The western gets short shrift in 'Tall Tale'

March 24, 1995|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Isn't calling a movie "Tall Tale" something of a redundancy? Aren't all movies already tall tales? And isn't that why we go to them?

That philosophic point aside, "Tall Tale" is a somewhat overwrought kid-oriented oater that essentially moves "Wizard of structure into a generic western fantasy land. It sets a boy version of Dorothy loose in it, where he's accompanied by three mythic allies. Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion? No such luck. Pecos Bill, Paul Bunyan and John Henry. Worse luck yet: Patrick Swayze, Oliver Platt and Roger Aaron Brown.

The comparison to "Wizard of Oz" is helpful, because it demonstrates just how rigor and craft have deserted a certain kind of pop movie-making.

That epochal 1939 film was extremely shrewd in its psychology and extremely clear in its mechanism: A young girl, in something of a domestic crises, is knocked out in a tornado. In her dreams, her problems and all the people from her life are recycled in fantasy form, and her dilemma of loyalty vs. obedience is worked out; then she awakens and returns to normalcy, having been healed by the psychic experience. The progression is clear as a bell and all the more forceful for it. In fact, the clear distinction between reality and dream -- signified by black-and-white or color stock -- is the organizing principle of the film.

Now imagine what sense would have followed if the Cowardly Lion, Scarecrow and Tin Man had suddenly shown up in Kansas and kicked the tar out of Margaret Hamilton. Would CBS show that "Wizard of Oz" once a year?

That's essentially what happens in "Tall Tale" and that's why it's largely psychological gibberish. The reality and the dream are hopelessly mixed, and most children -- who have an instinctive sense of reality and dream states -- will have trouble making sense out of it.

It begins like a parody of "Shane." In a hopelessly beautiful far western valley, a heroic farmer (Stephen Lange) is being dogged by the minions of a land-grabbing railroad, as exemplified by evil gunfighter Scott Glenn. After a town meeting, they shoot him down.

His son Daniel (Nick Stahl) flees into the night in anguish and rage. When he wakes up, he's in a mythical western landscape, and who should arrive out of a cyclone but Pecos Bill (Swayze). He and Bill pick up fellow myths Bunyan (Platt) and Henry (Brown) in escapades that play on each one's mythic past but make no sense in terms of the larger narrative thrust of the picture. Actually, they don't make any sense in their own terms either: John Henry was a West Virginia folk hero, and Paul Bunyon a Northwest figure. Why are the two of them wandering around the West with Pecos Bill?

To make matters even daffier, Scott Glenn and his cohorts suddenly invade their dream state and chase them around violently.

When the boy "awakens," he still faces the same dilemma: His father's on the edge of death, the gunfighter gang is pressuring his ma to sell the farm, and the railroad is tunneling through the mountain to despoil the valley. Suddenly, out of nowhere, the three figures from his fantasy show up in his reality and help win the day.

Excuse me, is this any lesson for kids? Hey, kids, if you dream hard enough, mythical heroes will step out of your fantasies and help defeat your enemies with fancy gunplay. It works every darn time! Does Miss Frances know about this? How about Mr. Rogers or Captain Kangaroo?

It doesn't help any that the film is grotesquely overproduced. The tricked-up train the gunfighters travel about in feels like something out of "Blade Runner," and the special effects dwarf the meager story.

Swayze still has a little of his country-boy charm, but the figure is somehow between realities -- not human enough to care about, not mythical enough to bedazzle -- and comes to naught. It's not a very well-thought-out film.

Hear Hunter's reviews

To hear Stephen Hunter's reviews of current films, call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6250 after you hear the greeting.

"Tall Tale: The Unbelievable Adventures of Pecos Bill"

Starring Nick Stahl, Patrick Swayze and Scott Glenn

Directed by Jeremiah Chechik

Released by Walt Disney

Rated PG

**

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