Widower and research scientist Dr. David Thompson (Chris Noth) and his two teenage kids, Rand (Jonathan Brandis) and Jena (Lea Morena), are fast-living Chicagoans, but David is tired of city life. He receives a grant to study viruses in Africa and, in a flash, the family is settled in rural South Africa (exactly where is never made clear). Jena adjusts well, but hotheaded Rand resents new life in the "middle of nowhere," as he snottily puts it.

Widower and research scientist Dr. David Thompson (Chris Noth) and his two teenage kids, Rand (Jonathan Brandis) and Jena (Lea Morena), are fast-living Chicagoans, but David is tired of city life. He receives a grant to study viruses in Africa and, in a flash, the family is settled in rural South Africa (exactly where is never made clear). Jena adjusts well, but hotheaded Rand resents new life in the “middle of nowhere,” as he snottily puts it.

But Rand does make a friend, Elsa the lioness (as the first “Born Free” lioness was named), and he also develops a little romance with Elsa’s caretaker, Val (Ariana Richards). Val’s hobby is caring for orphaned and hurt wild animals; she has raised Elsa since the lioness was a cub. Meanwhile, Val’s mom, Ellie (Linda Purl), has her hands full with David’s setting up a research lab in the busy local clinic that she runs. Plot turns on an ultimatum: Local game warden George (John Matshikiza) must place the now-mature Elsa in a zoo, unless Val and Rand can re-acclimate her to the wild. The kids read “Born Free” as a primer.

With no political context or scientific grounding, the believability of “A New Adventure” is significantly undermined. Scripter John McGreevey focuses more on the unlikable Rand and the mundane problems of the mundane characters than on Elsa’s re-education, which doesn’t get any screen time until more than an hour or so into the telepic.

Brandis and Richards (“Jurassic Park”) make a cute couple, and Noth and Purl do their best with the thin characters given them. Director Tommy Lee Wallace does keep things going, and cinematographer Johann Scheepers’ lensing is pretty.

But the South African locations could have been used more effectively, and some scenes look like they were shot on a soundstage. Footage of animals roaming around the savanna is clumsily intercut with reaction shots of the actors, creating a jarring effect.

Kudos to the animal wranglers, especially Jim Stockley and Brian Boswell, whose charges, the lions, are beautiful and perform magnificently.

All other tech credits are OK.

Born Free: A New Adventure

Production

Born Free: a New Adventure (Sat. (27), 8-10 p.m., ABC) Filmed in South Africa by Franklin/Waterman 2 in association with Columbia Pictures Television. Executive producers, Jeff Franklin, Steve Waterman; producer, Lorin Bennett Salob; director, Tommy Lee Wallace; writer, John McGreevey; based on characters from the book "Born Free," by Joy Adamson.

Crew

Camera, Johann Scheepers; editor, Robert F. Shugrue; sound, Bruce McFarlane; animal wranglers, Jim Stockley, Brian Boswell, Ben Hoffman; music, David Michael Frank; casting, Harriet Greenspan, Rhonda Young.

With

Cast: Jonathan Brandis, Chris Noth, Linda Purl, John Matshikiza, Lea Morena, Pamela Nomvette, Ariana Richards, Siyabongo Twala, Florence Masebe, Wandie Molebatse, Vicky Kente. With only the thinnest of ties to the much-loved film "Born Free," this "New Adventure" captures none of the original's poignancy; with a contrived plot and slight characters, families would be better served renting the 1966 Oscar-winner or, better yet, reading Joy Adamson's book.
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