Tall Tale: The Unbelievable Adventures of Pecos Bill (1995)

10 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Tall Tale: The Unbelievable Adventures of Pecos Bill” is an entertaining family adventure that has an interesting group of heroes for its target audience—being a Disney film, I assume that’s children under the age of ten, although if you get past the silliness of the premise, people of all ages can enjoy it too. The premise and its group of heroes are quite intriguing material for a family adventure movie. It’s a Western about a young boy who saves his family’s farm from an evil land developer with help from three legendary figures—Paul Bunyan, John Henry, and Pecos Bill. That’s our group of heroes (the “tall tales” of the title)—folk heroes, not necessarily superpeople with abilities to fly or practice jujitsu onto their enemies. Already, I’m intrigued. Even if “Tall Tale: The Unbelievable Adventures of Pecos Bill” gets a little too ridiculous at times, it is mostly very entertaining.

The boy’s name is Daniel Hackett (Nick Stahl, who’s OK but a little bland in the role) who has been told these tall tales by his prideful father Jonas (Stephen Lang). They live in Paradise Valley, a Western area untouched by sinister land developer Stiles (Scott Glenn) that plans to tear it all down as soon as he gets the deeds to every inch of it. But Jonas turns down Stiles’ offer, which leads one of Stiles’ hired guns to wound him. Jonas leaves the deed to the land to Daniel, who runs and winds up falling asleep on a boat in the nearby lake. But he awakens to find himself in a Texas desert (magically, I suppose), where he meets the first of the three heroes he will encounter—gun-slingin’ cowboy Pecos Bill (Patrick Swayze, who is hands-down the coolest person in the movie). As Pecos Bill assists Daniel to get back home for his father, they run into lumberjack Paul Bunyan (Oliver Platt) and strongman John Henry (Roger Aaron Brown) along the way. They teach Daniel how to stand up for himself and his beliefs.

It’s a strong asset to the movie that these “tall tales” are represented with the same dignity of their legend. Pecos Bill may remind some viewers of Indiana Jones, but I guess that’s the point in giving him an adventurous personality with a sly sense of humor and manner. John Henry is a strongman who knows a thing or too about pride and respect (and had his own rocky relationship with his own father which shadows the life Daniel has with his strict father). Paul Bunyan is not a giant (though he is relatively large in human height), but he is as strong as they come when it comes to lumberjacking—he even lives inside of a hollowed-out redwood tree, which is a nice touch. (And of course, there’s Paul’s loyal blue ox, Babe, to complete the ensemble.) All three roles are played very well by the actors.

The film is not great—some motivations are unclear, and the writers couldn’t avoid sentimental clichés as well as adventurous clichés (such as when Daniel is only inches away from being cut in a sawmill). And there’s a walk-on by Calamity Jane (Catherine O’Hara), who I wished had a much larger part. But there are some things to like about it, especially the visuals. Visually, “Tall Tale: The Unbelievable Adventures of Pecos Bill” is a treat, with top-notch production design and great cinematography. There are many great shots in the movie; my most favorite features a mountain meadow where butterflies flutter around the characters. The visuals, the heroes, and some gripping adventure sequences make “Tall Tale: The Unbelievable Adventures of Pecos Bill” a terrific adventure indeed.

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