Never Cry Wolf is a lesser artifact of the wolf-obsession that defined the 1980s in better and more entertaining films – An American Werewolf in London, or Teen Wolf, or the image of Tom Cruise howling along to “Werewolves of London” while hustling pools halls in The Color of Money.
Unlike these other more likeable films, Never Cry Wolf is more about the wolves, and seems like an attempt on the Disney company’s part to reinvent its nature film tradition. Never Cry Wolf is based on the autobiographical account of the same title by Farley Mowat. Mowat accepted a position from the Canadian government to investigate if the artic region’s drastic decline in caribou could be attributed to wolves eating them – we learn about all this from an overly-long set of opening titles that were a challenge for me to read as a 23 year-old college graduate (with honors even). That said, we can safely assume that the backstory will be lost on children – even if they could keep up with the text, they’d be too bored to care about something as abstract as a “declining caribou population”. In any case: the movie opens with Mowat en route to the Arctic where he will spend six months alone attempting to observe wild animals.
Mowat is played by Charles Martin Smith, who is probably best known for playing Terry “The Toad” in American Graffiti – though over the past two decades, he has been frequently spotted as a character actor. He is also the director of Disney’s Air Bud. Smith has a nerdy, scientific charm that is more or less likeable if you are a child who is deeply enamored with science and/or wolves. In spite of his charms, most children will probably want to cover their eyes when Smith loses his clothes after plunging into an arctic lake – perhaps this film is a Disney first for adult male nudity? Mowat also pees all the time to define the boundaries of his territory against that of the wolves. The final insult is the brutalization of Disney iconography when Mowat resorts to eating field mice to survive – tails and all! - but at least he keeps his pants on while eating Mickey’s family, so the trauma is kept to a manageable level. Also, enormous quantities of moose-themed beer get consumed over the course of the film, mostly in the service of aiding Mowat in the chore of urinating on nature.
This is neither a great nor a terrible movie, but by its nature as a film about a man who is not Tom Hanks trapped in the arctic with wolves, it is slow and relies on narration to propel itself forward.
Another reason it might be interesting to someone is that the screenplay is an early work by future industry big shots Curtis Hanson and Sam Hamm. Hanson went on to direct L.A. Confidential, Wonderboys, and 8 Mile. After Never Cry Wolf, Sam Hamm’s next screenplay would be Tim Burton’s Batman. The two never paired on a screenplay again.
I wasn’t even aware that Never Cry Wolf was a Disney movie until I read Leonard Maltin’s book “The Disney Films,” and even then, the book doesn’t really have much to say except that the film represented a departure in style that characterized Disney’s awkward phase in the early 1980s, when it released misfire after misfire under studio head Ron Miller. Walt’s son-in-law from a marriage to his daughter Diane, Ron Miller was President and CEO of Disney from 1980 until 1984. Miller had been a producer for the company since the late 1950s, but as studio head, he served as executive producer for The Black Hole, Herbie Goes Bananas, The Fox and the Hound, Condorman, Tron, Never Cry Wolf, and finally The Black Cauldron, which killed more careers than any other Disney film before or since. Miller is currently 94 years old, which is really really old.
To sum it up: this is a totally mediocre, sweetly nice movie, and unless you’re some kind of Disney scholar or some kind of wolf freak, you could probably find something more interesting to watch. The atmosphere and photography are far more interesting than the story or any of the performances. If wolves are your jam, then what the hell, rent it. See if I care. The DVD has no special features, as is standard with most crappy Disney DVDs.