The latest attempt to saddle up the “Bonanza” franchise doesn’t get much right beyond the theme music, as the new generation of Cartwrights won’t make anyone forget (or, for that matter, remember) their forebears. Prospects for a series spinoff look dim as a result, but packaged with a nostalgic special the movie could corral OK one-shot ratings.
“The Return” turns out to be an overly reverential attempt to cash in on one of TV’s most beloved series that suffers from the lack of appeal of its young leads and slipshod action sequences.
Ben Johnson, who guested on the original series as a Ponderosa ranch hand, provides the sole link to the past here, playing Bronc Evans — a grizzled old-timer running the ranch for the deceased Cartwrights and resisting the efforts of a slimy developer (Dean Stockwell) to buy and strip-mine the Ponderosa.
Returning to help fight the good fight are Adam Cartwright’s Australian son, Adam Jr. (Alistair McDougall), the son and daughter of Little Joe (Michael Landon Jr., Emily Warfield) and the illegitimate (!) son of Hoss Cartwright, Josh (Brian Leckner), who conveniently shows up looking for pa just about the time the trouble begins.
The younger Landon, who also blocked out the story with producer Tom Brinson and writer Michael McGreevey, exhibits an obvious commitment to the material but lacks his dad’s easygoing charm, and the tenuous bonds between these characters (barely acquainted cousins, after all) don’t forge the sort of ties that made the original so compelling.
There’s also an awkwardness to the time frame, 1905, when Western-style shenanigans are becoming a bit out of place. It’s obvious times have changed when the big scene takes place in a courtroom — without involving a Cartwright accused of a murder he didn’t commit.
Other than nice travel footage, director Jerry Jameson doesn’t bring much excitement to the story, with the action sequences (among them a barroom brawl and train chase) particularly formulaic and stiff.
The producers have done themselves a disservice, as well, by hewing as close to the original series as they do. Faded, hazily shot clips of old “Bonanza” episodes are used, for example, to provide a link to the past, but those snippets serve only to make the movie itself look pallid by comparison.
Dirk Blocker, the son of Dan, turns up in a cameo as a tenderfoot reporter. The strapping Leckner actually bears a stronger resemblance to the elder Blocker , however, and emerges as the pic’s best, most underused asset.
This latest “Bonanza” revival was bound for firstrun syndication before NBC snared it, hoping to recapture some of the magic the show conjured for the network from 1959-73. It follows a 1988 movie, “Bonanza: The Next Generation,” also based loosely on the series.
Barring a big-screen version, it may be time to let the Cartwrights ride off into the sunset.