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‘Tall Tale’ (PG)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 24, 1995

One blond, one black, one hairy: This Mod Squad in buckskin helps thrifty farm folk fight off greedy railroad barons in "Tall Tale," a big blue ox of revisionist crock from Disney. Mickey's minions herein transform three of America's rootin'est, tootin'est frontier superheroes into politically and ecologically corrected pablum-spewing icons for our time.

Aimed at kids more attuned to the niceties of the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, this action adventure portrays the first of the forest-levelers, Paul Bunyan (Oliver Platt), as a benign Brobdingnagian tree-hugger. And that legendary steel-driving man John Henry (Roger Aaron Brown) is all of a sudden against the western expansion of railroads.

Only the pistol-packing, tornado-riding Pecos Bill (Patrick Swayze) emerges somewhat intact, though like the others he's been both miniaturized and sensitized. In a shootout with Calamity Jane (Catherine O'Hara), he not only loses his dignity, he practically loses his Pecos. And there's Bunyan's ox: Babe is blue all right, but her horns are nowhere near 42 ax handles and a plug of chewing tobacco apart.

Then again, Babe was a creature of the wild Northwest and these are tall tales tamed. They're not meant for ax-wielding men of the primordial woods, but for children brought up on leaf-blowers and Japanese maples.

This folk tale begins in pastoral Paradise Valley, Colo., pop. 87. It's Heaven on Earth nestled beneath purple mountains, their foothills shimmering in thickets of autumn gold aspens. Still, young Daniel (Nick Stahl) is more interested in the horseless carriage that sputters into the valley than the spectacular scenery. In that and most other things, he's a normal 10-year-old boy, and boys especially will identify with him.

Daniel is fed up with the family farm. He's outgrown the tall tales his pa (Stephen Lang) tells him and he's also tired of his old-fashioned values. Then the railroad's goons come to town offering $50 an acre for the valley's farms -- or else. Pa gains Daniel's interest, if not quite his respect, when he refuses to sell and stands alone against the land-grubbing despoilers, led by mustache-twirler J.P. Stiles (Scott Glenn).

Pursued by the goons, Pa gives the deed to the farm to Daniel, who miraculously teams up with Pecos Bill and friends to save Paradise Valley and its agrarian way of life. Daniel also learns to dream impossible dreams, to cling to the courage of his convictions and so on.

After all, the farmlands of the valley are much more appealing than the hellish devastation of the railroad camp in a neighboring village. There workers -- Chinese, black and white -- lay track under the whip of the railroad's cruel supervisors. Machines belch smoke and the air is sullen with ash.

Director Jeremiah Chechik ("Benny & Joon") never misses a chance to contrast this devil's work with the wonders of Paradise Valley. In one dizzying scene, a field of poppies becomes a cloud of monarch butterflies -- computer-generated because the real insects looked gray on screen. As long as it doesn't spew or belch, apparently technology is good.

The screenplay, by Steven L. Bloom and Robert Rodat, isn't exactly trite, though it does contain a situation that dates back to "The Perils of Pauline." Can Pecos Bill rescue Daniel, who is tied to a log, from a screaming sawmill blade? There's also a long dull spell in the middle that neither the director nor the actors can disguise with pacing or energy.

Swayze, Platt and Brown revel in jolly machismo, which mostly disguises the blandness of the child star and the rest of the generic farm folk. Brown and his young co-star share an especially nice moment when Brown, as John Henry, offers the kid some advice on communicating with Pa. He confides that they sold his own daddy downriver before he could tell him that he loved him. Daniel doesn't understand. "I was a slave," John Henry explains.

The scene, which takes place on a flat wooden boat, recalls another wise black man and another bullheaded white boy from the bigger-than-life-shelf of American literature. Like the original Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill and John Henry, Huck and Jim are being shrunk to fit a society no longer big enough to hold them.

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