WILD SAFARI 3D: A SOUTH AFRICAN ADVENTURENR
It was all that the first commercial 3D feature could do to set the fauna off from the flora in some kind of depth-perception relief, so its famous publicity line promising "A Lion in Your Lap!" was little more than fanciful overstatement. Now, 53 years later, Wild Safari 3D makes good on the advertising lie of Bwana Devil-up close and personal, not scary.
Projected on the large-format screen, it's quite a trip-a seven-story-tall, very much in-your-face, danger-free excursion into the authentic wilds of South Africa. So blatant is it a call of the wild for the wannabe world-traveler that South African Tourism, in good conscience and with good reason, joined nWave Pictures in producing this vivid cinematic expedition.
Belgium-born, USC-educated writer-director Ben Stassen is the great white hunter of the occasion. A veteran of six of nWave Pictures' large-format entertainments, Stassen set out to catch the feeling of a real-life safari-and succeeded better than he might have liked to. Not only does he get the expected menagerie at play and occasional dinner-the country's "Big Five" indigenous species, the lion, the leopard, the Cape buffalo, the elephant and the rhino-he also gets the tedium between sightings, the relentless Land Rover-ing over the bumpy terrain in search of exotic camera-prey. A couple of months of location scouting-and 24 days of actual shooting-have come up with some interesting footage, but nothing really approaches the adrenaline-rushing excitement of that charging rhino hammering at John Wayne's safari truck in Howard Hawks' 1962 African trek, Hatari.
But Henry Mancini's sprightly instrumental from that picture, "Baby Elephant Walk," would wear well on one little guy in an otherwise less-than-playful herd of elephants as he bounces his trunk around trying to figure out what it's doing in front of his face. This is as close as the picture comes to a star performance. The humans on view are singularly lacking in charisma: Liesl Eichenberger, the zoologist/field guide behind the steering wheel, and two native trackers on the fender (Elmon Mhlongo and Morgan Leel).
Sean MacLeod Phillips' lensing is top-notch, though sometimes a tad boring from all the tracking shots done on the back of the camera truck day-in, day-out, sunup, sundown. His elevated views looking down on the tracker inspecting the trail are far more visually involving. Some 3,000 miles and six natural reserves-spanning from the grasslands of Addo/Shamwari to the savannahs of the Kalahari-are covered in this open-air vehicle.
There is a shot of a pride of lions munching on fresh kill, but the camera doesn't linger. The film is going out unrated, but a pronounced G-rated sensibility is at work here, mindful of the family audience who might be turned off by any vicious tearing of meat.
And what is the animal that has fatally felled more hunters than any other? According to the non-frilly, fact-packed narration (scripted by Mose Richards and spoken beautifully by Chuck Hargrove), the deadliest of all is the Cape buffalo, which masks its killer instincts behind the domesticated, blissfully benign façade of Elsie the Borden cow.