We Americans may be going about it all wrong, with our genteel filmic attempts to educate young children about the sad realities of a broken home.
The Swedes, Norwegians and Soviets who teamed up to make "The Land of Faraway" (citywide), an English-language children's fantasy, have a very different approach. Simply convince poor fatherless youngsters that their missing dads are really exalted kings, leading a far better life in some sunny, far-off fairyland. And that these fathers are just waiting for their offspring to run away and take their rightful places as little princes and princesses.
It's hard to divine any other message from the dreadful "Land of Faraway," which starts off grittily enough in urban Stockholm with its 11-year-old hero being beaten up by cruel schoolmates and browbeaten by his even crueler foster parents. Little Mio (Nicholas Pickard) vows to find the natural father he never met and prove that dad isn't the "bum" his adoptive parents have made out him to be.
One quick ride later through the cosmos on a giant, genie-like disembodied head, the boy's suspicions are proved correct. Plopped into the idyllic Land of Faraway, Mio finds that Dad (Timothy Bottoms, looking exquisitely pained in an extended cameo) is not a bum, but rather the benign king of the whole palatial outer-space gig.
But before our young hero can settle down in familial bliss, there's a mythic quest to be accomplished: He's told of the evil knight, Kato (Christopher Lee, in a slightly longer, slightly less pained cameo), who can only be slaughtered by a king's son. Given the apparent lack of other nearby royal families, young Mio happily embarks on a trek through dank caves and foreboding landscapes brimming over with embarrassing matte lines and not-so-special effects.
Based on a novel by the Swedish children's author Astrid Lindgren (of "Pippi Longstocking" fame), "Faraway" is hardly unusual in tapping into youngsters' dreams of escaping unfortunate family situations. It is unusual in that, unlike "The Wizard of Oz," "Time Bandits," "The NeverEnding Story" and most standards of the genre, it lets its young protagonist remain happily ever after in dreamland, with no hard-earned moral lesson and no return to real life. Most distressingly, it even ends with little Mio gloating over his escape from reality, saying of his adoptive parents, "I wonder what (they) said when I never came home. . . . They probably never noticed I'm gone."
For adults and older children, enduring the film's full, deadly length may be a quest of mythic proportions in itself. It's made no easier by having to counterbalance the film's implicit message for its target audience of preschoolers: that a bad family situation can be overcome by simply wishing up a better family--and running off to find it. If frazzled single parents want their very young children to miss just one movie this year, "Faraway" (rated PG) might be it.
'THE LAND OF FARAWAY'
A Miramax Films presentation. Executive producers Klas Olofsson, Terje Kristiansen. Producer Ingemar Ejve. Director Vladimir Grammatikov. Screenplay by William Aldridge, based on the book "Mio, My Son" by Astrid Lindgren. With Timothy Bottoms, Susannah York, Christopher Lee, Christian Bale, Nicholas Pickard.
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.
MPAA-rated: PG (parental guidance suggested).