Truth be told, we haven’t seen much animation from Netflix in their glut of content that they’ve been releasing more of seemingly every single week. But with their new film White Fang, Netflix checks off a ton of boxes by providing an international appeal to a very well-known property, while providing a rather entertaining film.
The following review will be spoiler free.
Directed By: Alexandre Espigares
Written By: Serge Frydman, Phillipe Lioret, Dominique Monfery and Jack London (original source novel)
Language: English, French, and Spanish
Set in the 1890s during the Klondike Gold Rush, the film follows White Fang, the product of both wolf and dog, as he survives the harsh wilderness and the predatory forces within. Told in mostly non-linear fashion, we see White Fang evolve from pup to dog-fighter while witnessing the best and worst of humanity.
Background on the Original Novel and its Previous Adaptations
There have been numerous adaptations of Jack London’s classic story about the courageous wolf-dog hybrid White Fang and his perilous adventures in the Yukon wilderness. You can go back as far 1936 to find the first live-action adaptation of White Fang. Even gore-maestro Lucio Fulci adapted the novel to Italian cinema in 1973 — which unfortunately does not feature a stand-off between a zombie and a tiger shark.
Millennials are probably most familiar with the 1991 live-action Disney adaptation starring a fresh-faced Ethan Hawke. Though the Disney version is by no means faithful, and does unsurprisingly soften much of the original material’s savage content, it’s probably the best of all of them, especially due to the wonderful score by Basil Poledouris and Hans Zimmer which works brilliantly alongside the Alaskan landscape. It eventually garnered a decent straight-to-VHS sequel with White Fang 2: The Legend of the White Wolf.
There was even a 25 episode television series in 1992 which featured an appearance by a young Karl Urban — I’m sure I’m not the only one waiting for that Judge Dredd TV show?
Though none of them were particularly faithful to the original source material, the animation adaptations fared much worse. On the surface, animation seems like the perfect form to adapt Jack London’s story, since you aren’t limited in your portrayal of wild animals and the savagery inherent to their lifestyle, but none of them dared to even come close to the spirit of the original novel. Though many might be nostalgic to the Canadian television series in 1992, The Legend of the White Fang, most of them bear little resemblance to Jack London’s original story. Since the animation adaptations were modeled for young children, the harsh conditions portrayed in the book were severely neutered.
And while Teddy Roosevelt might fiercely disagree, having famously cited White Fang as exemplary to the ‘Nature Fakers Controversy’, which was about the growing concern of nature-writing becoming too romantic, White Fang is supposed to stay true to the merciless soul of nature, the endless battle of dominion between predator and prey.
Just like The Call of the Wild, White Fang is not supposed to be a cuddly adventure story, something that should be exploited by the Disney machine — though that has rarely stopped them before. It’s not supposed to be about cute furry animals singing songs, it’s supposed to be a brutal, allegorical tale of survival. It takes place in the real world, in the world beyond human civilization. In a place filled with forces seeking your annihilation, from natural predators to climate changes. It’s set in a world of sudden death and broken hearts. A place with the occasional little respite, one sweet moment of tenderness, until the inevitable return of reality.
Background on the New Adaptation
At Sundance this year, a new animated adaptation of White Fang debuted to the screen. Directed by Alexandere Espigares, who received an Oscar for his animated short Mr. Hublot, the film was warmly received. It garnered an early 28th March theatrical release date in France but the rest of the world had to wait for Netflix to release it on July 6th. The big question being that regardless of its warm reception at Sundance, does the film hold up in comparison to previous adaptations? Is it a good or faithful adaptation of the novel? Will it stand out among the endless barrage of 3D animation films?
The Really Good
While it does not even come close to the necessary brutality of the source material, it does offer far more grit than any adaptation before. It’s still wholesome viewing for the whole family but there’s the occasional feeling of uneasiness, this notion that death and misery is always lurking somewhere. The beautiful animated landscape of Yukon is filled with all manner of danger, whether hunger or predator and the natural evils of man.
It’s especially successful in the early scenes of White Fang’s puppy childhood, as his mother named Kiche, is alone to fend for him. These scenes contain the film’s biggest strength, as we have long scenes without any dialog, with the mother and pup communicating through barks and whimpers. There’s the playfulness of the pup accompanied with the anxiety of the mother, who knows there are desperate forces out there who would mercilessly murder the innocent to survive.
While it does have the occasional adorable moment, which seems to be specifically manufactured for dog-lovers, the film mostly stays true to evolutionary psychology of wolves and dogs — or their hybrids — which was essential to Jack London’s original intent. They aren’t overly humanized, they have the need to establish dominance in packs. They growl furiously when faced with potential threats, they kill small animals without hesitation — though in one scene, White Fang gets domesticated ridiculously quick.
It’s because there’s more grit to this adaptation that some of the tender moments work better. It never reverts into embarrassing schmaltz, the emotional moments feel earned. Though the animation is severely uneven — more on that later — the environment is however beautifully rendered. The animation at times, at its most beautiful, has this air of nostalgia to it, almost like you’re watching these old oil paintings come to life before.
The cinematography is excellent, though it suffers in the more colorful scenes, when the budgetary constrains really start to show — the budget was $12 million which is still impressive considering what they achieved. But the scenes set at night are appropriately atmospheric, even veering into the ominous such as the moment when a pack of predatory wolves are chasing the mother through the woods, their eyes beaming like shadowy demons.
There are few wonderful subtle moments in the animation, especially between Kiche and White Fang. There’s a great moment when Kiche realizes that her pup is dangerously close to a predator and you can see that gleam of worry in her eyes. A later moment includes a particularly touching scene where the mother realizes she needs to let White Fang go and when she looks back, realizing that it might be the last time she’ll ever see him, you do feel the sadness and harshness of their existence. Togetherness is something that can not be guaranteed in their world. To ensure the survival of her pup, she is forced to make the most painful decisions. It’s moments like these that really elevate the film from being just another forgettable animation film.
Best of all, and this becomes the film’s ultimate saving grace, the film succeeds in making White Fang a fully fleshed-out character without the need to overly humanize him. White Fang retains his animalistic nature and his more civilized traits, however quickly learned, do have a genuine sense of pathos to them — it helps that the film takes place in an uncertain amount of years which makes his growth seem believable.
It’s admirable that the film mostly focuses on White Fang and less on the human characters — unlike the live-action 1991 film. But the human characters are on screen a lot and when they are, the budgetary constraints are sometimes painfully obvious. While the animal characters lack some pertinent details too, like we never see their fur billow in the wind, the lack of facial details make the human characters seem wooden.
Perhaps it might not be fair comparing it with the likes of Pixar, which has billions of money to spend on these tiny details, but it does distract the viewer throughout the movie. They almost resemble like characters from Telltale video games. They never seem to emote enough facial expressions to make them fully believable. One wishes they would have had a bigger budget to iron out these flaws — though I’m well aware with how much hard work is involved in just getting these results.
Not only that, the writing of these characters leave much to be desired too. The characters are either good or evil, nothing in between. It would have been nice to have a little more nuance to them, to understand some of their desperation. Considering the time it was set in, it couldn’t have been too hard to make the viewer sympathize, if only just a little, with the antagonists of this story, since they are trapped in a world where you have to get what you can because otherwise you might starve.
The worst character is the villain Beauty Smith (voiced perfectly however by Paul Giamatti), a con man who arranges dogfights, who sees quite some potential in White Fang. When White Fang escapes him, he goes to such ridiculous length to retrieve him, that he just becomes over-the-top. It feels forced into the story just so the film can have a (not so) suspenseful third act.
The good guy characters don’t fare much better. Both Weedon Scott (Nick Offerman), a kindhearted marshal, and his devoted wife Maggie (Rashida Jones) seems unnaturally wholesome, almost as if they recycled characters from Little House on the Prairie. The one who fares best is Grey Beaver (Eddie Spears), an Indian tribal leader with a seemingly spiritual connection to the wilderness and its animal kin and who is forced to make tough decisions in the service of his tribe.
The English dubbing also has quite a few instances where the emotion in the actors voices don’t fully match the scene. This is a common problem and it might due to actors doing the lines without seeing the finished product or just flawed directing. Whatever the reason, it does take the viewer out of the movie.
The US dubbing also includes some celebrity voices but luckily, they do seem appropriate for the part. It doesn’t feel like just adding celebrity voices just for the sake of it.
Not only that, the film could have used just a bit more grit. Though it would have probably been dismissed by Netflix distributors if it had been just a little more faithful to the book — it might have even resembled Watership Down, it would have made for a more truthful story. For now, it feels like we have just a little bit of the novel’s grit, with the rest being sugarcoated for the general audience.
While it seems unlikely that this will ever become an animation classic, this adaptation of Jack London’s novel still has enough to offer both young and old. In the world where we take the tireless work of 3D artists for granted, the uneven animation of White Fang can be distracting, especially in regards to the lack of details on the human characters.
The human characters are also the weakest part of the film, besides their flawed animation, they are also poorly written and the film really shines in the early scenes with White Fang and his mother Kiche. The final third act is rather dull in the film but there’s a decent pay-off to White Fang’s arc, even if it differs heavily from the original novel.
For animation or cinematographic buffs, the film does offer some visual mastery, especially in its portrayal of Canadian Wilderness of Yukon.
It almost feels like the creators of the film weren’t that interested in the human aspects of the story, since everything around them works wonderfully. The heart of the film lies in the relationship between White Fang and Kiche and one wishes that the film was all about them — though admittedly, it would make the viewer anxious for Kiche, since the parents of animation movies usually don’t have a long lifespan.
But in a world where we have been over-saturated with animation films, there seems to be just enough heart and grit for Netflix’s White Fang to stand out.
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