Lone Wolf Sullivan is a writer, songwriter, and studio musician.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Silver Wolf (1999) * * ½

The movie opens by introducing us to 16 year old Jesse McLean (Shane Meier), his father, and uncle Roy McLean (Michael Biehn). Roy is a Park Ranger and helicopter pilot who drops the father and son off at the top of a beautiful mountain for snow boarding when a sudden storm hits. After some impressive skiing and snowboarding footage, a tragedy occurs when Dad tries to rescue Jesse in the wilderness, but plummets down the mountain to his death. Jesse finds a seriously wounded young gray wolf he names Silver. However, when Jesse is rescued, Silver disappears and Jesse is desperate to find him.

Since Jesse and his Mom don't get along very well, Uncle Roy invites him to stay with him in his Park Ranger log cabin up in the mountains of Washington. Almost immediately upon his arrival, Jesse clashes with the local bullies and meets a cute young girl named Lucinda "Lucy" Rockwell (Kimberley Warnat). His new peer group sees him as an urban wonder. Jesse soon finds Silver, which he promptly decides to adopt and nurse back to health. After some hair raising experiences, with Silver almost biting off a couple of Jesse's fingers, the wolf bonds with Jesse and becomes like a domesticated dog and best friend. Unfortunately, Lucy's father John Rockwell (Roy Scheider), is a wolf-hater who often takes to the woods with his son Clay (Jade Pawluk) to shoot wolves. It was Rockwell who shot Silver. Rockwell wears a baseball cap instead of a Stetson and worries about his two children. He also cooks dinner for them, but that is the extent of the film's biographical details.

Jesse is trying to put his life back together after the death of his father, and bonds with Silver. Uncle Roy understands the dangers of trying to tend to a wild animal, but he allows Jesse to keep him. He is in charge of the wildlife in cattle country and helps his nephew to understand wolves. Roy suggests that donating the wolf to a zoo might be a better idea, realizing that the enraged Rockwell will kill it. However, Jesse, who is fond of snowboarding, teaches Silver to be his partner in skijoring, a sport in which a dog is used to haul a man on skis. There are some great shots of snowboarding and the use of dog pulling on skis, and also a big dog skijoaring competition.

The cattlemen's association is definitely against wolves running wild in their territory. John Rockwell is president of the association, and the owner of a nearby ranch with plans for Jesse's wolf. He angrily sees it as a threat to his stock and is determined that the wolf be destroyed. Rockwell is shocked and in despair when Lucy becomes very friendly and accepted by Silver.

Silver is allowed to enter the annual cross-country skijoaring contest with Jesse. They win despite Clay tormenting the wolf by sticking a wooden whip in it's face, causing Silver to attack. The movie concludes with the race in which Jesse uses a snowboard instead of skis, and a wild wolf instead of the family pet dog. Then it is time for Silver to go home to his wolf family. It is sad to watch him leave, but to see a wild animal that was captive become free makes the movie better. One early morning Jesse and Lucy take Silver in Uncle Roy's van into the deep woods around the majestic Cypress Mountain. They let Silver loose to reunite with the wolf pack that he was separated from when Rockwell shot him at the beginning of the movie.

Much of the film deals with the burgeoning friendship between Jesse and the recuperating wolf. There are several opportunities for Jesse to run afoul of the anti-wolf bullies and prove his worth by staying loyal to Silver, while always finding time to do a little snowboarding and woo the lovely Lucy. It's a good coming of age story tied nicely together with outstanding snowboarding and skijoaring footage.

More or less an updated variation on Jack London's classic "White Fang", SILVER WOLF is an old fashioned boy and his wolf melodrama that manages to hit all the right buttons without being too manipulative. Roy Scheider's menacing wealthy rancher John Rockwell is so much a caricature of a small town villain he should be twirling a long mustache, and the identity of the father of young Jesse McLean's love interest Lucy is howlingly obvious. The outcome of the big dog sled race is never in doubt, although there's a twist. But there's an innocent charm in SILVER WOLF that overcomes the genre's inherent obstacles. With many ideas appropriated from other family movies, SILVER WOLF will never win any awards for originality. Although it doesn't offer much that's new, the film as a whole is worth a look for those who love animals in general and wolves specifically.

Performances are a mixed bag with Michael Biehn as Uncle Roy and Kimberley Warnat as Lucy faring the best. Kim Warnat shows a lot of charm and screen presence as Lucy--apparently the filmmakers felt the same way and dress the pretty 17 year old in costumes that show a lot of cleavage. As Jesse, Shane Meier shows some fairly strong chops in a blandly written lead role. Meier does a fine a job interacting with canines as well as with humans. For sheer camp value, Roy Scheider is worth the price of admission. In his few scenes, he chews the scenery recklessly and seems to truly enjoy playing this one-dimensional authority figure with holy fury. He's a real hoot here. Veteran character actor Biehn offers a solid, if unspectacular, performance. He's effective, if a little remote, as the cheerful back-country lawman. It's not the usual action type film that Biehn is known for. In fact he's quite subdued here, yet gives a good performance helping his nephew come to grips with his father's death and saving a young wolf in the process. The wolf actor playing Silver gives a dignified and believable performance. This is a good family movie about a troubled teen who just lost his father, and is exposed to the great outdoors and given a new outlook on life.

The cast also includes: Lynda Boyd (Anna McLean), Don MacKay (Sonny LaFrambois), Trevor Roberts (Buddy), Ron Sauvé (Sheriff), T.J. Shanks (Clay's Friend), Reg Tupper (Funeral guest), A. J. Bond (Chaz), Samaya Jarley (Mary Clifton), Shaun Johnson, Reg Tupper (Investor), Christine Willes (Mrs. Gaten), and John Hawkes (David). Robert Carli composed the original music. Michael Amo wrote the screenplay. Peter Svatek directed.

One third OLD YELLER (1957), one third ROCKY (1976) and one third stunning snowboarding footage, SILVER WOLF suffers in large part from a simple lack of originality. Yet there are enough strong components to watch it if you like wolf movies. It's a simple little film that probably won't challenge adult movie fans, but with its positive messages and somewhat trite presentation, SILVER WOLF is at the very least a film you won't mind your kids watching. Unfortunately, this movie is difficult to find on DVD or VHS, a tragedy because it is a good film with a lot of emotion.

SILVER WOLF premiered as a made-for-TV Fox Family Channel original on January 10, 1999. A review compared the film to the "made for TV wildlife stories that were the weekly mainstay of "the Wonderful World of Disney" in the 1970s", but the reviewer acknowledged there are "certain story and visual elements that give the boy-and-wolf yarn a 90s spin. Silver Wolf is a pretty straight-forward film, relatively free of sentiment." Vancouver Today wrote: "The chief villain is Rancher John (Roy Scheider). Family films usually make their villains simple and Scheider's character is all gruffness and macho posturing. Silver Wolf won't be collecting any best-picture Oscars, but as family films go, you could do a lot worse."

The movie has some strikingly magnificent cinematography and its choreographed snowboarding scenes are breathtaking and quick paced. This film has great intentions and is entertaining for kids and adult animal lovers. The relationship between Meier and the young wolf is endearing as they develop an honest friendship. SILVER WOLF was shot on location in the Vancouver area, and one noteworthy component is the outdoor photography. The Canadian Rockies, with the scenic mountains at Whistler and Blackcomb, British Columbia are displayed in gorgeous fashion.

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