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IT AIN'T YOU, BABE 'TALL TALES' CAN'T DO JUSTICE TO PAUL BUNYAN AND OTHER LEGENDS

"TALL TALE" is middling-fun entertainment for kids, mainly boys, of a certain age, mainly 8 to 12.

As befits its subject, it's full of bluster that you only half-believe. It's about a 12-year-old boy around the turn of the century who has to help his father battle evil land developers out to turn the family farm into timberland and railroad right of way. (You know they're evil because they drive motorcars -- unheard of in the West at the time -- instead of riding close-to-nature horses.)

The boy, Daniel (Nick Stahl), hates the farm, and he's at the half-cynical, half-trusting age at which he doesn't quite believe the tall tales his father spins. His father, Jonas (Stephen Lang), tells again and again about the exploits of Paul Bunyan, John Henry and, especially, Pecos Bill, the gunslinging do-good cowboy given to shooting the bad guys' trigger fingers off. Daniel wants to believe in heroes, wants to imagine something larger than the life he and his little family are scratching out on the farm. But logic, or adolescent suspicion, keeps getting in the way.

Until he embarks on a Disney adventure with all three of those tall-tale figures, as well as Babe the Blue Ox, Pecos' horse Widowmaker, and a trigger-happy Calamity Jane to boot.

It may be quibbling, but I wonder whether kids who have heard the legends -- especially Paul Bunyan, whose footprints, they say, formed the Great Lakes -- will feel let down by the all-too-human legends portrayed in "Tall Tales." Paul (a Falstaffian Oliver Platt) is big, all right, but hardly gargantuan. And Babe, while certifiably blue, has trouble knocking over a house, for heaven's sake. I always envisioned her about as big as Montana.

That said, "Tall Tales" does make it fun. There's lots of shooting -- and lots of shooting off at the mouth. And the scenery is Disney-beautiful, including a wonderful scene of a field of bright orange flowers that suddenly metamorphoses into a flock of butterflies. It's like the best phantasmagoric cartooning come to life.

Young Nick Stahl does fine as the boy Daniel, though mainly his part consists of a lot of eye-rolling, foot-stomping and cowering. He's overshadowed by the adult stars, each of whom plays his role with larger-than-life relish: Patrick Swayze as Pecos Bill, Roger Aaron Brown as John Henry, and especially Scott Glenn as the evil developer J.P. Stiles.

There's even an uncredited cameo by Burgess Meredith as a crusty (what else?) camp cook.

Be warned, parents: "Tall Tale" is not for the littlest ones. Though there's no graphic violence and the menace is more cartoony than real, there are a couple of scenes that will scare, say, 5-year-olds. It's like "The Wizard of Oz" -- those flying monkeys will scare the pants off you, but in the end, there's no place like home.

Movie
Tall Tale
Rating: ***
A boy in 1905 finds strength in some famous fictional friends to help save the family farm.
Starring Scott Glenn, Patrick Swayze and Nick Stahl. Directed by Jeremiah Chechik.
Rated PG, opens today at area movie theaters.

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