The antic coming of age of three Arkansas brothers centers the amusing and entertaining “Wild America.” A yarn about pursuing one’s dream, the film mostly sidesteps the serious stuff, making its points with levity. It has the type of appeal that used to spell sleeper, but in the present crowded marketplace is more apt to get lost in the jungle and quickly be consigned to matinee screenings. Theatrical play will tamely flow into more rigorous money streams from video and TV.
Based on the early life of nature documentarians the Stouffers, tale begins in the summer of 1967 in rural Fort Smith, Ark. While much of the country is consumed by the Summer of Love, the teen trio is absorbed in daredevil stunts that can be captured on film for the amusement of friends and family — often employing youngest brother (and narrator) Marshall (Jonathan Taylor Thomas) as guinea pig. The more down-to-earth aspect of their lives is toiling after school at their father’s (Jamie Sheridan) used-carburetor business.
Fate enters the picture when the local camera store imports a used Arriflex from a Little Rock TV news show. Marty (Scott Bairstow), the eldest, fantasizes about buying it and setting out across country to film feral and endangered species in their natural habitat.
Marty is luckier than most young men who have had their dreams dashed to bits by the cold reality of having to earn some money during school vacation. Mother Stouffer (Frances Fisher) gently reminds Marty Sr. that he’s instilled in his sons the drive to follow their muse, and soon Marty and Mark (Devon Sawa) are packing their gear into a rickety old truck and setting out on an expedition worthy of Frank Buck. It’s not until they reach the Florida state line that they discover Marshall has stowed away, and a call home negotiates a two-week internship for him with the makeshift crew.
David Michael Wieger’s script is a largely anecdotal road trip that extends from the swamps of the Everglades to the snowcaps of the Rockies. Along the way they encounter (and capture on celluloid) such ferocious critters as alligators, bears and a rampaging moose. The bonding among the brothers and the natural locales recall “A River Runs Through It,” though with considerably more upbeat conclusions.
Director William Dear enjoys the ramble, emphasizing the tall-tale elements. There’s an abiding sense of fun to the piece, and an exhilarating sweep to its vistas. A handsome production lovingly filmed by David Burr, “Wild America” moves at a clip that allows some clunky animatronic animal effects to be glossed over. The underlying sentiment is disarming, and begins to cloy only toward the end, when the filmmakers overemphasize the characters’ dilemmas and decisions.
The film largely rests on the shoulders of its young cast, and the central three are both charismatic and effective. Though the script favors Thomas, Bairstow and Sawa’s characters register with strength and distinction, and the three actors work well as an ensemble. The supporting cast is very effective, though Sheridan tends to overplay the crustier aspects of his role. Danny Glover crops up in a lively, uncredited cameo as a grizzled mountain man who befriends the lads.
Though pic stumbles a few times, using unnecessary contrivances to make points and elicit emotional responses, finally it’s the filmmakers’ ability to place us at the center of the action that makes “Wild America” such an enjoyable romp.