I was thinking recently of all the billions of things in the world I don’t know about: all the people, all the animals, all the science, all the historical events, all the little, detail events of daily life. And how much it didn’t bother me not to know. Yet I know about “Strange Wilderness.” And how much it wouldn’t have bothered me not to know.
I watched the movie a year earlier on DVD, and I must say it hasn’t improved with age or with Blu-ray high definition.
Here’s the deal: There was a time when “Wild Kingdom” and a few PBS specials had television’s animal angle covered. Then came cable TV and things like The National Geographic Channel, The Nature Channel, The Science Channel, The History Channel, The Learning Channel, Discovery, Animal Planet, and the rest. So, you’d think that with all this coverage there would be an idea somewhere for a good wildlife-show parody. The key word is “good.”
Unfortunately, “Strange Wilderness,” the 2008 comedy from Happy Madison Productions (“I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry,” “Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo,” “Anger Management,” “The Hot Chick,” “Little Nicky,” etc.) is anything but good. It’s miles from good. It’s on a different animal-inhabited planet from good.
To be fair, the movie has one bright spot: It’s only eight-four minutes long.
The main character, Peter Gaulke (Steve Zahn), tells the story in flashback. Pete’s a stoner whose father used to host a TV wildlife show called “Strange Wilderness.” Now that his father has passed on, Peter has inherited the show, and because he’s a total idiot, he’s run it into the ground. Neither he nor his head writer, Fred Wolf (Allen Covert), nor anybody else connected with the show knows one iota about wildlife. The result is that their ratings have fallen through the floor, and the network has scheduled the program for three in the morning. If they can’t find something really big to increase their audience, the network will cancel the show.
Now comes the only interesting thing about the movie: Peter Gaulke and Fred Wolf are the real names of the two guys who wrote and directed it. I guess they were pretty confident about the film to put their own names in it. Personally, I’d feel embarrassed to have my name associated with this nonsense, but these guys are all brass. It’s Wolf’s first time as a director, and it looks like it, but Gaulke has written some fairly decent things in the past like “Ice Age: The Meltdown,” “Black Knight,” and “Say It Isn’t So.” This one, however, he may regret.
Anyway, the big new idea that the fictional Peter and Fred come up with is to film a Bigfoot in the wild. It seems that one of Pete’s dad’s old friends, Bill Calhoun (Joe Don Baker), has taken a picture of a Bigfoot and has a map to the location of the creature’s den in Ecuador. So, Peter, Fred, and their crew head off to South America to find and film the beast. And that’s it. They all act like morons on the trip, do nonstop stupid things, and the movie ends. Thankfully.
Apparently seeing the script was of no use to anyone, the filmmakers decided to juice up the proceedings with a few guest stars. I mentioned Joe Don Baker, who comes and goes in a flash. There are also Ernest Borgnine as their cameraman, the actor smart enough to appear only in the first few minutes and at the very end; Harry Hamlin as a rival wildlife show host also trying to film the elusive Bigfoot; Justin Long as a pot-headed assistant cameraman; Jonah Hill as a general handyman; Peter Dante as a foul-mouthed driver; Kevin Heffernan as an animal handler who has never been around an animal before; and, best of all, Robert Patrick, who steals the show as a macho tracker. Thank heaven for Patrick, who plays it so straight he’s the only genuinely funny character in the movie.
Oh, and for sex appeal, there’s Ashley Scott as a travel agent who somehow comes along for the ride. She’s nice to look at.
Still and all, the characters are ciphers–without wit, without meaning, without soul. This might be all right for the supporting players who have little screen time, but even the leads played by Zahn and Covert are without personality. After spending nearly an hour and a half with these guys, we still don’t know them as anything more than indistinguishable nonentities; they might just as well be strangers on a bus. They’re telephone poles.
Nevertheless, Robert Patrick creates a memorable character in less than two minutes. Now, you might say, yeah, but Patrick’s a real actor and we expect that. While that’s true, it doesn’t explain the flatness of the characters portrayed by Borgnine, Long, Baker, and Hill, who have shown exceptional talent in the past. The fact is, these actors get nothing to work with and, one assumes, little or no direction. As a result, they are simply people reading lines, characters without character.
I mentioned Kevin Heffernan. He’s one of the Broken Lizard comedy team (“Super Troopers,” “Club Dread,” “Beerfest”), and I couldn’t help thinking as I watched “Strange Wilderness” how much the script sounded like something the Broken Lizard gang would have rejected. It’s that bad.
The gags in “Strange Wilderness” come flying fast, yet not a single one of them except for the deadpan delivery by Robert Patrick is at all humorous. Most of the jokes are simply gross or inappropriate, like our having to watch a man burn to death at a peace rally. I guess if you find that kind of thing funny, you find it funny; I didn’t. Then there’s an episode involving Peter relieving himself in the wilderness and being attacked by a wild turkey. Uh-huh; use your imagination. The turkey episode is supposedly the high point of the film’s humor because among the disc’s extras we get an entire behind-the-scenes segment on it. Yet I found it too obscene, too ridiculous, and too juvenile even to consider amusing.
Need I also tell you the movie is racist and sexist? You already guessed? On the back cover we read, “Rated R for non-stop language, drug use, crude and sexual humor.” The only thing they got wrong was the “humor.” The movie starts out unfunny and gets unfunnier as it goes along. The best parts are the closing credits. They couldn’t come fast enough.
Paramount use a single-layer BD25 and an MPEG-4/AVC encode to present the picture in its original 2.35:1 theatrical aspect ratio. The transfer is decent enough, but…. On the plus side, the screen is clear, and the colors are deep and sparkling. On the negative side, the high-definition image looks somewhat smeared for HD and often dark, making some scenes look a little murky. Moreover, the image usually looks too bright and glassy for real life, with exaggerated contrast levels. Like the comedy itself, which the filmmakers intentionally overstated, the picture quality is also inflated. Maybe it’s what the director intended, too, in order to point up the farcical nature of the story; I don’t know.
Like the standard-definition DVD’s Dolby Digital 5.1, the Blu-ray’s Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack has a limited multichannel response, sounding more like two-channel stereo most of time. Occasionally, the rear speakers show some signs of life, like when the crew is in the jungle, but mainly we get dialogue and sounds only from the center channel. There is a good clarity, though, a quiet background, and an appropriately dynamic acoustic. Oddly, about the time it really comes to life and shows off lossless TrueHD’s capabilities is right at the end of the movie with a big musical blast. So, at least it shows its potential.
Most of the special features on the disc are on the same level as the movie, meaning if you didn’t care for the film, you won’t care for the extras, either. A further concern is that they are in standard definition. First up, there’s “Cooker’s Song” in which the viewer must suffer through five more minutes of a ridiculous song from the movie. Next up, we find a six-minute bit on the infamous turkey sequence, followed by six minutes of behind-the-scenes giggling in “What Do We Do?” After that is a twenty-odd-minute “Reel Comedy: Strange Wilderness” segment, followed by thirteen deleted scenes, about twenty-two minutes’ worth, that are really no worse than anything in the film. Come to think of it, you could just check out the deleted scenes and save yourself the trouble of watching the movie.
The extras conclude with eleven scene selections; bookmarks; English and Spanish spoken languages; English, French, and Spanish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
After watching “Strange Wilderness,” you may want to soak your feet in a tub of live piranhas, just for laughs. You’ll find it a lot more fun than anything in this movie, which is not merely dumb but downright depressing. As I say, in its favor, it’s brief. Regrettably, those few minutes go by like days. By comparison, “Strange Wilderness” makes “Dude, Where’s My Car?” seem like something by Oscar Wilde. Don’t say nobody warned you.
Final note: The first time I watched “Strange Wilderness” (on DVD), I had not only never seen it before, I had never even heard of it. This second time I watched the film (on Blu-ray), I was curious to see what other critics thought of it, so I checked at Rotten Tomatoes. It turned out to be the first movie in my experience to get a zero rating. Not a single reviewer posting at Rotten Tomatoes liked it. That’s a distinction of sorts.