‘Wild America’ film gets a little outlandish
by G. Allen Johnson, OF THE EXAMINER STAFF
Published 4:00 am, Wednesday, July 2, 1997
IT’S HARD to believe the Stouffer brothers would approve of “Wild America,” the film retelling of how they became inspired to be among the foremost nature documentarians. But there is Mark Stouffer, listed as one of the producers.
The documentary television series of the same name has revealed nature at its intimate best, and taught respect for the animal kingdom. But this film, more Boy’s Life than “Gorillas in the Mist,” curiously has a blatant disrespect for animals, treating them as horrific monsters or comic fodder.
Director William Dear‘s intent seems to have been to make a family film to go with his other efforts, “Harry and the Hendersons” and “Angels in the Outfield.” He has assembled a cast spearheaded by Jonathan Taylor Thomas, sort of the Brad Pitt of preteens, and has turned the Stouffers’ story into more of a tale of the brothers and their overbearing father.
Set in the late 1960s, the boys – 12-year-old Marshall (Thomas), and older high school brothers Mark (Devon Sawa) and Marty (Scott Bairstow) – are frustrated kids growing up in a small Arkansas town, under the firm guidance (read grip) of their mechanic father (Jamey Sheridan). The boys, unpopular in school, love both the nature around town and the used 16mm camera their mother (Frances Fisher) bought for them.
Mark and Marty decide to go out on a two-week trek to points west to photograph endangered species for posterity, and hope to become respected filmmakers in the bargain. Their parents put up surprisingly little resistance – their “fearsome” father merely chomps on a cigar thoughtfully for a few seconds before giving his assent – and receive a big surprise when they find Marshall stashed in the back of their rickety truck.
The heart of the movie is the trip, which begins unbearably with yet another scene of young kids on the road experiencing freedom for the first time to strains of “Born to Be Wild” and steers them through a series of ridiculous encounters with animals.
Marshall is attacked by an alligator, who can’t seem to swim faster than a 12-year-old over a 20-yard stretch; the boys almost get bombed by Air Force jets on restricted government property, yet on that same property is a thriving herd of wild horses; Marshall is attacked by a moose, who angrily picks him up with his antlers and deposits him in some rapids (his brothers merely laugh); and the climax of the trip is the big secret bear cave, in which, apparently, rattlesnakes, bears and vampire bats cohabit peacefully.
In a film about budding nature documentarians, nothing is revealed about the animals these boys obsess about – what they eat, how they live, how they care for their young or why exactly they are endangered. And in close-ups of the animals – alligator, bears and moose – it’s obvious they are mechanical or a human in costume.
It’s hard to figure what accomplished actors, such as Fisher and, in a strange cameo, Danny Glover, are doing in this film. It does boast sometime gorgeous photography, and the ’60s period is serviceably re-created. But there’s nothing new or inspiring in Dear’s handling of the overbearing father vs. his boys-growing-into-men angle.
Also, the boys are supposed to have this love for movies as well. But their camera is a useless prop, no different than a pen or a bedside lamp. They are never shown loading film, taking light readings or focusing the lens. And Mark only brought three mags of film – about 30 minutes worth – to last the entire trip.
“Wild America” is a movie about love for animals and love for cinema with little regard for either.
CAST: Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Frances Fisher
DIRECTOR: William Dear
WRITER: David Michael Wieger
THEATERS: Kabuki, Alexandria and Century Plaza (South San Francisco)
EVALUATION: 1 out 4