Heroic Efforts Spin an Exciting 'Tall Tale' That's Easy to Believe In

Lynn Smith is a staff writer for the Times' Life & Style section.

In "Tall Tale: The Unbelievable Adventures of Pecos Bill," Daniel Hackett, a 12-year-old frontier boy who tries to save his family's farm from railroad barons, learns to believe in his father's heroes--Pecos Bill, Paul Bunyan and John Henry, who come to life and teach him courage. (Rated PG)


No matter that these myths originated in a bygone era. There was something in this good-natured adventure for most boys of the '90s. It had more, in fact, than they expected.

Not only did you have your gunplay, macho tests of strength and near calamities, but you also got great outdoor scenery, an emotional resolution of a father-son conflict and a blue ox named Babe. Most kids rated it A or above.

"It gave me goose bumps," said Garrett Sneen, 8.

"It was the best movie I've ever seen," said Jonathan White, 10. "I liked how Daniel learned right and wrong from all those heroes and how to have feelings--you know, to express himself."

Plus, he added, "I didn't think it was going to be so exciting and so adventurous."

Unlike some other Disney movies, no parent dies in "Tall Tale." But Daniel's father is shot by the villains, who want his farm for the railroad's right of way. Daniel himself yearns to embrace the coming machine age, from horseless carriages to telephones and electric lights and, therefore, has mixed feelings when his father secretly slips him the deed for safekeeping and he becomes the villains' target.

In a turmoil, Daniel falls asleep in a boat, drifts down river into a magical world--or is it a dream?--where he meets sharpshooter Pecos Bill, logger Paul Bunyan and steel-drivin' man John Henry, who try to help him cope with his dilemma.

He sleeps under the stars, joins them in a sarsaparilla and learns the code of the West: "Respect the land, defend the defenseless and don't never spit in front of women and children."

The kids agreed the most heart-thumping scene showed Daniel and John Henry literally holding back a great gargoyle-encrusted train engine.

They were also amazed by Pecos Bill's roping a cyclone and Babe's pulling down the walls of a jail to free the heroes, who were temporarily captured by the villains.

Added Jonathan: "I liked how Pecos Bill always shot off the guy's trigger finger."

Some kids, familiar with the legends from home or school, were surprised that Paul Bunyan and his blue ox were of normal size. Garrett thought filmmakers should have used special effects to make them appear larger than life.

Six-year-old Bryce Wilson hadn't heard any of the stories before but said his heroes now are "Pecos Bill, Paul Bunyan and Batman and Robin Hood and Superman."

The older boys appreciated how the heroes helped Daniel come of age, including learning to say, "I love you," to his father, and how to become his own hero.

Ultimately, Daniel must answer for himself a most grown-up question: "Is a piece of land worth dying for?"

Along the way, the film scatters several warmhearted platitudes, including: "You don't know what you can do until you try" and "If you gave it your best shot, you ain't got nothin' to feel sorry fer."

But the most memorable may be: "Just because it's a tall tale don't mean it's not true."

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