The 1988 Winter Olympics were the mother lode of cinematic underdog stories. Not only did the Calgary Games produce the phenom of the Jamaican bobsled team — immortalized in the cheerful 1993 Disney movie "Cool Runnings" — but a bumbling bundle of fan catnip named Michael "Eddie" Edwards, the first British athlete to compete in the Olympic ski-jump competition and an instant symbol of innocence, perseverance and irrepressible can-do-ism.
Edwards is brought to quirky, affectionate life by Taron Egerton in "Eddie the Eagle," a rousing, liberally dramatized story of hard work and rewards for which the term "heartwarming" was apparently invented.
Egerton, who came to most filmgoers' attention as the rough kid who becomes a suave secret agent in the comic action thriller "Kingsman: The Secret Service," puts himself through a remarkable physical transformation to play the far-sighted Edwards, contorting his youthfully handsome face into a rictus of grimaces and squints behind owlish glasses. Painfully awkward, both socially and physically, Edwards is nonetheless determined to compete in the Olympics, a dream he's held since he was a child whose "dodgy knees" relegated him to a constricting leg brace.
Physical setbacks aren't Eddie's only challenges: He must pursue his dreams in the face of his father's skepticism, the British Olympics establishment's snobbery and the condescension of a bullying bunch of skiers from Norway.
But Eddie has a gift for making his own luck, personified in the movie by a fictional American coach played by a smoking, drinking, scowling Hugh Jackman — whose dancer's grace is gratifyingly exploited during the de rigeur "Karate Kid"-inspired training montage. That sequence is set to a bouncy Hall & Oates tune from the 1980s, of a piece with the movie's retro aesthetic that extends mod screen titles and an often-intrusive synthesizer-heavy musical score.
If the movie somewhat overplays the Gump-ish naivete of Edwards (he was, in fact, an accomplished, record-holding skier when he competed in Calgary), and if its goal-conflict-triumph schematics occasionally feel threadbare and predictable, the sheer likability of its indomitable hero — and Egerton's winning portrayal of him — more than compensate for those lapses. Director Dexter Fletcher also makes the most of the breathtaking beauty and danger of ski jumping, capturing moments of grace as well as catastrophic wipe-outs with impressive immediacy.
Like its wholesome, good-natured brethren "Miracle" and "Cool Runnings" (which gets a clever shoutout), "Eddie the Eagle" leaves viewers buoyed by satisfactions unique to classic come-from-behind stories. Even when it's as ungainly and cravenly audience-pleasing as its protagonist, it soars.
EDDIE THE EAGLE
Cast: Taron Egerton, Hugh Jackman, Keith Allen, Jo Hartley, Mark Benton, Tim McInnerny, Rune Temte
Director: Dexter Fletcher
Rating: PG-13 for some suggestive material, partial nudity and smoking
Running time: 105 minutes
Theaters: Bluffs 17, Majestic, Oakview, Twin Creek, Village Pointe, Westroads