by Kristin Battestella
Billed as Return to Snowy River stateside and known elsewhere around the globe as The Man from Snowy River II, this 1988 sequel is lacking a lot of the charm and storytelling done so well in The Man from Snowy River. Fortunately, all the equine visuals and Down Under scenery of its 1982 predecessor remain for an entertaining family adventure.
After proving his worth and becoming the famed Man from Snowy River, Jim Craig (Tom Burlinson) has continued working on his own keep and gathering the wild brumby horse herds to train, sell, and eventually breed on his own mountain station. Jim also hopes to reunite with his love Jessica Harrison (Sigrid Thorton) despite her father's (Brian Dennehy) misgivings over what he feels is too low a match. The elder Harrison is more interested in winning horse races and doing business with influential, strong arm local bankers trying to push out the resident mountain men. Horse thefts and accusations escalate, and Jim must risk taming the Stallion leading the brumby mob, once again taking matters into his own hands to win the day.
No, Return to Snowy River is not as beloved as the 1982 release, and the Disney take over tone may be the culprit. Only a few sentences of catching up elude to the first film with an unsure amount of time having passed between them. Extraneous, ho hum, would be humorous townsfolk and cardboard villains bloat a short 99 minutes that's slow to start and perhaps confusing to those who haven't seen the original. From where did all these barons holding finances over the previously top of the mark Harrison come? The to and fro double talk doesn't explain much, and pedestrian girl riding in a horse race side plots lead nowhere along with a shoehorned in love triangle failing at its attempt to create conflict. Social plots on gentry versus mountain people are too muddled for the family friendly scale of Return to Snowy River, and overall, it feels like Disney's vision for the picture was that of a clichéd remake rather than a true what happens next sequel. Fortunately, returning producer and director Geoff Burrowes rectifies the villain comeuppance with emotional horse scenes, trademark equine action, and the character moments the audience came to see.
This time around, Tom Burlinson's Jim Craig is a little older, more confident, and self assured in his horse mastery. The audience knows these unlikable snobs with ulterior motives vying for Jessica's affection are no match for the genuine romance even while some of the uneven story hurts the character. Jim's owning half of Spur's gold mine is retconned and despite becoming a hero in The Man from Snowy River, he has to prove himself again to inferior jerks. Thankfully, Jim hasn't changed, and its morally pleasing to see a man working hard, earning his keep, bidding his time, and remaining true even as the world moves on and not necessarily for the better. Return to Snowy River takes an hour before we get to the heaviest emotion and character development, but the understanding looks and bittersweet moments between Jim and his horses are the loveliest – if no less upsetting – scenes in the picture. Though beautiful as ever, Sigrid Thorton is styled a bit too eighties anachronistic for Return to Snowy River with curly hair, contemporary dialogue, and now being informally called Jess. It's distracting when extras behind her are more appropriately period while she stands in the forefront without the expected hats or capes depending on how ladylike she is supposed to be from scene to scene. Instead of having a strong, progressive female character, the problematic plot makes Jessica's allegiance to her father or Jim too wishy washy. She's upset that it took so long for Jim to return but she argues in his favor against her father, spreading discord or blossoming romance more to advance the run time or convince the viewer when the charming one on one scenes between the young couple are dandy without all the round and round.
It's an unusual change to replace Kirk Douglas with Brian Dennehy (Cocoon) as Harrison, and Dennehy never has the opportunity to use his elder gravitas and fully make the character his own in Return to Snowy River thanks to rinse repeat daughter riding horses protests, his insistence she learn the ranch business, and more all over the place motivations. Amid the dress up to attract a suitor demands, muddled financial exposition, and gruff exterior lies conflicting tender affections and hidden warmth – not to mention mistakes in his own The Man from Snowy River history. Now Harrison's money comes from a gold mine rather than a horse racing gamble, yet Jim's stocks and wealth still aren't good enough for Harrison. Wedding clarifications are inexplicably excised from this stateside Disney edition, and offscreen reconciliations further cheapen the character, leaving the feeling that most of Dennehy's strength was left on the cutting room floor.
Fortunately, the divine sunsets, stallion silhouettes, and majestic equine photography in Return to Snowy River are tough to beat. Bright outdoor filming and intercut stallion editing have surprising personality while dune landscapes, mountain vistas, and forested rides add to the parasols, top hats, and Victorian feelings even if the lace and turn of the century balloon sleeves are overdone with that shiny satin and eighties cheating. The interior designs, however, appear dark with soft focused camera shots, and despite Disney influences, the film looks older than it is and feels more low budget than it was. Unlike the allegedly superior Australian releases, the bare bones Region 1 DVD has mismatched subtitles and an odd, jumping print that plays with its pan and scan, compromising some sequences that already don't live up to the original. The familiar, classic theme also feels underused, but new epic scoring anchors the heroic mood and surely difficult to film horsework. Naturally, opening gunshots, animal injuries, and spoiler warning horse deaths will be difficult for super young viewers. Hell, that scene still gets me every time, and it's ironic how films made to celebrate horsemanship remain clouded with production rumors of real on set accidents and fatalities.
Viewers don't have to see The Man from Snowy River in order to watch this Return – in fact, back to back marathoning may illume the sequel's flaws further, and audiences expecting the ingenuity or grit of its predecessor may be disappointed in the confusing reset tone and overall inferiority of Return to Snowy River. However, Return to Snowy River can still be enjoyed if you know the characters' history. Separating this outing's recreated ridings, horse pursuits, and thrilling family adventure and not comparing it to the original is the best way to savor Return to Snowy River.