Wild America Review

United States, 1997
U.S. Release Date: 7/2/97 (wide)
Running Length: 1:47
MPAA Classification: PG (Mature themes, mild profanity)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 

Cast: Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Devon Sawa, Scott Bairstow, Jamey Sheridan, Frances Fisher
Director: William Dear
Producers: James G. Robinson, Irby Smith, Mark Stouffer
Screenplay: David Michael Wieger
Cinematography: David Burr
Music: Joel McNeely
U.S. Distributor: Warner Brothers 

Supposedly, Wild America is a family film, but I can't figure out which members of the family it's intended for. Children will likely be bored by this adventure that doesn't really go anywhere, and adults will have their patience tried by the bad dialogue and juvenile plot twists. I could equate this with the kind of program that used to be shown on the old Wonderful World of Disney TV series, except I think those one hour shows, as plodding as they often were, offered more enjoyment. 

Wild America wants us to believe that it's based on a true story, but that's probably the biggest fiction of all. Very little of this preposterous plot has the ring of truth to it. A kernel of the real story likely remains, but not much more. Even the character relationships seem simplified and streamlined so as not to confuse the audience. And, of course, in the end, everything works out for the best. The movie, directed by William Dear, who was responsible for the offensive remake of Angels in the Outfield, shows no ambition in bringing this tale to the screen. Anyone under the age of about twelve will get the feeling that they're being condescended to. 

Wild America chronicles the supposed adventures of the three Stouffer brothers during the summer of 1967. All of them grew up to become animal photographers, and this movie purports to show how it all started. Armed with only a 16 mm camera, several cans of film, and the necessary provisions, the three boys -- Marty (Scott Bairstow), age 18; Mark (Devon Sawa), age 16; and Marshall (Jonathan Taylor Thomas), age 12 -- leave their native Arkansas to make a cross-country trip to film endangered predators in their natural habitats. Their goal: "to get the shots everyone else is afraid to get." In the process, they place themselves in great danger, yet miraculously escape alive and relatively uninjured. 

No member of the main trio is either complex or interesting. Marty (who, in real life, created the TV series Wild America) is portrayed as a driven artist whose hero is Ernest Hemingway. Mark, the middle child, is "a man of action" who often seems more interested in girls than animals. Then there's our narrator (the voiceover never seems to stop), Marshall, a "dreamer" whose amazing wisdom would do someone three times his age credit. None of the actors creates a memorable personae. Bairstow and Sawa are adequate, but Taylor Thomas (from the sitcom Home Improvement) irritates with his false earnestness. 

Parts of the film -- primarily those dealing with photographing wildlife -- are moderately engrossing, which leads me to wonder if there might have been an interesting story to tell here, had the film not ventured into the realm of half-baked melodrama. Wild America comes across mostly as episodic silliness: the boys escape from fake-looking alligators, go skinny-dipping with girls, stumble upon a practice range and dodge the firepower of Air Force planes, meet up with a spooky Danny Glover, then avoid a group of angry bears whose cave is guarded by snakes. It's a telling statement that, hands down, the best scenes in the movie occur during the end credits, when we are given a chance to view snippets of the Stouffers' films. 

One wonders if there should have been some sort of "don't try this at home" warning attached to Wild America. After all, the kids in the film seem to be having fun (certainly more fun than those of us sitting in the audience are having), and they're never really in danger. Then again, where in real life is anyone going to find an alligator who likes chewing on flashlights, a belligerent rubber rattlesnake, or a bear that is stupid enough to hibernate in the middle of the summer? I guess the only real warning that should accompany Wild America is the one about avoiding dogs like this movie. 

1997 James Berardinelli 

James Berardinelli
web page: http://www.cybernex.net/~berardin

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