Jed the dog, Bart the bear, Ethan Hawke, Klaus Maria Brandauer
Boy meets wolf. Boy loses wolf. Boy gets wolf and sics him on villains. We're out of here.
In other words, if you think this movie follows in the admirable tradition of its Disney live-action animal-story predecessors, you're howling up the right tree.
Adapted from a Jack London novel, the film follows the converging fates of Hawke (Dead Poets Society), who arrives in 1890s Alaska looking for his father's gold claim, and of the part-wolf, part-dog White Fang, whose mother dies when he is a cub, leaving him in the wilderness. Brandauer is a prospector who helps Hawke. Jed, an Alaskan malamute-wolf mix, plays the grown-up White Fang, and Bart is a heavy's heavy—a 1,250-lb. grizzly who attacks Hawke.
The screenplay by Jeanne (The Journey of Natty Gann) Rosenberg, Nick (Fire Birds) Thiel and David (Streetwise) Fallon is on the slight side. "All he needs is a little bit of kindness," Hawke says of the pretamed White Fang. The point, though, is the relationship between Hawke and WF. The low-key Brandauer provides a pleasant foil.
Director Randal (Big Top Pee-wee) Kleiser mostly lets animal handler Clint Rowe make White Fang look like a canine for all seasons while cinematographer Tony (Mr. and Mrs. Bridge) Pierce-Roberts sweeps his cameras across the panoramic Alaska locations.
It's all too pat for adults, but they'll enjoy knowing this is a film their children can safely see. It's a movie where even vile bad guys don't get much more than a bonk on the noggin, where loyalty and determination are rewarded, where young hearts and spirits can be safely warmed. (PG)