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Movie Review: THE MAN FROM SNOWY RIVER Is a Kids' Movie and a Western, In That Order

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The Man from Snowy River is one of those movies I want to like way more than I actually do.  It’s a Western, made during a period where no one really made Westerns anymore, and—more to the point—it’s an Australian Western, meaning we Yanks get all sorts of visual displacement delights simply because our xenophobia precludes our seeing the rest of the world.  The characters are vivid archetypes, the movie moves like a bullet train, and the action and stunts are all 100% practical; the term “slam dunk” comes to mind just detailing the film’s elements.

Yet the final product leaves me more than a little flat.  The Man from Snowy River isn’t one of the great Westerns—I’d slot it just between the “good” ones and the “okay” ones—though I have no shame admitting that the fault lies with me rather than with it.  This is a dyed-in-the-wool film for children, and I am an adult (nominally).  Fifteen years ago, I would have gone crazy for this one, and with good reason: it’s a kid’s daydream.  Our hero, Jim Craig (Tom Burlinson) is a kid himself, living with his father in Australia’s mountain range.  His idyllic frontier existence is shattered, however, when a herd of wild horses kills his pop; suddenly without a home or a family, Jim is forced to make his own fortune, and his quest for manhood (“quest for manhood” reads like a porno movie title) places him right in the middle of a decades-long feud between two twin brothers (both played by a scenery-devouring Kirk Douglas).  Along the way, Jim romances a beautiful young girl (Sigrid Thornton) and ends up facing the horses responsible for his dad’s death.

That’s a lot of incident, and some it reads pretty traumatic (plays that way, too; Jim’s dad bites it before we’re five minutes into the movie), but director George Miller (not the same George Miller responsible for the Mad Max and Babe franchises) pitches it squarely at the boys’ adventure realm.  What little death we see isn’t terribly graphic; the romance subplot is one of those chaste deals where Boy loves Girl because Girl can ride horses (almost) as skillfully as Boy can; and the characters are generally pretty likable—even Douglas’ evil twin qualifies as “grumpy” more than he does “evil,” and by the end we see the softy inside his grouchy shell.  Plus, we get some swell location shooting and one tremendous adventure setpiece—the contest at the climax—that maintains the film’s light tone without sacrificing thrills.  The Man from Snowy River is the Western equivalent of the Snuggles Bear, and for family viewing, it’s just about perfect.

Adults will want more.  This gentle quality may work like gangbusters for the young’uns, but it doesn’t offer much in the way of real stakes for those used to a little more amorality.  Once you realize that the worst thing that will happen in the movie happens at the very beginning (Jim’s dad’s demise), The Man from Snowy River becomes a series of set pieces prolonging the inevitable happy ending.  Maybe that sounds nice to you, and if so, Mazel Tov.  Me, I needed a little more uncertainty, a little more grit, and a whole lot less of Douglas’ cutesy mugging (his Spur, the nice twin, plays as such an exaggerated Gabby Hayes characterture as to make Gabby Hayes look like Daniel Day-Lewis).

But look: that isn’t the picture’s fault.  We so praise those kiddie flicks that work for both kids and adults that we forget those two audiences aren’t always mutually exclusive.  The Man from Snowy River is a sterling example of the adult-free kids’ pic, not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Endnote: the film was a surprise smash back in 1982, grossing $40 million—adjusted for inflation, that comes to just under $100 million in 2012 dollars.  That amount belies how slight the end result is, but it does indicate the subcutenaneous connection between Westerns and audiences.  By 1982, the genre had been dormant in the mainstream consciousness for years; other than cheapo blaxploitation efforts and Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales, the Western’s last great hurrah occurred in 1969 with the one-two punch of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Wild Bunch.

That a kiddie fantasy could do so well speaks volumes about our need for the genre.  Given enough time when the Western lies fallow, we’ll run to just about any oater, whether it’s Unforgiven or The Man from Snowy River.  We can’t help ourselves; we just love these damn pictures, whether we want to admit it or not.

Twentieth Century Fox’s Blu-ray provides reference quality picture.  The film looks like a new release—the print is so clean—with lots of good texture and little digital manipulation.  A beyond-commendable result, with a very strong 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio track backing it up.

For bonuses, we get a trailer.  I wish we could have gotten a little more, especially considering The Man from Snowy River‘s box-office fortunes, but as this is a value-priced Blu-ray (you should be able to find it in the $7 – $12 price range), the lack of features isn’t that galling.

If I were ten years old, The Man from Snowy River would probably be my favorite movie: it’s fast-paced, not too scary, and morally positive.  As an adult, it definitely lacks the nuance and edge of the best Westerns, but there’s nothing wrong with a kids’ movie made just for kids.  The Blu-ray has phenomenal A/V and a low price point to compensate for the meager supplements.

The Man from Snowy River is now available on Blu-ray.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.