‘Wild’ Hits the Road Running
Teen adventure has thrills, humor, depth
by Peter Stack, Chronicle Staff Critic
Published 4:00 am, Wednesday, July 2, 1997
Wild America: Adventure.
Starring Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Devon Sawa, Scott Bairstow, Frances Fisher, Jamey Sheridan.
Directed by William Dear. (PG. 107 minutes. At Bay Area theaters.)
The elusive concept of “family entertainment” is pinned down with ear-to- ear charm, rollicking humor and surprising emotional depth in “Wild America,” a terrific new film with a simple calling card: old-fashioned adventure with down- to-earth characters. It’s been a while since Hollywood turned out anything as likable.
“Wild America,” opening today at Bay Area theaters, is sharp thrills and delightful fun with a thoroughly engaging cast headed by Jonathan Taylor Thomas (“Home Improvement“).
It tells the “true story” of three teenage brothers from Arkansas on a summer road trip that became a pivotal family event. One of them, Marty Stouffer , went on to become the noted wildlife documentary filmmaker, creator of the popular public television series “Wild America.”
The movie “Wild America,” a roller- coaster of encounters with wild animals that is also laced with funny teen pranks, ought to give the bloated summer special- effects blockbusters a run for their money. The film has its own brand of special effects — perils in the great outdoors and emotional bonds. It explores life as a complicated mix of loving interdependence and the desire to take flight.
Ultimately, “Wild America” is a warm, embracing glimpse of so-called family values, its strongest lure. The fast-moving screenplay by first-time screenwriter David Michael Wieger captures the complex ties of the three brothers, their bickering and competition, and yet solidarity in the faces of various ordeals. Sometimes that solidarity is played out against parental authority. The film goes beyond the fuzzy sentimentalism of “The Waltons,” but a respect for kinship lies at the movie’s heart.
The brothers — Marshall, Mark and Marty Stouffer — are exceptionally played by Thomas, Devon Sawa (“Casper“) and Scott Bairstow (“White Fang 2“). For those not up on teen lore, the young actors are among the leading heartthrobs in America right now.
A beautifully photographed story loaded with wildlife sequences, “Wild America” glimpses the summer of 1967 at the family home in Fort Smith, Ark. The stern father, Marty Sr. (Jamey Sheridan), a former military aircraft mechanic, operates a successful used auto parts business in the barn of the family’s small farm. The mother, Agnes (Frances Fisher), is a country housewife keeping things together while the dad is out on extended runs in his big rig, buying junk parts to refurbish.
The boys while away their lazy days pulling off various stunts, and usually the youngest (Thomas) bears the brunt — he’s shackled and dropped from a tree into a tub of water, or forced to play rocket man when his brothers light cherry bombs under his feet. The little guy, however, has his own way of exacting revenge — and his brand of high jinks will be a hoot for all younger siblings to watch.
A constant among the brothers is an interest in capturing adventures on film with a hand-me-down 8mm movie camera. The films shot by the eldest, Marty (Bairstow), are so good that the boys show them to their friends. At a camera shop, the kids find a dream machine: a used 16mm Airflex that Marty, in particular, desperately wants so he can better capture the wild animals he loves. The camera opens up a can of worms in the family. The brothers declare their independence and hit the road to film wildlife. The youngest goes along as a stowaway.
The lads get trapped by alligators, enrage a moose and run up against snakes, grizzly bears, bats and a few truly scary humans. It’s a spirited road movie, briskly paced, using rural Georgia and the Canadian Rockies as backdrops.
But the film is more than a road romp. Anxiety and not a few loose ends keep tensions high back at the farm, and the story gains emotional altitude around hard feelings between the unforgiving father and the sons striking out on their own.
“Wild America” seems to fly by, a sure sign of fun at the movies.