At the end of “Touching Wild Horses,” Jane Seymour’s character exultantly discovers pic’s moral: One must bravely venture beyond the known and the safe. Unfortunately, the filmmakers don’t heed their own advice. “Horses” slavishly follows the old recipe for family drama: a child traumatized by death or abandonment, a crusty old recluse who takes him in, the insensitive bureaucrat and, last but not least, an exotic wild animal that brings healing and solace. Decidedly competent but frankly unexciting pic seems destined for the small screen, where Seymour fans abound; kid-friendly cable or network TV are good bets.
After the death of his father and sister and with his mother in a coma, Mark (Mark Rendell) is sent to live with his only living relative, his Aunt Fiona (the oh-so-carefully unglamorous, but never unattractive Seymour), whom he has never met, on Sable Island. The nearly-deserted island is also home to a park ranger (Charles Martin Smith, extending his “Never Cry Wolf” nature studies) and a herd of wild horses, which are protected by the government and which no one may touch or tame.
Gruff, no-nonsense Aunt Fiona was a teacher until a pregnancy, ending with her giving up her illegitimate child for adoption 20 years ago, sent her fleeing from society to study the island’s horses. Fiona soon starts barking assignments at her newly arrived, bewildered and poorly educated nephew.
Fiona teaches Mark how to think, Mark teaches Fiona how to feel, and everything goes along swimmingly until, true to the title, Mark touches a horse, intervening in the natural cycle to save a foal whose mother has been killed in a storm. Though thesping is fine, foal basically steals the show. Best sequences involve the equine’s domestication, as beast soon has the run of the rustic house, an overgrown pet whose clumsy affection comes off as totally natural.
Seymour is not particularly convincing as a misanthropic drill-sergeant, but then again she is not meant to be. Maybe a 5-year-old won’t figure out that Fiona’s bark is worse than her bite, but most of the audience knows this bitter crone will soon blossom forth into the usual gracious, high-cheekboned Seymour. The inevitable transformation, though believable, holds no surprises.
Rendell’s performance is likewise highly professional, with blessedly little overstudied cutesiness, and Smith deploys the reliable ability of a great character actor to create a complete personality in a few lines.
Steve Danyluk’s location lensing at Sandbanks Provincial Park in Ontario brings out the bleak yet intense color of earth and sky while Tom Carnegie’s production design convincingly achieves a weathered, windblown look.