On paper, a Netflix wrestling movie from WWE Studios doesn’t seem like it’d be anything more than a showcase for wrestling moves and WWE superstars. But through clever subversions of tired kid-movie tropes and a whole lot of heart, The Main Event stands out as one of the most genuinely endearing titles on the platform. From television director Jay Karas, whose previous work includes episodes of Superstore and Workaholics, The Main Event is a surprisingly refreshing debut.
The movie follows 11-year-old Leo (Seth Carr), a wrestling superfan who’s dealing with school bullies, an overworked father (Adam Pally), and an absent mother. After discovering a magic luchador mask, he enters a WWE contest that just happens to be taking place in his small generic suburban town. (At least the film lampshades this remarkable coincidence.) The concept of a kid getting magical powers that help him escape his mundane life isn’t anything new, but The Main Event stands out by avoiding overplayed clichés and focusing on the emotional message.
For one thing, Leo is a pretty savvy protagonist. As a wrestling superfan, he knows the ins and outs of the WWE. As a kid who reads fantasy books like Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series and its spinoffs, he knows how to navigate his new supernatural abilities. Instead of being totally bewildered by the mask and its powers, he puts it through a reverse Google image search, and manages to find an old news story revealing some of its secrets.
And the film skips other common plot devices, too. At least one of Leo’s teachers actually believes that the school bullies are being jerks, and sends them to the principal’s office. Misunderstandings that would usually make up the bulk of a kid-geared movie are smoothed out relatively quickly, allowing more focus on the true conflicts — Leo grappling with his mother’s departure, his wavering self-esteem, and his tense relationship with his father.
Juggling that many plot points sometimes wears each slightly thin, but because they’re all interconnected, they culminate in a satisfying resolution. Leo’s insecurity in his life and in school, along with his father’s distance, stem from his mother leaving them. Their tense relationship comes from his father’s refusal to talk about it — and also the fact that his father is juggling two jobs to pay off their mortgage. Those relationships and conflicts weave cohesively with the gimmick of Leo entering the wrestling contest, grounding the otherwise wacky plot in something real.
As a super magical wrestler, Leo gets a deeper voice, super-strength, and most importantly, confidence. It’s like 1994’s The Mask in that way, since this magical mask gives Leo the gumption to be an enhanced, cooler version of himself. And as with The Mask, the end message is obviously that he doesn’t need this mask to be the person he wants to be. Of course, even though The Main Event indulges in outlandish feats of magical strength and cheesy special effects like The Mask, the ultimate delivery is more family-friendly, with a focus on Leo repairing family and friendship bonds, and being true to himself.
Leo’s friends are admittedly a little one-note, and the acting on the kids’ parts veers a little stiff. But Leo’s friendship with his crush Erica (Momona Tamada) blossoms naturally as he figures out how to be himself around her without the use of his magic mask. The best part of the cast is Leo’s grandmother, played by Tichina Arnold, who serves as his mentor figure throughout the movie — a gregarious, wrestling-loving mentor who openly gushes about her crush on WWE superstar Kofi Kingston. Leo navigates his tricky relationship with his father, but having his grandmother both as an anchor and a source of comedy gives his familial relationships more dimension.
The Main Event has its fair share of over-the-top wrestling theatrics. To secure a slot in the big tournament, Leo and the other contestants compete at tasks like walking on wires and throwing barrels. The tournament matches themselves are deliciously grandiose, with little regard for logic. Watching tiny Leo face off against bulked-up opponents is funny, but there’s also gleeful childish satisfaction in seeing his confidence build as he faces tougher and tougher opponents. It’s a staple of movies like Spy Kids, which indulge in outlandish, oversized fantasy, but more importantly, allow kids to see themselves as heroes.
Leo’s wrestling career folds seamlessly into his personal struggles. Allowing the zanier aspects of the movie to blend with the more grounded ones transcends the movie from a cute good time to something with emotional resonance. The Main Event manages to be the best kind of kid movie, one that smartly avoids genre pitfalls and manages to say something significant — while limiting itself to only one gratuitous fart joke.
The Main Event is streaming on Netflix now.
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