Unless you're a youngster with a Robinson Crusoe fixation or parents who want a wilderness survival guide for their child, A CRY IN THE WILD will surely disappoint.
Disturbed by the divorce of his parents (Pamela Sue Martin and Stephen Meadows), Brian (Jared Rushton) has become a sullen child not really looking forward to spending the summer with his father. Seeing him off on his flight, his mom presents him with a nifty hatchet but Brian is more interested
in his Walkman. (In the film's biggest plot flaw, Brian's mother entrusts her pride-and-joy to a crusty veteran pilot (Ned Beatty) who has "drinking problem" written all over his splotchy face.) Up in the wild blue yonder, the pilot nags Brian into taking the wheel while he reminisces and belts a
few drinks. Immediately, the pilot keels over from a fatal heart attack and Brian crash-lands the plane into a lake in the Canadian wilderness.
Barely extricating himself from the downed aircraft and forced to relinquish his survival gear, Brian swims for shore where he starves, climbs, gets sick eating berries, climbs, gets frightened by a bear, and climbs some more. Luckily he does have that all-purpose hatchet. Life in the Great
Outdoors is no picnic for Brian who has to compete for food with a territorial bear. Although he learns to like berries and builds a makeshift home, a racoon raids his larder. Additional perils include getting lost, foolishly kicking a vengeful porcupine, and subsisting on a meager diet of worms.
Still, that trusty hatchet proves useful as he starts a fire, fashions a fishing spear, and constructs a fortress. Unfortunately, the pesky grizzly knocks down his hard work and chases him into the lake. Resorting to the kill-or-be-killed mentality, Brian is forced to dispatch the not-so-gentle
giant (who it turns out has two cubs that Brian must now nurture). Soon, after a violent storm causes the plane to resurface and Brian is able to retrieve the much-needed survival kit, he is rescued. Having acquired a lifelong respect for hatchets, Brian is a changed boy. Having survived
life-or-death traumas, he is better able to cope with his broken home.
Pitting youngsters against Nature has been a staple of films as disparate as SWISS FAMILY ROBINSON and LORD OF THE FLIES. Despite being based on a prize-winning children's novel, this adaptation lacks the cinematic imagination to rank with a classic like NEVER CRY WOLF. For this adventure to work
it must function as both an action picture and a psychological study. Unfortunately, A CRY IN THE WILD steers a middle road that veers in and out of both those approaches in a pedestrian manner.
Occasional flashbacks, like those in which Brian catches him mom in an adulterous embrace, explain motivation sketchily but don't really reveal Brian's character. That Brian remains such a blank-faced quantity is partially the fault of Mark Griffiths's shallow direction and partially due to Jared
Rushton's inexpressiveness as an actor. While he's a likable kid, Rushton has an opaque presence. As a result, we're never drawn into the emotional turmoil that he must confront even as he endeavors to survive.
Well-intentioned, A CRY IN THE WILD plods along as Brian is propelled to self-acceptance and then tolerance of the once-incomprehensible grownup world--which was an emotional sort of wilderness for the boy. Suitable family entertainment, the film is a forgettable dramatic experience--one that
never adequately juxtaposes the pain of reaching maturity with surviving a more immediate danger in the woods. (Some violence, adult situations.)
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