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'Kon-Tiki' review: Sailing's a bit too smooth

"Kon Tiki," by Norwegian directing team Joachim Roenning and Espen Sandberg, partly re-creates and partly re-imagines Thor Heyerdahl's epic 1947 voyage. Credit: AP

As real-life adventure stories go, it's one of the most astounding: Thor Heyerdahl's 1947 journey across the Pacific Ocean -- roughly 4,300 miles -- on a simple balsa-wood raft. As a movie, it would seem to have everything: danger, excitement, natural wonders, modern-day Vikings charting a new course in history.

There's one problem: Basically, everything went pretty well.

That puts the feature film "Kon-Tiki," named after the famous raft, in a tough position. Heyerdahl's 1948 memoir was an international best-seller and his 1950 documentary won an Oscar, so the facts are rather firmly on the record. "Kon-Tiki" directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, with screenwriter Petter Skavlan, fictionalize and dramatize as much as possible, but there's only so far the truth can stretch.

"Kon-Tiki" is still an entertaining and attractive-looking film. An appealing Pål Sverre Hagen (speaking English, as do all the actors) plays Heyerdahl, a Norwegian ethnographer whose years in Polynesia convinced him -- against all accepted theories -- that South Americans settled the islands in pre-Columbian times. Laughed out of scientific circles, he decides to prove his theory. With a skeleton crew that includes childhood friend Erik (Odd-Magnus Williamson), war veteran Knut (Tobias Santelmann) and weak link Herman (a very good Anders Baasmo Christiansen), Heyerdahl builds a raft using only the materials and methods the South Americans would have used. Then they head into open water.

Storms and narrow scrapes keep the action moving, while Herman provides a nagging sense of dread by monitoring the raft's steady disintegration. At least one wild scene -- shark vs. man -- will get your blood pumping. But overall, "Kon-Tiki" feels slightly tame. It's a wilderness tale with few jolting moments or ugly truths.

Maybe "Kon-Tiki" isn't to blame for being inspirational rather than harrowing -- after all, that's the story. By contrast, someone should adapt "The Worst Journey in the World," Apsley Cherry-Garrard's shattering memoir of Robert Scott's doomed Antarctic expedition. You wouldn't have to change a thing.

PLOT The feature film version of Thor Heyerdahl's 1947 voyage across the Pacific on a raft.

RATING PG-13 (disturbing violent sequence)

CAST Pål Sverre Hagen, Anders Baasmo Christiansen, Tobias Santelmann


BOTTOM LINE Upbeat and less exciting than you might wish, though it could be a good adventure film for older kids. Beware the bloody shark scene.

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