Breathtakingly beautiful vistas barely compensate for the routine story and sloppy direction of “Alaska,” an old-fashioned family adventure about the courageous efforts of two children to find their missing pilot father. It’s refreshing to see Charlton Heston, one of Hollywood’s longest-tenured heroes, playing a villainous role under the helming of his son Fraser. Heston and child star Thora Birch — and a cute polar bear — should elevate pic’s visibility, though not enough to make it a truly fun kids-and-animal yarn, resulting in lukewarm response closer to that of “Monkey Trouble” (which also starred Birch) than to “Free Willy.”
To overcome the pain of his wife’s untimely death, Jake Barnes (Dirk Benedict) relocates his family to Quincy, a remote seaside town in Alaska. A former commercial airline pilot, Jake Barnes (the same name as the central figure of Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises”), is now flying supplies to otherwise inaccessible locations. Jessie (Birch), Jake’s 12-year-old daughter, immediately takes to her new surroundings, but older brother Sean (Vincent Kartheiser) hates the community, aimlessly throwing himself into videogames while waiting impatiently to move out.
One night, in the midst of yet another heated family dispute, Jake is called upon to transport emergency medical supplies to an isolated village. En route, his plane crashes due to unpredictably foul weather, but miraculously he survives, landing on a sharp cliff. Certain that their father is still alive, Sean and Jessie undertake the arduous task of finding him.
While searching for their father, they rescue a frightened polar bear, whose mother was killed by Perry (Heston) and his dimwitted partner, poachers who intend to sell the cub on the black market. Defying sheriff’s orders, the siblings continue their adventure, learning in the process some lessons about survival in the wilderness — and family unity.
Pic’s earnest message stresses the importance of family love by drawing obvious parallels between the children’s attempts to find their dad and their equally brave efforts to locate a family and more hospitable habitat for the cute bear (now named Cubby), who follows them wherever they go.
Unfortunately, the humor, mostly centered on the buffoonish scoundrels, is too broad for adolescents and probably not funny enough for children. Naively old-fashioned in the manner of ’50s and ’60s outdoor sagas, “Alaska” would be more entertaining if it had been directed with some panache. But helmer Heston lacks the technical skills to make his film more stylish and more in sync with today’s cynical times. Once the narrative premise is established, yarn tends to drag, and choppy editing makes things worse.
Since the tale is utterly predictable, all that’s left for the audience to do is sit back and enjoy Alaska’s glorious sights, which lenser Tony Westman captures in some magnificent long takes. But pic could benefit from a healthy trimming of at least a quarter hour, which would make it a more tolerable experience for both children and parents.