Jean, Isabella Blake-Thomas, is a young teenager whose responsibilities towards her ailing grandparents prevent her from making friends and have a date to go to prom with.
When her senile grandfather Albert, Michael Pickering, wanders off, lost in his own memories, Jean and her dog Ranger have to embark on a journey in the dangerous wilderness to bring him home.
Written by Gregory P. Wolk, the story mixes the dangerous journey into the wild with a more fairytale-like and tender subplot of Jean’s life at home.
While it is easy to see why Wolk chose to link both plots (it is through obstacles she overcomes in her quest that she learns and grows, allowing her the happy ending she deserves at home), the connections between the two are too flimsy and are all the more lacking on screen where the strange editing choices and rushed transition only highlight the jarring difference.
Taken separately, the first storyline and main plot of the movie (Jean looking for her grandfather) is the most compelling one and draws you in instantly with beautiful shots of the wilderness (from arid deserts to forests covered in snow) and the animals within.
Like gradually more difficult obstacles to conquer and learn from, Jean regularly encounters the dangerous wildlife of her environment, facing them bravely with the help of her dog.
Just like with the use of drones to shoot the landscape and emphasize its largeness compared to the small characters trapped within, the director Shawn Welling cleverly uses his resources to show the dangerous creatures Jean encounters (tarantulas, scorpions, wolves) in all their glory.
While the editing actually harms the story most of the time, when it comes to practical effects it is at its most efficient.
Jean’s journey also includes following in the footstep of her grandfather, and the film cuts back and forth between her quest and his wanderings. His own voyage is essentially Jean’s opposite as it deals with letting go of his youth, but it is also less inspired: it is mostly comprised of the same flashback repeated over and over again in which he and his friends chant a mantra taken from The Jungle Book – “the strength of the wolf is the pack, the strength of the pack is the wolf”.
To keep true to the quasi-fairytale format, Albert encounters on his journey the Spiritual Stone (voiced by Lee Majors), a talking healing rock who speaks wise words and helps resolve this first subplot in a rushed and unsatisfying way.
While fantasy elements are present in tone all throughout the film, the inclusion of this Spiritual Stone is too jarring to fit nicely with the realism of the rest of a film already torn between two subplots; and its very short presence in the movie makes it look more like a Deus Ex Machina than an essential and useful character.
The second storyline (Jean wanting to go to prom) helps to provide the film with a nice little ending, turning Jean into an aspiring Cinderella who finds the prom date and the best friend she was always longing for. Compared with the wildlife journey, this feels like a downgrade but makes up for it with a lot of heart and sweetness.
This quality is Jean’s biggest draw. The film may be a little too sweet at times, most of its dialogues (voice-over included) feeling stilted and cheesy, but somehow it still achieves to steal a smile from the viewer.
The film has clear flaws in its execution and script but it is imbued with enough heart to mitigate the weaknesses, leaving the viewer with a wholesome feeling that outweighs the rest.