'White Fang': Film Review | Sundance 2018

Courtesy of Sundance
Classic sled dog yarn looks gorgeous but never gets up to speed.

Voice work by Nick Offerman and Paul Giamatti fails to enliven this artistically animated but draggy rendition of the Jack London adventure.

After numerous live-action adaptations, White Fang, Jack London’s enduring 1906 novel about a wolfdog’s adventures in the Great White North, makes its feature animated debut in an international co-production that proves both visually stirring and dramatically glacial.

Filmmaker Alexandre Espigares takes full advantage of the pristine terrain, utilizing naturally occurring light and shadow to create some truly lovely sequences. But the storytelling, wisely unfolding through the eyes of its four-legged protagonist, is less impressive in its depiction of human characters, which, at least in the guise of an American voice cast headed by Nick Offerman and Paul Giamatti, makes for an oddly incongruous fit.

Factoring in a studied pace that moves considerably slower than those sled dogs White Fang is doggedly determined to lead, the commercial prospects for this France-Luxembourg-U.S. production would appear chilly on the domestic front.

Since its first big-screen appearance in 1936, White Fang has subsequently popped up in a 1973 Italian-language version starring Franco Nero and Virna Lisi and a 1991 Randal Kleiser-directed production starring Ethan Hawke, as well as live-action and animated TV series in the early ‘90s.

In this latest incarnation, the film begins with a brief prologue in which the adult wolfdog is ill-fatedly pitted against a pair of canines in a vicious dogfight orchestrated by his greedy, conniving owner Beauty Smith (Giamatti), before a U.S. Marshall (Offerman) intervenes.

The story then abruptly shifts (at first confusingly) to a more conventional timeline, following the animal’s beginnings as a plucky pup through to his adoption by a tribal leader named Grey Beaver (Eddie Spears), who names him White Fang and trains him to lead his sled dogs. Grey Beaver is forced to part with his faithful companion after falling victim to one of Smith’s ruses and is left with no choice but to sell him White Fang in order to save his tribe from collapse.

Availing himself of a $12 million budget, Espigares, who co-directed the 2014 Oscar-winning short Mr. Hublot, effectively establishes the icy vastness of the Yukon milieu with extended silences and vistas informed by the naturalistic works of the likes of artist Albert Bierstadt and photographer Ansel Adams.

It’s with the introduction of dialogue that the film begins to founder. While the depiction of both the motion-capture-assisted animals and humans have the texture and shadings of a three-dimensional oil painting, pace-wise, it’s like watching it dry. Perhaps it has to do with the director’s choice, as explained in the production notes, to draw from the “memory one may have from reading the novel” rather than doing a more faithful adaptation that has resulted in the film’s episodic feel.

Or perhaps the script, credited to Philippe Loiret, Serge Frydman and Dominique Monfery, may have lost something in translation; there’s a stiffness in the verbal exchanges that’s further dragged down by voice characterizations, with the exception of Spears, that sound too contemporary for the period setting.

Whichever the reason, despite its undeniable visual artistry, the latest incarnation of White Fang fails to leave a lasting indentation.

 

Production companies: CGI Studios, Circus, Gao Shan Pictures, Solidanim, Onyx Lux, Toonkit, TNZPV, EJT Labo, Gobi Studio, Protozoaire
English voice cast: Nick Offerman, Rashida Jones, Paul Giamatti, Eddie Spears
Director: Alexandre Espigares
Screenwriters: Philippe Loiret, Serge Frydman, Dominique Monfery
Producers: Clement Calvet, Jeremie Fajner, Lilian Eche, Christel Henon, Marc Turtletaub, Peter Saraf
Executive producers: Rosalie Films, Lucie Bolze
Editor: Patric Ducruet
Composer: Bruno Coulais
Casting director: Mathilde Snodgrass
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Kids)
Sales: UTA Independent Film Group

85 minutes