“Born to Be Wild” contains all the requisite charms and values of a feel-good, politically correct child-animal story, this time centering on a mischievous adolescent and his budding concern for Katie, a playful, highly intelligent gorilla. However, lacking the magic — and authenticity — of “Free Willy,” Warners’ 1993 sleeper, this amiable pic will achieve only moderate success, with younger, less critical viewers as its most ardent supporters.
In the wake of Hollywood kidpix about dogs, horses, whales and monkeys, now comes one about a cute, smart-alecky gorilla that has been trained to communicate — and emote — using sign language. New angle here is that human beings and animals are more similar in conduct and feeling than common sense would suggest.
Ever since pa left, rebellious 14-year-old Rick (Will Horneff) and his mother , Margaret (Helen Shaver), a behavioral scientist specializing in studying communication with gorillas, have grown increasingly estranged.
As punishment for swiping her van for a high-speed joy ride, mom assigns Rick the unpleasant task of cleaning the animal research lab, which he does with resentment.
As expected though, the two gradually begin to enjoy their imposed company, even playing tricks on each other. But just as they become buddies, Katie is reclaimed by Gus Charnley (Peter Boyle), her vicious legal owner who uses her as a caged novelty act. Heartbroken, Rick rescues her and together they hit the road, embarking on a wild adventure full of comic quandaries.
Catering to children, film embraces their point of view — and fantasies — completely. The adult world is presented as insensitive and uncaring, one inhabited by rigid parents or bumbling buffoons, particularly two incompetent cops who chase Rick and Katie as they head for the Canadian border and freedom.
What elevates pic above the standard fare is its spin: Because the gorilla can communicate and express feelings, her relationship with Rick is richer and more fully realized. Problem is, the gorilla progressively gets too cute, even taking the stand in court. With a running time of 100 minutes, pic could benefit from a trimming of 15 minutes without at all compromising its integrity.
Still, there are a number of eye-popping set pieces sure to thrill children, like Rick and Katie speeding on the highway to the loud tunes of “Born to be Wild.” Shot in Washington and Hawaii, production values, particularly Donald M. Morgan’s lensing of the lush Oahu island and Mark Snow’s buoyant music, are excellent, enhancing considerably the enjoyment of the tale.