White Fang (1991)

Posted by on Dec 19, 2011 in Buddy Movies | 0 comments


Disclaimer: Some scary animal attacks and dog fighting.

White Fang is my first clear memory of an experience that made me realize the power of cinema. I was eight and my brother six when we watched this Disney release with our parents and baby sister. Before that moment, I’d only accrued memories of my own reactions to movies and how they affected me (probably how much they made me laugh or want to be an action hero). But when I saw tears pouring down my brother’s face at the conclusion – a sight I’d grown accustomed to with my mother, but a first with him – my first reaction was to make fun of him, therefore proving my superior manliness. But I knew if I cried during a movie at some point after that, he’d never let me live it down. So I merely took the moment in, alternating gazes between my brother and the screen, wondering if something was wrong with me for not crying.

The movie begins in the winter, as a mama wolf catches a rabbit and takes it back to the den for its cute pup. It’s the 1890s and the gold rush has hit the Yukon. Among the hundreds of prospectors that hope to strike it rich is Jack Conroy (Ethan Hawke, in full poster boy mode). He’s a well-intentioned innocent lost in a cruel world of dog fighters and thieves. He’s a free-spirited orphan who hopes to find his father’s claim – he has a feeling he’ll find loads of gold there. He seeks out Alex Larson (Klaus Maria Brandauer), a veteran prospector and friend of his father’s. Though Alex and his friend Skunker (Seymour Cassel) try to get rid of him, Jack is determined to tag along.

While Jack’s story moves forward, Fang2we occasionally go back to the wolf pup. After he’s orphaned, a kind Indian chief captures him for a work hound and names him White Fang. However a stereotypical villain (James Remar) steals the wolf-dog for illegal dog fights – he spits on the elderly and punches infants, too. That is, until Jack comes in and rescues the scarred fuzz ball. Like so many other boy-and-his-dog stories, their paths as individuals line up perfectly until they meet each other as kindred spirits.

Though it is a Disney movie, don’t be fooled, it’s surprisingly violent. But it pales in comparison to Jack London’s timeless novel. Plus, the exceptional animal actors and clever editing make us think they’re in danger, but never really come to any harm. White Fang is frightening when it needs to be, with several near-fatal experiences including an exciting bear attack, vicious dogfight, and chilling fall through the ice. But like most Disney releases, this one takes time to break up the excitement with cute moments, such as the puppy discovering an ice tunnel, going fishing, and hunting down a mouse. One of the key drawing points to the movie, other than a stellar canine performance by Jed, is beautiful landscape shots in the Alaskan wilderness as mountains tower, the blue sky shines, and snow blankets the vast terrain.

With Never Cry Wolf, White Fang was part of what seemed like a decade-long wolf fascination. As media outlets dispelled the myth that wolves attack humans and made us savvy to their endangered status, it seemed like you couldn’t turn on the tube without hearing something about saving the wolves (I still see the vanity license plates every so often). It was at this specific period of time during my childhood that my brother caught on to the wolf craze, and though he might not say so, I’m willing to bet White Fang had a great deal to do with it. (That and those awesome t-shirts with three wolf profiles on top of a hypercolor-esque tie-dyed background.) My brother was certainly enraptured by the film, and in turn read a few Jack London books. With any luck, he’s not the last.

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