Tall Tale: The Unbelievable Adventure

Movie review by
Charles Cassady Jr., Common Sense Media
Tall Tale: The Unbelievable Adventure Movie Poster Image
Old West myth mash-up with some gun-toting lawlessness.
  • PG
  • 1995
  • 97 minutes

Parents say

age 14+
Based on 2 reviews

Kids say

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Daniel is a believably frightened, often helpless, and pessimistic adolescent protagonist, even as he's captivated by Pecos Bill's “Code of the West”: Respect the land, defend the defenseless and don't spit in front of women and children ... And never kill a man on Sunday. It's pretty much up to the viewer to decide in the end whether he actually did meet Pecos Bill, Paul Bunyan, and John Henry, or just took courage from their stories when he needed it.

Positive Role Models & Representations

While Pecos Bill loves a fight (“scrappin'”) he avoids killing, and barely any real blood is shed (just fingers). Even with John Henry in a prominent role, this 20th-century "old West" is mostly white and male (though Chinese railroad workers are glimpsed), and the script refrains from showing any racism directed against John Henry. Businessmen -- that is, "eastern" industrialists, developers, and railroad-builders -- are top-hat and tail-wearing greedy fiends. Calamity Jane's brief cameo is the token statement that women can be “scrappin'” as well.

Violence

Pecos Bill has a tendency to shoot off enemies' trigger fingers (later one is found and speared).
Men whipped, slave-like, on a railroad construction. A fistfight. Young Daniel threatened by a buzz saw and death via gunshot.

Sex

One fleeting remark from Paul Bunyan about a desert being hotter "than a June bride in a featherbed."

Language

The s-word once, and the rather creative "buffalo pucky."

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Drinking whiskey and beer in a saloon (except for Daniel, who has to imbibe sarsparilla instead). Cigar and cigarette smoking (by hero, villain, and extra alike).

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that violence (and threats of violence) here include shootings, fistfights, the potential of being run over by a train, and the so-ancient-it's-practically-fresh movie cliche of being stuck to a log that's heading for a buzzsaw. Pecos Bill has a technique of "disarming" his foes in gun battles by shooting their trigger fingers off, and we see at least one severed digit in an icky closeup. There is a parent badly wounded, but he doesn't die.

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Adult Written bypandalibrarian May 18, 2015

Disappointed

I was so disappointed with this movie that I threw it away. The kids yawned through it. Paul Bunyan is not portrayed as big. He is normal size. There is the s w... Continue reading
Adult Written by[email protected] June 3, 2015

Old West Action and Adventure

Tall Tale was a good movie. It's set in the old west and the action and dialect reflect this. Definitely a good guy vs bad guy theme with shoot outs, near... Continue reading

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What's the story?

Somewhere in the American West in 1905, in a place called Paradise Valley, 12-year old Daniel (Nick Stahl) hates his hard life as chore-bound son of a hardworking farmer. Then he secretly follows dad to a meeting of fellow sodbusters being tempted to sell their homesteads to menacing railroad-construction tycoons from the industrialized east. When Daniel's dad resists being forced off his property, he's shot, and Daniel is left a fugitive with the deed to the family farm. Daniel's father constantly tried to keep up his boy's spirit with tall tales of frontier characters like Paul Bunyan (Oliver Platt) and Pecos Bill (Patrick Swayze), and Daniel, amazingly, finds those mythic icons in the flesh, interacting with him along with John Henry (Roger Aaron Brown) and Calamity Jane (Catherine O'Hara). Yet these heroes don't seem quite in tune with the 20th century, and Daniel has his own troubles living up to the legendary characters' outsized standards and astounding feats.

Is it any good?

Nobody would confuse TALL TALE with the classic The Wizard of Oz -- which its storyline parallels at times -- but that these two can be mentioned together is some praise. Tall Tale actually feels like a throwback to the innocent, robust G-rated fun of earlier live-action Disney family-adventures such as Swiss Family Robinson or Treasure Island (1950), and it's got the splendid production values to match (filming locations in Monument Valley, Arizona). But there's also a post-Walt sly undertone, not unlike "adult" Westerns (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) about the "death of the west.”

Daniel is disappointed by Pecos and Bunyan. Amidst newfangled telegraph lines and automobiles, these titans of the 1800s are kind of misfits, not the super-cowboy and ultra-lumberjack the boy envisioned. Daniel is also more vulnerable and flawed than a lot of celluloid kids. Viewers don't know how much of the story is "real" and how much happens in his head, as he calls on childhood idols for a psychological boost.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about characters from tall tales -- not only those represented here, but other historical (and fictitious) figures, mostly from frontier days, who have attained larger-than-life status, with movies to match. Discuss Davey Crockett, Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp, and Nihanbazo, a wily hero of Great Lakes Indian tribes.

  • What's the distinction between "folklore" and equally ubiquitous characters from immortal fiction, like Tarzan, Superman, or the crew of the starship Enterprise.

  • Who are your heroes? Are any fictional characters? Current public figures?

Movie details

Themes & Topics

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