Hey folks, guess what? I signed up for Disney+!
How is it? Well, I haven’t watched that Mandalorian show that everyone’s raving about yet, so I don’t have a lot to say about that in particular. So, let’s see. There’s a lot of cartoons from the ‘80s and ‘90s. There are a lot of movies with teenage Kurt Russell. Oh, and a lot of dog movies!
Okay, to be honest, once you get past Disney’s hype and their predatory business practices, they’re not particularly impressive to an adult consumer. Nostalgia laid bare just looks like . . . “stuff”. This especially seems to be the case with Disney as it concerns the contrast between their Disney Animation Studios animated movies and their Walt Disney Pictures/Walt Disney Studios live action fare. It’s amazing to see, really. On the first hand, you have animated movies that are almost routinely treated like instant classics, whether deservedly or undeservedly. On the second hand, you have a studio that usually pumps out whatever is needed of them at the particular moment. It might be literary adaptations like Swiss Family Robinson, family comedies like Freaky Friday or sports movies like The Mighty Ducks. And along the way, yes, lots of dog movies and Kurt Russell. Lately, it seems to be reimaginings of their animated films, which I find interesting but lots of other people see as the death of creativity (hey, at least people are talking about them).
But occasionally there’s a live action Disney movie that sticks with you. One that sticks in the back of your mind and you can’t lose it. I’ve seen it among other people who’ve signed up for the service. For some, it was a TV movie called Mr. Boogedy. For others, it was the treasure hunt mystery Candleshoe. Not for me, though.
For me, it was a movie called Tall Tale.
Sometimes called Tall Tale: The Unbvelievable Adventures of Pecos Bill or Tall Tale: The Unbelievable Adventure, this movie is a Walt Disney Pictures production released to theaters in 1995. The movie draws on American folklore and legendary heroes like Calamity Jane, Paul Bunyan, John Henry and the one and only Pecos Bill.
[Knock, Knock, Knock]
FTG: “Who the hell could that be? I guess I’ll have to switch over to script mode to handle this.”
[Answers the door. Finds a very prim and proper woman carrying a briefcase and holding out a piece of paper in the other hand]
Lawyer: “Hello, sir. I’m an attorney representing The Society for the Promotion of Truth and Accuracy in the Dissemination of American Folklore. I’ve been sent here to extend you a cease and desist order regarding the spread of misinformation vis-à-vis the character of Pecos Bill.”
[FTG takes paper]
FTG: “You’ve got to be kidding me! This really shouldn’t be a big deal. The character has, despite a complicated origin, officially entered the pantheon of American folk heroes. And for the purpose of a simple movie review . . . “
Lawyer: “Cease. And. Desist. Otherwise, we will see you in court. Good evening, sir.”
FTG: “Well, back to prose mode. And now I have to deal with this.”
Anyway, where was I?
Oh, yeah! Pecos Bill! I guess we have to deal with Pecos Bill as that lawyer said. And while we’re at it, deal with American folk heroes and the legacy of the American frontier in general.
Okay, so here’s the thing about American folk heroes. Some of them were real people whose exploits were exaggerated. Others were fictional characters that arose out of campfire stories and folk tradition. Still others were just invented whole cloth by writers and treated as if they were folk characters the whole time as an attempt to invent folklore. It’s something that folklorists and other scholars will refer to as “fakelore”. And that’s what Pecos Bill is. Pecos Bill was invented by writer and former soldier-of-fortune Edward S. O’Reilly. O’Reilly thought the state of Texas needed its own hero like other places had, so he made one up. And a whole bunch of us bought it. Before O’Reilly wrote those stories, there probably wasn’t a single cattleman in Texas who had even heard the name Pecos Bill. Folklore in general is a tricky mistress, though. I know a whole bunch of fairy tales that were written by women in French salons, yet somehow managed to pop up in different forms in folk tale collections. You have to wonder if after all these years and all his fame, ol’ Pecos may have actually earned some of his folk rep.
We should probably also talk about how attitudes toward the American frontier and its heroes has changed over time. There was a time when the exploits of those who settled the American West were regarded as heroes. Over time though, folks have taken a harder look at our mythologized past. For one thing, acknowledging that Western towns weren’t necessarily the lawless places the movies claimed they were (some even required you to check your firearms before even entering the town). But also acknowledging that the USA’s western expansion wasn’t really a good thing for the native people and the environement. The funny thing is that when this movie was made, that was already starting to change and it’s echoed in the movie itself.
The movie is about a 12-year old boy named Daniel Hackett (Nick Stahl) who lives on a farm in an area called Paradise Valley during the early days of the 20th Century. Daniel doesn’t care for life on a Paradise Valley farm. He wants to move elsewhere. Specifically, an elsewhere with modern wonders like motor cars and electric lights. This causes him to clash with his father, who’s been known to tell Daniel stories about tall tale heroes as well as instruct him to hold to the “Code of the West” (“Respect the land. Defend the defenseless. And don’t ever spit in front of women or children”. No, that’s seriously the code according to Mr. Hackett). Daniel’s Father, Elias Hackett, doesn’t like that Daniel doesn’t respect the land or the work he put into it in order to give Daniel a home and life. This conflict changes into something else when a crooked businessman named J.P. Stiles shows up to try and buy all the land in Paradise Valley for a mining project. Elias comes into conflict with Stiles and is gravely injured in the process. It’s then that we travel into mythologized West of the tall tales.
You see, Daniel goes to sleep in a rowboat on a nearby lake and wakes up in the middle of the desert where he is accosted by two crooks who want to rob him. He’s then rescued by Pecos Bill (Patrick Swayze) who rides in on a tornado and shoots the trigger fingers off the robbers. Then, after some cajoling, Pecos takes Daniel on a journey across the whole country to recruit Paul Bunyan (Oliver Platt) and John Henry (Roger Aaron Brown) so they can return to Paradise Valley so that Daniel can stand up to Stiles and save his father’s land.
When I say this is a trip into the mythologized Amercan West, I’m being pretty serious. There’s kind of a dreamlike quality underlying a lot of it. Like I said before, Pecos arrives via tornado. Pecos and Daniel manage to travel to locations thousands of miles apart in three days via horseback. They randomly run into other characters like John Henry and Calamity Jane (a cameo of sorts by Catherine O’Hara) by luck. It’s much the same way you’d imagine the old West when filtered through a storybook of American legends.
Yet, these folk heroes aren’t quite the same as you might remember them. Most American folk heroes are exemplars of the work they do. These include but are not limited to cattleman (Pecos Bill), lumberjack (Paul Bunyan), steel driver (John Henry), sailor (Old Stormalong), train engineer (Casey Jones) and keelboatman (Mike Fink) among others. Their tales are frequently about how amazing they are at their job and how their feats c hanged either their profession or the landscape around them. So they’re not really heroes in the modern sense. Tall Tale seeks to change that. Instead, our three main legends are depicted as righters of wrongs. This is exemplified by how they stick to and even drink to The Code of the West (which according to Bunyan is also “The Code of the North” and to Henry is “The Code of the South”). The last item about spitting aside, they stick to the far more noteworthy parts about respecting the land and defending the defenseless. This is a frontier hero movie that was aware that it was being released in 1995 and that the kids watching weren’t going to fall for the same loving respect for the Western that their parents did. It may not be super historically accurate but it acknowledges things that in the past it might not have. In a discussion about their respective fathers, John Henry mentions that he could never reconcile with his father because he had been sold down river and then very directly clarifies to a confused Daniel that he and his family were slaves. Pecos Bill is shown to have a greater respect for nature in a couple of scenes, notably one with a flock of butterflies. Probably the most changed though is Paul Bunyan. To start with Paul Bunyan isn’t a giant in this version. Though, that might be more for budget and practical reasons. What’s important with Paul Bunyan is that he’s become something of a bitter recluse who’s been driven out of the logging industry by changes and innovations to the industry. Instead, he lives a hermit-like existence in the Redwood Forest, living in a house carved into a fallen tree and dressed in a buckskin outfit with a vaguely Native American motif. Paul isn’t just upset aboutlosing his job, though. Instead he laments that the new way of logging cuts down everything both weak and strong, the sapling and full grown tree. Bunyan even suggests that if they don’t stop nothing will grow there again. This is different. A Paul Bunyan who cares not just about logging but about the forest where he logs. It seems like a far cry from the towering giant who could cut down an entire forest with just a swing of his ax. But after all, he’s keeping to the Code. What was that first part? “Respect the land.”
So, all that aside, what is the final word on this movie? Is it good? Well, it’s pretty good but it falls short of being great. Some of the little bits are great, like the nods to the original tales or how Pecos and company treat Daniel’s stories of then-modern inventions as if he’s telling them his own tall tales. The main thrust of the story is Daniel and his development as he overcomes his own shortcomings. He learns to stand his ground against injustice from Pecos Bill. He learns to try his hardest from even when things look impossible from John Henry. And he learns to overcome his bitterness and frustration by seeing that same whininess reflected back at him by Paul Bunyan. And Daniel does eventually stand up to Stiles. However, the movie does this thing where it fails to commit in the last act. At first, it seems that his meeting with Pecos and the others is a dream, but then they all show up to help anyway. And then when the folk heroes leave they just sort of fade away. So, what was all that?
But still, even if it’s not perfect, I do find it to be a lot of fun. It’s especially fun if you grew up reading about these folk heroes like I did. Fun enough to justify a subscription to Disney+? Well, that’s up to you.
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