Telling the story of a modern-day Seminole Indian youth torn between the limitations of life in his impoverished village and the potential moral compromises of pursuing opportunities in the outside world, Joe Panther is clumsily effective. The story is eventful, the protagonist’s journey is meaningful, and the themes of assimilation and identity create believable points of conflict. Made with more sophistication, Joe Panther might have earned a place among the best coming-of-age stories from the ’70s. Unfortunately, the film falls short of contemporary standards for racial sensitivity thanks to any-minority-will-suffice casting, and that’s but one of many flaws. Nonetheless, Joe Panther is commendable for a few moments of genuine emotion as well as at least one scene of thrilling action.
Living in a close-knit but financially troubled Seminole village near Miami, fatherless Joe Panther (Ray Tracey) worries about how to provide for his mother and his younger brother. Joe isn’t thrilled by his prospects in the village, and it galls Joe to watch his best friend, Billy Tiger (A Martinez), put on alligator-wrestling exhibitions for tourists. When Joe hears about a job on a fishing boat owned by kindly Captain Harper (Brian Keith), Joe accepts a wild challenge as a condition of employment—he must venture into the Everglades and capture an 11-foot gator that Harper’s brother can use as a tourist attraction at his resort. The mission becomes Joe’s trial by fire, especially when his wise Uncle Turtle (Ricardo Montalban) offers ominous warnings about the dangers of the Everglades.
Casting Latin actors in prominent Seminole roles is distracting, and the thriller subplot that dominates the last third of the movie is a bit much. Yet parts of Joe Panther have real grit. The sequence of Joe trapping a giant alligator is frightening, and the bond that Martinez and Tracey convey is persuasive. So even if the movie often edges into drab formulas, as when both Keith and Montalban give monologues about the meaning of life, the picture’s intentions seem pure. Everything right and wrong about Joe Panther is epitomized by the gentle theme song, which is performed by soft-rock hitmakers England Dan & John Ford Coley—the message is there, but the choice of messengers is highly questionable.
Joe Panther: FUNKY