The Highlight Reel

“The Luck of the Irish” and early 2000s American patriotism

Nick Porisch

More stories from Nick Porisch

The Highlight Reel
May 10, 2023

Photo by Marisa Valdez

Image copyright Walt Disney Pictures

Only in the year 2001 could Disney make a movie about leprechauns and Irish heritage and somehow end it with all of the characters singing “America, the Beautiful” in a high school auditorium.

The movie we’re covering this week, Disney’s 2001 Saint Patrick’s Day classic “The Luck of the Irish,” might be the most absolutely bonkers one yet.

It focuses on Kyle, a high school basketball star, who carries a lucky coin from his mom that helps him succeed at everything he does. Kyle has a best friend named Russel, a love interest named Bonnie and an entire school rooting for him.

Things get complicated, though, as heritage day approaches at the school and Kyle is the only kid “with no heritage.” When he asks his parents where their family comes from, all his dad will give him is that they’re from Cleveland.

It gets even weirder when Kyle discovers his dad, Bob Johnson, changed his last name and is actually Bob Smith.

I’m just going to say it now, this is never explained. As far as I can tell, this plot mystery is entirely dropped and has no bearing on the story.

What we do discover is that Kyle’s mom is a leprechaun, and the only thing allowing his family to pass as human and not six-inch-tall green-clad individuals is Kyle’s lucky coin.

Of course, this becomes an issue when the lucky coin is stolen by another, evil leprechaun at a fair.

Kyle begins to transform into a leprechaun himself, just in time for his basketball team to make it to the championship game. Oh yeah, did you forget this is a sports movie?

So, Kyle goes on a mission with Bonnie, Russel, his parents and his potato chip tycoon-leprechaun grandfather to retrieve the lucky coin.

There are some wacky antics, a sick neon-green 1959 convertible Cadillac and everything comes to a head when Kyle makes a bet with the evil leprechaun that he can beat him in “sports.”

Yep, just “sports.” Not a specific sport, or a genre of sports, just “sports.”

The evil leprechaun takes the bet, and Kyle wagers his servitude for his grandfather’s life and his lucky coin. They compete in a series of archaic Irish sports, including one game called “throwing the chariot wheel,” which is exactly what it sounds like.

Their first eight games end in a tie, though, so Kyle challenges the leprechaun to basketball. Somehow, this means the leprechaun joins the rival team at the championship game and no one bats an eye at the 40-year-old man on the court.

Russel learns how to have confidence, and together the two best friends win the game, banish the leprechaun to Cleveland (yep) and get Kyle’s grandfather and lucky coin back.

This movie is, frankly, bizarre. It manages to be culturally inappropriate to essentially every group of people who are represented in the movie, including Latinx people, Black people, Indigenous peoples and, of course, Irish people.

Most of it is mild and well-meaning, though, because the movie is attempting to present an array of cultures in a respectful way, even if the “respectful” part doesn’t always land. “Luck of the Irish” is by far the most diverse cast out of any of these movies I’ve seen so far and that’s nice to see.

Where the movie gets really strange is in the characters’ transformations into leprechauns. For the most part, becoming a leprechaun just means becoming an intense stereotype of Irish people.

The characters develop cartoonish Irish accents, begin to compulsively step-dance and cook exclusively potato and cabbage meals. I’m not sure exactly what the movie was going for with this but it comes across pretty uncomfortably.

The movie is also laden with early-2000s patriotism. 

Kyle is committed to the idea that his heritage doesn’t matter because he’s just an American, and there are very funny lines like “In America, we don’t believe in kings. We believe in baseball.”

In 2023, it can be easy to be cynical about that kind of thing, but the movie is going for an optimistic message about the melting pot view of America, where people are proud of their heritage while still being, above-all-else, Americans.

Whether that view of the country holds up today, or is indicative of an outdated time where assimilation was the status quo, is a topic that could be talked about for articles on end, and this is a column about Disney Channel sports movies, so let’s move on.

“Luck of the Irish” is one of the weirdest movies I’ve ever seen. If you’re looking for a wild 90-minute ride this Saint Patrick’s Day, then I can’t recommend it enough. However, be prepared for your biggest takeaway at the end to simply be “Huh?”

Porisch can be found at [email protected].