A Bilge Too Far

Thank goodness for small favors: the new Disney release, A Far Off Place, is not a Newsies-magnitude bomb. On the other hand, the best thing about the film (a loose adaption of two books by Laurens van der Post, A Story Like the Wind and A Far Off Place) is that it arrives bundled with the latest Roger Rabbit animated short, Trail Mix-Up.

A Far Off Place is not so much bad as it is bland, a plain vanilla confection in a multihued African wrapper that follows one of those tried-and-true Disney formulas: precocious kids in jeopardy outsmart bad guys and learn life lessons in the process.

Fourteen-year-old Ethan Randall, best known as the snotty rich kid in Dutch, plays jaded city boy Harry Winslow, who hasn't been in Africa long enough to put new batteries in his Walkman before he wonders, "Is there anything to do around here?" As he says it, giraffes frolic just outside the window of the dilapidated taxi bearing Harry and his father from the airport to the Parker family farmhouse, where they will be vacationing. Reese Witherspoon is Nonnie Parker, a resourceful tomboy about the same age as Harry, whose idea of a good time is dynamiting boulders with her father or tromping through the jungle at night with her closest adult friend and confidant, Xhabbo the Bushman. It's loathing at first sight for Harry and Nonnie; don't doubt for a second that the two of them will end up romantically linked by the end of the movie.

During their heyday, the Disney studios rolled these B-movies off the assembly line with weekly regularity, usually starring Hayley Mills or Dean Jones. Of course, this is 1993; Walt wasn't likely to open one of his films with a scene depicting the gruesome massacre of a herd of elephants at the hands of poachers, or a deadly gunfight between a lawman and the elephants' killers. People die in A Far Off Place, many of them violently, and while the violence itself is understated even by network television standards, it still comes as a surprise in a Disney movie.

A Far Off Place's plot is set in motion when vengeful poachers slaughter Harry and Nonnie's families. Grieving for all of about 30 seconds, Xhabbo and the kids set off on foot for the nearest town A 2000 kilometers away, across the Kalahari Desert. In a bizarre twist, the desert is played not by the Kalahari itself, but by the Namib Desert, whose sand dunes rise to more than 300 meters and whose red, orange, pink, salmon, and fawn hues must be seen to be believed. A Far Off Place is the first feature film ever permitted to shoot in this extraordinary wilderness, and if there were any justice in Hollywood the Namib would have gotten equal billing with the film's human stars.

The ease with which the adolescents come to grips with their parents' demise is both difficult to accept and unsettling. Xhabbo says something to the effect of, "If the wind can make it, so can we," and off across the Kalahari they go. Far-fetched? Nahh.

Along the way the determined trio encounters the usual desert hazards A scorpions, sandstorms, thirst, sunstroke, blistered feet, dead batteries A and overcome them all. Spectacular panoramas alternate with scenes of the two kids earning each other's respect and, under the watchful eyes of the benevolent Bushman, falling in love. Before we know it, two months (!) have passed and the intrepid adventurers are still going strong. It all boils down to a final confrontation with the nastiest of the bad guys, good triumphs over evil, and love conquers all. Typical Disney, right down to the inclusion of a loyal pooch. Harry and Nonnie get to enjoy a sloppy, risque-by-Disney-standards smooch, but by and large, A Far Off Place plays things predictably safe.

Trail Mix-Up, on the other hand, is a pip. Wacky and inspired, this third installment in the Roger Rabbit series follows our hero and his perennial charge, Baby Herman, on a calamitous camping trip. It's as madcap and off-the-wall as A Far Off Place is formulaic.

The full-length feature could have benefitted handsomely from a dollop of the cartoon's imagination. "Careful," coos husky-voiced Jessica Rabbit, playing a park ranger in hot pants, to Roger, who is roasting a hot dog on a spit. "You wouldn't want to burn your weenie." Indeed.

 
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