Wednesday July 2, 1997
"Wild America" is a delightfully far-fetched family adventure inspired by the real-life exploits of three teenage Arkansas brothers during the summer of 1967. Credibility is stretched at every turn, but that adds rather than detracts from the fun because, even if everything didn't quite happen in real life as this movie depicts it, it should have.
Buoyed by solid acting, characterization and direction, this Warner Bros. plays like a fantasy adventure. And writer David Michael Wieger and director William Dear anchor it persuasively in the real contradictions within the character of the boys' father.
Marty Stouffer Sr. (Jamey Sheridan) and his wife, Agnes (Frances Fisher), live on a small Fort Smith, Ark., farm where Stouffer runs a used carburetor business and tinkers with rebuilding a World War II training plane. Their eldest son, Marty Jr. (Scott Bairstow), is a Hemingway admirer who nevertheless decides he'd rather shoot animals with a camera than a gun.
The middle son, Mark (Devon Sawa), is in the process of discovering girls, and the youngest, Marshall (Jonathan Taylor Thomas), the story's narrator, is mainly concerned with surviving his older brothers' bullying. Marshall has an underdog's resourcefulness and seems the shrewdest of the brothers.
Writer Wieger soon manages to maneuver the boys onto their summer odyssey, driving around the country in an old truck carrying an even older 16mm camera, with which Marty hopes to shoot enough exotic wildlife footage to end up with a documentary to sell to television. (All three brothers did end up in TV, with "Marty Stouffer's Wild America" running 11 years on PBS.)
The boys plunge swiftly into more perils than Pauline, but the extreme danger of most of them is deflected with much humor. (This is not the kind of film, however, for kids who might be tempted to emulate some of the Stouffers' riskier derring-do.)
In reality, the boys' parents would have been out of their minds to let their young sons go off on such a quest since they're clearly not remotely responsible, experienced or old enough to undertake it. But this is an escapist movie with a lot of comedy in which the boys are armed with infallible pluck and luck.
The boys' father is a familiar archetype, here sharply defined. He fires his sons with the American dream that says you can achieve any goal you set through dint of hard work and determination, yet he feels angry and slighted when they seem less than enthusiastic about joining him in rebuilding carburetors for the rest of their lives.
There's some substance as well as wonderment in the cliffhanger that is "Wild America."
Wild America, 1997. PG, for language and some adventure peril. A Warner Bros. release of a Morgan Creek production in association with the Steve Tisch Company. Director William Dear. Producers James G. Robinson, Irby Smith and Mark Stouffer. Executive producers Gary Barber, Steve Tisch and Bill Todman Jr. Screenplay by David Michael Wieger. Cinematographer David Burr. Editor O. Nicholas Brown. Costumes Mary McLeod. Music Joel McNeely. Production designer Steven Jordan. Art directors Jack Ballance, Rick Roberts. Set designers Julie S. Sanford, Janusz Pol. Set decorators Heather McElhatton, Janice Blackie-Goodine. Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes. Jonathan Taylor Thomas as Marshall. Devon Sawa as Mark. Scott Bairstow as Marty. Frances Fisher as Agnes. Jamey Sheridan as Marty Sr..Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times