If a good children's film is supposed to open the eyes of its young audience, then the somewhat misleadingly titled "Tall Tale: The Unbelievable Adventures of Pecos Bill" is mighty good. It's not made with any special feeling for childhood, the script is fairly hackneyed, and there are too many shots of amber waves of grain. But the film at least captures the mythic spaciousness of tall tales. It's a Disney kidfest re-imagined with a poet's eye.
Most of the poetry comes from the cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, who shot "Schindler's List." Along with director Jeremiah Chechik and production designer Eugenio Zanetti, Kaminski brings out the rich colorations in the turn-of-the-century Old West. The imagery goes beyond Sierra Club poster art into a wilder, more rhapsodic realm. It's the Old West as dreamed by a particularly fervid boy. There's nothing decorative about this frontier.
Twelve-year-old Daniel Hackett (Nick Stahl) has an edgy relationship with his father Jonas (Stephen Lang), who can't understand why his son isn't enamored with the farm life. But when a villainous railroad baron (Scott Glenn) tries to murder Jonas and obtain the deed to his spread, the boy flies into action to rescue not only the family farm but his community's entire way of life.
Helped by three tall-tale heroes, Pecos Bill (Patrick Swayze), John Henry (Roger Aaron Brown) and Paul Bunyan (Oliver Platt), Daniel goes up against the baron and his minions. He becomes his own hero.
Chechik and his screenwriters, Steven L. Bloom and Robert Rodat, are after big game, too. They want to make a father-son bonding epic, they want to contrast the meadowy pastoralism of Daniel's hometown with the encroaching industrial horrors.
They want to demonstrate that children--and not only children--need to believe in heroes as a way of believing in themselves. And they want to draw a parallel between turn-of-the-century America on the verge of the machine age and our own lost-innocence era. (How many times can we lose our innocence in the movies anyway?)
The filmmakers never really go beyond this hearty sampling of homilies--they seem content with a lot of fragranced cliches. But Nick Stahl is a welcome change of pace for this type of film. Instead of the scrubbed and bland youngsters who tend to turn up in these adventures, Stahl has a lived-in, ruminative look. You can certainly believe that he could dream up his three heroes and bring them to roaring life.
And the three actors who play his heroes are well cast, too: Swayze--who bears a striking resemblance to Kurt Russell in "Tombstone"--looks like a Remington cowboy but a little more cartoony; Platt's Paul Bunyan is a rumply, bitter butterball whose tree-chopping glories have been supplanted by machines; Brown's John Henry has a biceps-of-steel look that makes his legendary battle with a steel-driving contraption an even match.
The film would have been better if it played up the folkloric eccentricities of these three. They tend to devolve into platitudes; they're in the movie to make Daniel a man. And we could definitely use more of Catherine O'Hara's Calamity Jane, who only turns up in a brief cameo.
But "Tall Tale" also has some eye-popping set pieces, such as an infernally gray mining camp and a great steaming train that Daniel must stop. Buster Keaton, who loved trains in his movies, would have loved the big, seething chugger in "Tall Tale." Kids will love it, too, especially if it has been a long time since they've seen a real one up close.
* MPAA rating: PG, for Western action violence. Times guidelines: It includes a father being shot by bad guys that may be upsetting to small children.
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"Tall Tale: The Unbelievable Adventures of Pecos Bill" Patrick Swayze: Pecos Bill Oliver Platt: Paul Bunyan Roger Aaron Brown: John Henry Nick Stahl: Daniel Hackett A Walt Disney Pictures presentation. Director Jeremiah Chechik. Producers Joe Roth and Roger Birnbaum. Screenplay by Steven L. Bloom & Robert Rodat. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski. Editor Richard Chew. Costumes Wayne Finkelman. Music Randy Edelman. Production design Eugenio Zanetti. Set decorator Jerie Kelter. Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.