By Mary Milliken and Lisa Richwine
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - In the new Disney film "Million Dollar Arm," Jon Hamm is soaked in perspiration, not the alcohol-induced sweat of his "Mad Men" character Don Draper, but the kind that comes from filming a modest production in India in the hottest part of the year.
Despite working in conditions he calls "remarkably warm and challenging," the baseball tale with a global twist gave Hamm not only his first lead role in film but one that was decidedly more upbeat than the ad man that made him famous on television.
"I love the fact that it has a family component to it and it has redemption," said Hamm. "You leave the movie theater with a smile on your face. It's a nice alternative to my other on-screen persona, who is a little bit darker."
Hamm plays sports agent J.B. Bernstein who, in a desperate bid to drum up clients, goes to India to find baseball pitchers among the country's cricket-loving sportsmen. It's a real-life story that warmed hearts over at the Walt Disney Co.
By the standards of the studio known for big-budget blockbusters, "Million Dollar Arm" is a small film, with a budget of $25 million, a fraction of the $200 million it cost to make the soon-to-be-released "Maleficent" with Angelina Jolie.
But it is in a league of Disney movies - along with last year's Disney history piece "Saving Mr. Banks" and the upcoming sports drama "McFarland" - that enhance the Disney brand with an uplifting, against-all-odds story.
"We believe in great stories, both big and small, that depict values such as courage, ambition, hard work and family," said Dave Hollis, Walt Disney Studios' executive vice president of film distribution. "'Million Dollar Arm' is a great story that has those unique human themes throughout."
With its nationwide release on Friday, "Million Dollar Arm" is expected to generate $15 million in ticket sales during its first weekend in U.S. and Canadian theaters, according to Boxoffice.com. It's an alternative to the other film opening this weekend, the "Godzilla" remake distributed by Warner Bros. that should bring in $78 million.
FAMILY FARE, FOR A CHANGE
The first part of "Million Dollar Arm" plays out in a hot and chaotic Mumbai where J.B. struggles to get his improbable venture off the ground with a reality show. After frustrating rounds of tryouts, the American agent finds two strong arms in Rinku and Dinesh in rural India and brings them to Southern California, where they undergo training before being shown to Major League Baseball scouts.
The young men find themselves struggling with the culture, the lifestyle and, most importantly, the business expectations that J.B. has for them. His neighbor Brenda, a doctor played by Lake Bell, works to suture the fraying relationship in time to save their chances of making it in American baseball.
For the roles of the Indian pitchers, Disney chose Suraj Sharma, the actor stranded on a raft with the tiger in Ang Lee's "Life of Pi," and Madhur Mittal, best known as Salim in the best picture Oscar winner "Slumdog Millionaire" - casting that might help widen the film's global appeal.
Bell and Hamm, who are friends in real life, both highlighted one of the great advantages of working on a Disney film: for a change, they can send anyone in their families to see it and not have to worry about uncomfortable scenes.
"It is nice to be part of a project that my sister can take her kids to," said Hamm.
Prior to "Million Dollar Arm," Hamm played an FBI agent in Ben Affleck's 2010 crime caper "The Town" and a bit part as the loathsome lothario in the 2011 women-driven comedy "Bridesmaids."
"I think you can make an argument that I was actually the star of 'Bridesmaids,'" he joked.
As he films the final episodes of "Mad Men" to air next year on the AMC cable network, Hamm said he has no road map for his career post-Don Draper, although "Million Dollar Arm" fit perfectly into his loose plan.
"I just want to work on things I find interesting in some way and this is a perfect example of something I find interesting," said Hamm, who happens to be a big baseball fan.
(Editing by Andrew Hay)