This leisurely paced adventure is probably a better African travelogue than a movie, but it still delivers as a coming-of-age yarn that should hold the attention of kids and patient adults. Paired with a new “Roger Rabbit” short, the pic should poach the same sort of audience being tracked down by Disney’s “Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey,” and might have benefited from a little more spacing from that sister release.
Pic is similar in some respects thematically to the 1971 release “Walkabout,” which was set in the Australian outback. The action here focuses on two teens in Africa suddenly orphaned when poachers kill their parents, journeying across the desert with the help of a Bushman who spouts “Kung Fu”-style homilies and may or may not possess mystical powers.
In not-so-hot pursuit are the poachers, led by a family friend (Jack Thompson), while the kids seek to hook up with the grizzled Mopani (Maximilian Schell, in what amounts to a cameo), an adventurer who believes in shooting poachers first and asking questions later.
Nothing is much of a mystery in this updated adaptation of two books by Laurens van der Post, except perhaps how long it will take to cross the desert (the answer is–too long) and when the kids — an initially snotty New York boy (Ethan Randall) and a raised-in-the-wilderness, highly self-sufficient girl (Reese Witherspoon) — will break down and acknowledge their mutual affection.
Pushing that relationship along is the Bushman, played sweetly by Sarel Bok, in a much more stately presentation of native peoples than perhaps the most popular movie to showcase them, the broadly comic “The Gods Must Be Crazy.” Even so, the movie generates some of the same humor, such as the Bushman’s hysterical reaction to the idea of television.
Director Mikael Salomon shows off plenty of sweeping vistas but follows a too-leisurely path toward a final confrontation with the bad guy, particularly since there’s no suspense as to who it is.
He does manage to elicit strong performances from his likable leads, though the movie offers few stirring moments (the exception being a sequence in which the girl’s dog fends off a pack of hounds) worthy of James Horner’s characteristically boisterous score.
It also bears noting that the movie is a bit stronger than standard kid fare (it carries a PG rating) in its depiction of the slaughter of elephants and the loss of the kids’ parents, though the latter is probably no more traumatic than “Bambi” and the kids deal with their anguish relatively quickly.
Other tech credits are solid, with special kudos to cinematographer Juan Ruiz-Anchia, capturing all the usual Amblin-style over-the-moon flourishes.
The latest “Roger Rabbit” short, meanwhile, entitled “Trail Mix-Up,” offers the usual assault of sight gags at such a manic pace it makes the average “Looney Toon” seem positively sedate. The barrage is so unrelenting that more becomes less, but the crisply animated production does offer a few extremely clever moments while keeping Disney’s longer-eared franchise in the public eye.