Published July 1, 1997
Wild America by William Dear is an engaging kiddie movie, supposedly based on the true story of a family of prominent naturalist-filmmakers, which will provide some wholesome thrills with its peeks at life and wildlife through the eyes of three boys growing up in Arkansas in the late 1960s. Unfortunately, Dear is not content to leave the story at the level of adventure and tries too hard to be uplifting and inspirational on top of it. Not only do we have the inspirational quality of the Stouffer boys’ daring and winning, as they find the cave of sleeping bears which no one before has been able to penetrate, we also have the defiance of the boys’ domineering father, to escape from the family business in used carburetors and the flying of a plane by the youngest son, Marshall (Jonathan Taylor Thomas) which their supposedly ex-Air Force father is afraid to fly himself. There is even an inspirational owl.
The heavy-handedness of the symbolism is typical, as is the element of wish-fulfillment in the depiction of Marshall, a precocious child of 14 or 15 who is always getting his elder brothers, Mark and Marty (Scott Bairstow and Devon Sawa) as well as his parents (Frances Fisher and Jamey Sheridan) out of scrapes and teaching them the wisdom of the child: to tell the truth and to fear nothing, as they had originally taught him. Hollywood loves movies where the kids are wiser and better than the parents, but the savor of the trope is now gone out of it. Nowadays, it is getting harder and harder for the wise children not to look like wise guys — when they are not actual brats. My first reaction to the movie’s overlong preamble, meant to show us an idyllic 60s childhood in Arkansas centered around shooting animals (with bows and arrows and cameras) and hot rods, was that these were far more Californian kids than Arkansan, and this confusion persists till the end of the movie.
Also smacking altogether too much of Hollywood is the rationale offered by Marshall in voiceover just before, with a seemingly suicidal determination (don’t try this at home kids!), he takes up dad’s army training plane for a spin in spite of never having flown before. “Everyone has dreams,” he says, “but life has a way of making us forget what they are. I wasn’t going to let that happen to us — to any of our dreams.” Hm. Where have I heard of something like that before? Oh, that’s right. Everywhere. Likewise, at the film’s climax, Marshall confronts the old man by saying: “I doubt if this family is going to stay together if you can’t let each of us be who we are.” And what does that mean? “I’m asking you to cut Mark and Marty loose. Don’t squash their dreams, Dad.”
Guess what: Dad doesn’t.