Charles Martin Smith plays a scientist/researcher who ventures to the Arctic hinterlands to study Arctic wolves in order to determine if they’re the reason behind the thinning of the caribou (reindeer) herd in the region. Brian Dennehy (one of the greatest actors to have never been nominated for an Oscar) has an excellent cameo as a seaplane pilot.
An unusually adult offering from Disney, this 1983 somewhat fictionalised true story from director Carroll Ballard (slightly similar fare like “The Black Stallion”, “Wind”, “Fly Away Home”, and “Duma”) is one of the better films of its type. A pitch-perfect Charles Martin Smith has the role of his career and doesn’t disappoint as the nerdy biologist studying wolves for six months in the Arctic hinterlands. He’s pretty much the only human being on camera for the bulk of the film, so if you cast the wrong actor the film would be a disaster. Smith is perfect casting playing a guy who falls into an ice-hole 30 minutes into the film, making one worry that he’s way out of his depth. This isn’t a comedy, but Smith seems so unlikely as an outdoorsman (which is kind of the point), that some of his exploits here can’t help but be extremely funny. I do question the idea of this guy being all alone for the majority of his stay, that seems to stretch credibility a bit, but if it’s true to the real-life story, fair enough.
Like with the later “Gorillas in the Mist”, you wouldn’t think that watching a guy observe animals would be interesting, but it is. The solitude and terrible weather conditions are very well conveyed early on…and then the wolf pack turns up. 20 minutes in. Oh boy. So the director clearly knows how to get off the ground running, whilst also knowing how to capture some incredible imagery. Or perhaps I should credit cinematographer Hiro Narita (“The Rocketeer”, “Gunmen”), who probably had the easiest job in the world with that amazing scenery (The film was mostly shot in Canada). I know people often say that voice-over narration in films is lazy (and it is), but here it makes sense. This guy’s all alone for much of the film, and since he’s not really going to be talking to himself out loud a whole lot, you need something, hence the voiceover. However, I must say that I wasn’t entirely enamoured with the rather preachy (and slightly silly) conclusion, which doesn’t really seem to belong. I also have to say that the synth score by Mark Isham (“The Hitcher”) isn’t really one of his finest moments, which is a shame.
If you like films of this sort, this is probably one of the best of its kind. It looks great, Charles Martin Smith is ideal, and it’s actually really interesting. It starts better than it finishes, but otherwise this is a winner. The screenplay is by Curtis Hanson (director of “The River Wild” and “L.A. Confidential”), Sam Hamm (“Batman Returns”), and Richard Kletter (whose subsequent work has been entirely for TV), based on the memoir by Farley Mowat.