White Fang Revisited

(Welcome to Out of the Disney Vault, where we explore the unsung gems and forgotten disasters currently streaming on Disney+.)

Walt Disney was famously not a cat person, which is as important to note as the fact that he liked dogs. Think of how cats are portrayed in some of the films released by his animation studio. Think of the sneaky Siamese cats in Lady and the Tramp; even if they weren’t racist by literal design, they’re cruel to our heroic Lady and try to destroy the house while pinning the crime on her. Or think of the cat owned by Cinderella’s stepmother. You know, the cat literally named Lucifer. Disney: not a cat person.

Thus, once the era of Disney live-action films dawned, one of the natural types of stories to tell would be between man and his true best friend, the dog. (It’s a heartbreaking movie, but Old Yeller remains one of the most memorable Disney live-action films they ever released.) Even years after Walt Disney died, this basic concept would lead to plenty of live-action films. Just recently, the streaming service Disney+ released another man-and-dog movie, Togo, in which a gruff man living in Alaska learns to embrace a particularly ornery Siberian husky. That film, both in its setting and its depiction of the burgeoning friendship between one man (played by an overqualified lead actor) and one dog, feels like it owes a debt to another such Disney film: the 1991 drama White Fang.

The Pitch

It’s about a boy and the half-wolf, half-dog who becomes his best friend. That is the simplest way to boil down what White Fang is about. You may recognize the title, and that’s because it’s also the name of the Jack London novel. (I haven’t read the book, but a more-than-cursory glance at the book’s plot summary online implies that the film is telling a very different story.) The allure of Jack London isn’t new, either. This past February, 20th Century Pictures, through Disney, released The Call of the Wild, the umpteenth adaptation of the Jack London story, this one starring Harrison Ford, Dan Stevens, and Karen Gillan. 

White Fang, unlike the new Call of the Wild, isn’t a CG-heavy extravaganza. That new film replaces a real dog with a CG one precisely because the derring-do involved in its storytelling would have been either impossible or too risky to include with a real dog. (Not that it mattered for the film’s mild box-office prospects.) White Fang, conversely, begins with a title card in which it’s made clear that whatever we’re about to see has been done humanely. It’s rare to see this kind of warning — and it’s well beyond the typical American Humane Association end-credits language usually appearing in a film featuring animals. But that just speaks to the typical intensity and machismo that’s reflective of London’s work. 

The real selling point for some audiences may be the lead human actor: Ethan Hawke. The Academy Award-nominated actor has remained a largely independent spirit, eschewing appearances in Marvel Cinematic Universe movies or other big franchise hits. (The closest he’s come is his starring role in the first Purge movie.) But in 1991, Hawke was still a very new actor, with only a couple credits — including Dead Poets Society — to his name. And a movie with a dog.

The Movie

White Fang feels like a relic of an older generation, and I mean that in the best possible way. Arriving the same year as one of the very best Disney films ever, The Rocketeer, White Fang feels much in line with that film, in that it’s not really interested in pandering to a presumed audience of kids. Hawke plays Jack Conroy, a young man who arrives in Alaska near the turn of the 20th century. This is, of course, the peak of the Klondike Gold Rush, and Jack believes that a fortune in gold is awaiting him, courtesy of his late father. After being waylaid by a selfish, venal trader (James Remar), Jack pairs up with Alex Larson, a friend of his father’s played by Academy Award nominee Klaus Maria Brandauer. Through a few different complications, Alex and Jack end up becoming the makeshift caretakers for a wolf cub who turns out to be half-wolf, half-dog that a local Native American dubs White Fang based on the color of his teeth.

The film version of White Fang is partly odd because it’s never entirely clear who the lead character is. The decision to adapt the story without really sticking to the plot London came up with speaks to how the book isn’t entirely that easy to adapt. One of the book’s villains, the wonderfully named Beauty Smith, is still present here — that would be the character played by Remar, whose oily nastiness is too good to be wasted in just one scene at the start. But Hawke and Brandauer have the most screen time in the film, by far (though White Fang was released at a truly magical time in cinema history, when Ethan Hawke would be second-billed behind Klaus Maria Brandauer, a few years after his turn in Robert Redford’s Out of Africa). White Fang himself only shows up after a certain point in the story, and often feels like a secondary character as the two humans try to strike it rich.

If there’s a problem, it’s that: White Fang isn’t exactly the main character of the movie named after him. The Call of the Wild, very much a literary sibling to White Fang, is much more able to focus its creative targets on Buck, the dog who shuttles through a few different owners, some nicer than others. With White Fang, though, the first chunk of the film is so much about Jack and Alex that their eventual introduction to the eponymous dog feels less necessary and more obligatory. 

It’s not that the human-focused story is overly dull — Hawke, even as a fresh-faced youth, had enough innate charisma that it’s clear why he became one of the biggest stars of Generation X. But director Randal Kleiser (who’s best known as the director of Grease, a far cry from this austere drama) isn’t enough of a flashy or distinctive filmmaker that the dramatic stakes ever feel truly exciting. Even a literal dogfight that Beauty Smith engineers between White Fang and another nasty pup doesn’t have any serious or visceral intensity, likely no doubt because there’s only so much fighting you can show with two live-action dogs trying to attack each other.

Kleiser, too, can be seen as the chief reason why the film’s pacing is often quite sluggish. White Fang clocks in at only 107 minutes, but often moves with the sense that it’s a ponderous, 4-hour epic. Hawke and Brandauer acquit themselves well enough. Remar is the most consistent live wire in the film, delivering the film’s best performance. (The only other actor who comes close in terms of matching Remar’s energy is Seymour Cassel, as an Old West-style bearded prospector who sadly exits the story early when his character is killed off-screen in a wolf attack.) It’s a decent enough movie, and absolutely the kind of exploration of the natural world that would be wonderful to watch again on the big screen. But White Fang only gets halfway there to being truly wonderful.

The Legacy

The easiest possible way to distill the legacy of White Fang is that the second original feature film from the Disney+ streaming service feels like an ode to the 1991 drama. Togo isn’t what I would’ve guessed to be one of Disney+’s early original titles. When they released the Lady and the Tramp remake, it felt in keeping with how Disney is prioritizing live-action/CGI remakes of its animated films. But Togo, with its A-List lead actor (Willem Dafoe may not be the biggest, most recognizable celebrity, but he lends just about any project an air of legitimacy), went in a slightly different direction. I wrote about that film in December, and it, too, is a perfectly decent little Alaskan drama about a man and his dog, largely improved only because…well, Willem Dafoe doesn’t phone it in.

White Fang did lead to a sequel in 1994, White Fang 2: Myth of the White Wolf, directed by Ken Olin and starring Scott Bairstow. Hawke, it should be noted, does appear in White Fang 2, very briefly to literally hand off White Fang to the new lead character. (Fun fact: Ethan Hawke’s big leap into mature Gen-X fare was Reality Bites, which was released in February of 1994. White Fang 2 was released in April of 1994. That hand-off cameo likely felt as if it was Hawke moving fully beyond immature stuff.) That the original White Fang inspired a sequel, let alone a theatrical one, is a little surprising: the 1991 film was released in January, grossing a respectable but not remarkable $34 million off a $14 million budget. 

White Fang doesn’t attempt to clarify what it is about the connection between a man and his dog that seems to supersede those of man and woman or man and child. It’s just yet another film that highlights how special this bond can be, beyond words. Here’s the true thought experiment: if Ethan Hawke had not grown up to be…you know, Ethan Hawke, would we still be talking about this movie? It may well have found new life on Disney+, but would it be one of the first titles listed as a Nostalgic Movie on the streaming service if he weren’t so well-known and respected? In 1991, Hawke was still a young pup (I’m not sorry), but now, he’s becoming something of an elder statesman of indie films, thus ensuring that Disney can highlight his work whenever they get the chance. It helps that his one big foray with Disney is one of their hallmarks of live-action filmmaking.

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