A look at one of Disney’s OTHER trips to Africa

It was The Lion King’s turn to get the live action treatment as the Disney studio released Jon Favreau’s real-life version of the classic 1994 family staple this past weekend. Boasting a star-studded ensemble that includes Beyonce and Donald Glover, not to mention an incredible reworking of the iconic soundtrack, the movie’s success (at least judging from the opening) is all but guaranteed.

It could be argued that the success of Favreau’s version is due to the undying fondness fans still have for the animated original, which has rightfully taken its place as a bona fide Disney classic. Thanks to its humor, voice performances and embracing of the African setting, the magic of The Lion King endures more than two decades on. Yet the movie wasn’t Disney’s first trip to the African landscape. The year before The Lion King’s release, the studio offered audiences a an African-set story full of drama, adventure and culture with 1993’s A Far Off Place.

From the powerhouse producing team of Kennedy/Marshall, A Far Off Place stars Reese Witherspoon as Nonnie Parker; a rambunctious girl living with her gameskeeper parents on a prosperous farm in Savanna. When a family friend brings his son Harry (Ethan Embry) to the farm for a vacation, the two youngsters have a difficult time getting along due to Harry’s grouchy nature. However, when violence strikes at the hands of poachers, forcing them to leave the farm on their own, the pair and their guide Xhaboo (Sarel Bok) embark on a trek across the Kalahari desert in search of help and rescue.

The film’s opening sequence establishes the fact that although A Far Off Place is ostensibly a family movie, it’s hellbent on going to some pretty serious territory. The movie opens with a group of poachers shooting a pack of grown elephants and then brutally removing their tusks until Col. Theron (Maximillian Schell) shows up and quickly opens fire on the group, killing them all. The sequence may be one of the most graphic openings to any title bearing the Disney name, but serves to give credibility to the movie’s core mission. Yes, the movie does feature a pair of precarious youngsters who find themselves on an unexpected adventure, but it’s the larger picture of shining a light on the plight of the animals and efforts to keep them safe from those who hunt them down that makes up one of the movie’s core themes. A Far Off Place cleverly avoids ever becoming a message movie, but instead succeeds by highlighting a very real reality in a part of the world alien to anyone who doesn’t live there. It’s methods are as far away from sugar coating as is possible, opting instead for truth and authenticity throughout. The war between the lucrative business of poaching and the never ending efforts of preservationists is strikingly illustrated when Nonnie finds her’s and Henry’s parents brutally murdered by the very individuals they were seeking to stop. The violence thankfully isn’t shown, yet its effect is important in understanding the incredibly real danger of the landscape and how it lives side by side with the country’s undying majesty.

Though its effectiveness as a piece of family entertainment is questionable, A Far Off Place manages to excel at illustrating the resilience of children. While children in films made for other children exist as stereotypical constructs, this movie actually acknowledges their instinctual natures and wills through Nonnie and Harry, both of whom are well-written without ever feeling unrealistic. Nonnie and Harry couldn’t be more different in terms of social experience. Likewise, the overall ideology and the journey of growing up that the movie’s situation forces them into, though shared, is likewise different for both of them. For Harry, a young man carrying around more bitterness and resentment than anyone his age should, the journey teaches him to exist beyond himself. By contrast, the empathetic and extremely bright Nonnie has cultivated a giving nature towards her adopted homeland, along with a feeling of protectiveness for every human and creature within it. Yet the events in A Far Off Place serve as a fearsome reminder that, although wise beyond her years, Nonnie is indeed still a child with much more growing up to do. The commonality the two share is the bond their current situation has caused them to form, bringing out a survivalist nature inherent in both children.

Even at such a young age, Witherspoon’s talent was in full force throughout the film. There’s a gentleness and raw quality to the young actress’s work in A Far Off Place which helps make the movie more enduring than most would have thought possible. Embry’s role has the greatest room in terms of journey and character development, which the young actor takes full advantage of, creating a worthwhile portrait along the way. Bok contributes greatly by offering up moments of peace and serenity which elevates the movie and gives a nice contrast to some of the more starker aspects. As for the adults, Jack Thompson makes a decent enough villain to be considered menacing, while Schell adds lovely support as literally the only grown-up Nonnie can trust.

A Far Off Place wasn’t just a disappointment in terms of financial success, it was a flat out bomb. Despite a marketing campaign that was more family friendly than the movie was ever intended to be, parents and children didn’t bite. Critics likewise failed to embrace the film and chastised both its makers and the studio for what they felt was a misguided attempt at family entertainment seeped in social consciousness.

When A Far Off Place was first released into theaters, it was accompanied by the animated Roger Rabbit short, Trail Mix-Up. While the cartoon surely must’ve appealed to the movie’s younger audience members, the ensuing feature probably didn’t. It should’ve been apparent to everyone that the movie didn’t have much of a chance thanks to content that was always destined to frighten and confuse children. In all honesty, the title should have been made under the studio’s Touchstone banner and aimed for more mature crowds instead of being sold as another Disney family effort. Because of this, it’s clear why A Far Off Place isn’t fondly remembered, or even really acknowledged that much today. Still, it’s hard to dismiss a movie that tries to shine a light on something important and does so in an admirably unflinching way.

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