A Cry in the Wild (1990)

27 Jul

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“A Cry in the Wild” is a Corman-produced low-budget film adaptation of the popular novel “Hatchet” by Gary Paulsen… Is it one of my favorites?

Well, it might be. There are some things that could have been improved, a few little details I could have done without, and I’m not entirely sure its emotional impact weighed down on me as much as it should have. But when I think of what it did right, especially in keeping with the spirit of the book “Hatchet” (which I read in middle school), “A Cry in the Wild” is an overall involving, moving, and thrilling adventure.

This film was made around the time low-budget pioneer Roger Corman, best known as a trailblazer for independent film, wanted to branch out and start making films that were more aimed at children. (What followed were many straight-to-video family films that I rented as a kid–needless to say, they don’t hold a candle to “A Cry in the Wild,” no matter how crazy and “guilty-pleasure-y” some of them might be.) So, he brought on Corman graduate Mark Griffiths to direct it and the original novel’s author Gary Paulsen himself to write the screenplay. (One major change from book to film: it’s a bear that antagonizes the lead character instead of a moose, simply because, according to Paulsen, moose are too dumb to train for a movie. Way to think smart in adapting your own source material.)

Our lead character is a teenage boy named Brian (Jared Rushton). A child of divorce, Brian is on his way to his father in Canada via a single-engine plane (flown by a pilot played by the ever-reliable Ned Beatty). But when the pilot has a heart attack and dies, Brian crash-lands the plane into a lake in the forest. Now stranded in the Canadian Wilderness (and bear country) with nothing but a small hatchet (which his mother had brought him as a gift before he left), Brian must learn to survive using his wits and everything around him that could possibly help in some way. He builds shelter, finds food, makes fire, and deals with threats such as a porcupine, a bear, and even a tornado. (There’s also a white wolf that seems ambiguous as to whether it’s a friend or foe–for some reason, this film has sequels known as “the White Wolves collection,” neither of which has anything to do with Gary Paulsen’s sequel novels to “Hatchet.” Not for me.)

All the while, Brian deals with flashbacks involving his parents’ divorce. The “Secret” that haunts Brian works well enough in the book, but in the film, it doesn’t feel entirely necessary–mostly because the payoff isn’t strong enough to warrant the drama, in my opinion.

The dramatic emotional weight is more felt when Brian struggles to survive in a world he didn’t make. A lot of the film is told in silence as Brian learns how to hunt, how to fish, how to build, and ultimately how to survive, using his one hatchet. (When he nearly loses the hatchet late in the film is a moment where I genuinely gasped.) It doesn’t always work, such as the few moments when Brian speaks his thoughts (mainly for the audience)–and as good as he was in other movies like “Big” and “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids,” Jared Rushton isn’t always able to carry our attention for very long. However, because he is a kid, it’s not impossible to feel something for him when he’s figuring things out for himself within those quiet moments (and there are more of them than of the latter). Thus, it’s easy to feel happiness when he’s finally able to avoid extremely irritating mosquitoes after building his first campfire. Rushton can even provide funny moments when the time is right, such as when he refers to a thieving raccoon as a “monkey man.” (“Better keep away from my berries, pal.”)

It is easy to feel more intimidated by a bear than a moose on-screen, but there is one moment where Brian and the bear wrestle in the lake–I think Brian gets away too easily. It kind of takes away some tension when the bear attacks Brian’s shelter later in the film.

Eh, nitpicks. What do I love about the film, apart from the quiet moments of survival? I mean, this isn’t “Cast Away,” obviously–but I’m always a sucker for movies about people figuring difficult things out all alone.

…Actually, come to think of it, that might be it. Maybe I just enjoy “A Cry in the Wild” for making the most of its low budget, an author adapting his own novel in a way that best suits it, embracing the ingenuity of such a project, and giving us a survival drama story that is never boring, a bit uneven, but overall affecting. Could a better movie have been made from the source material? Maybe–but I’ll take what I can get. And I truly enjoy “A Cry in the Wild.”

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