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THE TENDER WARRIOR (1971; Video Screams).

Kids are so fortunate nowadays when it comes to new theatrical releases, since every multiplex has at least one animated feature or relatively child-friendly comic-adaptation playing at any time. Back when I was growing up, you had to wait for the latest Disney re-issue or else get stuck sitting through some low-budget nature-adventure tripe that was cynically marketed as G-rated fun, fun, fun! That brings us to THE TENDER WARRIOR, which dragged its sorry cinematic ass through small-town theatres for years -- premiering in 1971 and still playing matinees as late as 1975, capitalizing on cast member Dan Haggerty's sudden fame in THE LIFE AND TIMES OF GRIZZLY ADAMS -- while often partnering with local YMCA chapters or pet stores for promotional giveaways... Filmed in Southeast Georgia's Okefenokee Swamp Park, with a cast of predominantly local non-actors (trust me, that'll be quickly apparent), Charles Lee (the son of a local Sheriff, in his only film role) plays 10-year-old Sammy, a "modern-day Tom Sawyer" first seen paddling his little skiff and accompanied by pet chimpanzee Chuck, a carny reject in KMart Blue Light Special children's clothing. Animal-loving Sammy's pastime of releasing helpless critters from traps ends up pissing off marble-mouthed goofus Cal Lucas (clean-shaven Haggerty, in classic hillbilly regalia: overalls over red long johns), with goody-goody Sammy so annoyed by Cal's poaching that the li'l shit snitches to the Sheriff about the Lucas family's secret still. When a truck hauling a fully-grown leopard loses its cargo, concerned Sammy decides to check on all of his animal buddies: Iron Jaw the alligator, a bear who guzzles moonshine, plus he even helps out that leopard when it gets stuck in swamp mud. But a sizable chunk of the film simply consists of Sammy tediously chased by Cal (who actively plots to murder this annoying li'l shit at one point!), while the kid is aided by an owl, a skunk, et cetera... Like a cross between OF MICE AND MEN's Lenny and a meth-addled Jethro Bodine, Haggerty plays Cal with such thick-headed abandon that it transcends simple bad acting and becomes more like unintentional performance art. Meanwhile, director/co-writer Stewart Raffill (who began his showbiz career as an animal supervisor on Disney's MONKEYS, GO HOME! and the Ron Ely TARZAN TV-series, before helming four-wallers like THE ADVENTURES OF THE WILDERNESS FAMILY and studio sewage like MANNEQUIN 2: ON THE MOVE and MAC AND ME) teaches impressionable tykes that incredibly dangerous wild creatures can be quickly and safely befriended if you're simply nice to 'em! The pacing is sluggish, the acting is pathetic, its slapstick moments are excruciating, but at least the animal footage is passably cute. Clocking in at a relatively merciful 76 minutes, this is a mind-numbing example of what was once foisted onto moviegoers as good, clean family entertainment.

© 2017 by Steven Puchalski.