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White Fang DVD Review

White Fang (1991) movie poster - click to buy White Fang

Theatrical Release: January 18, 1991 / Running Time: 109 Minutes / Rating: PG

Director: Randal Kleiser

Cast: Klaus Maria Brandauer (Alex Larson), Ethan Hawke (Jack Conroy), Seymour Cassel (Skunker), James Remar (Beauty Smith), Susan Hogan (Belinda Casey), Suzanne Kent (Heather), Bill Moseley (Luke), Pius Savage (Grey Beaver), Jed (White Fang)

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Based very loosely on the Jack London novel of the same name, Disney's 1991 live-action drama White Fang tells a story of two orphans.
The human of those, Jack Conroy (played by Ethan Hawke), is an eager young man who ventures to northwest Canada's Yukon Territory to lay claim to the mine of his recently-deceased father. Like many of the folks along the Klondike River just before the turn of the 20th century, Jack is looking to find wealth in what would become known as the last great gold rush.

Jack's journeys take him to his father's old partners: the moody foreigner Alex Larson (top-billed Austrian actor Klaus Maria Brandauer) and the amiable but wild Skunker (Seymour Cassel). Ringleader Alex reluctantly agrees to let Jack accompany them as they travel to bury another late ally. 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 hybrid wolf-dog who comes to be adopted by Han Indians and named Mia Tuk, translated "White Fang."

In "White Fang", Ethan Hawke, 19 years old during production, stars as Jack Conroy, a young American man at the Klondike Gold Rush. Part-dog, part-wolf, part-wild, part-companion, orphaned Mia Tuk (White Fang, played by Jed) is a mixture of things.

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 furthers Jack's already-present admiration for the fierce but striking canine. 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/suspense a bit more than needed, but this may be its only method of catering to its family film classification.

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, his relocation to a nearby harbor town brings a far worse fate. His new owners -- an opportunistic band of hoodlums led by a shamelessly evil fellow named Beauty (James Remar) -- transform him into a savage warrior in illicit to-the-death dogfights that allow them to prosper.

White Fang is a sweet, understated movie. As the best-known of six feature 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 plenty 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.

Skunker (Seymour Cassel) and Alex (Klaus Maria Brandauer) 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. Beauty (James Remar, right) and his lackeys (including Bill Moseley, left) train White Fang to hate so he can win vicious dogfights and earn money for his opportunistic new owners.

Dialogue is used sparingly and always serves the film and its characters. Director Randal Kleiser (Grease, Flight of the Navigator) brings a steady hand to the proceedings, which never wander into sentimentality. Even the semi-clear parallels between Jack and the dog 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 the recently-deceased Basil Poledouris. The affable Ethan Hawke proves competent in a role that transitioned him from child actor to young leading man, a position he's somewhat faded from in recent years. Meanwhile, Seymour Cassel is very memorable in his limited screen time.

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 '80s Disney. The young decade in which it reached theaters would unwind with the occasional straight-faced drama (A Far Off Place, Squanto: A Warrior's Tale, Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book) but more often wacky, kid-minded comedies. There are shades of earlier creature features, the types that Walt would release in the 1960s and his successors in the 1970s. The sensibilities of this film were more directly reprised for last year's sleeper hit, Eight Below. Though not humorless, White Fang definitely merits a PG rating, with several intense action sequences that yield disclaimers both at the beginning and end vouching for the filmmakers' humane treatment of animal actors. Not to mention, there is a scary blue corpse.

Buy White Fang on DVD from Amazon.com DVD Details

1.33:1 Reformatted Fullscreen,
Dolby Surround 2.0 (English, Spanish)
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
Closed Captioned
Release Date: April 23, 2002
Single-sided, single-layered disc (DVD-5)
Suggested Retail Price: $14.99
(Reduced from $19.99)
White Keepcase

VIDEO and AUDIO

Though treated to a 16x9-enhanced transfer for DVD release overseas, White Fang is relegated to a 1.33:1 fullscreen presentation in its homeland, 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 so hot. 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 too 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.

BONUS FEATURES and MENUS

There's nary a bonus feature to be found here, not even a sympathy stretch like a set of promos for the studio's other DVDs. The 4x3 menus are as basic as possible, with the still, silent screens featuring wintry imagery from the film.

Alex says goodbye to his lady friend Belinda (Susan Hogan) and readers as he prepares to sail off with Jack. For having his forearm inside of a dog's mouth (a dog whose name includes "Fang", no less), Ethan Hawke seems pretty serene.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

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 White Fang does. Though not excellent, this period drama succeeds in evoking sympathy for and interest in its compelling human and canine leads. While it's sure to be 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.

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.

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Related Reviews:
White Fang 2: Myth of the White Wolf (1994) Eight Below (2006) Iron Will (1994) Snow Dogs (2002)
Flight of the Navigator (1986) Wild Hearts Can't Be Broken (1991) Dinosaurs: Seasons 1 & 2 (1991-92)
Newsies (1992) Beauty and the Beast (1991) The Rocketeer (1991) The Mighty Ducks (1992)
Dead Poets Society: Special Edition (1989) Home Improvement: The Complete First Season (1991-92)
The Journey of Natty Gann (1985) Third Man on the Mountain (1959) Cheetah (1989) Never Cry Wolf (1983)
Benji the Hunted (1987) Disney DVD Game World: Disney Dogs Edition Napoleon and Samantha (1972)

Reviewed April 5, 2007.