“White Fang” lunges for a bite and misses big time. Not even its grandiose Alaskan scenery can save this historical tale from storytelling frostbite. Except for Ethan Hawke’s Jack, the film relies on all of its other human characters to have underdeveloped personalities and intelligence, and to go to extraneous measures just for a single dog. Yeah, the bond between man and canine is immeasurably strong, but still not strong enough to make this movie interesting.
Adapted from the 1906 novel by Jack London, “White Fang” follows Jack as he treks to Alaska in search of a gold mine, and the supposed riches lurking within it. Along the way he encounters “White Fang,” a half-wolf, half-dog creature who evokes beauty and ferocity. Jack eventually finds his gold mine, White Fang is forced to fight other dogs after falling into the hands of seedy men, Jack eventually gets White Fang, seedy men try to get White Fang back, and Jack and White Fang end up together in the Alaskan wilderness, happily ever after.
Perhaps the story is a bit more enthralling and evocative in the book but its paper thin on the big screen. Maybe that’s because the late 1800s/early 1900s were a relatively boring time to live in, especially in the wilderness. Trying to create a genuine, emotionally-moving story during that time is an immensely difficult task, let alone for a story about a boy and a dog that he likes. Or maybe director Randal Kleiser just wasn’t able to find room for dramatic tension when his frame was already occupied by snowcapped Alaskan mountains.
The performances are commendable and the lush scenery of the film’s Alaska is worth the watch alone. But there really isn’t any emotional or dramatic heft in “White Fang,” no high stakes in relationships or even in the individual characters themselves. The film’s supposed quality hinges on the fact that its a historical story, that by setting this over 100 years ago its script and story aged and finessed through those decades. If anything, “White Fang” has only grown more frigid and cold since that time.