Throwback Thursday: Never Cry Wolf Is a Great Blend of Nature and Humanity

Throwback Thursday examines films from the past—“classic” films that might not be in the current cultural zeitgeist but can still be important, interesting, fun, or all of the above.

In sharing winter films over the past month I realized I left an important one out. It’s definitely a film that is off the beaten path (both literally and stylistically), but I’d like to write about it today. It’s the 1983 Disney film Never Cry Wolf.

poster for Never Cry Wolf

Never Cry Wolf theatrical poster

The film follows into the Canadian Arctic a scientist who has been assigned the task of determining why the wild caribou have been dying out. (The popular theory is that wolves have been killing them off in huge numbers.) The unprepared scientist is played by character actor Charles Martin Smith, who you might recognize as the nebbish accountant from The Untouchables or the nerdy teen from the classic American Graffiti. For all you Whedon geeks out there, he also directed the “Welcome to the Hellmouth” episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Smith in way over his head

Smith in way over his head.

Smith has a huge job keeping the audience interested in this hybrid film that walks the line between nature documentary and personal journey, told primarily in narration by the scientist himself. We see him go into the arctic winter as a city slicker and come out the other end of his journey with very valuable knowledge about himself and the world.

This is one of those films that probably caused the marketing people to panic. Even after seeing it numerous times I still don’t know how to give it an elevator pitch, let alone a tagline that sums up what the audience is in for; I’m 300 words in here and I’ve barely scratched the surface of this film. It’s directed by Carroll Ballard, and if you aren’t familiar with his name you should definitely start with his first film, 1979’s The Black Stallion (one of the best “a boy and his horse” films ever made). Ballard’s small filmography pays a lot of attention to humanity and nature, and most of his films show the communal symbiosis between the two. Never Cry Wolf is no exception. Smith’s character comes across a small pack of wolves that end up fueling his scientific study. The shots with the wolves are breathtaking, and if you don’t have a puppy to pet you will definitely want one during the majority of the film (and probably after).

Sometimes the wolf gets too close

Sometimes the wolf gets too close.

An interesting note about the marketing on this film is that it was one of the reasons Disney decided to form Touchstone Pictures a year later. The studio was slowly trying to produce more adult films and decided to have a separate production company to market and release them. Never Cry Wolf fell into the gray area between what they had done before and what they were trying to accomplish.

Playing for the wolves

Playing for the wolves.

It’s a very small cast with Smith as the anchor. There is a small role by Brian Dennehy as a rough-and-tumble pilot whom Smith meets at the start of the film along with a pair of Inuits that he runs into in the wilderness. Played by Zachary Ittimangnaq and Samson Jorah, these men show both the old and new ways that Inuits are using to survive in our modern world. Ittimangnaq plays the elder Inuit, Ootek, and does a magnificent job of conveying his meaning and stories without ever speaking English (there are no subtitles). He’s not a mystic shaman, but he definitely knows things that he tries to teach the others.

Ootek in his natural environment

Ootek in his natural environment.

This film might be a harder sell to a younger child with no attention span, but it’s a film that can wash over you if you let it. There’s moments of beauty, comedy, danger, and tragedy, and it comes highly recommended.

This film can be found on DVD and various streaming services. It is currently not available via Netflix, but streaming offerings change frequently, so keep an eye out. Feel free to discuss further in the comments below; just keep it respectful.

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