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

Thursday, July 16, 2009

White Fang (1991) * * *

A fluffy white rabbit is seen at the beginning of WHITE FANG, attacked and devoured by a wolf pack almost before the opening credits are over. It's a scenic and enveloping nature film about a young man and his pet wolf. The movie is adapted from Jack London's classic 1906 novel "White Fang", a tale of a wolf and his encounters with civilized man. "White Fang" is basically a sequel to "Call of the Wild", Jack London's 1903 story of a dog who becomes wild and leads a wolf pack, whereas "White Fang" is the story of a wolf who eventually lives a dog’s life with a loving master. Most of the encounters are between animals and are presented from the wolf's point of view.

This movie has almost nothing to do with London's novel. The screenwriters invented a seasoned gold miner named Alex Larson (Klaus Maria Brandauer) and a city kid named Jack Conroy (Ethan Hawke), who comes to Alaska to pick up his father's prospecting claim, to fulfill his father's dying wish to find gold in the Yukon Valley. It's a familiar story: boy meets wolf, boy loses wolf and so on. When Jack first arrives in the Klondike, he catches sight of a "golden staircase", an endless line of miners climbing a snowy trail high up a mountain peak. The film includes many other Alaska images as strikingly beautiful as this.

Jack finds his father's old partners: the moody foreigner Alex Larson and the amiable but wild Skunker (Seymour Cassel). Ringleader Alex reluctantly agrees to let Jack accompany them as they travel to bury their partner Dutch. Before this man can be buried, the expedition becomes imperiled by a couple of gruesome but rivetingly staged mishaps. Skunker and Alex may not be the easiest two men to get along with, but they're all the company Jack has in braving the treacherous Yukon Territory. Alex guides Jack to his father's claim. On the quest, the men must endure grueling weather, thin ice, and a hungry pack of wolves. This last obstacle provides the film's second central orphan, a wolf who comes to be adopted by Han Indians and named Mia Tuk, which translates as "White Fang."

Jack Conroy: Is there any good reason why we can't just bury him here? I don't think he'll know the difference.
Alex Larson: I gave him my word.
(They have just finished burying Dutch)
Alex Larson: Let's move out.
Jack Conroy: Aren't you going to say anything?
Alex Larson: You know what?
Jack Conroy: What?
Alex Larson: I never really liked the bastard.

(About Jack Conroy)
Skunker: What's he doing?
Alex Larson: Cleaning his teeth.
Skunker: How'd they get dirty?

Jack Conroy: What's his name?
Grey Beaver: Mia Tuk.
Jack Conroy: What's that mean?
Grey Beaver: White Fang.

As the film progresses, each of its two narrative threads moves from the peril-laced wilderness to the seemingly safer confines of domesticity. For Jack, this means digging for gold and teaching Alex to read on the side. For White Fang (Jed), his relocation to a nearby harbor town brings a far worse fate. His new owners transform him into a savage warrior in illegal to-the-death dogfights that allow them to prosper.

Because the film's story has been stitched together out of separate episodes, it is held together chiefly by White Fang himself. He is a hybrid wolf, ¾ wolf and ¼ dog. First glimpsed as a puppy, he is later found in an Indian settlement working for Grey Beaver (Pius Savage), who views him as a resource rather than a pet. When Jack finds White Fang living under these circumstances, he is saddened but helpless to rescue the animal. Only when White Fang is sold to the evil Beauty Smith (James Remar), who trains him as a fighter, does Jack have an opportunity to retrieve and rehabilitate his animal friend. Beauty and his lackeys train White Fang to hate so he can win vicious dogfights and earn money for his opportunistic owners. White Fang is put in an illegal dog fighting pen where he becomes a professional, experienced and cruel killer.

Jack rescues the wolf, which he names White Fang, a kindred spirit who changes his life forever. They have adventures and make a few enemies on their way to finding the gold mine. From the taming of a wolf, to the taming of the wild, Jack must find the courage to conquer his fears and become a man in this spectacular outdoor adventure. When a group of criminals tries to steal Jack's gold, White Fang is the only one who can help him to fight them off.

Jack and White Fang must endure some trying times, and one of these--a close encounter with a big brown bear--involves both, as the wild dog stands up to the much larger, more imposing foe and saves the terrified Jack's life. The incident reinforces Jack's admiration for the fierce wolf. While the two part ways--Jack with Alex to reach his father's isolated cabin, White Fang to remain an unappreciated worker for the Han--it's inevitable that their paths will cross again. The movie does forecast its moments of danger and suspense a bit more than needed, but this is probably the only way of catering to its family film classification.

The film's picturesque episodes include scenes of the young White Fang exploring an ice cave, glimpses of the young wolf fishing and a wolf versus bear fight featuring the animal actors Jed and Bart, both of which perform well. Humans are upstaged by both the animals and the stunning Alaskan landscape, from the snow-covered mountains and frozen lakes of winter to the rich green forests and whitecap rivers of summer. The simulated scenes of dogfights and wild wolves hunting game are carefully shot to avoid bloodshed, but they may still be too intense for young children. Among the sorts of incidental touches that help sustain interest, the film also shows how gold is mined and tested. However, the film has a savage wolf pack attacking some humans and gobbling up another off-screen. These scenes trouble naturalists battling centuries of anti-wolf prejudice. Albert Manville, a senior biologist for the Defenders of Wildlife and a consultant on the movie, objected to the wolf attack scene during production. Disney quickly agreed to run a disclaimer reminding audiences, "There has never been a documented case of a healthy wolf or pack of wolves attacking a human in North America."

WHITE FANG is a sweet, understated movie. As the best-known of at least eleven film adaptations that date back to 1925 and span the globe, this version may not satisfy those expecting a faithful retelling of London's famous novel. Perhaps inevitably, the author's unique manner of prose, animal point-of-view, and comments on violence and civilization get lost in favor of a somewhat simple but poignant human-driven story. Still, the movie seems to have its heart in the right place, celebrating some easily supportable spirit, even if it's not London's. For viewers unfamiliar with London's book, it is a great movie.

Dialogue is used sparingly and always serves the film and its characters. Director Randal Kleiser brings a steady hand to the proceedings, which never wander into sentimentality. Even the semi-clear parallels between Jack and the wolf are never overplayed for the sake of young audience members. The movie boasts impressive photography of the snowy and mountainous scenery (Alaska fills in for the Yukon) and a pleasing prominent score from Basil Poledouris. Ethan Hawke proves competent in a role that transitioned him from child actor to young leading man, Seymour Cassel is very memorable in his limited screen time, and Jed the hybrid wolf gives a superb performance.

An adventurous film that's almost certain to frighten youngsters, WHITE FANG feels like one of the last installments in the era of edgy live-action fare that marked 1980s Disney. Though not humorless, White Fang definitely merits a PG rating, with several intense action sequences that has disclaimers both at the beginning and end vouching for the filmmakers' humane treatment of animal actors. There is also a scary blue corpse. Though not excellent, this period drama succeeds in evoking sympathy for and interest in its compelling human and canine leads. While it's too intense for younger children, older kids and adults should easily take to this film. It's straightforward and fairly simple, but difficult not to like, a heart-warming story with good performances and photography that captures all the epic majesty of the Alaskan landscape.

The cast also includes: Susan Hogan (Belinda Casey), Bill Moseley (Luke), Aaron Hotch (Little Beaver), Charles Jimmie Sr. (Older Indian), Clifford Fossman (Old Timer 1), Irvin Sogge (Old Timer 2), Tom Fallon (Prospector), Dick Mackey (Sled Dog Prospector), Suzanne Kent (Heather), Robert C. Hoelen (Bar Patron), George Rogers (Registrar), Michael David Lally (Sykes), Raymond R. Menaker (Shopkeeper), David Fallon (Lookout), Michael A. Hagen (Teenager), Diane E. Benson (Grey Beaver's Wife), Robert Scott Kyker (Frozen Prospector 1), Tom Yewell (Frozen Prospector 2), John Beers (Sykes' Dog Handler), Van Clifton (Piano Player), Jim Moore (Violin Player), Marliese Schneider (Woman of the Night), Bart the Bear (The Bear), and Jed the hybrid wolf (White Fang). Basil Poledouris composed the original music. Jeanne Rosenberg, Nick Thiel, and David Fallon wrote the screenplay from Jack London's novel. Randal Kleiser directed.

Though treated to a 16x9 enhanced transfer for DVD release overseas, WHITE FANG is relegated to a 1.33:1 fullscreen presentation in the US, mildly differing from its 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio. Compared to the Region 2 disc, this is an open-matte presentation. While that means that cropping on the sides is usually minimal, careful compositions are sacrificed with the addition of excess space at the top and bottom of the frame. The removal of mattes is more noticeable here than on similarly-processed films. Furthermore, the picture quality just isn't very good. The opening credits and logo are especially spotty and plagued with artifacts. Even if the apparent shortcomings of optical shots can be quickly forgiven, the entire film looks grainy, blurry, and soft. It never allows the detail or sharpness that DVD usually provides and, in turn, the movie feels a little more distant than it should.

There's not as much to complain about with the Dolby Surround soundtrack, but it sets no standard for quality. Dialogue is often difficult to make out, perhaps due in part to the authentic environment or Mr. Brandauer's thick accent, though I think some blame probably lies with this DVD's sound mix. On the other hand, Poledouris's fine score is nicely conveyed, spreading into the rear channel to add a welcome layer of depth. There are no bonus features, not even a sympathy stretch like a set of promos for the studio's other DVDs. There's nothing except a Spanish audio track. The 4x3 menus are as basic as possible, with the still, silent screens featuring wintry imagery from the film.

It's always frustrating when a movie gets treated to an extremely feeble DVD, one which flounders in the picture and sound departments, provides no bonus features whatsoever, and fails to even present the film in its intended ratio. It's all the more disheartening when the movie has merit, as this one does. WHITE FANG would merit consideration for nearly any DVD collection were it treated with some respect or at least underwent a couple more price cuts. As it is, this presentation is nearly as much a letdown of a DVD as its 1994 sequel is of a movie.

Disney released the sequel WHITE FANG 2: MYTH OF THE WHITE WOLF four years later in 1994. Besides the presence of a hybrid wolf (part dog) named White Fang and its setting in the Alaska Gold Rush days, the story bears no resemblance to London's original story. Jack Conroy (Ethan Hawke), the hero of the first Disney film, has bequeathed his gold mine and the wolf White Fang to young Henry Casey (Scott Barstow). The boy and wolf thwart a would-be thief and decide to take their gold to San Francisco. While rafting to the nearest town, they capsize, lose their gold, and are separated. Lily Joseph (Charmaine Craig), a young Indian princess, rescues Henry from the rapids. She, along with her tribal chief Moses Joseph (Al Harrington) and his followers, believes that Henry is the reincarnation of a great spirit wolf who will help the Haida tribe find the Great Caribou. Henry and Lily fall in love, and Henry sets out to find the legendary Caribou who will save the tribe from extinction.

The pair must rely on their sharp, cunning instincts for survival when they risk it all to protect a peaceful Native American tribe whose homeland is targeted by dangerous miners. Henry Casey and White Fang help the Indian tribe solve the mystery of their disappearing caribou supply. Combining incredible outdoor action and breathtaking wilderness scenery, this is a rousing story of extraordinary courage and bold determination. Although some scenes take place in the dwellings of Henry and the Indians, most of the action takes place outdoors. In one of the first action scenes, White Fang jumps through an open window in Henry's cabin to stop an intruder outside who is about to shoot Henry. This was a completely open window, posing no danger to the dog. White Fang was played by several dogs.

Like every sequel Disney makes, WHITE FANG 2 is inferior to the original. What makes it inferior is not that it is rehashing the same concept, because it actually moves away from the ideas and focus of the original movie. WHITE FANG 2 capitalizes on the wolf's heroic qualities seen from the ending moments of the original to carry an entire film. We're still in Alaska, and it's still the same time period, but the sequel's story focuses on Jack's friend Henry Casey, whom he has left in charge of his cabin and gold-mining operations. Ethan does appear in the opening sequence, as he writes a letter from the San Fransisco hotel that he is now working on with Alex. It is this one brief appearance at the opening that is probably the best part about WHITE FANG 2. The new star of the show is Scott Bairstow and his adequate performance is the sole beacon of hope in this disappointing film.

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