The Walt Disney Company has a history of making great films about animals, nature and the harsh realities of living in the wild.
Near the top of that list is Randal Kleiser’s 1991 “White Fang,” a mid-sized hit in theaters that is probably best remembered as an early vehicle for its star, Ethan Hawke. The film itself is absorbing and touching, the kind of high-quality family film that is richly deserving of rediscovery.
Hawke stars as Jack, who arrives in Alaska during the Gold Rush to procure the claim his deceased father left him. He talks two workers, Alex (Klaus Maria Brandauer) and Skunker (Seymour Cassell) into taking him on an adventure into the Yukon. Along the way, they encounter fierce elements, punishing snow and hungry wolves. We also witness the hard life of an orphaned wolf, whose life eventually coincides with Jack’s in a profound way.
The big budget, 2020 Jack London adaption of “The Call of the Wild” wound up leaving most audiences dissatisfied and mostly for the same reason. The elaborate CGI dog, for all its facial expressions and cleverly rendered movement, didn’t convince anyone.
Because this take on London is devoid of flashy digital effects and goes as far as it can within the range of its Disney-approved PG-rating, it (like the “The Call of the Wild”) softens the source material. It’s also a much harsher and more satisfying reprise of the story.
It opens with this title card: “All animals in this production were trained with care and concern for their safety and well-being. Scenes which appear to be harmful to them were simulated.” Why? Because the animal choreography and editing are so convincing, a number of scenes are hard to watch.
“White Fang” begins with wolves chasing and attacking a rabbit. There’s no blood and the camera is in exactly the right place, so we don’t see the fuzzy little fella get devoured. We still see the intensity in the eyes of the wolves and the shot of the rabbit leg that is carried back to the wolf’s lair.
In short, this won’t traumatize your kids the way “Old Yeller” did, but it’s tougher than “The Call of the Wild.” The PG-rating is just-right. It’s not “The Revenant” but, for a family-friendly movie, the violence is jolting and impactful in a manner that honors the material.
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Is this a faithful adaptation to the London novel? Not entirely, and for the same reason last year’s “The Call of the Wild” also softened the source material. London’s tough survivalist tales don’t hesitate to portray not just the hardships of humans living in extreme conditions, but the daily abuse and horrors animals (namely wolves and dogs) also endure.
London is hard to pull off on screen. Either you go all in and honestly depict the cruelties of nature, man’s sometimes vicious treatment towards animals and how daily survival is sometimes a matter or random luck, or you hedge your bets. Here, Kleiser finds a way to make this gritty, even harrowing in moments, but not so awash in cruelty that you can’t watch the screen.
The “Golden Staircase” scene that comes early, in which Jack must ascend a massive, snowy hill alongside hundreds of others, is another indication this is a special film; with countless extras involved, all scaling a snowy path straight up, it’s a brief bit but a touch that suggests a nod to David Lean in scale.
The production notes say the grown-up version of White Fang is played by Jed, the same dog who was so memorable in John Carpenter’s “The Thing” and (yet another terrific live-action Disney drama) “The Journey of Natty Gann.” Jed, who passed away in 1995 at the age of 18, has his own IMDB page and was a timber-wolf/Malamute hybrid.
FAST FACT: Hawke later credited Jed, his “co-star” in “White Fang,” as inspiring his acting choices and serving as one of his favorite colleagues.
Cinema historians should also note that Jed has a memorable sequence with Bart the Bear, who appeared in everything from “The Bear,” “The Edge,” “The Great Outdoors,” and “12 Monkeys.” Typical of these types of Disney nature films, the animal performances are as convincing as the humans.
A young Hawke made this post-“Dead Poets Society” and the same year he was the lead in the ill-fated comedy/thriller, “Mystery Date.” He fared better here, as Hawke is extremely likable and works well with his seasoned [and human] co-stars, Brandeur, Cassell and James Remar.
Jack’s ascent into the wilderness and the hardships of a wolf cub eventually coalesce, with a moving scene where the two are able to reconcile after a harrowing rescue. Hawke slowly pets Jed, the camera goes for close-ups and Basil Pouledouris’ great score kicks in.
Yes, it’s manipulative but it feels earned, because the prior scenes of White Fang being tortured into becoming a dog fight competitor are so harrowing. Again, this is rated PG but still effective at portraying both man’s ability at either empathy or cruelty towards animals, which is why you might want to watch it first before you throw this on for the young ones.
Another great, funny scene involves the elaborate manner in which a corpse is hurled out of a coffin and is launched down a hill. As live action Disney adventures go, this is more grown up than most and among the best. The scenes of the wolf cub growing up have the expected cute close-ups but watching the cub discover and eventually leave his mother’s body is heartbreaking.
Kleiser has had a fascinating career.
After the blockbuster success of directing “Grease” (the top grossing film of 1978) and helming the infamous hit “The Blue Lagoon,” his career was full of minor hit and misses. In 1986, he made “Flight of the Navigator” which, like “White Fang,” is among the best live-action Disney films.
Looking at “White Fang” today, it’s hard to imagine that the Walt Disney Company would make a film that, while certainly sentimental and feel-good overall, has so many harsh and intense scenes.
We should be grateful, actually, since this is not only an edgy gem from a company famous for playing it safe but one of the stronger London adaptations to date.