Picks and Pans Review: Tall Tale: the Unbelievable Adventures of Pecos Bill

updated 04/03/1995 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/03/1995 01:00AM

Scott Glenn, Oliver Platt, Nick Stahl, Stephen Lang, Roger Aaron Brown, Catherine O'Hara, Patrick Swayze

Dang it if Disney's latest for kids doesn't seem like The Wizard of Oz in chaps, sharing that classic's structure but minus its imagination, charm and songs.

In Tall Tale, set in the West of 1905, Dorothy's stand-in is a farm boy (Stahl), and subbing for the Cowardly Lion, Tin Man and Scarecrow are three giants from American folklore: champion cowboy Pecos Bill (Swayze), railroad strongman John Henry (Brown) and loggin' fool Paul Bunyan (Piatt). They are off to see if they can't stop a land-hungry robber baron (Glenn, in the Wicked Witch role) from stealing Stahl's family farm.

Tale's best card is its folk heroes, but the screenplay and the director Jeremiah Chechik (Benny & Joon) fail to play it, shuffling Pecos Bill and the other two off to supporting roles and focusing the attention on Stahl and his plight. This may give younger viewers someone with whom to identify, but it makes the movie predictable and excessively sentimental. (Early on, Stahl argues with his dad; by the end, he's mewling, "I love you, Pa.")

As Pecos Bill, Swayze is all squinty eyes, dusty clothes and gruff cussin'. This role will do little for his career unless he's looking to play colorful coots full-time. Brown and Piatt are fine when they have something to work with, which isn't often enough. And truly wasted here is O'Hara, though she amuses in her single scene as Calamity Jane. Note: Given that Stahl is threatened with guns, nearly vivisected by a buzz saw and stands in the path of an oncoming train, Tale may be too scary for children under 7. (PG)

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