Pride and Puberty

Several times during the kid movie Wild America, the three teen-heartthrob heroes cruise down the road to the strains of "Born to Be Wild." Disgrace, you say, to put the Easy Rider anthem through one more commercial indignity--yuppie car ads in the '80s, and now a pulse-raiser for the Tiger Beat crowd.

But as wonderful and seminal as Easy Rider remains, and as negligible as Wild America is, the song is entirely in the tradition of both films. The heroes of Wild America--a trio of '60s-era Arkansas brothers trying to break into the nature-documentary business--are on the road, and they're trying for the big score. The elder two (Devon Sawa and Scott Bairstow) frolic on a beach with a pair of Brit hippie girls. All three later visit a commune--that is, they take their Arriflex 16mm camera into a cave where grizzly bears communally hibernate. And there's a generous dash of Easy Rider's corny mysticism, too--at random, the boys ask a Navajo woman at Monument Valley for directions to a legendary cave, and she obliges with remarkable precision. The cave's in Wyoming, as it turns out.

In other words, Wild America is an endearing generational pastiche. Its protagonists spring from the same American soil as Huck and Jim, George and Lenny, Kerouac's Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, and Easy Rider's Captain America and the Kid. But here that soil got fertilized by pop manure. It's the road fantasy of a late-'60s-early-'70s kid who sneaked into Easy Rider but also loved Boy's Life magazine and Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom on TV.

The tradition is not only archetypically American, it's also archetypically male. Part of the outcry against Thelma & Louise a few years back probably involved a sense of trespass on male turf. Wild America delights in these budding young brutes and their testosterone road rules--roughhousing shirtless, tormenting your brothers, swearing, farting and, above all, taking idiotic, pointless risks. Not by accident, the star of the film--the youngest of the brothers--is Jonathan Taylor Thomas, who learned his style at the knee of his TV dad Tim Allen, the king of tamed suburban chest-thumpers.

Accordingly, these three nice boys aren't real rebels. They keep calling home to check in with their mom (Frances Fisher) so that she won't worry. And the ultimate familial subtext is, of course, the same: Once the boys win the approval of their old man (Jamey Sheridan), the movie's over.

Believe it or not, Wild America is based--just a tad loosely, one suspects--on a true story. Marty, Mark and Marshall Stouffer are all successful nature filmmakers. The series Marty Stouffer's Wild America ran on PBS for more than a decade. At times, director William Dear and screenwriter David Michael Wieger give the film the pleasantly rowdy tone of an agreeable tall tale, but at times they push things into the realm of pandering to the preteen audience. It's a bit much, for instance, when Thomas actually gets to fly an airplane past his father's hospital room.

It would also have helped the film if a couple of the animal sequences didn't so obviously involve ersatz "animatronic" critters. Nothing in the slickly produced Wild America is as compelling as the Stouffers' actual wildlife footage, seen alongside the end credits.

Wild America
Directed by William Dear; with Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Devon Sawa, Scott Balrstow and Frances Fisher.



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