Wild America review – The New York Times

July 2nd, 1997

By Stephen Holden

Child actors don’t get more coyly camera-wise than Jonathan Taylor Thomas, the 15-year-old star and narrator of “Wild America,” a tepid family adventure film whose grizzly bears appear only slightly more threatening than giant stuffed animals.

As Marshall Stouffer, the youngest of three brothers, growing up in Fort Smith, Ark., in 1967, Thomas looks like a baby Brad Pitt and acts as though he had been born and brought up on the MGM lot in the 1930s, then whisked 60 years into the future with his Shirley Temple-meets-Mickey Rooney mannerisms intact. He is the only actor in memory to have played Tom Sawyer (in the movie “Tom and Huck“) as an inveterate junior high school flirt.

Marshall, who is three years younger than the actor playing him, is one of those Hollywood dream children; he is so preternaturally knowing that at the age of 12 he actually figures out how to fly an airplane without having had a lesson.

And near the end of the film, this wise child gets to deliver a stern lecture on values to his father (Jamey Sheridan), who is laid up in the hospital with a broken leg.

“Wild America” bills itself as inspired by the true story of the Stouffer brothers, who grew up to film a documentary series of the same name about rare and endangered species. But its sugar-coated vision of childhood belongs strictly to the rural fantasy world of “The Waltons” and of vintage Saturday Evening Post illustrations.

The adventure begins when the boys’ father, a carburetor salesman, goes into debt to buy his oldest son, Marty (Scott Bairstow), a used 16-millimeter movie camera. Marty has already amassed a backlog of 8-millimeter movies recording the pranks he and his brother Mark (Devon Sawa) play on their baby brother.

Armed with their new toy, Marty and Mark set out into the wild blue yonder to film rare and endangered species, driving around the country in a battered old truck.

They’re barely out of town when Marshall, who has stowed away in the back seat, makes his presence known. The stowaway, needless to say, proves himself the pluckiest and most resourceful of the three.

There are encounters with an alligator and with a wild moose that scoops Marshall up on its antlers, and finally a confrontation with a cave full of hibernating grizzly bears (guarded by rattlesnakes and overseen by bats) that all wake up at the same moment and begin dancing in a circle.

By the time the brothers return to Fort Smith, they have enough raw film to wow the locals with a cute little movie show. At this point, “Wild America” simply reruns some of its livelier scenes.

If “Wild America” is barely in touch with reality, it has a slick storybook charm that should appeal to children who like animals and enjoy the great outdoors. Some of the scenery is quite pretty.

Wild America

With: Jonathan Taylor Thomas (Marshall Stouffer), Devon Sawa (Mark Stouffer), Scott Bairstow (Marty Stouffer), Jamey Sheridan (Marty Stouffer Sr.) and Frances Fisher (Agnes Stouffer).

Directed by William Dear; written by David Michael Wieger; director of photography, David Burr; edited by O. Nicholas Brown; music by Joel McNeely; production designer, Steven Jordan; produced by James G. Robinson, Irby Smith and Mark Stouffer; released by Warner Brothers.

Running time: 110 minutes.
Rating: “Wild America” is rated PG. Very young children might be frightened by scenes of animals attacking people.

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