Allow me to paint a picture of 1995: animal conservation is all the rage, ZooNews is one of America’s most popular monthly publications and infomercials, Indiana Jones is still relatively fresh in movie-goers consciences, Communist China’s doors have only recently been open to foreigners, and Free Willy, Andre, and Homeward Bound are already proven hits. Thus the stage is set for the 90’s kid nostalgia fest that is Warner Bros.’s The Amazing Panda Adventure! Starring Christian Slater’s younger half-brother, Ryan Slater, and the decade’s most popular mammal, the film was shot mostly on location in Chengdu, China. Recognized Avatar actor Stephen Lang andThe Joy Luck Club’s Yi Ding are also featured in this “magical journey to save the life of a natural wonder.”
The Amazing Panda Adventure begins with 10-year-old Ryan heading to visit his zoologist father that he has not seen in 2 years at the Chinese panda reserve he runs. After rescuing a panda cub (later named Johnny) from poachers, Ryan and a sassy Chinese interpreter with a tranquilizer blowgun, Ling, get lost in the highlands trying to survive the wild and stay one step ahead of the poachers. After falling from several very high places into multiple raging rivers, the trio is assisted by local villagers who help them outwit the poachers to moderate success. After a climactic fight scene on the edge of a precarious bluff, Ryan returns Johnny to the rescue station just in time to allow the cub to feed from his mother, rekindle his own relationship with his father, and save the reserve from bureaucratic officials who have decided to shut the place down. American Gladiators and Indiana Jones are referenced several times throughout. For those of us who experienced Ryan’s adventure as kids, the most memorable scene involves leeches and off-camera nudity…or maybe that’s just me.
Fresh off a high from watching my Amazing Panda Adventure VHS in glorious full screen standard definition on a 12-inch TV/VCR combo, I can say in full confidence that this is not a “good” movie. However, it is quite memorable because of several unique aspects. Outstandingly, the epic on-location shooting and generous utilization of real live pandas add immense production value. For the first two-thirds of this movie, everyone is interacting with, handling, and carrying around pandas while traversing dangerous terrain. Anything goes in 90’s China! That is simply not something you would see these days. Unfortunately, an obvious animal puppet dominates the last third because panda “acting” was required. Fortunately, the script called for multiple scenes of pandas falling and getting tossed through the air and we get several shots of the dummy flying across the screen. Another positive aspect is that, although the plot is pretty absurd if you stop to think about it, it has a more semi-realistic tone than many family films of the time. While the antagonists often come across as dim-witted, they are not over-the-top silly like in movies such as Three Ninjas. Coupled with the treacherous landscape, this makes for a true sense of danger. I also appreciate that the Chinese cultural elements of this film come across as authentic.
Script-wise, it’s not much more than one threatening situation after another interspersed with panda footage. Slater surely did not win any awards for his lackluster delivery of 90’s American technology stereotype filled dialogue, but he does get to provide some “amazing” lines such as “Relax, I’m an American. My life revolves around electronics.” and the classic “I’ve seen naked women before. A, I have cable TV. B, I just happen to be quite a lady’s man.” Ding is the only one in this movie not phoning in a performance. Despite its flaws, the brisk 85 minute running time, scenic backdrop, well orchestrated stunts, and panda cuteness overload make The Amazing Panda Adventure a moderately enjoyable viewing experience and I’m sure it will be remembered fondly (perhaps we should just leave it there, in our memories). I mostly wish that they had cut the hideous panda puppet out.