In this annoyingly wholesome dog-sled movie, huskies mush through a frozen wasteland of Horatio Alger cliches and Capra-corn direction. So pleased is this film with its own sanctimony that children forced to sit through it may end up joining gangs, defacing the walls at Bible school, and
questioning their parents' sincerity.
When his dad drowns around the time of WWI, teenaged Will Stoneman (MacKenzie Astin) needs to raise money to save the family home. Putting his college plans on hold, he enters a grueling 500-mile dog-sled race between Winnipeg and St. Paul; the competition, sponsored by capitalist legend J.P.
Harper (David Ogden Stiers), offers a $10,000 prize. Will trains under Native American family friend Ned (August Schellenberg), but he'll be facing tough competition from veteran racers like the vicious Gullarson (George Gerdes). Encouraged by cynical newsman Harry Kingsley (Kevin Spacey), who
smells a human-interest bonanza, the kid determines to sleep less and run longer than his betters. But an exhausted Will is ill-prepared for the dirty tricks of Gullarson, who quickly puts his chief rival--the only American besides Will--out of the running.
Constantly plagued by inexperience, a fear of ponds caused by his father's demise, and the recalcitrance of his lead dog Gus, Will pushes on as other sledders drop like frozen flies; meanwhile, Kingsley paints Will as a symbol of American pride linked with WWI fervor. Will jeopardizes his
chances by rescuing a rival racing for Angus McTeague (Brian Cox), who is so eager to collect on side bets with Harper that he tries bribing Will to throw the race and offers Gullarson extra incentives to win. Gullarson lets loose his attack husky on Gus, whose injuries further hurt Will's chances
and incense him enough to threaten Gullarson's life. Will subsequently chooses a risky short-cut and defeats Gullarson, who is attacked by his own dog-team after crashing. In the home stretch, a depleted Will barely staggers across the finish line to the cheers of Ned, his mother, and the jaded
Kingsley, now touched by the teenager's gumption.
This Disney adventure resurrects conventions and plot twists so ancient that most viewers may have forgotten them: squeaking like Henry Aldrich, Will is going save his family farm, just as surely as the hollow reporter is going to be redeemed by Will's dewy-eyed idealism. Actor-turned-director
Charles Haid matches the screenplay with a veritable cavalcade of visual cliches--viewers can almost see a light bulb appear over Kingsley's head as he conceives of the nickname that will make the boy famous, "Iron Will." Not since dripping water inspired Cole Porter to write "Night and Day" in
the 1946 biopic has there been such a moment of colossal obviousness. Although the solid compositions and crisp cinematography are assets, Haid shoots the fur-clothed contestants so confusingly that it's difficult to tell who is pulling which sled. The cast is little better. In keeping with the
film's cornball sentimentality, they seem less like human beings than pod people coached in folksy behavioral patterns. (Violence.)
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