When kids play games, they pretend to be adults: soldiers, spacemen, cops and robbers or, for the more precocious, doctors and nurses. The theme is, Be what you want to be. Then when they grow up, go to Hollywood and make movies, they often create characters that are emotional adolescents, infants, kids. The credo of so many action films and comedies is, Be what you used to be or what you still, secretly, are. This tendency could be the film industry's wise acknowledgment that inside every adult is a backward child ruled by fears and cravings. Or it could just be that movie people know what audiences will pay to see: grownups behaving not like Cary Grant sophisticates exchanging witty repartee but like kindergartners making poop jokes. (Read TIME's interview with director Brad Silberling)
Will Ferrell, in the screen persona he's perfected over a healthy six-year box-office run, takes the boy's-mind-in-a-man's-body transference a smart step further. In such hits as Old School, Anchorman, Talladega Nights and Blades of Glory, he plays overage children who try to act like adults, with their steely intonations and take-charge attitude. His usual character is the kind of fellow who learned how real men behave by watching Clint Eastwood and Harrison Ford movies Hollywood, not life, has been his teacher, and he's not such a quick study. Endless setbacks and critiques have not dented Ferrell man's lunatic belief in himself. He strides manfully forward, his eye on the horizon thus never noticing the open manhole he's about to step into. (Watch a photo shoot with Will Ferrell.)
Ferrell's latest excursion into delusions of manhood is director Brad Silberling's Land of the Lost, an action comedy with the sloppy construction and saving grace notes of the star's other movies. It's based on the Sid and Marty Krofft live-action adventure show about a man and his son and daughter who are trapped in a time-warp landscape of dinosaurs and talking lizards that lasted for just 43 episodes on Saturday mornings in the mid-'70s. The series is recalled fondly for its hokey acting and the aliens whose costumes had visible zippers. But its puny pedigree doesn't eliminate it from big-screen retooling. Indeed, if a TV show from the '60s or '70s had a premise elementary enough to be pictured on a lunch-box lid, chances are it's recently been made into a movie. One more victory for the retro kids.
Rick Marshall (Ferrell), who calls himself a quantum paleontologist, has been working on a tachyon meter it looks like a boom box that will puncture the space-time continuum. The world laughs at Rick, perhaps because he loves show tunes. But someone believes in him: sexy British scientist Holly Cantrell (Anna Friel), who has found the imprint of his lighter in a rock that's millions of years old. She takes him to the desert area where she found it, and after bumping into the obligatory rude dude, a souvenir salesman named Will (Danny McBride), they all go sliding down a waterfall into the time-jumbled land of the lost. (See the top 10 1950s sci-fi movies.)
The script, by Chris Henchy and Dennis McNicholas, honors most of the show's favorite tropes. There's the monkey-man Chaka (Jorma Taccone), a sort of humanoid Cheeta from the old Tarzan movies; the Altrusian lizard lords Enik (John Boylan) and the Zarn (voiced by Leonard Nimoy); and a huge army of the zombie-like Sleestaks as Will sagely observes, "That's how zombies get you: volume." If fans of the TV show want a Tyrannosaurus rex to chase Rick into a cave, as in the old days, they'll get their wish. The difference is in the care taken with the creatures and their environment. The dinos have plausibility and personality, and there are enough rocks, jutting jaws and monster guts thrown at the screen to make a 3-D version of the movie appealing. Production designer Bo Welch's desert vistas with, say, an ocean liner stuck in the sand at a 60-degree angle bring Dalíesque visions to a routine action comedy.
Father to the other two space-time travelers in the show, Rick here is more the intrepid guide, or he acts that way, even when he's feeling trepid. To blend in with prehistoric beasts, he'll douse himself in the dinosaur urine he's harvested. He'll wander make that blunder into dangerous situations and, in the movie's sharpest moment, tiptoe through a nest of baby dinosaurs, sedating the little ones by singing "I Hope I Get It" from A Chorus Line. Less overbearing than in his earlier films but no less resolute, Ferrell seems to be channeling his George W. Bush impression from Saturday Night Live and the one-man Broadway show that earned him a Tony nomination. Rick has that same unwarranted self-assurance, the same blindness to his crippling dooficity.
And because Rick, like every other Ferrell male, is no more self-conscious than he is self-aware, there will be the actor's requisite topless scene. For if Matthew McConaughey is the alpha male, Ferrell is the omega. His chest is large, white and flabby, and it's pocked with what look like dozens of tiny, imperfectly attached hair-implant tufts. It might be a helicopter's eye view of merino sheep stranded on a tundra. And that's what makes this preening so funny: his character's cluelessness to (and Ferrell's awareness of) the limits of his erotic appeal.
We see Rick emerge from a motel pool, and as he shakes his wet hair, the movie goes into loving slo-mo; it both enters his fantasy and laughs at his sub-Adonis reality. Here's the 41-year-old Ferrell playing another child's game, revealing the idiocy and sweetness in the ego of the American male the kid who never grew up.