind of international treaty. The film has been out for thirteen years and has no Wikipedia page.

Just to be clear, what’s hilarious about this movie isn’t that it features dwarfs doing things. The way these actors have traditionally been treated by Hollywood is some bullshit. They’re forced to pick their projects based entirely on which whimsical fantasy creature they want to play next and if you think I’m joking, take a gander at the IMDB of one of the most prolific actors with dwarfism, Warwick Davis: In his career he has played characters named Sniff, Wicket, Lickspittle, Weazel, Flitwick, Weeteef, Nikabrik, Bopkin, Grildrig, Glimfeather, as well as the occasional unnamed “Elf” and “Leprechaun.” He’s not in this movie, but you get my point — every member of The Minis cast was probably thrilled to have a part that didn’t require six hours in a makeup chair before filming a scene in which they cackle while stealing a baby.

The opening credits of The Minis plays over a hip-hop(?) song that you quickly realize actually seems to be about dwarfs playing basketball? Sample lyrics:

I really wanna be a big player

Mini get it on the court, come closer

You wanna be a giant like me?

Take the ball and prove you can be

Little man when you’re dribblin’ low

Then bustin’ it back to front

Come on do what you came to do

We’re gonna play b-ball together

Yeah, it turns out that every song on this film’s soundtrack was composed specifically for the film and every fucking one is absolutely about basketball-loving dwarfs. Each was written by Valerio Zanoli, who also wrote, produced and directed this film. There is an excellent chance that The Minis started as a concept album about dwarf basketball and the movie was merely supplementary material.

We then cut to Roger and Chevy, a pair of middle-aged men with dwarfism playing basketball on a city court in L.A. A group of evil, also-middle-aged anti-dwarf bullies come along and taunt the protagonists. Why bother playing basketball, they sneer, when you are so short? You’ve seen underdog sports movies before and so had Mr. Zanoli — this is the part where we reveal the ignorant prejudice that our heroes must overcome. It is also cruelly true to life: in twenty-first Century America, success does in fact require winning the support of guys who look exactly like this:

Chevy replies to the bullies that Roger is a great shooter, regardless of height, and that he’ll prove it. Then Roger shoots and … misses so badly that the ball is wedged behind the hoop. 

So this story, ostensibly about how prejudice unfairly holds back certain groups, goes out of its way to point out that prejudice is in no way the obstacle in this particular case. The protagonists are simply not very good at basketball, despite unfettered access to all of the necessary equipment and facilities. The existing system, this film says in its opening minutes, is a meritocracy that is functioning perfectly. Or, at least, it was.

Roger then goes to a different court to watch his normal-height teenage son play a basketball game of his own. His son also sucks and, after an embarrassing turnover, a (different) bully taunts him with, “Like father, like son.” So in the universe of this film, Roger the dwarf is so bad at basketball that 1) he is infamous around the Venice Beach basketball scene and 2) has shamed his entire family. 

His son runs home crying, disowning his father (calling him “Roger” instead of “Dad”) and telling him that he was just rejected for a basketball scholarship, presumably because his father has done such a shitty job of imparting to him any kind of basketball-friendly genes or skills. Roger then sullenly sits on the sofa and gazes at a framed photo of his son being sad about basketball:

Roger soon stumbles across a flier for the First Annual Venice Beach Basketball Tournament, seemingly taking place on the same famous courts featured in White Men Can’t Jump (side note: if you stumbled across The Minis on cable, you’d assume you were watching a White Men Can’t Jump porn parody in which all of the fucking is merely implied yet also unspeakably graphic). The first prize is $50,000 and Roger notes that this would be enough to pay his son’s college tuition. End of Act 1. 

Roger needs a team of five for the tournament and recruits two other middle-aged friends who also have dwarfism, reminding them that all they need to do is believe in themselves. The pair note that they have not played basketball since they were children but agree to join because, as one of them says, they have nothing else to do. This will remain those characters’ only motivation for the rest of the film.

We then cut to a montage of all of the men practicing and failing so hilariously that it appears they’ve never even heard of the sport of basketball, let alone played it. They chuck one-handed shots that sail over the backboard. A simple pass hits Roger right in the cock.

I should note here that easily 60% of this 75-minute movie is montages and each montage is set to a different track about dwarfs playing basketball. It’s basically a rock opera. Sample lyrics from this sequence:

Here we go (garbled) this Roger guy

He used to play b-ball in Junior High

But now they don’t have style, they don’t have grace

Trippin’ and bumpin’ all over the place

People say, they can’t play just because they look that way

So he’s small, they’re not tall

They’ll bounce, dunk and dribble to show them all

You lying motherfucker. No one is saying they can’t play ball because, “They look that way.” People are saying they can’t play because they’d be lying if they said anything else. These men haven’t developed even the limited physical gifts they possess.

It’s after this disastrous practice that the four decide that their chances in the tournament would be improved if their fifth player was both very tall and also an all-time basketball great. As luck would have it, Dennis Rodman just happens to be in the neighborhood. They ask for his assistance and eventually Rodman and these four horrendous basketball players wind up in the office of Rodman’s agent. 

That’s what they had in the script, anyway. For reasons that may or may not involve Rodman forgetting he was in the movie, this scene about the three involved parties talking around a conference table is actually cobbled together out of shots of the agent, Rodman and the dwarf team that were clearly filmed in three different locations on three different days. All of the shots of Rodman are generic facial reactions that I think were filmed without his knowledge:

The agent dubs the team “The Minis” and it’s time for another montage, this one involving Dennis watching the men do calisthenics on the beach. To this day I am 100% sure that Rodman believes all of this was just one of his less disturbing hallucinations.

The original track that plays here is either about dwarf basketball or a school shooting (They made fun of us in high school / they stepped on us, we were the fools / but now we’re gonna make ’em pay / the Minis are gonna have their way). It is revealed here that the Minis, in addition to being bad at basketball, are also in very poor physical condition and struggle with basic exercise. The tournament is two months away. 

At this point, I suspect that something like twenty minutes of film was lost in a suspicious fire. Just five minutes after the above scene, we get another montage about how the Minis, over the course of a couple of weeks, have become wealthy international superstar athletes. As far as we the audience know, the five have not played a single game of basketball against anyone, or even practiced as a team. Yet, we get a song about how great it is to be a famous basketball-playing dwarf (“You got the fame, you got it all / You got the life, now play b-ball / You made it big though you’re tiny / I wanna be like a Mini”) over a montage of The Minis appearing on magazine covers all around the world:

Then a character in the movie notes, out loud, that Minis merchandise can be purchased at the-minis.com, a domain that absolutely was the movie’s online store at the time but today  just redirects to their YouTube page (935 subscribers!). 

The film quickly rushes through a series of subplots. Chevy wants to date a tall woman, shunning the attention of a woman with dwarfism. Roger’s son says he hates basketball and wants to go to clown school in Paris. Roger responds that they can send him to any college he wants, because now they have more than enough money even without a scholarship, thanks to their Minis-related windfall- 

Wait. Back the fuck up. 

This character’s entire motivation was winning the basketball tournament to earn the $50,000 to send his kid to college. And here, a mere forty minutes in, he’s done it. They just mention this in passing, like everyone involved kind of just forgot the film’s inciting incident. No time to dwell on it — there is another training montage (minus Rodman, who again apparently failed to show up to the set) showing that the Minis are now good at passing and making shots, as long as there are no defenders on the court. 

The screenwriter knew that around here is where the heroes are supposed to hit some kind of speed bump in their progress, so he awkwardly inserts a dispute triggered by the agent suggesting the Minis do a series of endorsements to cash in on their fame. Most of the men refuse, because they don’t want to sell out. But … wait … they weren’t doing endorsements before now? Then how did they make all of their money? From the merchandise? I mean, it’s Dennis Rodman and four dwarfs, what else could they … oh god. Oh god, no.

No time to dwell on this, either, as the Minis reconcile literally four minutes after their breakup. It’s tournament day!

Courtside, the announcer notes that despite the tournament being open to anyone, only eight teams have qualified and the Minis are among them. Let me remind you that in fifty-two minutes of movie, these five players have still never taken the court together, not even for a scrimmage. Maybe the idea is that Rodman’s fame was enough to get them in? Eh, I’m sure whatever group of inner city street ball players they displaced couldn’t have used the $50K.

We learn via montage that the Minis win their first game because Dennis Rodman utterly dominates the amateur competition. It’s around here that you realize the true underdogs of the story are the other players who’ve spent their entire lives honing their craft, only to find themselves humiliated by a millionaire and a team of novices who showed up because one of them walked past a flier. Meanwhile, here’s what the soundtrack says as we watch Rodman dunking over those sad fuckers:

You can’t keep the little man down

’bout to do this like I’m a terminator now

Small but fly, you can’t pace us

Stakes are high, you can’t erase us

Gonna dribble you out, then play stainless

Side note: The single best experience you can have with a movie is watching The Minis and imagining the soundtrack is sarcastic. Advancing to the tournament’s final four, the Minis immediately play the next game and, again, win easily, this time the dwarfs hitting open shots because the other team’s defense collapses on Rodman. A new song plays:

You know we really don’t care what people say

We know we’re gonna b-ball anyway

Don’t think we’re scared, I’m gonna tell you why

We’re gonna make the big boys cry

What? No one tried to stop you from entering this tournament, even though they absolutely should have! The only people in this whole movie who told you not to play basketball were the bullies at the beginning and they’re not even here. If anyone is being treated unfairly, it’s the opponents who paid their dues on the courts but never got magazine covers out of it, then had to watch as Dennis Rodman, no shit, scores the winning shot by picking up Chevy and throwing him at the hoop:

With that, the Minis have advanced to the final game, which we’re told will be played the following day. Everyone goes home and the editor, realizing they didn’t film anything close to enough movie, slaps together yet another training montage from unused footage. It’s seriously just a bunch of clips of the actors fucking around in their driveway. Then we get a shot of Chevy driving around in his massive new Hummer SUV, which is another scene intended to emphasize that their lucrative-but-unspeakable side hustle has rendered the tournament and its prize money utterly irrelevant to everyone involved.

The final game arrives, against the “Venice Vipers.” The poor bastards playing the Vipers do their damnedest to sell the idea that they could plausibly lose one-on-one matchups to players with zero athleticism or skills who are literally three feet shorter than they are. The editor rapidly cuts around shots of the action as not to linger on moments like the one below, in which three flat-footed defenders kind of stand back and let Roger shoot, condescendingly going through the motions like a parent playing with a toddler. “Yay! You made it!”

Mr. Zanoli knows that in the sports movie template, the underdogs need to suffer some kind of crushing blow right at the finish line that they must overcome with heart and teamwork. Thus, the scoreboard says the Minis are down by four when Dennis Rodman suffers a knee injury. The minis will have to learn how to play without him! The movie almost makes sense!

Wait, no. Roger’s son — the one who sucks at basketball and hates it, who wants to go to clown school, inexplicably shows up dressed in a clown outfit with a Minis uniform over it. He’s going to step in and help the team win. Oh, he hasn’t suddenly become good at basketball or anything — the actor actually does that thing where he has to look down while he dribbles so he doesn’t bounce it off his foot … 

… but he makes the tying shot because the other team kind of just lets him? There’s no sports movie Chekhov’s gun that was foreshadowed earlier, no equivalent of the Karate Kid’s crane kick or Pedro Cerrano learning to hit the curve. The worse basketball players come back against the better basketball players for no reason whatsoever. The game is now tied and they call timeout to draw up the potential game-winning play. Whatever you think is about to happen next, I’m telling you that you’re fucking wrong.

Without any discussion or any previous indication that the following is possible, the Minis start glowing with golden dwarf magic and climb on each other’s shoulders to dunk the ball.

It takes them a full minute of screentime to assemble themselves this way and if you’re wondering how they had time to do that, it’s because one of the Minis drilled an opposing player in the scrotum with his elbow and the other four members of the Venice Vipers were busy quadruple-teaming Roger’s son, perhaps mistaking him for Dennis Rodman. 

The referees then take the court and wave off the basket, since that play did in fact violate several rules of basketball and at least two city ordinances. Rather than award the ball to the other team, the ref just declares the Vipers the winner(?). Then Dennis Rodman shows up again and says that it doesn’t matter that they lost, because they have gained something far more important: Popularity with the crowd, which is now chanting their name. A child in the audience turns to his father and says, “When I grow up, I want to be a dwarf!” Credits roll as that line ricochets around your skull.

So, there are two possibilities here and they are equally tragic:

A) The entire message of this movie is a sarcastic “fuck you” to the entire concept of “believing in yourself” mattering at all;

B) Our screenwriter made it to the climax of the story and himself realized that there was no plausible way to have these guys achieve their goal, even within the incredibly forgiving rules of a genre in which you can tell the audience “angels helped them” and nobody will blink. 

Now, as some of you know, I write novels for a living and have a novel coming out this year called Zoey Punches the Future in the Dick, about a team of con artists with PSYOPS training navigating a future full of superpowered lunatics. But my goal with these books is to make enough money that I can retire and do an oral history of The Minis. I expect the project to take decades and it will require me to learn Italian in order to do the research. 

Here’s a taste: The trivia section on Amazon says, “In Italy, the film teamed up with the number one sports newspaper, radio station and theme park. It had promotions with companies such as Yahoo! and McDonald’s.” It also notes that the Italian dubbing was done by various famous soccer stars. On YouTube, you can watch the trailer for the video game tie-in that apparently actually existed in some form:

What I’m saying is that there is an alternate universe in which this movie became the next Space Jam and I won’t quit until I can build a machine that will let me go live in it. 

Jason “David Wong” Pargin is a New York Times bestselling author and the former executive editor of Cracked.com. You can follow him on Twitter or browse his selection of alarming yet shockingly well-reviewed novels.