Escape to the great outdoors

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 31 October, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 31 October, 1993, 12:00am

A FAR OFF PLACE, with Reese Witherspoon, Ethan Randall, Sarel Bok and Maximilian Schell. Directed by Michael Salomon.

ONE can picture the pitch perfectly: it's like Out of Africa meets The Incredible Journey. It's The Blue Lagoon meets The Gods Must Be Crazy on Walkabout.

This Disney live-actioner was doubtless designed by committee, but far from being a resultant camel of a movie it is surprisingly graceful and works to stirringly good effect.

It could be described as a camel only in the sense that it crosses the Kalahari Desert with little in the way of food and water to sustain it - and after a brisk, environmentally correct prologue, this long passage is what A Far Off Place is about.

On a wildlife reserve in southwest Africa, young Reese Witherspoon (a memorable pubescent debutante in last year's Man in the Moon ) has been raised as a practical tomboy with a comfortable respect for the indigenous life, both animal and human, around her.

New arrival Ethan Randall appears to be in every way her opposite: a hip New York kid, determined to be unimpressed by a family visit to the plains.

The third main character is a young Kalahari bushman, wise in the ways of the wilderness and our spirit guide for the duration; the fourth - this is Disney after all - is a dog.

In what might be regarded, for a category I picture, as an all too grisly massacre scene, the families of both young Americans are slaughtered by ivory poachers and the out-station destroyed (Witherspoon's gamekeeper father was getting too close to theirmassively profitable operation).

The four are spared by their absence, but it doesn't go unnoticed, and their only possible means of escape is by foot across a vast expanse of naturally hostile, but cinematographer-friendly desert to the coast.

Their enemies have helicopters, automatic weapons and stupidity on their side, but the four are equally matched with sensible footwear, the way-of-the-wind to guide them and an inexhaustible supply of bankable cuteness. To be fair, all three young actorsturn in nicely believable performances.

Although it passed through the United States with barely a ripple of attention, A Far Off Place delivers in exactly the way one would hope and expect.

It was calculated to be a right-on eco-parable with adventure at its heart, a ''family film'' which would not alienate any sector of the family unit.

It is a calculation well made.