A week or so ago I ended up watching an Australian kid’s adventure film called Frog Dreaming (also released in the US as “The Quest”) with some friends – it’s a Kids On Bikes film that’s flawed, but not necessarily in the ways that some of the less prominent films in the genre are.
Frog Dreaming follows a kid named Cody (Henry Thomas of ET fame), a young American kid who, after his parents’ death, has been adopted by an Australian man Gaza (Tony Barry). Cody has a knack for building various devices, and decides that he’s going to investigate a “Frog Dreaming” – described as a sort of aboriginal sacred place or place of power – where a bunyip called Donkegin lives – at the flooded site of an abandoned pit mine. Cody also ropes his friend Wendy (Rachel Friend) into the investigation as well.
While I have some knowledge of the attempts to enslave Australian Aboriginal or First Nations peoples (my research has shown that “First Nations” is currently the preferred term, as of May 2022) in the past of the colonization of that continent, and the attempts with that to erase their cultural identity, I don’t have enough knowledge to speak competently as to how respectfully that culture is depicted. From my distance as an American, it feels like they’re trying to be respectful, while also acknowledging existing prejudices – Cody is shown to talk frequently with local First Nations people (who are played by First Nations actors), about their history and beliefs, and his stated intent is not to kill Donkegin, but to document Donkegin and by doing so to validate their beliefs. He’s also generally also not shown to use the slurs that are used prolifically by the white Australian characters in the cast about First Nations people.
That said, just because something feels respectful doesn’t mean it is respectful. When I was in High School and didn’t know better, I thought how Chakotay was written on Star Trek: Voyager was a respectful depiction of a Native American culture. I now have the knowledge to understand the BS related to how the character was written, and I completely understand why Robert Beltran has absolutely rejected Trek and its fandom as a whole in a way that most of the other Trek actors have not, because he was stuck in a role that was perpetuating a series of microaggressions (microaggressions to the viewers – actual aggressions to Beltran). So, when I talk about Frog Dreaming, I need to say upfront am ignorant about whether this film is perpetuating ignorant or hateful stereotypes or other similar forms of microaggressions (or just agressions).
All of that said the rest of the film around this concept is very well done. Brian Trenchard-Smith gets some really great performances out of his cast – especially the kids, and most of the aboriginal characters in this film (outside of a couple who are explicitly stated to be supernatural figures), and the cinematography by John McLean (who previously worked with Trenchard-Smith on Turkey Shoot), helps build a strong sense of atmosphere.
The problem is the film shoves a twist into the end of the movie of the “supernatural made mundane” variety that feels somewhat contrived and were it not for a reversal that occurs right before the credits roll, would feel like it squanders the goodwill that the earlier portions of the film had earned.
It’s not a strong enough film that I’d go out to see it again necessarily, but I’d say it is something where if I opened Netflix (or a similar service) and hit “Surprise me” I wouldn’t be annoyed if it came up, and I’d probably go watch it again.
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