Tall Tale” is a lavishly produced, robustly entertaining Old West fantasy that poses a unique marketing challenge to the Disney brain trust. Theatrical prospects are hard to gauge, mainly because this Caravan Pictures production is so unlike anything else in recent memory. That could work in its favor, of course. Then again, maybe not.
Pic is pitched toward family audiences, with an obvious appeal for grade-schoolers. Trouble is, huge segments of that target audience are totally unfamiliar with Pecos Bill, John Henry and Paul Bunyan, the mythic heroes who figure so prominently in the imaginative screenplay by Steven L. Bloom and Robert Rodat. Young viewers might find Calamity Jane slightly more recognizable, but only because she’s played here, briefly, by “Home Alone” vet Catherine O’Hara.
If the kids can be enticed into theaters during opening weekend, “Tall Tale” is a safe bet to generate strong word of mouth. Pic is impressively larger than life, both in physical scale and heroic action. And while the pacing could be brisker during its slightly flabby midsection, it works its way up to a dandy crowd-pleasing climax.
Nick Stahl is well cast as Daniel Hackett, a plucky young farm boy who doesn’t really appreciate the value of his family’s land until it’s nearly lost.
Scott Glenn is the villain of the piece, a black-hatted rogue who’s employed by business interests to gobble up all the homesteads in the territory. When Nick’s father (Stephen Lang) refuses to sell, he’s nearly killed by a bad guy’s bullet.
While his father struggles to recover, Nick takes off to parts unknown, hoping he can hide the deed to the family farm far from the greedy land-grabbers. Magically, he finds himself transported to a sun-baked desert. And that’s where he meets Pecos Bill (Patrick Swayze), one of the many heroes in his father’s tall tales.
Bill agrees to help Nick find his way home. In the course of their travels, however, they recognize the need for additional assistance. So they rope logger Paul Bunyan (Oliver Platt) and steel driver John Henry (Roger Aaron Brown) into their battle with the land-grabbers. For as long as Nick believes in them, the legendary heroes are formidable allies. But once Nick gives in to despair, the heroes vanish. Temporarily, at least.
Here and there, “Tall Tale” offers a dollop or two of some homespun inspirational wisdom, usually something on the order of, “If you believe in yourself, anything is possible.” In this particular context, however, such corniness is acceptable, even enjoyable.
Much the same can be said for Nick’s climactic defiance of the land-grabbers as their train chugs toward his town. Naturally, his single-handed heroism inspires the other townspeople. Just as naturally, it also triggers a return appearance by the mythic good guys.
With just the right measure of cartoonish flamboyance, Glenn makes a splendidly wicked villain. (Actually, the role isn’t all that far removed from the one he played in dead earnest in Mark Rydell’s “The River.”) Looking like some dour figure in an illustrated Victorian novel, Glenn is the very model of a youngster’s worst nightmare.
And Swayze is everything any kid could want in a two-fisted, hard-drinking, pistol-packing whirlwind-rider. As a matter of fact, Swayze’s Pecos Bill really does get to lasso a tornado. But the most special effect is the unaffected sincerity of Swayze’s thoroughly engaging perf.
Platt is effectively cast against type, even though he’s considerably smaller than most people’s idea of what Paul Bunyan looks like. Brown plays John Henry with appropriate verve and easygoing charm. O’Hara is funny as Calamity Jane, though she doesn’t get much screen time. She doesn’t even get to stick around as long as the unbilled Burgess Meredith, who appears dismayingly frail in his cameo as a sawmill supervisor.
Director Jeremiah Chechik strives for a look and feel of slightly exaggerated grandeur, at once celebrating and gently tweaking the traditions of Old West. He receives tremendous help from Janusz Kaminski’s widescreen color lensing and Randy Edelman’s thunderous music. Other tech credits, including the impressive special effects work, are first-class.
For some reason Disney is advertising this pic as “Tall Tale: The Unbelievable Adventures of Pecos Bill,” even though the much less pretentious “Tall Tale” is the only title that appears onscreen. This seems to be part of a kidpic trend that began with “Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey” and continued with “Far from Home: The Adventure of Yellow Dog.” It’s a silly development, and shouldn’t be encouraged.