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‘A Far Off Place’

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 12, 1993


Mikael Salomon
Reese Witherspoon;
Ethan Randall;
Jack Thompson;
Sarel Bok;
Maximilian Schell
Parental guidance suggested

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"A Far Off Place" is a modernized African yarn, a Nike-era adventure into the dark continent with young stars Ethan Randall and Reese Witherspoon. There is just enough white-man's intrigue to make the trip engrossing, and just enough wildlife to make it diverting. Actually, some of that wildlife is fake -- we're talking life-size elephants made of latex. But you try telling real elephants to hit the dirt at the sound of gunfire.

An updating of two Laurens van der Post novels ("A Story Like the Wind" and "A Far Off Place"), the movie is about two American teenagers thrown together by grim circumstance. On an African vacation visit with his father, sulky Randall is forced to stay with family friends Robert Burke, Patricia Kalember and their daughter, Witherspoon. Resentful that he's not skiing in Utah, and unwilling to pal it up with Witherspoon, Randall passes the time in a bratty funk, a Walkman firmly strapped to his ears.

Things change when Randall and Witherspoon discover both sets of parents slain by ivory dealer Jack Thompson. The orphaned fugitives have to hoof it to the nearest town, where they can link up with anti-poaching ally Maximilian Schell. Luckily, Witherspoon is friendly with bushman Sarel Bok, who knows the terrain. But not so luckily, that nearest town is a thousand miles across the Kalahari Desert.

With a yellow-sand trail ahead of them, a bushman for guidance and a dog for company, this turns out to be a southern-hemispherical "Wizard of Oz." While helicopter-borne Thompson tries to silence the kids for keeps, the foursome (if you count the dog) has to deal with territorial ostriches, treacherous scorpions and other natural surprises.

But they have Bok with them, who knows a thing or two about survival. He shows them "tapping," the bushman's way of seeing into the future and generally getting into the cosmic rhythm. He teaches them how to make fire. He shows them how to siphon water from roots. He gets Randall to shoot an animal for food. He even talks to the elephants. True to Hollywood lore, he also plays romantic go-between, at one point fashioning an eye-catching animal-hide jacket for Randall to give to Witherspoon.

If this junior field trip into self-discovery is not tremendously original, it's pleasant enough. The landscape (it was filmed in Zimbabwe and Namibia) is beautiful, and Bok makes an endearing little stereotype. His cute factor does reach gag-inducing heights, though -- even for this genre. When Randall tries to explain how satellite-relayed cameras can "capture" the moon in a little television box, Bok laughs with, uh, primitively poetic innocence.

Beyond this, there are some genuinely funny moments. In one (although it has been spoiled by previews), Randall is chased across the sands by an extremely irritated ostrich. In another, Bok walks off to have a "talk" with a herd of elephants. He returns to tell Witherspoon that the animals will follow them to sweep their tracks from hostile trackers. Witherspoon relays the good news to Randall. The elephants, she announces seriously, "have agreed to help."

A Far Off Place" is preceded by "Trail Mix-Up," a G-rated, amusing adventure with Roger Rabbit and Baby Herman. On a camping trip, Baby H. keeps wandering into saw mills, bee hives, etc. while Roger R. constantly sacrifices himself to save the accident-prone infant.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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