When your best friend is a 400-pound gorilla, where do you go to set it free? Anywhere but on my DVD player, thank you.
Big bald bozo Gus Charnley owns a flea market that is evidently so disgusting and disheveled that he has to have a caged ape on premises to get people to buy his 40 pairs of tube socks for $2. When Bobo the prize attraction goes down with a bum ticker, Gus heads over to the University of Northern South Central California to reclaim a spare simian he placed there for safeguarding. Unfortunately, monkey manipulator Margaret Heller has trained the gorilla to understand sign language and differentiate between right and wrong…so how you gonna keep them down at the discount store, once they've experienced A.I.? Eventually Charnley gets his way and the philosophizing primate heads off to Aisle 7 to co-exist with the auto parts, ladies' dress shields, and pemmican. But Heller's sociopathic, car-stealing 14-year-old juvenile delinquent-of-a-son Rick (apparently she can only successfully nurture the lower order of mammals) will have none of this. He has bonded with the banana eater over several months of court-ordered community service. So he breaks into the weekend Wal-Mart, steals the precociously named "Katie," and it's off on a retarded highway romp where Jack Kerouac is a defiant teenager with anger management issues and Neal Cassady is a guy in a gorilla suit. Hoping to get to Canada, where all known ape felons flee, Rick seeks the aid of his school's resident PETA nerd girl and her hippie Unabomber uncle. Together, they all try to avoid the police, body lice, and believability as Rick proves, once and for all, that even though this oversized Ella likes recycled rock tunes and fast food, she is really Born to Be Wild.
While it wants to be lovable, charming, adorable and crazy, Born to Be Wild is nothing but "product," pure and simple. It is the very description of manufactured-by-committee moviemaking, where surefire ideas are flung at tired formulas like ape feces with the hope that something saleable sticks. This Free Willy-meets-Magilla Gorilla road picture smells of the convoluted crap pile it crawled out of. The filmmaking is modest and the scripting inconsistent. Born to Be Wild's screwball comedy-by-committee mentality stretches the limitations of plausibility and sets back the cause of animal rights several centuries. The pitch meeting for this misfire must have consisted of several pop culture corpse grinders sitting around with stacks of National Geographic, juvenile crime statistics, press clippings about Koko the sign language simian, and K-Tel oldies collections, hoping to compress everything available into an amenable barrel of monkey chow. How else can you explain the musical montages, the animal ass trumpeting, the dumb-as-dishwater cops who come across like rejects from Ernest Goes to Security Guard School and the sobering sunset seashore sequences of our antisocial teen cavorting with an enamored ape? Scenes of simian finger-painting and man/she-creature bonding are clashed with cretinous courtroom corniness and blatant emotional manipulation. By the time our escaping entities disguise the 400-pound gorilla as a statue (don't ask) complete with dust-producing white slapstick powder, Born to Be Wild has reached a new low of absolute non-credibility.
Born to Be Wild is, at its hollow heart, a guy-in-a-gorilla-suit babysitter, a kid-vid vomitorium that will hopefully lull Junior and his jumbled pals into a semi-comatose state so that the proper mood-altering drugs can be administered to them. Never once do we believe that we are seeing real homo sapiens to homo erectus interrelating. Rick Baker may be some sort of costuming genius when he gets us to believe the dancers in fur leggings of Gorillas in the Mist or Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, but when confronted with this film's browbeaten midget in a monkey kilt, the pony-tailed talent transforms into Dr. Moreau with magical powers. With Rick's ruse, you sort of see the zipper. With Born to Be Wild, the fly is open and you're staring stupidity square in the shorthairs. But it's not just the Robot Monster effects that make this movie so annoying and unrewarding. Wil Horneff plays Rick as the kind of egotistical, self-righteous brat that makes you want to chisel a notch or two into his forebrain, not root for him (and what about that single "L" first name there, Willy? Or is that Wily?). And poor Thomas Wilson, the brilliant character actor who made Biff Tannen, in all his incarnations, the most underrated and undervalued part of the entire Back to the Future series, is reduced to reciting tired running jokes about the phrase "flea market." Director John Gray, who's apparently never met a film style he can't crib outright, peppers his plotline with pointless goofiness, overwrought "movie" moments, and a hapless hope that the beautiful scenery of the Northwest will substitute for, say, subtlety and cleverness. Parents, if you want to poison your children's minds, give them airplane glue to sniff. Exposing them to Born to Be Wild is just cruel.
What's also brutal about this film is the DVD package that Warner Brothers creates for it. First, it's offered in that most family friendly of falsehoods, the proportioned-for-the-people full screen open matte. This movie is no artistic statement, so just to make sure Step-Mom and Weekend Daddy don't feel gypped, the entire boob tube is filled with the meandering monkey mess. The transfer is pretty good though, with nice deep blacks and a few moments of colorful sparkle. As for the sound, Warners gives us that second standby of the refashioned, recycled title: the faux Dolby Digital Surround track. Don't expect to hear ape hijinx pouring from your channels. Front-heavy with dialogue and leaving only the occasional sonic effect to rouse the remaining speakers, this is no exercise in enveloping. Most distressing, though, is the sole real bonus feature (a list of the crew, cast, and credits doesn't count). This critic has long championed commentary tracks for older or less than successful films. Nothing would be nicer than to hear a filmmaker backtrack and recall how studio tinkering hampered his vision, or how test audience ambivalence mutated his masterwork. Well, in a kind of cruel comeuppance, that bastard WB gives director Gray and writer Paul Young a chance to discuss their film. And these guys ABSOLUTELY LOVE IT! Gray is the realist, discussing how the post-Free Willy mentality and the desire to market the film directly to kids resulted in a more cartoonish, clown-like gorilla and story. Young, on the other hand, thinks he's written a sociological dissertation on the universal theme of disenfranchisement. He actually says that Rick saving Katie should be viewed as a metaphor for helping minorities out of oppression. Unbelievable!
With CGI making strides in recreating reality for the big screen, it won't be long before we see something resembling a real simian interacting with man in a naturalistic and entertaining way. Until that day, avoid the bumbling baboon buffoonery of Born to Be Wild. This ersatz ape makes Matt LeBlanc's Ed seem like Jane Goodall's funniest home videos.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary by Director John Gray and Screenwriter Paul Young
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