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White Fang

The great Jack London has frustrated filmmakers for years. His stories and novels are visual and exciting, but rarely translate into good movies. Of course, one reason for this is that his two most famous novels, Call of the Wild and White Fang, are about dogs, not people. And, with the obvious difficulty of cinematically recreating London's respectful anthropomorphism, filmmakers tend to change the stories to make them about people who have dogs. Which ruins the whole point, as this second American remake of WHITE FANG, following earlier versions in 1925 and 1936, shows. Jack (Ethan Hawke) is a young gold miner's son who heads to Alaska following his parents' deaths to mine his father's claim. He is instantly robbed by a trio of con men, Beauty, Luke and Tinker (James Remar, Bill Mosely, Clint B. Youngreen), and finds Alex (Klaus Maria Brandauer), an old friend of his father's, who grudgingly agrees to take him on his and Skunker's (Seymour Cassel) journey. Jack constantly screws up and nearly gets killed. The worst part of this is that he loses most of the ammunition they have, their main tool against predatory wolves, who are hungry for the sled dogs. One member of the wolfpack is a bitch, half-dog, who entices dogs away from the men. One night, she lures Skunker's favorite dog out, and when he chases it down, the pack kills Skunker, and the bitch is fatally shot. She goes to die by her pup, who is now alone in the world. He struggles to find food, and is eventually caught and domesticated by some Eskimos. Meanwhile, Alex and Jack arrive at the Klondike, where Alex's girlfriend Belinda (Susan Hogan) helps Jack convince him to join him in a partnership. The pair go to the Eskimo village, where Jack is enraptured by the beautiful wolf-dog, now named White Fang, especially once it saves him from an angry bear. Jack and Alex find his father's cabin and start in on the mine. Meanwhile, White Fang's owner is conned out of him by those same con men, who cruelly train him for dogfights. He becomes a champion, but eventually loses to a pit bull. Luckily, Jack and Alex walk in at that moment, and Jack takes the dog, saying he paid them for him when they robbed him earlier. White Fang proves hard to tame, having been so tortured, but Jack's patience and love pay off, and the dog becomes a good companion, even saving Jack from a mine collapse, which results in their finding a lode. When the con men set the cabin on fire, White Fang gladly attacks its former owners, and Jack and Alex take them to the law. Now rich beyond their dreams, Jack, Alex and Belinda prepare to move back south, and Jack forces White Fang to head off into the wilderness. But finally the young man realizes he wants to stay, and returns to the cabin, where's he's reunited with his beloved dog. There is so much wrong with WHITE FANG that it's easier to point out the good. The scenery is gorgeous--awe-inspiring from beginning to end. A few setpieces, such as the "golden staircase," are really spectacular. And the dogs are great. Really. Beyond that, this film shows the worst aspects of Hollywood's recent "family" pictures. The screenplay, afraid of children's attention spans, jumps so quickly from scene to scene that no character is allowed to develop. Even the great Brandauer is wasted, only able to change from gruff to sweet and back. Kleiser avoids going deeply into any emotion other than scenery appreciation; the music consistently emphasizes the beauty rather than the suspense and horror that make London's stories so memorable. The acting varies--the con men seem too buffoonish to be in such a harsh story. But all of these objections pale next to the fatal miscasting of Hawke in the lead. Hawke has an irritating screen presence, which is perfect at the beginning of the film; he's out of place, seems like a spoiled city kid doomed in the Artic. But then he never changes. At the end, he's the same stupid, self-centered kid. This has got to be the first time in history that a boy-and-his-dog love story was ruined by having no chemistry between the romantic leads! Hawke doesn't even seem comfortable with the dog. If you want to see a great boy-and-his-dog story, check out LASSIE COME HOME. If you want Jack London, see THE SEA WOLF. And if you want to get into the Alaskan gold rush, a comedian named Charlie Chaplin did it one hell of a lot better 65 years ago. (Some violence.)