Courtesy Photo
Directed by William Dear

Starring Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Devon Sawa, Scott Bairstow, Frances Fisher & Jamey Sheridan.

"Wild America"

Opened: July 2, 1997 | Rated: PG

When I was growing up, "The Wonderful World of Disney" was on Sunday nights, right after "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom."

It was a ritual in my family, for a time, to set up TV trays and eat TV dinners while we watched this wildlife and family cinema double-feature.

Seeing "Wild America," I had flashbacks so vivid I could actually taste that horrible, tongue-burning cobbler that was always the disappointing dessert in those frozen Swanson meals.

Very loosely based on the teenage years of Marty, Mark and Marshall Stouffer, real wildlife documentarians, this surprisingly affable movie has the spirit of the best of those Disney flicks -- the ones that only made you roll your eyes a little -- and the feral thrills of a really good "Wild Kingdom."

Taking place during the brothers' first summer of film-making in the late 1960s, "Wild America" tracks the boys (Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Devon Sawa and Scott Bairstow) as they drive around the West with a used 16mm camera looking for snakes, eagles, deer and any other photogenic animal life. Naturally, they get more than they bargained for each time they find these critters.

The story is narrated by Marshall (Thomas), the youngest brother, who is a tag-along on the trip and a guinea pig for his big brothers' constant trouble-making.

In the establishing scenes at home in Arkansas he is blown up with fireworks and dragged behind a car through a muddy race track. Later on their trip he's chased by a moose, almost eaten by Louisiana swamp alligator and threatened by grizzly bears woken from hibernation in the Rocky Mountains, all for the sake of exciting footage for Marty and Mark's documentary.

Along the way the brothers also have a few adventures with wildlife of the human female persuasion, including a safely PG-rated skinny dipping session for the older boys while Marshall sneaks the camera out of their van for a little blackmail footage.

This movie is jam-packed with huge logical chasms -- if this is a summer adventure, why are the bears hibernating for winter? -- and panders to "family values" with a subplot about Marshall's relationship with his tough love dad. But "Wild America" is far better than, say, an after school special, because for every inane leap of faith in the story there's some kind of clever character detail endearing the brothers to the audience.

Example: Marshall is regularly getting clandestine little brother's revenge on his siblings for putting him in harm's way. In addition to filming the skinny dipping episode, in one scene he rinses their toothbrushes in the toilet. In another he fills their canteens downstream from where they're, um, relieving themselves.

This sense of humor carries throughout the film and helps gloss over some of the trite "message" moments.

"Wild America" often takes wild liberties with reality for the sake of adventure, but if you can get past these laughable gaffes (seriously, I think the bear cave scenes were filmed at a zoo), there's much fun to be had here.

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