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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Never Cry Wolf
Never Cry Wolf
Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment // PG // September 7, 2004
List Price: $19.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted September 12, 2004 | E-mail the Author
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One of the best films of the 1980s, Disney's Never Cry Wolf (1983) was a real sleeper, the kind of well-reviewed movie discovered mostly on home video in the earliest days of that format, rather than in theaters when it was new. Its story, about a researcher sent deep into the Arctic wilderness to study wolves, and especially its approach, was a lot closer to, say, Dersu Uzala than Charlie the Lonesome Cougar. There had never been a Disney-produced movie like it, and it's hard to imagine any of the major studios making a film like it today.

Charles Martin Smith, up to that point best remembered for his sweetly nerdy "Toad" Fields in American Graffiti (1973) and wasted in two Disney films made in between, stars as Tyler, a pipe-smoking scientist, based on real-life writer-researcher Farley Mowat. Tyler is shipped off to the Arctic to study Canis Lupus Arcticus, the Polar Wolf, to determine whether it's responsible for the near-extinction of the region's caribou.

After a long train journey and a harrowing ride aboard the rickety seaplane owned by jack-of-all-trades Rosie (Brian Dennehy), Tyler is dropped with several crates worth of supplies in the middle of the vast Arctic hinterlands. Initially he's in way over his head, with ridiculously inappropriate supplies (light bulbs, a seemingly endless supply of canned asparagus, and crates of Moosehead Beer). Filled with trepidation, Tyler gets off to a disastrous start but is rescued by an old Inuit, Ootek (Zachary Ittimangnaq).

Eventually, Tyler settles in and begins his six month study by observing of a family of wolves. As he begins to comprehend their behavior he also begins to understand himself. He recognizes his limitations and insignificance in the vastness of nature, but also discovers inner strengths he never knew he had, assets that had lay dormant during his cloistered urban existence.

Never Cry Wolf works on many levels. First, as a pro-environment nature film it is compelling and sometimes humorous. Tyler's research is a mix of little epiphanies and set-backs, all of which are sensibly, logically dramatized. The wolves, as well as the caribou and occasional other animals are depicted as resourceful, magnificent creatures but without the kind of sticky sentiment that often permeates Disney's films. Likewise, Tyler's reactions to everything around him are unusually honest and believable.

Director Carroll Ballard and DP Hiro Narita, among others, do a remarkable job in capturing Tyler's isolation while simultaneously awing viewers with the incredibly beautiful scenery.

Like Akira Kurosawa's Russian film Dersu Uzala (1975) or Susumu Hani's Bwana Toshi (Buwana Toshi no uta, 1966), the gaggle of screenwriters -- Curtis Hanson, Ralph Furmaniak, Sam Hamm, Richard Kletter; and Eugene Corr, Christina Luescher, and Smith (the latter three writing Smith's narration) -- explore the expected fish-out-of-water elements with gentle humor and honest fear without going overboard, coupling it with a respect for the indigenous people's harmony with their universe without being overly reverential. In Never Cry Wolf, Ootek's nobleness is balanced with the pragmatism of adopted son Mike (Samson Jorah), a more "civilized" Eskimo. In other hands Ootek and Mike would have been portrayed in black and white terms, but the picture wisely opts for a matter-of-fact, non-judgmental approach.

Video & Audio

Previously released in 4:3 matted format by Anchor Bay, Disney's Never Cry Wolf is available now in 16:9 anamorphic/1.85:1 format, and an improvement over the previous disc. That said, the film elements are still in less than pristine shape. Some of this appears to be inherent in the original negative as dirt, scratches and other flaws vary from shot-to-shot, but there still clearly is room for improvement. The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix adds greatly to Mark Isham's magnificent, evocative score, though the mix strongly favors music and effects over dialogue, leaving this reviewer constantly fiddling with the volume control. The disc offers French, Spanish, and optional hard-of-hearing English subtitles. Audio tracks in French and Spanish are also included.

Extra Features

Regrettably, there are none, a surprise considering the enduring popularity of this title over almost everything the studio made during this period.

Parting Thoughts

It's really a shame the film wasn't more influential, that it didn't steer Disney in new directions. Never Cry Wolf isn't for very small children, but perfect family entertainment for everyone else.

Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.

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