White Fang (1991)
★★★ / ★★★★
Scott Conroy’s son, Jack (Ethan Hawke), goes to Alaska during the Gold Rush to look for a man named Alex Larson (Klaus Maria Brandauer) to ask if he can lead the way to his father’s claim. Alex is reluctant to take the young man, but his friend, Skunker (Seymour Cassel), is immediately taken with Jack because he resembles his father so much: To refuse the boy’s wishes is almost tantamount to declining a favor for their friend who had passed away too soon. With a dead body in tow, which is to be buried in a special spot, the three traverse toward a town relatively close to Scott’s mine. Meanwhile, hungry wolves spot the dogs that help carry the trio’s belongings.
Based on a novel by Jack London, “White Fang” is an equal conflation of a survival story in the harsh wilderness and friendship between man and beast. It is sensitive but never sentimental, a rousing adventure story that is in touch with the majesty of nature.
While the snowy terrain is not particularly impressive, the picture comes alive when the wolf-dog cub finally makes an appearance. As White Fang explores his environment for the first time, it is as though the filmmakers are putting us in the youngling’s eyes as it experiences the magic of natural wonders for the first time, from a cavern covered with scintillating ice to fish stuck in muddy waters desperately attempting to escape from being eaten by the cub. The tender, childlike moments provide a wonderful contrast against dark and genuinely scary moments like when a ravenous pack of wolves realize that their prey are vulnerable and slowly begin to close in on Jack, Alex, and Skunker.
The friendship between White Fang and Jack does not feel hackneyed because they spend the majority of the time apart. Although they meet when the wolf-dog is still small, it is not until later on when White Fang is hardened by his owners (Pius Savage, James Remar) that their bond begins to have life, complexity, and depth.
The material poses interesting questions such as whether learned cues and motor responses, like a man picking up a stick and the animal going into a fit of rage, can be unlearned. If so, as to what extent can such responses be unlearned? Will it be temporary? Is it person-specific? I do not know much about wolf-dog behavior and intelligence, but I appreciated that the film is able to answer its questions with clarity. Because it gives us a chance to understand what is happening and why, it feels like we are growing alongside Jack and White Fang.
Furthermore, I enjoyed that the passage of time almost feels seamless. There is audacity in scenes that are really short. Whenever the point is made, it is onto the next scene. I felt as though my time is being valued and not enough movies bother to communicate that.
Directed by Randall Kleiser, “White Fang” can appeal to both children and adults. While there are some disturbing scenes like a dead body being pushed out of a coffin and violent dogfights where dogs eventually lie lifeless on the ground, I believe that kids and adults, especially those who love pets, will ultimately appreciate the theme of a person loving and caring for another non-human being. It is entertaining not because the material is cute and sugary but because there is honesty behind the plot devices.