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Disney may be best known for making animated feature films, or more recently, for making a series of live-action remakes of those animated films, but throughout the decades there's another "franchise" of titles that have been core to the Disney identity: inspirational sports movies. As far back as the 1960s Disney began producing live-action films about the games we play, many of them based on true stories. If your a hockey fan there's Miracle. If baseball is your game there's The Rookie or Million Dollar Arm. Golf has The Greatest Game Ever Played. If you're a fan of pro football you can watch Invincible, but if college ball is more your game, you can now check out Reginald Hudlin's Safety on Disney+.
Safety is the true story of Ray McElrathbey (Jay Reeves), a student and football player at Clemson University who, following his mother's arrest on drug charges, takes in his 11-year-old brother Fahmarr (Thaddeus J. Mixson). The problem is, that since Ray-Ray – as he's known – lives on campus, he has to sneak his brother into his dorm and play surrogate father in secret while also trying to balance the requirements of both football and school, as the scholarship that got him to Clemson will be lost if he falters on either front. It will, of course, also likely be lost if anybody figures out what he's doing with his little brother. And maybe, if he could have something resembling a social life with fellow student Kaycee (Corinne Foxx) that would be nice too.
Safety is oddly lacking in stakes, which hurts the drama.
This sets the stage for a story of Ray-Ray trying to juggle his various responsibilities, trying to get everything done and being overwhelmed by it all. If he is overwhelmed, Ray's entire life could collapse around him, so the stakes could theoretically not be bigger. And yet they never really feel that way. We do see him miss an exam by showing up late after having to get his brother to school, but we never feel like his academic career is actually in jeopardy. We see Ray have a bad practice and get laid into by coaches, but it just happens the one time, and then everything goes back to normal.
The extreme measures that Ray-Ray goes to in order to keep his brother a secret feel much more comic then they're supposed to be. We're supposed to be afraid that the truth will ruin at least two lives, but every time our protagonist is forced to bring somebody into his confidence and reveal what he's doing, Ray gets nothing but support. We're supposed be afraid that if anybody finds out Ray will get in serious trouble and his life will be over, and it never happens. It's heartwarming to see friends support Ray and Fahmarr without question, but it undercuts the drama when every "oh no" is followed by "it's fine." Ray looks less like a hero and more like a kid who is overreacting, which is definitely not the intention of the drama.
With so many great sports dramas on Disney+, Safety simply doesn’t stand out.
Sports have been transformed into dramatic films so many times because the connection is so obvious. Sports have conflict. They have easy-to-grasp stakes. It's built in. To be sure, however, Safety might be even less about the actual sport than many of Disney's other sports titles. Almost no time is spent on the field and the actual outcomes of the games he plays aren't important. There's nothing wrong with that, but frequently in these movies the sports are used to help break up the drama and keep up the pacing of the story, and we don't get that here.
While Disney+ has become home to several movies this year that were meant for theaters, Safety was always planned to be a streaming release, and it honestly fits in line with what we have largely seen from other Disney+ movies. It's exactly the same sort of movie that we expect to see from the House of Mouse, but it's a lightweight version of what we've seen before. All the pieces are here, but none of them hit quite as hard or mean quite as much as they usually do.
Safety finishes strong, but it takes an awfully long time to get there.
In the end, Safety does finally find its drama and its stakes, but it's largely too little too late. The emotion is there, a testament to Jay Reeves' performance, so it's easy to perhaps walk away from Safety feeling that the film was better than it was because it still ends strong. But the fact that it took the length of some full movies just to get there still hangs over the rest of narrative.
If you're a fan of the inspirational sports movie, or the story of Ray McElrathbey specifically, then Safety will likely scratch an itch, but considering that Disney+ is full of these sorts of movies, there are numerous other, far stronger, options available to spend your time watching. Of course, if you love this genre of film so much that you've seen them all already, then you might as well check out Safety before the next one comes along. It just won't stand nearly as tall as the genre classics.