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Never Cry Wolf - Disney DVD Review

Never Cry Wolf

Theatrical Release: October 14, 1983 / Running Time: 105 Minutes / Rating: PG

Director: Carroll Ballard

Cast: Charles Martin Smith (Tyler), Brian Dennehy (Rosie Little), Zachary Ittimangnaq (Ootek), Samson Jorah (Mike), Hugh Webster (Drunk), Martha Ittimangnaq (Woman)


In the early 1980s, the Walt Disney studio was trying to find its audience and trying to redetermine what "Walt Disney Pictures" meant. Departing from the squeaky clean comedies that they had put out in the fifteen years after Walt's death, Disney ventured experimentally into the domain of PG-rated fare.

In the first five years of the '80s, you had some unusual elements in Disney films: horror, 'melon' jokes, nudity, the devil. You also had a compelling offering of dramas and suspense films unlike anything Disney had put out in the past. If Disney's experimentation with darker and more stirring productions ultimately lead us to their 1984 development of the Touchstone branch to release films that weren't always so child-friendly, the period from 1979 (with the release of The Black Hole) through shortly after the release of Splash (launching the new division) produced a most interesting collection of atypical Disney films.

Not all of the films in this period were great, and hardly a single one drew major audiences at the box office. But after mostly adhering to a winning formula for over two decades, Disney's efforts to remain relevant to modern audiences makes for a fascinating period in the studio's history and gave us some unusual, but highly affecting output.

Never Cry Wolf, released in the fall of 1983, falls under this heading of PG-rated Disney oddities. This drama, which was highly praised by many critics, is not overwhelmingly dark or risque, but it does not pander to young or undiscerning viewers and its depiction of wildlife remains reverential and even spiritual, not cutesy.

Tyler is dropped off somewhere in the Arctic all alone. Never cry, wolf!

Arctic wolves are the wildlife on display here, as written and lived by Farley Mowat. Mowat accepted a position from the Canadian government to investigate if the arctic region's drastic decline in caribou could be attributed to wolves eating them. It's a strange job to volunteer for - agreeing to spend six months all alone in the extreme Arctic environment in order to observe wild animals - but that is where our protagonist finds himself.

Portraying Mowat is Charles Martin Smith, whose two previous outings with Disney had been forgettable roles in No Deposit, No Return and the wacky Herbie Goes Bananas. Here, Smith has a sincerity to him that makes his character credible and allows this individual to carry the film. He doesn't have the starpower or acting talent of Tom Hanks, and yet with only the mystical Arctic scenery, he does an excellent job at holding together a compelling story mostly by himself.

In the first half of the film, the vast Arctic landscape is explored in a way that's unusual for most narrative films. Stream-of-consciousness narration provides the only dialogue of these segments, and is a prominent feature of the film, one which required three writers (including Smith) in addition to the three who penned the screenplay. With exhilarating cinematic vistas and a complete submission to nature's way, the film easily immerses the viewer in Mowat's arctic journey.

Certain elements called to mind some of the better films in recent years -- Cast Away in its depiction of vast isolation and Memento with its matter-of-fact voiceover narration. The parallels to modern cinema shows that more than twenty years after being made, Never Cry Wolf does not feel dated at all.

Not a single luxury. Brian Dennehy gives one thumb up!

Farley, or Tyler, as he's called in the film, begins to relate to the wolves in subtle but increasingly noticeable ways. With no other contact out in the wild, he develops a strong bond to the canis lupis, and finds himself infused with a happy wonder from the observations of his surroundings.

Once a native turned up, I feared the mystical, wise old man stereotype coming into play - and fortunately, it didn't settle for that. The character of Ootek mostly just flashes a big grin (illustrating the lack of dentistry in the wild) and an all-knowing headshake, in spite of the fact that he doesn't know English. Later on, Ootek's adopted son Mike, who does speak English, comes by and the two settle in with Tyler. With his knowledge of civilized society, Mike represents a bridge between the world Tyler is in and the one he left behind. Mike's view of wolves as a source of money through hunting, for instances, poses a threatening contrast to the natural world's distinct harmony that Tyler has been growing fond of.

Before reaching its semi-satisfying conclusion, there are some challenging sequences to get through. In the first, Tyler begins cooking and eating mice to see if the wolves could live on such a diet. These scenes are countered with the second half of the film's surprising amount of nudity, which semi-gratuitously showcase Charles Martin Smith's rear and more, on several occasions.

Mmmmm. Mouse, it's what's for dinner. Ootek glows in the light of a fire!

In its final half-hour, the film unconvicingly resorts to a formulaic device and plots its protagonist against the civilized world. Brian Dennehy plays a crazed pilot who attempts to cure boredom with mid-air oil changes. When his character resurfaces near the end of the film, he is excessively obnoxious and suddenly racist and anti-environment. True, this may just be the distortion of a researcher who's been alone in the arctic encountering just two other humans and a variety of wild animals. But these elements feel out of place, even if they contribute to an effectively bittersweet resolution.

Never Cry Wolf is an odd movie, which wins you over with magnetically engaging atmosphere. Though some would classify these parts of the film as 'slow' or 'boring', Never Cry Wolf really works best when the lead is dropped in the Canadian wilderness and tries to adapt. In these sequences, director Carroll Ballard brings the same keen eye for visual appeal and natural drama that made his previous film, The Black Stallion, so compelling. There's a deceptive simplicity to the film: the final product came after an unusually long shooting and editing period required to capture the different seasons.

The plot elements that come to fruition in the last half-hour do not resonate as strongly. Sometimes, atmosphere can be more effective than plot, and this film is the perfect example.

Buy Never Cry Wolf from Amazon.com DVD Details

1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Dolby Digital 5.1 (English, French),
Dolby Surround (Spanish)
Subtitles: English, French
Closed Captioned
Release Date: September 7, 2004
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (DVD-9)
Suggested Retail Price: $19.99
Black Keepcase

VIDEO and AUDIO

Never Cry Wolf is presented in its 1.85:1 original theatrical aspect ratio and has been enhanced for 16x9 televisions. While the print is not entirely free from flaw, it looks pretty good for the most part. Some shots, especially in the early winter sequences, are quite plagued by scratches and artifacts. In these early sequences, long-distance shots display a grainy inconsistency that doesn't match the generally clean and good-looking close-ups. Once warmer weather comes along, the print exhibits far less wear and tear. Even in spite of a few problems, this transfer blows away the previous Anchor Bay DVD release. Compared to that discontinued disc, there seems to be greater detail, better sharpness and vibrancy, and more accurate colors in Disney's transfer.

Somewhat surprisingly, the film is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1. The remix is pleasantly potent in conveying atmospheric sound effects and Mark Isham's haunting score. As atmosphere is such a major part of the film, it's quite beneficial that the sound serves to heighten the drama. This track very strongly presents the Oscar-nominated sound mix. Like the film itself, the track (and the score) often relies upon subtlety rather than overactive noises.

The film relies on interesting photography. And photogenic wolves, too.

EXTRAS

There is a disappointing complete lack of bonus features here, as a promo for recent live action films on DVD is the only thing besides the film. It's disheartening that there is nothing to offer insight into this film's unusually long production, especially considering that a making-of special once aired on TV. Even a simple trailer, which Disney had been including on many recent catalogue titles, would have been appreciated.

The very basic 16x9 menus feature selections from the film's haunting score. Meanwhile, the cover features a poor colorization of Never Cry Wolf's original greyscale poster artwork. The DVD is housed in a black keepcase, which apparently puts the film in a more adult class of Disney DVDs like The Black Hole and Something Wicked This Way Comes.

Vast isolation in the arctic. Ootek waves! He thanks you for reading this review. In Inuit, naturally.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Never Cry Wolf is an odd, affecting drama which succeeds at breaking most rules of film narratives. This nicely-photographed film compellingly presents the discoveries one man makes while observing wolves in the Arctic. This lyrical film takes its seemingly obscure subject matter and delivers it in a way that is universally relevant.

Disney's DVD offers minor improvement over the discontinued Anchor Bay release, providing imperfect but better (and now anamorphic) video and a strong 5.1 audio presentation. The absence of bonus features is disappointing, but not surprising, and there was nothing on the Anchor Bay DVD. Upgrading depends on how strongly you feel about the movie, but if you don't already own it, this DVD definitely surpasses the previous one.

More on the DVD / Buy from Amazon.com

The Book: Never Cry Wolf by Farley Mowat

Related Reviews
Never Cry Wolf Anchor Bay DVD

Also Starring Charles Martin Smith:
Herbie Goes Bananas (1980) | No Deposit, No Return (1976)

Reviewed August 27, 2004.

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