Jack London’s White Fang was originally published in 1906 and has been adapted countless times since, including in a 1991 film starring Ethan Hawke. The animal adventure’s timelessness is not in question, so it’s no surprise that today it finds itself on Netflix, after enjoying some play at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Simplified from the source material and containing less of its savagery and harshness, this version of the story, the feature-debut of Academy Award-winning animator Alexandre Espigares, is a brisk 90-minute tale that’ll likely do good business with adults and older kids.
Set in the Yukon Territory during the 1890s Klondike Gold Rush, London’s titular wolf-dog is put through the period wringer. Starting out as a pack dog being driven by a Native trapper, Grey Beaver (Eddie Spears), White Fang earns the attention of Beauty Smith (Paul Giamatti, perfectly cast), a scheming dog-fighter, and eventually crosses paths with Weedon and Maggie Scott (Nick Offerman and Rashida Jones). The Yukon, evidently, wasn’t an easy place to live if you were a dog – or, for that matter, if you were anyone else.
There’s a sense of familiarity in White Fang, not just because the material has been so widely adopted, but because storytellers who cast dogs as principle characters always seem fascinated by the idea of their ownership being periodically handed to different, very distinct people. Sometimes in White Fang, which is a short film, the overriding sense is of an anthology rather than an epic, although the three screenwriters, Serge Frydman, Philippe Lioret, and Monique Monfrey, do a respectable job of things. They also, to their credit, tone down some of the titular doggo’s suffering, which strikes me a smart and reasonable way of making the story palatable for younger viewers.
That isn’t to say White Fang is particularly soft and cuddly; it retains the story’s essentially brutal essence, which is likely why the animation is of a more grown-up, painterly style, rather than the squidgy fun-for-all-the-family look of most animated fare. There’s a reason that White Fang has endured all these years, and it isn’t simply that it’s a story about a cool dog. It’s a tale of embracing wild ancestry; of survival; of violence and brutality and morality and redemption.
It’s also, let’s face it though, a story about a cool dog.