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‘White Fang’ Film Review: Jack London Classic Gets Sturdy, Simplistic Animated Retelling

Sundance 2018: Family movie night returns with Oscar-winner Alexandre Espigares’ often beautiful, sometimes corny version of the frontier wolfdog saga

In his novel “White Fang,” Jack London describes his title hero as “intelligent beyond the average of his kind,” and yet the celebrated American author took great pains to make sure nothing about the actions of his legendary wolfdog — in his treacherous, human-influenced journey from wild to civilization — felt out of sync for an animal.

And that’s not a bad way to approach the new animated adaptation of London’s 1906 classic. It’s better than your typical kiddie flick, often gorgeous to behold in its exquisitely painted Yukon wilderness and fierce, majestic canine protagonist.

But in its zeal to conform elements of London’s grim story into a tidy narrative of good nature versus bad nature, and despite an ending that reflects a more enlightened view toward the proper treatment of wild animals, this “Fang” has a tendency to feel more artistically tame than aesthetically free.

Nevertheless, as a sincere reimagining of London’s survival saga, it should make for a satisfying night out for any moviegoing family looking to enjoy something animated, classic and featuring animals that isn’t simultaneously an exercise in attention-deficit management, cartoony action and one-liners. The old-fashioned tone of picturesque beauty and coming-of-age adventure even lends one to believe that Spanish-Luxembourgian director Alexandre Espigares, spearheading his first feature since winning the 2013 animated short Oscar for the steampunk-themed pet story “Mr. Hublot,” has perhaps crafted the best episode of “The Wonderful World of Disney” the Mouse House never actually made. (And Disney did release their own live action “White Fang” in 1991, starring Ethan Hawke.)

After a prologue at a mining-town dogfight that’s really a flash forward to a low point in White Fang’s life, the story dawns on a cave occupied by a protective she-wolf and her curious pup. It’s in these early scenes of rearing and minor peril that Espigares and his animators establish their bona fides depicting creatures and nature with a fuzzy/warm faithfulness that favors rigorous point of view and believable movement over outlandish expressionism or visual tricks. It gives a fight with a bobcat a surprisingly nervy tension, and the tenderness between mother and son, especially when the former is wounded, becomes nicely understated.

Humans enter the picture when, in a quest for food, mom interrupts feeding time for a dog sled team transporting a hulking prisoner under the custody of U.S. Marshal Weedon Scott (voiced in the English-language version by Nick Offerman). Pup and Scott make meaningful eye contact before the action moves to a tribe of Gwich’in fur traders.

Village head Grey Beaver (Eddie Spears), wise to the growing, eager wolfdog in his midst, names him White Fang and decides to turn him into a world-class sled dog leader. By the time the pair reach the bustling town of Fort Yukon, so Grey Beaver can sell mittens to buy land for his people, he and White Fang are as much simpatico besties as master and animal.

But cruelty and avarice await in the form of the misshapen, cane-wielding trader Beauty Smith (Paul Giamatti), who sees in Fang a killer he can make money with, and in Grey Beaver a vulnerable mark. The rest of the movie pits Smith and his dog fighting interests against the savior-like return of Marshal Scott. Rescued from an existence as a beaten savage, Fang is introduced to a calmer, more task-oriented life as a peaceful farm dog under the Marshal and his wife Maggie (Rashida Jones).

As a four-legged star who goes from scrappy pup to faithful companion, White Fang is always a compellingly textured lead, with only his honey-colored eyes suggesting a soulfulness beyond the mere animalistic; as animated creatures go, it’s an extra fine achievement in realism with just a tinge of the fictionally charismatic.

That’s why it’s such a shame that the humans in the movie — initially filmed using motion-captured actors — are rendered onscreen with a regrettably half-stylized, half-lifelike stiffness, like marionettes with hesitant string-pullers. It’s hard not to wish it was the rugged presence of “Parks & Recreation” star Offerman himself — or the physical Spears, Giamatti and Jones in their respective roles, for that matter — rather than the blocky, coarsely-shaded figures we get representing the voices.

Fang is also spared the indignity of the overly simplistic dialogue (“He’ll regret he ever crossed Beauty Smith!”) from screenwriters Dominique Monfery, Philippe Lioret and Serge Frydman. The last act alone, when every introduced villain makes a reappearance, is a thudding succession of wince-worthy lines seemingly culled from reading material for first graders.

Though the sophistication level of the narrative drops in the last act, Espigares keeps the pacing brisk, and the focus squarely on a vision of the frontier that respects its capacity for old-fashioned exploits and a more Director Alexandre Espigares’ reimagining of “White Fang” respects modern view of humans and animals centered on mutual reverence and appreciation. One imagines even London himself only wincing slightly at the changes to his “White Fang” but generally approving a version that celebrates nature, struggle and hard-won interspecies fellowship.