THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT Copyright (c) 1995, Landmark Communications, Inc. DATE: Tuesday, August 29, 1995 TAG: 9508290054 SECTION: DAILY BREAK PAGE: E3 EDITION: FINAL TYPE: Movie Review SOURCE: BY MAL VINCENT, MOVIE CRITIC LENGTH: Medium: 80 lines
IF YOU'RE GOING to have a co-star in a so-called ``family'' movie, it had better be furry. Or it should bark (as in ``Andre'') or snort (as in ``Babe''). It also helps if the critter needs a rescue, as with Willy and all the other creatures that were born free.
If you have only humans, like ``A Kid in King Arthur's Court,'' you're out of luck. After all, kids can see plenty of humans at home.
``The Amazing Panda Adventure'' has a great deal going for it, particularly its title creature. The adorability quotient is turned up to full scale with the panda cub that needs rescuing. He looks like he needs a good hug.
Add to that the fact that the ``adventure'' is beautifully photographed in the Himalayas and you have the makings of an above-average outing. There are also a wooden bridge that needs crossing, two sets of raging rapids that have to be ridden and the messiest set of leeches since Bogie and Katie in ``The African Queen.''
That's the good stuff. On the minus side, the filmmakers are notably sloppy when it comes to creating credibility. When the boy and panda rush over the falls, it is all too clear that the boy is replaced by an adult extra who looks nothing like him. It's just as obvious that the panda-in-peril is stuffed.
In fact, we never feel that the panda is really in danger. The villains, two goofy poachers, are closer to the Three Stooges than any real threat.
The plot is largely a repeat of a familiar formula. Once again, we have a boy separated from his mother who wants to bond with his dad. Screenwriters for family flicks seem hung up on kids who have no mother - and usually they are boys. In this one, Dad (Stephen Lang, who usually plays villains) is a busy naturalist who is too obsessed with saving the pandas to pay any attention to his 10-year-old son. When son visits the protected Chinese forest during spring recess, Dad is too busy even to meet his plane. The son promptly gets lost in the preserve as he and an older Chinese girl (Yi Ding) try feverishly to take a panda cub back to its mother before the not-so-wee-one perishes of starva-tion.
The boy is played, with no particular verve, by Ryan Slater (the younger brother of Christian Slater). He's a rather selfish, gadget-obsessed lad, and his instant adoration for the panda is not thoroughly believable.
It's unlikely, though, that the smallest members of the audience are going to notice all the sloppiness.
The physical movement of running and dashing through wild water should be enough to hold the young audience for the duration. The pandas, both mother and cub, are irresistible (although, in the close-ups, they look suspiciously like Disney-ish animatronics).
Even better is the opener - a cartoon called ``Carrotblanca'' with all the superstars of the Warner Bros. animation stable. It's a delightful spoof of ``Casablanca'' with Bugs Bunny in the Bogie role, mouthing lines like ``I stick my cotton tail out for no one'' and ``Of all the juice joints in the world, she had to come in here.'' Daffy Duck is the piano player, whose solo is the ``Knock on Wood'' number. The villain is named General Pandemonium, and Tweety Bird talks like Peter Lorre. Of course, the kids won't get the ``Casablanca'' in-jokes, but no matter. Bugs and Tweety will take care of them. The adults will love the spoof.
Cuddly cubs and Bugs, all in one program. It should be enough, even if the feature flick lacks a much-needed sense of wonder. ILLUSTRATION: Graphic
``The Amazing Panda Adventure''
Cast: Stephen Lang, Ryan Slater, Yi Ding, Wang Fei
Director: Christopher Cain
Screenplay: Jeff Rothberg and Laurice Elehwany
Music: William Ross
MPAA rating: PG (adventure action, mild language, little
Mal's rating: 2 and 1/2 stars
Locations: Chesapeake Square, Greenbrier in Chesapeake; Janaf in
Norfolk; Kemps River, Lynnhaven 8, Pembroke, Surf-N-Sand in Virginia