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‘Holiday in the Wild’: Africa By and For White People

Zambia is a country populated by Magical Negroes who exist to convey wisdom

In order to talk about this bad Christmas movie released on November 1, we must first talk about some paintings from the mid-19th century (I have decided). When painters from the West depicted scenes set in Africa (or the Middle East or Asia), they would mostly make it all up. This wouldn’t be such a problem if the artists didn’t also say that the paintings were authentic glimpses into these places and the people who lived there. Jean-Lèon Gérôme’s The Snake Charmer has a background of fake Arabic tilework covered in nonsense letters. This gave audiences wrong ideas about what other parts of the world were like.

One of those bad ideas was that people in the West can run away from the modern world and go to Africa to get back in touch with themselves, with nature, and the things that really matter. Or, as the poet wrote, “I bless the rains down in Africa / Gonna take some time to do the things we never had.” Of course, when you lay it out like that, it’s clearly silly to treat a place or a culture as a two-week juice cleanse.
CLK339940 The Snake Charmer, c.1870 (oil on canvas) by Gerome, Jean Leon (1824-1904); 83.8×122 cm; Sterling & Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, USA; French, out of copyright

People keep making movies based on this bad idea. You see it in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel series, you see it in The Darjeeling Limited, and now you see it in Holiday in the Wild, a title that’s nothing if not on-the-nose.

After their son goes off to college, Kate (Kristin Davis of Sex and the City) surprises her husband Drew with tickets for a second honeymoon in Zambia. Drew responds that he doesn’t love her anymore and wants to end the marriage. Devastated, she goes on the honeymoon alone. During her personal flight from the hotel to the resort, alleged bad-boy pilot Derek (Rob Lowe) makes an unexpected landing when he spots an injured baby elephant in urgent need of care. Kate helps Derek save the elephant and is so moved that she quickly offers to help at the nearby elephant sanctuary.

The result is as predictable as it is obnoxious: Kate gets in touch with her true self and necks on Derek. The painting-by-numbers script comes from the ‘imaginations’ of Neil and Tippi Dobrofsky, who knock out a few of these romcoms every year. The story is so familiar with the dos and don’ts of writing romance that you’d think it would know not to make the hunky heart-throb cheat on his girlfriend without even addressing it afterwards. Kate is angry at him for one scene, then just forgets by the next day.

This movie, like most movies of its kind, is a throwback to the late 90s and early 00s, especially when it drops in a montage set to ‘Send Me on My Way.’ You know, the song from Ice Age and Matilda. It’s not exactly the cutting edge of pop culture.

This review has been harsh so far, so let’s say something nice: firstly, ‘Send Me on My Way’ still slaps. Secondly, the elephant puppets are great. To avoid animal abuse, the production only used practical effects. If you didn’t know when you were going in, you’d never be able to tell. It’s a shame the rest of the sets are so flimsy and uninspired (there are only so many nice things to say, they have to be spread out). Director Ernie Barbarash’s back catalogue is mostly made up of mediocre horror fare. Although he’s jumped genre, he hasn’t jumped in quality. Kate’s New York flat is cold on purpose, but the elephant sanctuary doesn’t feel lived in either.

Kate is overly upset to see Luke go off to college and has to learn how to let go. She only gets to grips with the idea once she nurses the baby elephant back to health. At a friend’s suggestion, she names the elephant Manu, meaning ‘second son.’ Who needs subtlety in a film like this? This neat parallel makes for a few scenes which drag their way up to average, which I guess deserves a medal.

Our heroine is played by Kristin Davis, a.k.a. Charlotte in Sex and the City. This is a good idea on paper since Kate’s life in New York sees her stuck in an unhappy ‘ladies who lunch’ life that recalls her most famous role. Unfortunately, Davis is bad at acting, which is obviously a bit of a problem in your lead. Look at The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which turned a cluster of political blunders into a cosy treat by the charisma of its ensemble cast. Now look at Kristin Davis fail to talk anything like how humans talk for 80 minutes.

You never realise how difficult acting is until you see a good actor and bad actor on screen together. That’s Rob Lowe’s Christmas present to us all. He was in The West Wing, so that makes him a goddam secular saint in the eyes of a certain type of viewer. This role is of a piece with his early work in the 80s as part of the ‘Brat Pack,’ a loose team of attractive twenty-somethings who appeared in a whole bunch of teen coming-of-age movies. Now he’s an attractive fifty-something if that’s your type: handsome in a white-bread way.

It’s worth noting that even though Derek’s whole appeal to Kate is that he shows her a new way of life in Zambia, he’s still cast as a white dude with an American accent. What’s with that? Even if you don’t find it offensive, you have to admit it doesn’t make sense for the story. Instead, Zambia is a country populated by Magical Negroes who exist to convey wisdom to Kate and Derek.

Art historians who study those 19th-century paintings will tell you that it’s their job to inspect the world that created those paintings. Who has power? What does this art say about those powerful people and what they wanted? How do they paint a fake version of the rest of the world? These questions are even more pressing today. Holiday in the Wild is a garbage movie that leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

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