When you’re 13, you tend to deride a movie like White Fang (or The Bear, or The Black Stallion, or The Land Before Time). “Baby stuff” is the term that comes to mind when approaching calmer, quieter, more casually paced kid films. Boring, too. Maybe even a ‘lame’ gets thrown around at that age. Flash-forward to 31 – which happens to us all – and you recant. Now it’s methodical. Relaxed. Refreshingly low-key. These are the praises one can’t help but lay on a movie like Netflix’s new White Fang.
Alexandre Espigares’ animated take on the 112-year-old junior high lit classic is exactly how one might imagine it: exquisite landscapes, harried strife, speechifying on the nature of nature. These are all appreciable things. This White Fang is in fact a ‘kiddie’ take on Jack London’s seminal work; Revenant dogs and unimpressed teens, be gone. This, by comparison, is sugar. At times it’s a little too tender, and the practices of adaptation are tested in curious ways, but more on all that in a minute. The heart is ultimately stirred, and the eyes often pleased, by this new White Fang.
White Fang is the legendary tale of a half-breed hound, striving and surviving in the 1890s Yukon. White Fang experiences both the harsh extremes of the Great White North, and man’s growing encroachment into his world. Set against the Klondike Gold Rush, White Fang is an intimate epic of frigid environments, and man’s dogged pursuit to change them, seen through the eyes of a young wolf. The book has endured as a sort of work of accessible and elegant tome, a PG Hemingway or Melville, and the movie abides by London’s outline.
White Fang is the hero, and he evolves under three separate owners. There’s Grey Beaver (Eddie Jones, Bone Tomahawk) a stern first master who gives Fang his skills. There’s Beauty Smith (Paul Giamatti, The Amazing Spider-Man 2), a rotten crook who abuses Fang into becoming a fight dog. And then there’s U.S. Marshall Weedon Scott (Nick Offerman, Parks and Recreation) and his wife Maggie (Rashida Jones, also Parks and Recreation), who nurture and love Fang. Fang evolves, dazzling his owners with his fierce skill and enigmatic grace. He encounters lush forests, treacherous streams, and the dark side of man. He becomes a proud symbol of the land and the people who challenged him.
The animation is this rendition’s calling card. At first glance it seems cheaper, or less adrenalized than some might prefer. It may be a function of the $12 million budget (as a reference point, Incredibles 2 reached a reported $200 million plus marketing). But Espigares works in a tight way that’s crisp and clean. It’s padded in the style of Okami or the more recent Firewatch — 3D animation with two-dimensional coloration. Organic details like fur or thistles are lessened for a more painterly look, which helps White Fang stick out. It’s a balance of nature with minimalist design aesthetics.
The opening credits introduce a cooled, moonlit landscape of tree tops. Wolf packs racing through the night in blues and blacks resemble the traditional studio lighting of the ’60s. Spinning stars glide across the sky, and Aurora Borealis nights flutter with life. A constant golden hue is layered across the snow, and you can practically imagine the crunch under boots. It’s like the best of National Geographic, or screen-printed tourism posters. Fang himself is a study in contrast: while animated with large, yellow eyes, that is the most cartoonish embellishment – one that makes it easier to spot him amidst the other dogs. The pup is not voiced, and the animal articulation looks real.
The film is mostly faithful to London. Fang has three owners, comes of age in the Yukon, and tells a story of instinct. But for purists, Espigares shaves London’s teeth a little bit. Fang’s mother Kiche is the focus, downplaying Fang’s father (One Eye). The backstory of the book is greatly abbreviated. Fang is presented in plainer terms, falling down hills for nervous comedy and cutely growling in the service of defending his mom. There’s little inner monologue for wolf packs (as in the novel), and the humans are upgraded, allowed to soliloquize about the dangers of the world White Fang inhabits. The violence is left suggested offscreen, and any famines and overt brutalities are omitted.
But here’s the thing: Walking away from this White Fang, these feel like quibbles in the face of an overall enjoyable work. A work for the kids, of course. The story’s intact, and while it lacks the proverbial bite of London’s prose and storytelling, the themes, moods, imagery, and overall narrative still function. Call this a work of dramatic license. The animation, the little sentimental moments, the cozy throwback feeling White Fang offers? That’s what skirts the movie by. It conveys big ideas through simplistic illustration, and it’s clean and mercifully quiet.
Children will love this. It might be a useful tool for grade schoolers as well. Parents can watch it comfortably, knowing it’ll distract the wee ones without fear of angst or flashing lights or other frenetic things. Teens need not apply.