1997, PG, 107 min. Directed by William Dear. Starring Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Jamey Sheridan, Devon Sawa, Scott Bairstow, Frances Fisher.
REVIEWED By Russell Smith, Fri., July 4, 1997
Suggested alternate title: The Women Don't Know, But the Little Boys Understand. This second feature by William Dear (Angels in the Outfield) has its flaws, but as an example of adolescent male fantasies writ large it approaches brilliance. Broadly based on true boyhood experiences of award-winning nature documentarian Mark Stouffer (played here by Devon Sawa), Wild America chronicles a summer in the late Sixties when he and brothers Marshall (Jonathan Taylor Thomas of the Home Improvement TV series) and Marty (Scott Bairstow) spent several weeks touring the country and filming threatened animal species in their natural habitats. Their adventures include life-threatening encounters with grizzly bears, gators, moose, whitewater rapids, army missiles, and stampeding wild horses. Down-time is spent frolicking with nubile hippie girls and reading ghastly animal-attack stories around the campfire. For young guy viewers who revere the holy trinity of speed, chaos, and danger, these doughty lads will register as instant soulmates. Because of the calculatedly gender-targeted nature of these mythic exploits, girls may find less of interest here, though the brothers' good looks and roguish charm might compensate to some degree. Safety-obsessed parents are best advised to skip this movie altogether. The scene in which preteen Marshall flies a vintage airplane after only verbal instruction would suffice in itself to fill the theatre with the popcorn crackle of rupturing cerebral arteries. Though rowdy adventure is Wild America's selling point it also -- regrettably -- includes gratuitous sops to family-values concerns. The boys' outing thus becomes their symbolic coming of age, observed with mingled respect and incomprehension by their rock-jawed, truck-driving father (Jamey Sheridan, in a disappointingly one-dimensional performance). Their mother, a domestic diplomat who creatively resolves head-butting clashes among the home's young and old bulls, is a rather more interesting character thanks to the ability of Frances Fisher (Unforgiven, Female Perversions) to manufacture nuances in her traditional June Allyson hausfrau role. In the end, I believe, it's a mistake to devote a large portion of the film to insipid, conventional family drama and contrived suspense over the community's response to the boys' film. These elements feel superfluous and half-baked. Worse, they detract from the heady forward rush of the story and the filmmakers' sure feel for the intense significance of that moment when young men take their first leaps from the nest. Objections aside, though, Wild America is a high-spirited, wholesome, raucously humorous journey to young dude heaven. Highly recommended for the SegaGenesis jocks in your household.