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Weekly Alibi Bungle in the Jungle

Wild America

By Noah Masterson

July 14, 1997:  If you've ever seen the Stouffer brothers' television series, "Wild America," you know it's not quite like other nature shows. The brothers put themselves on both sides of the camera, interacting with the animals they film, holding campfire conversations with one another and speaking directly to the viewers at home. They do all this with slow delivery and deadpan charm; they are not actors, or even scientists--they are simply three brothers from Arkansas who love the American wilderness.

Wild America, the film based on the Stouffer brothers' childhood, captures some elements of the television show--like its leisurely pace--but fails on many other fronts. Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Tiger Beat heartthrob and middle child on TV's "Home Improvement," narrates the film and plays Marshall, the youngest Stouffer brother. The pubescent Thomas' voice is in a constant state of change, which makes it fun to guess what sequence the film was shot in based on whether he sounds like a sweet little kid or an ornery teenager.

Marshall is frequently terrorized by his older brothers Mark (Devon Sawa, who played the human incarnation of the title role in Casper), and Marty (Scott Bairstow, best known as Newt Call in "Lonesome Dove: The Outlaw Years"). Mark and Marty drop their little brother into a pool from 20 feet up, drag him on a rope behind a moving vehicle and later make him act as bear bait in the northern wilderness--all the while filming the shenanigans with an old 8 millimeter camera. The constant bullying Marshall endures instills in him a sense of fearlessness, which proves useful when he stows away with his brothers to capture some of America's more dangerous animals on film.

And so, after a nice slow unraveling of the backstory, with decent character development of all three leads, the boys finally meet the animals, and the film takes a sharp turn for the worse. Wild America is based on a true story, but I refuse to believe that Marshall went for a ride on the antlers of an adult moose and escaped unscathed, or that three teenagers singing a jingle from a Mountain Dew commercial will put to sleep a group of pissed-off grizzlies. Gimmicks like these are meant to keep the rugrats in the audience entertained, but they are unnecessary. A more realistic interpretation of the Stouffer brothers' adventures would have served the film much better.

The film also runs into trouble by taking on too much. Wild America works best when it focuses on the relationships between the three brothers--particularly the rivalry between Mark and Marty, the two eldest. But when it explores a handful of subplots, like the maintenance of a two-seater airplane Marshall hopes to fly with his father or the constant taunting of neighborhood wiseguys, the main story gets lost. These diversions make the movie overlong by half an hour.

Finally, one can't help but wonder if a movie based on the life of the Stouffer brothers would have been more interesting if it focused on a different time period. The film is set during the summer of 1967, when the brothers first discovered their love of nature and filmmaking. But it wasn't until a decade later that the Stouffers found commercial success, when they produced a nature program hosted by Robert Redford. Isn't the rise to success more compelling than the realization of potential success? What if the movie Lenny had ended with the first time Lenny Bruce told a joke that made some kid squirt milk out of his nose?

There is a good story in the lives of the Stouffer brothers. That story is best told through the homey ramblings about nature and life on the Stouffer brothers' TV show. Sadly, the big screen adaptation misses the mark.

--Noah Masterson

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