Any movie about Africa has one thing going for it: Africa. And one thing going against it: It's a movie.
In "A Far Off Place," the latter overwhelms the former. Despite the often stunning beauty of its setting and the majesty of its creatures great and small, the movie quickly settles into dreary formula and becomes as much an ordeal to watch as it must have been to make.
Derived from two novels by the South African writer Laurens van der Post, it tries hard to be eco-correct -- it's bravely against machine-gunning elephants -- but suffers the fate of many enterprises that are rigidly doctrinaire: While getting the conservation issues right, it's so blind to human reality that it comes dangerously close to racism.
The movie, essentially a tale of a trek across the Kalahari by two white and one black teen-ager, repeats a particularly appalling cliche in the way it insists that the black youth, somehow more "natural" and "more spiritual," act as facilitator to the implicit romance between the two whites, while himself being denied any possibility of a sexual identity. It's as if he's from a different species; he's like an exotic pet. It gave me the creeps.
And for a PG-movie from Walt Disney and Steven Spielberg (it's a co-production), this baby is plenty violent. In the first 10 minutes, poachers with AK-47s hose down an elephant herd -- the elephants die trumpeting agony in the dust -- and then are ambushed and massacred themselves by a former white hunter. Ten minutes after that, another gang of poachers invades a jungle station where a scientist and his wife are spearheading an anti-poaching crusade. The poachers massacre them and a visiting friend, plus assorted servants. What is this, the massacre express?
The survivors number three: the two teen-age white kids, Nonnie and Harry (Reese Witherspoon and Ethan Randall), and a young bushman, Xhabbo (Sarel Bok). Pursued by killers, the trio sets out across the Kalahari -- close to 1,500 miles -- to the sea and safety.
The journey is extremely predictable, and not really that arduous. The movie treats the Kalahari as a really big beach. It's a snap, what with the wise young bushman counseling the two -- particularly the city-bred Harry -- in survival skills while each Westerner is somehow morally improved by exposure to the African's ancient wisdom. He can draw water from the sand, he can convince an antelope to give up its life for the honor of nourishing American teen-agers. He can even talk elephant: He orders a herd of pachyderms to follow close behind so that the beasts obliterate the trio's tracks.
Yet the movie is poorly thought out at the most fundamental level. Nonnie is offered as an old Africa hand, clever enough to double back on the poachers and plant dynamite in two of their vehicles. She's a veritable Rambo in wardrobe by Banana Republic, but . . . she forgets to take her rifle? She loses it? Ho boy, the one thing an old hand would want in such dicey circumstances is a rifle, but of course the Disney-Spielberg combine can't handle a cute little American teen-ager toting her boomstick across the veld and sniping the opposition, so it's conveniently jettisoned at the first opportunity.
As inane as this is, it's matched by equal levels of inanity in the film's other half, where ex-big game hunter and current anti-poacher commando Mopani Theron (Maximilian Schell) hunts for the kids in a race against time (that again) with the evil man behind the poaching. Since his identity is the movie's one pale surprise, I won't give it away, but even the intellectually challenged will guess who he is, on the principle that if a name actor appears early in a movie and appears not to have much to do, you can absolutely count on the fact that he will be the villain.
Along with "A Far Off Place" is seven minutes of animated delirium called "Trail Mix-Up," starring Roger Rabbit and Baby Herman. It may be worth the price of admission. Hysterically anarchistic, it watches as Roger tries to supervise Baby on a trip to a national forest. Score: Baby 1, National Forest 0, Roger 13. It has more energy than the last three movies I've seen, totaled. And, in a funny way, it doesn't help "A Far Off Place" a bit. You're so exhausted when you're done with it the last thing you want to do is trek across the Kalahari.
@"A Far Off Place"
Starring Reese Witherspoon and Ethan Randall.
Directed by Mikael Salomon.
Released by Disney-Amblin Entertainment.