Maniac Magee is a television film made for the Nickelodeon network, based on the novel of the same name by Jerry Spinelli. The story follows twelve-year-old Jeffrey Lionel "Maniac" Magee, an orphaned runaway with many extraordinary and athletic talents, who arrives in a town divided with racial conflict. The film was broadcast on Nickelodeon on February 23, 2003.
Two decades earlier, the parents of twelve-year-old Jeffrey Lionel Magee (Michael Angarano) are killed by a drunk driver just after his father told him that he would show him his infamous "stopball." After his parents' funeral, a police officer and a woman named Dottie Freeze (Melissa Bickerton) who runs an orphanage approaches Jeffrey and tells him to "come with them." They both appear to be lunatics, scaring Jeffrey who decides to run out of town and across the country. All of the running seems to develop into supernatural-like qualities allowing him to run at a very fast speed. After nearly a year of running, he arrives in the town of Two Mills, where racial tensions are extremely strong. Hector Street, the main street located in the middle of the town, divides Two Mills by race: blacks on East End, whites on West End. Jeffrey is confused by racial biases; to him, the people are simply people - heterogeneous, but with much in common, such as both kindness and cruelty.
Jeffrey first crosses over on the East End where the black people there stare at him. He is amazed by a giant ball of twine located outside of a pizza place called "Cobble's Corner" owned by an elderly black man, Mr. Cobble (Garrett Morris). Anyone who can untie it wins a year supply of free pizza from his place. Mr. Cobble comes out and tells Jeffrey to go back to his own side. Jeffrey does so and comes across a kid's baseball game where he comes across a white teenager, Big John McNab (Adam Hendershott), who is a pitcher known for striking out many kids with his fast throw. His younger brothers, Russell and Piper (Brandon de Paul and Isaiah Griffin), cheer him on from behind the gate. His pitching still isn't enough to please his father, George (Rip Torn), who urges him to do better. Jeffrey skips a line of kids waiting to bat to take on Big John. He manages to strike the ball so fast it disintegrates in the air. Big John takes Piper's pet frog to use as a ball to throw at Jeffrey next, who hits it lightly. Big John has a hard time catching it as it's hopping around, allowing Jeffery to score an in-park home run. He tells his friends to go after Jeffrey proclaiming him as a "maniac". Jeffrey makes a run for it back across the East End. The white boys are trapped on their end, but urge Jeffrey not to come back over.
On the East End, Jeffrey runs by a school and meets with a black girl his age named Amanda Beale (Kyla Pratt). Jeffrey first assumes she's running away since she's carrying a large suitcase, but Amanda tells him that it's full of books. Amanda asks Jeffrey if he knows where he is given his skin color and Jeffrey tells her no. Afterwards, he urges her to let him borrow a book to read and promises to bring it back to her. Jeffrey goes to read the book under a tree and catches the eye of Mars Bar Thompson (Orlando Brown) and his friend Bump Gilliam (Shan Elliot). Mars goes to pick a fight with Jeffrey, ripping the page out of Amanda's book in the process. Amanda comes over and scolds Mars for doing that and sends him away. Amanda takes Jeffrey over to her house so he can fix her book. Jeffrey meets Amanda's mother Martha (Rolonda Watts) who assumes he isn't from the area. When Amanda asks if he can stay for dinner, her mother refuses until her younger children, twins Hester and Lester, want him to. After dinner, Mr. Beale (Richard Lawson) goes to drive Jeffrey home only to discover along the way he doesn't have one. He takes Jeffrey back and talks to Martha, who persuades him to let Jeffrey stay for a while.
Jeffrey is treated with absolute kindness by the Beales. Martha buys him new clothes. Hester and Lester promote Jeffrey's ability to untie knots to the other children in the neighborhood who come by to see him over by Amanda's tent. Jeffrey has another encounter with Mars Bar during a football game and accidentally knocks him down. Mars runs up to him asking if he wants a bite of his chocolate. Jeffrey says yes and Mars bites it, asking him again if he wants a bite. To Mars' surprise, Jeffrey still bites it. Back on Hector Street, a man collapses in front of Cobble's Corner. As Jeffrey tries to lift him up, the man scolds him to go back over to his own side. Mr. Cobble comes up to him and tells him to do the same. When he and Amanda return home, they find Martha scrubbing off profanity that was written on the house that says "FISH BELLY GO HOME". Jeffrey is horrified and doesn't understand why skin color should matter to anyone. He doesn't even want to be white since he finds it to be such a boring color. Amanda feels Jeffrey is considering leaving and doesn't want him to and suggest he goes with her to Mr. Cobble's store to untie his huge knot, which no one has been able to do. The next day, Mr. Cobble lets Jeffrey perform the task of untying the knot ball. Jeffrey amazes everyone when he successfully unties the ball. Mr. Cobble and many of the black bystanders cheer him on. The story is printed in the Two Mills Gazette. This angers Mars Bar who has his friends help him trash Amanda's tent and destroy her favorite book in the process. Jeffrey is heartbroken and feels his presence on the East End is making things worse. He leaves a note for the family and decides to run away and cross over to the West End.
Jeffrey goes to sleep out in the woods near a trail and hears some one approaching. He jumps onto the trail where he finds Piper and Russell, who are running away to Mexico. Jeffrey feels the food they have wouldn't last them ten miles and tells them how a running trip there left him scarred and tired. He suggests taking them back home and telling them more about it and then letting them decide for themselves if they still want to move forward with it. At the McNab house, they come across Big John who scolds them for attempting to run away for what is now the fifth time and how ballistic their dad will be when he hears about it. Big John promises but then feels he has business to settle with Jeffrey. The boys convince Big John not to mess with him due to how he handled him at the baseball game. Jeffrey makes up a story about John pitching a ball to him the next day and missing the hit. John convinces him to come home with them so he could tell his father that. Jeffrey went there feeling as though he could get the same kind of treatment there as he did at the Beale house. They go home to see Mr. McNab preparing for a war if the East End residents were to try to conquer onto their side. Mr. McNab keeps a stash of many cans of beans and prunes in his house and feels the Westies will try to come over and take them. Jeffrey tells him that he never hears of any beans and prunes or anyone battling for them. Feeling uncomfortable, he thinks about leaving. After taking Russell and Piper to the zoo and coming home and seeing them and their dad performing a drill to attack the Easties, he decides to head over to the East End.
Jeffrey meets with Amanda, who tried to cross over to the West End but was afraid of standing out. Jeffrey tells her that the McNabs are nice deep down but need her to help him keep Russell and Piper from turning as crazy as their father. They go over to Mars Bar's house to help him. Mars Bar tries to intimidate Jeffrey. The two get into a beef match until Jeffrey declares he's too scared to cross over Hector Street. He tells Mars Bar to come with him to Piper's party and Mars Bar declares he'll be there. That night, Jeffrey, Amanda, Mars Bar and his friends all show up surprising all the white guests. John and his friends goes to face off against Mars Bar and his friends and Mars Bar tells them not to cross over Hector Street. Mr. McNab rages war on them and brings out a cannon. Mars Bar and his friends turn to leave and John calls them chicken. Afterwards an explosion is heard. They all go outside and see that Mars Bar and his friend blew apart the head of a statue outside of the house. Mr. McNab is stunned and tells John and his friend to go after them. Jeffrey and Amanda stay behind to watch.
Meanwhile, Piper and Russell go upstairs and try to fire bean cans at them from a window ledge. Piper slips from the window and falls. Mars Bar runs back and catches him. Russell runs off, knocking over the barrier of stone he and Piper were standing behind which falls towards the boys. Piper makes a run for it and Big John runs up and rescues Mars Bar pushing him out of the way. Big John thanks him for saving Piper as well as Mr. McNab who gives him a salute. With everyone now getting along, Jeffrey declares that they blow up the statue of the town's founder. Mr. McNab does this in honor of Mars Bar for saving his son. Afterwards, a spark then magically appears on the line of Hector Street separating the West and East Ends and erases it entirely, officially ending the segregation between them. Everyone comes together and celebrates. Mr. McNab then declares that it's not the black people trying to steal their beans but the aliens from space. Jeffrey attempts to leave town but Amanda declares he's coming back to her house and staying there for good.
The movie closes back to the present with the narrator telling the story to the group of kids she drove up to at the start of the movie. She states how the town became integrated, even a school being built to house both black and white kids. The narrator turns out to be an older Amanda who has married Jeffrey and had two kids. One of the kids she tells the story to turns out to be her daughter. Her friends are surprised that Amanda had married Jeffrey. The final scene shows older Magee throwing the ball to Junior, and he swings the ball with it smoking in the air, similar to what happened when Big John pitched the ball to Jeffrey several years before.
- Michael Angarano as Jeffrey Lionel "Maniac Magee" Magee
- Kyla Pratt as Amanda Beale
- Orlando Brown as Mars Bar Thompson
- Rip Torn as George McNab
- Adam Hendershott as Big John McNab
- Jada Pinkett Smith as the Narrator and adult Amanda Beale
- Shan Elliot as Bump Gilliam
- Melissa Bickerton as Dottie Freeze
- Brandon de Paul as Russell McNab
- Isaiah Griffin as Piper McNab
- Rolonda Watts as Martha Beale
- Richard Lawson as Mr. Beale
- Zachary Isaiah Williams as Lester Beale
Differences from the book
- Some of the book is cut including when Mars Bar has a conversation with Maniac
- In the book, it ends with Amanda retrieving Jeffrey and telling him to be a permanent resident of the Beale family. There's no time skip to two decades later, as the novel took place in the present.
- In the book, Earl Grayson is a big part and character. In the movie, there is no part or appearance of Grayson.
- In the book, Jeffrey's aunt and uncle do not appear in the movie despite being a big reason for Jeffery to run away in the book.
- In the book, Jeffrey's early life before running away to Two Mills is explained, including an outburst during a school play.
- In the book, there is nothing about space aliens.
- In the book Jeffrey's parents die in a trolley accident when he was 3, in the movie his parents die in a car accident when he was 12.
- In the book Maniac steals a pass from James Down but in the move he steals the ball from Mars Bar.
- The movie was originally intended to be released in 2002 but was pushed back a year. Despite the scheduled 2002/2003 release, the end credits revealed that the film was made in 2001.
- Suzanne MacNeille (February 23, 2003). "FOR YOUNG VIEWERS; History Isn't a Matter of Black or White ". The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2003/02/23/tv/for-young-viewers-history-isn-t-a-matter-of-black-or-white.html. Retrieved on 2016-03-12.