Monday, November 14, 2011

I'd Love To Turn You On - At The Movies #26 - Never Cry Wolf (dir. Carroll Ballard, 1983)

I was surprised when I watched Never Cry Wolf recently and noticed for the first time that it’s a Disney film. I’ve always thought of it as an art film. Based on a memoir by Farley Mowat, it follows the adventures of a Canadian biologist named Tyler who is sent to the Arctic to study wolves and find out whether or not they’re killing off herds of caribou. On the journey north, he begins to realize the magnitude of what he’s about to do – live alone for an entire summer in a harsh wilderness, hundreds of miles from civilization – and he calms his nerves with a local beverage called “Moose Juice” – half beer, half pure grain alcohol. He grows so fond of this elixir that he buys cases and cases of it to take with him. When it comes time to take off for the final leg of the journey though, the beer combined with his mountain of supplies weighs down the two-seat prop plane, and the pilot starts chucking supplies indiscriminately—science equipment, food, toilet paper and god knows what else. He’s dropped off on a frozen lake in the middle of vast valley. He looks around, tries to light his pipe, and ponders what to do next. “The possibilities,” he thinks to himself, “are many.”
Indeed they are. He almost dies in several harrowing scenes before he starts to get a knack for the place and not only survives but becomes quite close to the wolves, even going so far as to adopt some of their traits by eating mice, howling and marking his territory by drinking a bunch of Moose Juice and pissing on every rock within a 100-yard radius. There’s also a compelling narrative thread of his interactions with Inuit natives that gives the film a satisfying layer of complexity. The storytelling is top notch throughout, with sparse and smart dialogue and voice-over narration to delicately move the plot along. But the real star here is the photography. Never Cry Wolf is filled from credit to credit with gorgeous shots of the Arctic wilds. The light up there has a thin, blue quality that’s unlike the light I’ve seen in any other film, and the director (Carroll Ballard) often pulls way back to show Tyler dwarfed by his immense and desolate surroundings, shots that carry as much thematic weight as aesthetic. Even better than the landscape shots, though, are those of the wolves. The movie really gives the feel of living with them, and they’re beautiful, fascinating creatures, with a complex social order. The best subplots in the film are the completely wordless scenes in which the wolves slowly accept Tyler into their society, and he not only comes to understand that they’re not a violent threat, he comes to love them. It’s like watching the earliest stages of humans’ relationship with dogs, and it’s very touching. But it’s never overbearing and sentimental, so it holds up to repeated viewings better, I think, than many of its siblings in the Disney family—so much so that it’s hard to believe at times that actually is a Disney film.  
 - Joe Miller

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